Sake, A beginner's guide

Sake, A beginner's guide

Posted by EWWines on 3rd May 2024

There are many styles of sake, all delicious, but in the UK this is a product that is sadly widely avoided and not consumed. We will attempt to break down the barriers in this short blog, designed to get you started in the world of sake - what is sake, how is sake produced, some basic terms and then some basic food and sake pairings to inspire you.

EWWines are running a sake course in June 2024, please contact us if you would like further information or to book a place. Or you could purchase each of this blog's recommendations and create your own sake and food evening with friends - either will be a fun way to explore the wonderful world of sake!

What is Sake?

Sake is a Japanese beverage made from fermented rice. All premium sakes are made from just four ingredients: steamed white rice, kōji (mouldy rice), water and yeast.

Most sakes are typically 14–17% abv, slightly sweet and lightly acidic. They have light and delicate flavours including cereal, floral or fruit, especially notes of apple and banana.

Learn more by watching the below webinar ‘What is sake?’ from WSET. Warning this video goes into much more detail on sake and is around 40 minutes long!!

Title: Video titled: WSET Bitesize - What is sake?

Basic Sake Production

After polishing the rice to the required percentage, the remaining grain which is rich in starch is washed to remove any dust. The washed rice is then soaked in water for a length of time depending on the polished percentage. The more polished the rice the faster it absorbs the water. It is important that this is monitored by the brewer.

After steeping, most of the rice is steamed and then cooled to 5 degrees to be used for fermentation of sake. A small percentage is left and used to make the koji (mouldy rice) which is crucial in sake production because this mould converts the starch in the rice into fermentable sugars.

Next a moto or yeast starter is made. Additional yeast is added to the koji with water then added and finally steamed rice. Brewers adjust the acidity with lactic acid added to the required levels to avoid microbial spoilage. Komoto sake is an old technique that relies on naturally occurring bacteria to create the lactic acid naturally, the result of which is higher acidity and more depth of flavour.

This moto is transferred into a Moromi tank where additional water, koji and the steamed rice are added. A multiple parallel fermentation begins which converts the rice starch into glucose which the yeast consumes to create alcohol. This fermentation will typically last between 18 and 32 days.

Once fermentation is complete, the sake is pressed to separate the sake lees before being pasteurised and watered down from approx. 20% to between 14% and 17% before being bottled and sold.


Basic Labelling Terms

If you do not speak Japanese, this can be intimidating and a potential barrier. Therefore, we will highlight some key terms that you can look out for on your sake labels.

Rice Polish Ratio (seimaibuai)

Polishing removes the outer layer of rice mechanically, because this outer layer gives the sake unwelcome flavours and textures. The 'polishing ratio' is the percentage of white rice remaining in the centre of the grain after polishing. The remaining percentage has a significant impact on the style of sake, the higher the percentage of rice remaining generally the more umami, complex flavours and creamier texture will be present in the sake.

Futsushu Sake

Table sake, the lowest grade with 70% plus percentage rice, i.e. less than 30% polished. Now in decline in favour of premium sake.

Honjozo Sake

The lowest of the premium sake requires 70% to 61% polished rice. While they are the lowest quality of the premium sakes, they are still fine and delicate but savoury rather than fruity flavours.

Ginjō Sake

Ginjō sakes are required to have a polishing ratio of 60% or lower. Ginjō sakes typically are pure, floral and fruity with aromas such as melon, apple, pear and rose. They are often easy drinking and best served chilled but do not have to be!

Junmai Sake

Junmai means “pure rice” so refers to no alcohol added sake. The resulting sake will have more complexity and umami flavours, with cereal aromas and creamy texture which gives a fuller body. These sakes are best served at room temperature, but again they do not have to be! If you do not see this term on the bottle, then some neutral alcohol has been added during production.

Kimoto Sake

Kimoto is a old traditional method of starting a sake fermentation that uses natural lactic acid bacteria in the air to create the acid which protects the yeast and adds a refreshing acidity to the sake. Compared to wine where acidity is a crucial component of grapes, sake rice doesn’t naturally contain much acidity.

This method produces extra layers of flavours and a lactic creamy mouthfeel. Kimoto sake’s account for less than 10% of all sake produced, so a little niche however they are structured, rich sakes with deep flavours and great acidity.

Sake and Food Pairing Suggestions

Sake contains lots of umami flavours and matches very well with much more than Japanese cuisine. We will suggest foods to pair with our sake range now. Click here to purchase our sake range online.

Akashi-Tai Junmai Ginjo Sparkling Sake

Produced like Champagne with a secondary fermentation in bottle. This preserves the fresh, zesty and fruity Ginjo Sake style. It is off dry and refreshing with melon, peach and floral flavours. This pairs perfectly with Cornish shellfish or smoked salmon dishes or a lightly spicy Japanese tuna sushi roll (Makizushi).

Akashi-Tai Shiraume Ginjo Yuzushu (Citrus-Infused Sake)

Light and refreshing Ginjo sake which is macerated with Yuzu fruit (Japanese citrus). The result is a sweet / sharp tangy citric explosion (grapefruit, lime, lemon etc) with hints of lemon Sherbert too. It is therefore perfectly paired with lemon meringue pie!! We also love to use as a spritzer with your favourite sparkling wine and make a delicious aperitif. This is a fantastic cocktail modifier which works especially well with agave spirits thinking Margaritas or with lighter rums.

Akashi-Tai Shiraume Ginjo Umeshu (Plum-Infused Sake)

A luxury Ginjo grade sake with which sweet plums are macerated for 6 months. This is sweet, fruity, rich and very moreish! Flavours of dates, cherry and stewed plums feature with a subtle ginger spice. It is a brilliant cocktail modifier; a firm favourite is a twist to an espresso martini. For food matches served chilled with a plum crumble dessert or sticky toffee pudding are both perfect pairings.

We hope this will encourage you to venture into the world of sake and inspire you to try more sake wines and maybe join us for a course in the future or visit us and talk about the brilliant world of sake.