What is Sake, Actually?

Thought it was time to go back to basics for new readers and give you veterans a little refresher to remind you how sake is produce and how it differs from other drinks.

Many liken sake to wine as it is not carbonated and has a similar alcohol content, others to beer since it is made from a grain. Technically, it is more like beer but no reason to split hairs, let’ just allow it to have its own category, sake.

Looking at how wine, beer and sake are brewed should make it more clear just what sake is.

Wine is a fermented beverage. Fermentation is the process in which yeast converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which in the case of wine, is allowed to escape. Sugars are already present in the grape, and these sugars are ready for use by the yeast cells as food and nutrients. Although this simple and short explanation does not do justice to the age-old art of making wine, it serves our purposes here.

Beer calls for another step. There is no fermentable sugar in barley grains, only long starch molecules that must be broken down into smaller sugar molecules, some that will ferment and some that will add to the flavor in other ways. Several other steps are also necessary:

  1. The barley must be malted. The grains are moistened and warmed to start the germination process. This creates enzymes that patiently wait in the grain for their opportunity to create sugar from starch.
  2. The malted barley grains are cracked and mixed with water, and kept at specific temperatures for periods of time. This activates the enzymes, which chop the starch molecules into smaller sugar molecules, a process called saccharification.
  3. After these sugars come into being, yeast is added, and fermentation is allowed to proceed.

Sake is also made from a grain; rice. However, the enzymes that break the starch molecules into fermentable sugars in sake making come from koji, which is steamed rice that has been carefully cultivated with a mold called koji-kin, Aspergillus Oryzae in English.

This magical mold eats its way into the rice grains, and chops the long starch molecules into smaller molecules that can be used by the yeast cells as food. The resulting mixture is put in the same tank with the yeast and more steamed rice, so that sugars are being produced by the koji and fermented by the yeast in the same tank at the same time. This has been dubbed “multiple parallel fermentation” a direct translation of “heiko fukuhakkoshiki.”

That’s just an overview. The process itself, however, is complex. It is very difficult to convey in a few words what people spend a lifetime learning.

So to learn more about Sake production, purchase the Sake Production Slideshow; a 15-minute, gorgeously presented slideshow of the sake production process, indicating every step from rice production and milling to rice cleaning and steaming to koji propagation to yeast starter to mash to bottling — all done in traditional old breweries in Japan.

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