Sake has always been an enigma to me. Though I’ve been exposed to the Japanese fermented spirit countless times, and have even spoken to several sake brewers, it still amazes me how much more there is to learn about it, from the way to drink it (hot or cold?), to how to choose a good sake.

During the Kanpai! With Sake Masters event at Kampachi @ Plaza 33, Petaling Jaya, last November, I took the oppurtunity to ask the visiting sake brewers on a few things that everyone should know about sake. The event is an annual affair organised by Kampachi Japanese restaurant, where they fly down sake brewers from Japan to introduce their sake to Malaysian consumers.

This time around, the four master brewers who were present were 4th generation owner of Benten Musume sake Shotaro Ota; 6th generation owner of Izumibashi sake, Yuichi Hashiba; 4th generation owner of Fusozaru sake, Tomohiko Ohata and Kazuyoshi Sato, 11th generation owner of Abe Kameji sake.

1) The rice matters

Sake is made from rice, but not just any rice will do. According to Hashiba, there are two different types of rice in Japan – one is for consumption, and the other is solely for making sake.

“There are so many different varieties of sake rice – you can have fun discovering the different flavours they produce,” he said, adding that sake made from only rice are labeled as junmai, or “pure rice” (those without the junmai label tend to have added distilled alcohol in them).

Sixth generation owner of Izumibashi sake, Yuichi Hashiba.

Founded in 1859, Izumibashi Sake will be celebrating their 160th anniversary this year, and is one of the few in Japan that does both the cultivating of the rice and the brewing of the sake in house, and it has to be cultivated by hand.

Izumibashi Brewery plants a well-known strain of sake rice known as Yamada Nishiki, while Abe Kameji sake is devoted to producing “Kame No O”, which is one of the original key strains of rice in Japan, and is notoriously difficult to mass produce.

2) Polishing the rice

Once you’ve got the right rice, you also have to mill the grains to remove the bran. Sake can be categorised into different grades depending on how much of the rice is polished off – the more you polish the rice, the higher the sake’s grade will be. The rice polishing ratio for the highest grade, daiginjo, is usually below 50%, which means at least 50% of the original rice is milled away, and only the other 50% is used for the fermentation.

3) Water is important

A good, pure source of water is extremely important to sake making, as it is used in almost every step of the brewing process, from the washing of the rice to the dilution of the final product.

Depending on the type of water that is used, whether it is high in minerals or not, it can either produce a dry sake, or a softer sake.

Of the brewers at the Kampai! event, Abe Kameji use underground water that is rich in minerals, while Fusocaru utilises the clean, clear freshwater of the Takatsu river located near the brewery.

Kazuyoshi Sato, 11th generation owner of Abe Kameji sake.

Kazuyoshi Sato, 11th generation owner of Abe Kameji sake.

4) Koji, the sugar maker

Koji is a kind of enzyme used as a fermenting agent in making sake, miso, shochu, and vineger. It’s a staple in the preparation of Japanese cuisine. When you add koji to rice, it converts the rice into sugar, and then the yeast can do its job in converting the sugars into alcohol.

After the fermentation is complete, the sake is then “rested” for six to nine months to allow it to mellow and mature.

5) Hot or cold? No one knows!

According to Sato, whether you drink a sake hot or cold is very subjective. “Different breweries will give you different answers! And it also depends on the season. If it is a relatively new and freshly brewed sake, or shinshu, it is recommended to drink it chilled, because there are very few shinshu that can fare well with heat,” he said. “But sake that has had time to settle or mature are more versatile – you can either drink it cold or hot.”

Like beer, most of the sake in Japan is produced by large commercial brewers that make a very flowery, flamboyant kind of sake, which is best drunk chilled, according to Sato.

The other 10% are made by artisanal brewers who want to honour the traditions and history of sake making in the country, and make sakes that can be drunk either way, and goes well with food.