by Lucas Korth | October 8, 2014 12:02 pm
I imagine a lot of you clods are mostly familiar with sake as that stuff you drop into your beer at the sushi joint, but there is much more enjoyment to be gleaned from this wonderfully unique booze. If it isn’t just one-half of a Japanese Boilermaker, then what in tarnation is this potable anyhow? Glad I asked; sake is an alcoholic beverage derived from fermented rice. It is of Japanese origin (duh) and is a vital part of its rich cultural heritage.
Sake is often considered a “rice wine” (mostly by obtuse white people) but its production is actually more akin to beer than wine. Now, lucky for you, I actually brewed professionally for a couple years, so who better to guide you through the complex intricacies of the fermentation process than yours truly? Well, honestly I can think of a few hundred people, but you’re going to have to settle for me. I’ll certainly do a better job than a certified Cicerone (capitalization theirs), aka a person who paid a bunch of money for a title that proves they know how to taste beer. Yikes, it’s getting a little salty in here…let’s chalk that last barb up to the sake – she’s a feisty mistress.
So anyway, sake is brewed using a specific rice produced only for that purpose. The grain of sake rice is very long and sturdy, making it ideal for brewing and rather unpalatable for eating. Due to its size and stature, more starch is able to be extracted from the rice and ultimately fermented. Unfortunately, rice does not come equipped with the enzymes necessary to break down complex starches into simple sugars. This is a bummer because common yeast is pretty picky and would not be caught dead with some long-chain carbs (the joke of course being that if a yeast strain was in an environment comprised only of long chain carbohydrates that it would in fact die! HILARIOUS!). The solution was a microorganism, a mold actually, called Aspergillus oryzae. Brewers add it to the rice because it contains the various enzymes that the starch does not. Barley already has everything it needs for fermentation, which is why even your goofball uncle can make a halfway decent beer in his basement.
Unlike your uncle’s crummy homebrew however, sake is fermented at a cooler temperature. Some of the best sakes are fermented at 10 degrees Celsius or even lower (that’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit, ya dingus). Why such a low temperature? One of the byproducts of fermentation is heat; an unchecked fermentation can rise several degrees without any change in ambient temperature. Many unwanted microorganisms thrive at higher temperatures and produce off flavors in the final product. A cooler fermentation does take quite a bit more time, but it results in a much cleaner and more aromatic result. That’s true with any potable, whether it be beer, wine or sake. Any professional brewer will tell you, the most common mistake homebrewers make is not monitoring their fermentation temperatures, so tell your dang uncle to get it together already.
I tell you what, all this talk about microorganisms and mold is making me very thirsty. Let’s drink sake everyone. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a couple of bottles from the Ty Ku brewery in Nara, Japan and I came away very impressed. Now I should preface this by saying I am about as casual a sake drinker as there is (basically a white person), so my opinion, while probably technically invalid, should be relatable to other casual sake drinkers (white people).
First up on the docket was Ty Ku’s Coconut Nigori. A quick background on that; Nigorizake refers to an unfiltered sake which therefore contains quite a bit of sediment. This imparts a cloudy appearance. As with a bottle-conditioned beer, you’ll want to agitate that sediment because it will settle to the bottom, and agitate I did. I enjoyed this particular brand of sake on a sunny August afternoon, immediately following a brisk bike ride with my dear friend and noted drunkard, Matthew Stover. On an unrelated note, it just so happened to be his 31st birthday (I am also surprised he has lived this long).
We trudged up my cracked stone steps, legs still jittery from the ride. The patio loomed ahead, seemingly miles away. Its wrought iron furniture still glistening from the morning rain, yet dulled by the shade provided from the trees above. We had made it. Our journey complete, we swiftly toasted our accomplishment. Two men so lucidly aware of their fading youth were still so eager to embrace it.
I apologize for that, I am contractually obligated to pretend I’m writing a John Grisham novel every 100th paragraph or so. That scene was set in Biloxi, Mississippi, obviously. Anyway, Ty Ku’s Coconut Nigori, Matthew and I each poured a large glass and exchanged some nervous looks. We were already a touch wary of a Coconut infused sake – we are macho men after all – but its cloudy appearance was a bit unappealing. If you have a gutterbrain like I do, well, I needn’t say anything else of the matter.
Our doubts were promptly dispelled upon actually tasting the brew. It was delicious. The coconut was subtle and refreshing. The mild sweetness quickly gave way to a clean floral finish that essentially cleansed the palate. It was much more intriguing and inevitably enjoyable than a coconut infused sake has any right to be. We were so impressed we decided to basically drink the whole bottle. A couple of chummy chingleberries downing coconut sake on a waning Monday afternoon, nary a care in the world; it would be a cherished memory if I still had it.
On to the second bottle! It was enjoyed under rather different circumstances: alone, at home, in my underpants. I apologize for the mental image. This particular bottle was Ty Ku Sake Black. It is considered a super premium sake. Unlike most spirits, there actually exists a requirement for such a designation, outside of being owned by P-Diddy, of course.
The grade of any sake is determined by how the rice is polished: think of it as buffing down the surface, or husk, of the rice; the more of the exterior that is removed, the better the purity of the remaining starch. This was a really important facet of the process to me because most of the sakes I had ever tried seemed rather harsh. I was totally ignorant that I was consuming lower grade sake. Suffice it to say, now I know what the good stuff tastes like. Ty Ku’s Sake Black has over 45% of the grain polished away, while the Ty Ku Sake Silver, which I was also fortunate enough to try (it’s delicious), has over 30%.
With the Black, the nose is citrus fruits and sweet vanilla. The vanilla lingers on the palate with a mild hint of grain, but is quickly washed away by a dry, almost white wine like finish. It is, in a word, remarkable. I even had a glass later that night with some pan-seared salmon and it paired beautifully. It should be noted that I had put on pants by that time. Word to the wise: pan frying anything without pants on is a danger reserved for the most temerarious of men.
While not a traditional sake, Ty Ku Soju, clocking in at just 60 calories is from the same makers and is made from 100% barley. It’s meant to be a mixer for cocktails and enjoyed on the rocks with soda or juice. It can be used much the same way as vodka. Along the same lines, Ty Ku Citrus is a liqueur made from a blend of yuzu (a citrus fruit and plant originating in East Asia) and superfruit flavors along with the aforementioned Soju. These can both be used in margaritas, martinis and mojitos and, I’m here to tell you, they are delightful.
Side Note: World Sake Day, also known as Sake Day, is an annual event held on October 1st as a tribute to sake. The event used to be regarded as only a national event in Japan but is now celebrated all over the world. October 1st is traditionally the starting date of sake production in the country.
I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves today. Regardless of your fondness for a certain Southern author with an affinity for legal yarns, I hope you’ve at the very least enjoyed yourself. Trying new things can be a struggle, especially when ensconced in one’s comfort zone. Make it your prerogative to get out of that big comfy bed with those quilts and that incalculable thread count. Next time you’re out for sushi, skip that boring over-oaked chardonnay and try some damn sake for crying out loud! It will probably even pair well with husker rolls and a gallon of soy sauce – you filthy heathen. Oh, and if I find out you ordered a Kirin back, I will track you down and force you to read this overblown rambling article again. Even my own mother would shudder at such a punishment! Love you, mom.
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