A beginner’s guide to sake

A beginner’s guide to sake

The city of Hida in Central Japan is one of the best places to discover the secrets of the country’s traditional beverage.

For many Japanese, sake is something you drink on special occasions – at festivals, weddings, or at ceremonies at Shinto shrines. For Ryuhei Uenoda it’s something one drinks every day. “Just a little, though, in the evening,” advises Uenoda, who is the Chairman of both the Hida Sake Brewers Association and the Hida Sake Tourism Association.

Hida, in the Gifu Prefecture of Central Japan, is in the heart of an especially prolific sake-making region where visits to and tasting sessions at the breweries that produce this rice-based tipple are commonly part of a Hida Sake Route itinerary.

The vast majority of sake breweries are small or medium sized, so ubiquitous generic brands are less common than is the case with western spirits, like gin or vodka. The advice of Uenoda, whose eyes light up at the mere mention of sake, is to ask the advice of a restaurant’s staff before ordering, since they have the expertise to match a particular variety with the elements of your meal.

Ryuhei Uenoda samples s sip of his favourite rice tipple.

Polished perfection

Sake production starts in the autumn, following the rice harvest, and might continue until the following March, explains Atsuko Kaba, managing director of Hida’s Kaba Brewery Company.

“One complete production cycle usually takes about a month. The maturity of sake is not as crucial as it might be for wine. Sake is usually sold in the same year that it is made,” he says.

The rice, which comes from different strains to those used for serving with meals, is first ground and washed, then steamed. Koji, the yeasty mixture used to ferment the bulk of the rice, is produced using some of the steamed grains. After filtration, the sake is finally bottled. Varieties of sake depend largely on the grade of rice, and the quality stems from the extent to which the rice grains are polished. A premium, top quality sake, with a lighter and sometimes more delicate flavour, such as Junmai Dainginjo-shu, uses rice where at least 50 per cent of the husk has been polished away.

Unusually, the brewmaster or toji at the Watanabe Brewery in Hida’s old town is from the United States. “This family-run brewery dates back to 1732, but then it made raw silk,” says Darryl Cody Brailsford. “The actual brewery started up in 1870 when the president at that time came back from selling silk in Kyoto with a fascination for the taste of sake.”

These days the brewery turns out an extraordinary quantity of sake, totalling about 45 million 1.8-litre bottles annually.

“There is a lot of sake history and tradition in this region,” says Brailsford.  “About 80 per cent of the rice we use is grown locally. Rice types are different, just like grapes for wine. Each year we bring in new types, and that’s challenging because each type has its own characteristics.”

Brailsford encourages his clientele to try the different types.  “Traditionally sake is something you just drink in Japan with Japanese food. But why not try it with pizza, for example, or Chinese and other international food?” says Brailsford.

Elegant service sets are part of the sake ritual.

Savour sake like a local

The scenic rail trip from Finnair destination Nagoya to Hida takes about two hours. The old towns of Takayama and Hida contain many sake shops and breweries, most of which offer tours and tastings from selected varieties.

Sake can be served at different temperatures, depending on the variety and category, as well as the mood of the drinker.

The percentage grade indicates how much of the rice has been polished away:  a 45% grade has been made with rice milled to 55% of its original volume.

Some sake has its alcohol content boosted by adding distilled alcohol. Sake labelled as junmai contains no added distilled alcohol.

Sake is served from ceramic decanters called tokkuri, poured into ceramic cups. Hold your cup in the palm of your hand and sip it slowly

Text and photos by Tim Bird

This article is published in the April 2017 issue of Blue Wings.