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There is a quiet revolution going on in this country, and it's been fermenting since World War II. A new generation of sake (shu) is sweeping the nation.
Rice shortages during the war forced Japanese kuras (sake breweries) to develop new methods of reaping greater yields from each batch of sake. Thus, alcohol and glucose were added to rice mash to increase the yield and create a lower quality sake. But sake brewing technology advanced dramatically following the war, and the results are exquisite, artistic sakes that tojis (sake brewmasters) could only dream of. Technological advances have improved special sake rices, sake filtration systems, rice milling equipment and nearly every other aspect of sake making. Today premium sake is being savored just as fine wines and craft brews are around the world.
Although Americans have long referred to sake as a rice wine, in actuality, sake is more like beer than wine in that, like beer, it is created from grain rather than fruit, and, just like beer, it must undergo a process to convert starch to sugar. Sake aficionados maintain that the best sake is junmai-shu, which is sake made with just three ingredients: rice, water and koji (rice impregnated with a starch dissolving mold). Equally as important is the quality of rice and the extent to which it has been polished.
Sake rice has more starch in it than dinner rice. Hulled sake rice is polished in a machine to remove the undesirable fats and proteins surrounding the starch in the center. Dinner rice is only lightly polished to about 95 percent of its original size because the proteins and fats are important to our diet. But premium sake rice is polished to at least 70 percent and some of the highest quality sakes are brewed with rice polished to 35 percent of its original size. After polishing, each batch of rice is steeped then steamed in purified water. The quality of the water is also important to the final product. Koji is then introduced to the steamed rice and a simultaneous double fermentation process begins with the koji enzyme converting the rice's starch to sugar while yeast converts the sugar to alcohol. This parallel fermentation can last up to 30 days. The final mash is then pressed to release a clear, refined liquor, which is filtered and/or pasteurized, blended and then aged from two to nine months.
Sake made with rice that is polished to at least 60 percent is called "ginjo-shu" and that made with even more highly polished rice is called "dai-ginjo-shu."
Now that you know how to call for sake at a fine Japanese restaurant, here are a few more pointers to help you select, serve and taste sake. Unlike wine, sake does not benefit from prolonged aging. Do not buy any sake more than a year old. It is best drunk within seven to eight months of bottling. Although sake that is colorless and crystal clear is most high prized, some new age sakes are only rough filtered to emulate traditional sake. Most sake weighs in at about 15 percent alcohol.
If you thought sake was best consumed at warm temperatures, better think again. Warming sake masks some of it character, but if you must warm it, please warm it only to body temperature. Better yet, drink it slightly chilled at cellar temperature or take a tip from official sake judges and taste it at room temperature.
Like wine, when sake is taste tested it is slurped to allow a little air onto the palate and then pushed around in the mouth. Like wine, spitting out sake is permitted. However, never spit beer lest you'll miss its hop bitterness on the back of your palate. Sake may be swallowed to test the nodokoshi (its finish), which may be described as dry, sweet or as having a tail. Many top quality sakes display floral, spicy, nutty, herbal and fruity characteristics.
The good news is that fine sake is in your future, and you won't have to search for it at Japanese restaurants or oriental markets because American sake makers and importers have begun to target wine connoisseurs. Sake is a fine complement to most Asian cuisine as well as to seafood and many European and American dishes.
So watch for it near the bottled wines on grocery and liquor store shelves.
Three American sake brewers, Momokawa, Forest Grove, OR, (http://www.momokawa.com); Hakusan, Napa, CA, (http://www.hakusan.com); and Hakushika, Golden, CO, (www.sakeweb.com) are producing junmai-shus and ginjo-shus that are dry and refreshing and best consumed chilled. Additionally, ginjo and dai-ginjo-shus are being imported from small Japanese kuras and are now joining American-made premium sakes on retail shelves.
Just as in the '70s and '80s when Americans began demanding a wider selection of wines and beers, Americans are beginning to demand a broader choice of sakes, and just like with wine and beer, it looks like they're going to get it.