Sake Variants ~ Part One
You might recall that we talked about the different classifications and grades of sake under the 特定名称酒 (“tokutei meisho-shu”), or “premium sake classification” system in our previous blog posts.
Now let’s move on to something a bit more advanced. Sake isn’t just restricted to the eight classes encompassed by the tokutei meisho-shu system. In fact, sake branches out from those eight broad starting points with a whole range of additional terms that you’re likely to see on any given bottle you happen to pick up an examine. Once again, these terms and the characters used to represent them will be unfamiliar, but it will give us some crucial information on how the sake is brewed and processed, based on the specific methods or individual techniques used.
Some of these terms are more common than others, and there are also numerous instances of alternative terminology used to describe more-or-less the same thing (just in case this was starting to sound easy). In order to keep things as simple as possible, the first part of this article will deal with the more common examples, with the more nuanced and obscure ones left for the second part. As always, the point of this exercise is not to turn you into a walking dictionary, but to introduce and explain all the terms that you will come across when dealing with sake, in order to help you decide on that perfect bottle of sake, whatever the occasion.
The Holy Trinity
After 清酒 (“seishu”) / 日本酒 (“nihonshu”), the most common term you will encounter on a sake label is likely to be 無濾過生原酒 (“muroka-nama-genshu”). If that seems a bit on the long side, you’re right, because it’s actually a compound, , made up of three individual terms that you will sometimes find in various combinations of two or individually as well. Approaching them in order, we have:
無濾過 muroka, meaning “unfiltered”, refers to sake that has not the process of charcoal filtration after pressing. Typically, muroka retains its natural yellow or amber tint, along with some distinctive flavours. The latter is why some brewers choose not to filter their sake in the first place, as the process inevitably removes some of these unique flavour components in favour of greater clarity in appearance.
生(酒) nama(zake), meaning “raw (sake)”, refers to sake that has not been pasteurised (heat treated) at any stage during the production process. Any sake designated nama should be refrigerated (要冷蔵) and consumed as soon as possible after opening, as the lack of pastuerisation means that the quality can deteriorate quickly if not handled correctly. The tradeoff is that namazake tends to have a fresher aroma and flavour compared to those that have been pasteurised.
原酒 genshu, meaning “undiluted sake”, refers to sake that has not been diluted with water prior to bottling. Normally, pure water is added to sake just before bottling to lower the alcohol content to around 15-16%, as a means of adjusting the overall balance and flavour. With a natural alcohol content of 18% or above, genshu tends to have a stronger aroma and flavour when compared to those that have been diluted.
When found in combination, these three terms describe sake that has undergone the least interference during the production process, one that remains unfiltered, unpasteurised, undiluted, and therefore largely untouched in its transition straight from the maturation tank to bottle. As such, there are some purists within the ranks of sake enthusiasts who regard this as the only “true” sake.
* Note also that you will encounter various combinations of these terms, short of the full three, from time to time. 無濾過生酒 ”muroka-namashu” (unfiltered and unpasteurised sake), or 生原酒 ”nama-genshu” (unpasteurised and undiluted sake), are two of the more common variants.
無調整 muchosei, meaning “unadjusted”, is a term you’re just as likely to see on dairy or soy milk labels in Japan. When applied to sake, it denotes the lack of filtration after pressing, and that no water was added prior to bottling. As such, it basically functions as an alternative term for 無濾過原酒 muroka-genshu (unfiltered and undiluted sake).
Feeling the Heat
火入れ hi-ire refers to any sake that has gone through the pasteurisation (heat treatment) process at any stage during production, whether that be both prior to tank maturation and again during bottline or only once (一回火入れ, “ikkaihi-ire”) at either of those stages. As a rule, because most sake is pasteurised at some point during production, hi-ire is not a term you are likely to encounter on the bottle, unless a particular producer wishes to clearly distinguish it from a similar nama (unpasteurised) sake in the same range.
生貯蔵(酒) namachozo(-shu) refers to sake that has not been pasteurised prior to maturation. After being allowed to sit in a tank for around two-to-six months, it is pasteurised only once, just before bottling. As such, namachozo-shu tends to have a fresh aroma and flavour similar to that of namazake (unpasteurised sake).
生詰め(酒) namazume(-shu) refers to sake that has only been pasteurised prior to maturation. After being allowed to sit in a tank for around two-to-six months, the remaining steps leading up to bottling are completed without a second pasteurisation. As such, namazume-shu tends to have a more complex flavour and aroma because of the untreated period between storage and bottling.
* Any sake labelled as 生 (“nama”) will include some sort of warning, reminding you to keep the sake “refrigerated” (要冷蔵).
にごり酒 / 濁り酒 nigorizake, meaning “cloudy sake”, refers to sake that has been pressed using only a loose-knit cloth, as opposed to the finer cotton bags normally used during the pressing process. As a result, a portion of the solid residue from the fermented rice remains in the sake, with the amount depending on how fine or loose-knit the cloth selected by the brewer . In addition to its striking, milky-white appearance, cloudy sake tends to have sweeter rice notes and richer flavour than your typical pressed sake.
活性にごり酒 kassei nigorizake, as the name suggests, is another sub-type of cloudy sake where a “second fermentation” method has been used to continue yeast activity within the bottle. The end result is essentially “sparkling cloudy sake”, and you’ll see a lot of “Caution!” (開栓注意!) notices on the label of these varieties telling you to be careful when opening the bottle (lest you end up wearing it!).
どぶろく doburoku is, to all outward appearances, just another form of cloudy sake, but differences in its production methods land this variant in dubious legal territory. In short, Japanese Liquor Tax Law stipulates that sake production must include a pressing stage, in order to be recognised as 清酒 (“seishu”) / 日本酒 (“nihonshu”). Due to the lack of any pressing during production, doburoku has been consigned to the realm of その他の醸造酒 (“sonohoka-jozoshu”), or “miscellaneous fermented beverages”, in spite of its prominent historical role in prayer and offerings to the gods.
* Because the rice solids will continue to settle within the bottle, all forms of “cloudy” sake should be upturned gently prior to opening, in order to ensure a uniform consistency.
In the Beginning...
生酛 kimoto is the original method of making sake, requiring the labour-intensive 山卸し (“yamaroshi”) — the process of mashing the rice and koji in a wooden tub with an oarlike pole. For centuries, this was believed to be necessary in order for the 酒母 (“shubo”), or “yeast starter” to successfully develop, primarily by promoting the growth of naturally-occurring lactic acid bacteria within the mash, rather than simply adding lactic acid most breweries do now.
山廃 yamahai has many things in common with the kimoto method of sake-making, save for the lack of the labour-intensive yamaoroshi stage of the process, as it was discovered by scientists in the early 1900s that it wasn’t necessary in order for the shubo to successfully develop. The resulting still form of brewing was dubbed yamahai, but like the older form, it still relies upon the naturally-occurring lactic acid bacteria to make the shubo.
*Sake made according to the kimoto and yamahai methods typically have a richer flavour, with more depth and aroma.
And so we reach the end of the first in our two-part exploration of the rich and complex world of sake varieties. Take a moment to refill your glass, then continue on to Part Two, where we take a look at aging, (more) pressing, and seasonal variants.