Words are the building blocks of knowledge
Hot sake. Note that ordering “atsukan” will get you sake that is generally hotter than good quality sake should be. If you are ordering a quality product like Masumi, better to ask for “nurukan” meaning warm sake.
Super-premium sake brewed with rice polished down to 50% or less of its original weight.
Standard-grade sake, with polishing rates above 60%, and distilled alcohol added.
Sake that is undiluted with water.
Premium sake brewed with rice polished down to between 60% and 50% of its original weight.
Sake with a small amount of distilled alcohol added. (No more than 10% of the weight of the polished rice).
Japanese-style bar or pub.
A special term for sake to which no distilled alcohol has been added.
Dry in taste.
Kasu or Sakegasu
The lees that remain after the mash is filtered at the end of the brewing process. Masumi uses its lees to distill a high-quality shochu product called Sumi Shochu
Yeast. A microbe that consumes sugar and produces alcohol.
A type of mold (aspergillus oryzae) that produces enzymes that break starch down into sugar. Also refers to rice upon which koji mold has been propagated.
A sake brewery. Also called a sakagura.
Literally, “brewery person.” The brewing staff members.
The fermenting mash of steamed rice, water, koji, and yeast that produces sake.
Sake that has not been pasteurized. Namazake MUST be kept refrigerated.
Known in English as the Sake Meter Value (SMV), this is a measure of the density of sake relative to water. It can be a rough indication of the sweetness or dryness of the sake, higher being drier in theory, but a variety of factors, especially acidity, influence the flavor, so this index alone cannot be taken as a guide to dryness.
A sake brewery. Also called a kura.
Polishing rate. Usually indicated as a percentage on the label, this refers to the amount of rice that remains after polishing. The lower the percentage, the higher the grade of the sake.
Traditional name for the mountainous region of central Japan encompassing all of Nagano Prefecture and parts of surrounding prefectures.
A clear distilled spirit popular throughout Japan. Masumi produces a shochu called Sumi Shochu using the lees remaining after the sake is pressed. This shochu is also used as the base for Masumi’s fruit liqueurs.
Yeast starter. The yeast starter is the first stage of sake fermentation, and is intended to produce a robust, highly concentrated yeast culture.
An older way of making the yeast starter that is back in fashion because it results in greater complexity, higher lactic acidity, and cleaner finish. The difference between the regular yeast starter method (known as sokujo) and yamahai is the way that the lactic acid needed to begin yeast fermentation is obtained. In regular yeast starters, lactic acid purchased from a supplier is added to the starter tank and yeast fermentation begins immediately. In yamahai starters, bacteria that produce lactic acid are grown in the tank first, and then yeast fermentation begins when the necessary acid level is reached. Note that “yamahai” is an abbreviation of a longer term, “yamaoroshi haishi,” which means to eliminate the step of mashing down steamed rice with wooden poles that was common to sake making before the yamahai method was developed, and continues to be part of the kimoto method even today.
Currently the most common method for making the yeast starter. Literally, “fast fermentation.” What makes it fast is the innovation of adding ready-made lactic acid to the tank, which allows yeast fermentation to begin immediately. Contrast this to the yamahai and kimoto methods, where the bacteria that produce lactic acid must be grown in the tank for about two weeks before yeast fermentation can begin.
Cloudy sake. Nigori sake is pressed through a rough mesh filter to allow some of the white rice mash through.
Sake, Zake, Shu
Refers to any alcoholic beverage, or specifically to sake, depending on the context. Pronunciation varies depending on what other words appear with it.
Refers specifically to sake, as opposed to other alcoholic beverages, but is rarely used in everyday conversation.
A common but rather vague term meaning sake that has been heated up. When ordering a premium sake like Masumi, better to ask for “nurukan,” which specifies that the sake should be pleasantly warm.
Pleasantly warm sake. Contrast to “atsukan,” which is piping hot sake.
Never hurts to ask
What exactly is sake? Is it a beer? A wine? A spirit?
While it is easy to say what sake is not ー it is definitely not a distilled spirit like vodka or gin ー it is a bit harder to say exactly what sake is. Like beer, sake is made from a starchy grain rather than a sugary fruit, and so the fermentation process for both beer and sake starts with the transformation of starch into sugar. However, sake is rarely bubbly, and in appearance and alcohol content, it is more like white wine than beer. Suffice it to say that sake is sake; a delightful fermented beverage in a class of its own.
What is the alcohol content of sake?
Most sake contains 14% to 16% alcohol, in contrast to 4% to 6% for beer and 8% to 14% for wine. Freshly-brewed sake naturally contains as much as 20% alcohol when it is pressed from the mash, but before bottling water is added to most types of sake to bring the alcohol level down to about 15%.
How should the word “sake” be pronounced?
In Japan, this word is pronounced “sah-kay.” One could argue that this is the “correct” pronunciation, but of course if you are ordering sake in a country where the word is commonly pronounced “sakee,” you may want to say it that way first and argue about phonetics after you have your drink in hand.
Is sake meant to be drunk with food, or alone?
The short answer is: yes to both! Good sake is low in acid and high in umami (savoriness), so it goes very well with a wide range of dishes both within and beyond the Japanese food culture. Of course, premium ginjo and super-premium daiginjo sakes are wonderful sipped chilled any time, and a warm cup of standard sake does well on its own to take the chill out of a winter afternoon.
Does sake improve with age, like wine?
No. Although there are a few special varieties of sake that are “aged” before bottling to produce a darker, more mature flavor, all sake is meant to be drunk soon after purchase. Many premium sake makers, including Masumi, print the bottling date on the label or cap, and the sake is best drunk within a year of that date. Once opened, sake will begin to oxidize and so it is best to drink it within a week or so.
How should sake be stored?
Sake that has been pasteurized should be kept in a cool, dark place until opening, then refrigerated thereafter. Fresh sake, called namazake in Japanese, is not pasteurized and should always be refrigerated. Once opened, sake will begin to oxidize and so it is best to drink it within a week or so.
At what temperature should sake be served?
That depends on the type of sake (and perhaps on the season in which you drink it). Earthy sakes with fuller flavors and mild aromas are good candidates for warming, whereas fruity, highly fragrant sakes should be drunk chilled. Generally you’ll find good candidates for warming among the junmai, honjozo, and standard sakes, and good candidates for chilling in the ginjo and daiginjo premium types. Avoid heating sake over 50C, and avoid chilling sake any lower than about 10C.
What kind of glass or cup is appropriate for serving sake?
Traditionally, sake was served in small ceramic, clay, or lacquered cups, but these days you’ll find it served in everything from tin to crystal stemware. A good rule of thumb is to select a vessel that fits the type of sake, and its temperature. For example, earthy sakes with mild aromas are good candidates for warming, and warm sake should be served in ceramic or clay cups for obvious reasons. On the other hand, light-bodied sakes with fruity aromas are better chilled, so glass is best. Wine glasses are excellent to fully enjoy this type of sake’s subtle and complex nose.
Is drinking sake better for your health than drinking other alcoholic beverages?
Sake contains no sulfites or other preservatives that are said to contribute to hangovers and other health concerns. Naturally, sake should be consumed in moderation and with the same caution as any other alcoholic drink.
Different strokes for different folks
Of the Japanese words commonly used to describe types of sake, four are official terms in the tax law that define the quality level of the product, and the rest refer to styles of sake that happen to be popular at the moment. Here is an explanation of the types of sake you’ll find in Masumi’s line-up.
The official terms classify a sake’s quality grade depending on the amount of rice remaining after polishing (DAIGINJO and GINJO), and whether distilled alcohol is added before filtering (JUNMAI and HONJOZO). Here’s how it works:
Amount of rice remaining after polishing (DAIGINJO, GINJO)
- ・Less than 50% remaining = DAIGINJO (super premium)
- ・60% to 50% remaining = GINJO (premium)
- ・More than 60% remaining = no official term
The outer layers of the rice contain a lot of protein, fat, and minerals, which can make the sake taste heavy and bitter. Polishing away these layers is generally thought to improve quality by making the sake lighter and cleaner in taste.
Distilled alcohol added or not (JUNMAI, HONJOZO)
- ・Not added = JUNMAI
- ・Limited amount added = HONJOZO
- ・Larger amount added = no official term
Note that the term JUNMAI may be used together with DAIGINJO and GINJO to describe a sake type. For example, a junmai daiginjo sake is one that is polished to less than 50% remaining, AND has no alcohol added to it.
Oddly, the term HONJOZO is never used together with DAIGINJO or GINJO. If the sake is polished to less than 50% remaining, and it has added alcohol, it is simply called a daiginjo sake.
The technique of adding distilled alcohol to the mash before filtering has been used by brewers for the past several centuries to enhance quality, or to stabilize the sake and to lower its cost. Whether the effect on quality is positive or negative is a matter of degree, and so the tax law specifies that to be labeled as HONJOZO, the amount of added alcohol must be limited to less than 10% of the amount of polished rice used in the mash, and that the rice must be polished to less than 70% remaining.
When such limited amounts of alcohol are added to such polished sake, the effect is to accentuate the sake’s natural aromas and to produce a pleasantly dry feeling on the palate. Thus, HONJOZO sake is understood to be “high-quality alcohol-added sake.”
Even today, there is far more alcohol-added sake on the market than junmai sake, although the junmai style is quickly growing in popularity because it is perceived to be purer and inherently of higher quality. For us it’s a matter personal taste, and we leave it up to you to choose one, the other, or both!
Beyond the official terms, there are a few other Japanese words used for sake that is somehow out of the ordinary, either because a special brewing technique was used, or because some regular part of the brewing process was NOT used. They are listed here according to the processes they are associated with.
Pasteurized or not (NAMA)
- ・Not pasteurized = NAMA
- ・Pasteurized once at bottling = NAMACHOZO
- ・Pasteurized once during storage = NAMAZUME
- ・Pasteurized both during storage and at bottling = no special word
The purpose of pasteurization is to stabilize the sake by eliminating bacteria and by de-activating enzymes that would otherwise change the sake’s character, and to that end, most of the sake out there has been pasteurized twice.
However, the less the sake is pasteurized, the fresher and livelier its character remains, so “nama” sake styles are becoming increasingly popular. Nama sake (pronounced “nama zake”) must be kept refrigerated at all times; otherwise, it will quickly become sweeter, darker in color, and bitter through the action of enzymes. Also, in some cases lactic acid bacteria may grow in the bottle, turning the sake cloudy and giving it an unpleasant, sour taste.
Diluted with water or not (GENSHU)
- ・Not diluted = GENSHU
- ・Diluted = no special word
During fermentation, the alcohol content of sake can rise to nearly 20%, but the brewing industry has determined that most consumers prefer less alcohol, so, when necessary, they typically add water before bottling to reduce the alcohol content to around 15%.
However, in the past few decades there has been a trend toward “native” sakes that have undergone minimal processing after filtering, and so undiluted sakes known by the obscure brewer’s word “GENSHU” have become more popular.
Lactic acid produced in yeast starter (YAMAHAI, KIMOTO)
- ・Produced in yeast starter = YAMAHAI, KIMOTO
- ・Added to yeast starter = no special word
Lactic acid is essential at the beginning of yeast fermentation because this organic acid suppresses the growth of other microbes that would compete with the yeast. The difference between the usual “modern” yeast starter method and the older yamahai and kimoto methods is the way that the lactic acid is obtained. In modern yeast starters, lactic acid purchased from a supplier is added to the starter tank and yeast fermentation begins immediately. In yamahai and kimoto starters, bacteria that produce lactic acid are grown in the tank first, and then yeast fermentation begins when the necessary acid level is reached.
The yamahai and kimoto styles take twice as much time and effort as a modern starter, but they are coming back into fashion because they result in greater complexity, more lactic acidity, and a cleaner finish.
Note that “yamahai” is an abbreviation of a longer term, “yamaoroshi haishi,” which means to eliminate the step of mashing down steamed rice with wooden poles that was common to sake making before the yamahai method was developed, and continues to be part of the kimoto method even today.
Making sake is like raising a child
In early October, as the Suwa Basin fills with cold autumn air and the newly-harvested rice comes in, activity quickens at Masumi’s two breweries. Let us give you a tour of the seven months from October until April, when the master brewers and their staff watch over the brewing process with all the love, care, and strict discipline of parents for a beloved child.