Sake 101 at Kata Robata

Sake comes in a wide range of dryness levels and is incredibly food-friendly.
Sake comes in a wide range of dryness levels and is incredibly food-friendly.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Drink more sake. That was the most important message given by Kata Robata general manager Blake Lewis at a sake class last weekend. Forty years ago, Japan had more than 4,000 sake breweries. Today that number is down to around 1,500. Sake is falling out of favor with Japan's young adults, and the country drinks more beer and imports more wine than ever before.

Many people don't know that sake has a wide range of flavors and dryness. As Lewis mentioned during the class (held on Kata Robata's newly reopened patio), the Sake Meter Value gauges levels of sweetness or dryness and is sometimes marked right on the bottle. Lower and negative numbers mean sweeter, while higher numbers mean drier and, therefore, more alcohol content.

Attendees learned all about sake on a clear, temperate day on Kata Robata's airy back patio. General manager Blake Lewis delivered the class.
Attendees learned all about sake on a clear, temperate day on Kata Robata's airy back patio. General manager Blake Lewis delivered the class.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Sake is essentially a beer brewed from rice. Over 100 types of rice are allowed to be used. Generally, the primary factor in perceived sake quality and cost is how long the rice has been polished and how much of the surface layer has been removed. This allows for cleaner fermentation, which is done with yeast and "Koji" rice that's been inoculated with a fermentation culture called Aspergillus oryzae.

Here are the various grades of sake that were discussed in class:

  • Futsuu-shu or "table sake": This is usually the sake that winds up on the table if you order "hot sake." Sixty-five percent of sake produced falls into this category. There are many different brands of table sake available in the United States, but the most recognizable (albeit not necessarily the best) is Gekkeikan Traditional Sake. Table sakes are cut with distilled alcohol to increase production and profits. The flavor tends to be thin and yeasty, but there's a time and a place for everything.
    Kizakura "Stars" was sparkling and unexpectedly friendly for even the most dubious sake drinker.
    Kizakura "Stars" was sparkling and unexpectedly friendly for even the most dubious sake drinker.
    Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

  • Junmai: Unlike table sake, junmai has no added distilled alcohol. It's made with nothing but rice, water and koji mold. Thirty percent or more of the outer rice kernel has been polished away. Kizakura Stars was served as an example of this at class and was a surprisingly big hit. It was fizzy and very reminiscent of grapefruit soda, thanks in part to a Sake Meter Value (SMV) of -35. It wasn't cloyingly sweet, though. Tentaka Shuzo's Hawk In The Heavens (also available at Kata Robata) is a junmai sake, too, but much dryer with a +3 SMV.

  • Junmai Ginjo: "Ginjo" means "the best." (Quality designations are heavily regulated by the Japanese government.) Junmai Ginjo uses rice with 40 to 60 percent of the outer hull milled away. Hananomai "Katana" was the in-class example, and had a hint of sweet potato about it. Its SMV is +7, so it's fairly dry and rustic. http://www.tastings.com/scout_wine.lasso?id=198746
  • Junmai Daiginjo is considered the highest sake grade, with 50 percent or more of the outer rice hull milled away. It's fermented for a long time under low temperatures. Kuromatsu Hakushika is an example of a Junmai Daiginjo that's balanced and with a slightly fruity nose.
    Nigori sake tends to be sweet and therefore is often a good pairing with dessert.
    Nigori sake tends to be sweet and therefore is often a good pairing with dessert.
    Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

  • Nigori: This is the milky-looking and often sweet sake that became known in the United States when several Japanese restaurants started encouraging customers to steer toward drinking sake cold instead of hot. Nigori is often either unfiltered or only lightly filtered, so be sure to shake the bottle thoroughly before serving. Tozai "Snow Maiden" is a nigori sake served at Kata Robata that comes in individual servings, medium-size bottles (300 ml) and large bottles (750 ml), so there's no reason not to give it a try the next time you're there -- perhaps with a scoop of Cloud 10 ice cream, as we had it.

    There's a sake to suit every palate, so even if you don't think you like it, use this guide to go on an educated exploration. If you enjoy spirits "neat," dry red wine and strong beers, the sakes that have higher SMV values will likely find favor with you, while people who enjoy sweet wine or are fairly new to alcoholic beverages will probably like the sakes with lower SMV values more.

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