For many small sake breweries in Japan, the brewing season has come to an end. The “kurabito”, or brewery workers, have returned home and the breweries are quiet and empty. However, outside in the fields that surround the breweries, it’s quite a different story. A new sake season is just starting, and it begins with the farmers who grow rice that is used to make sake. Farmers will toil and stress over the next 4 to 5 months because the rice they are planting is difficult to grow. This is no ordinary rice.
These farmers are cultivating a rice called “sakamai”. It’s a special type of rice that is only used to make sake. Similar to grapes that are used in wine, there are many varieties of sakamai that grow in different climates throughout Japan So, what is sake rice and what makes it so great for sake?
I don’t want to get too scientific, but this rice is perfect for sake because of its anatomy. All rice, whether sake rice or table rice, has nutrients like protein, fat, starch, vitamins, and minerals. Some of these nutrients are good for sake and some are bad. When you hear “protein and fat”, think bad for sake - these nutrients can create rough flavors. When you hear “starch”, think good for sake - starch helps create a consistent fermentation.
With that in mind, one factor that makes sake rice superior is that it has more of the good nutrients (starch) and less of the bad nutrients (protein and fat). However, it’s not just about the levels of good and bad nutrients, it’s also important where those nutrients are located in the grain.
Sake rice has bad nutrients (protein and fat) located on the outer portion of the grain and good nutrients (starch) in the middle of the grain. Table rice is different. These nutrients are spread thought the grain. Why is this important? Rice Milling.
Sake Rice Unpolished vs Polished
Rice milling is a critical part of the sake brewing process. In fact, the whole sake classification system is build around rice milling, but that’s a discussion for another time. Rice milling removes the outer layers of the rice grain. Therefore, when milling sake rice, the outer layers, which contain “bad” nutrients, are milled away, while the “good nutrients” remain in tact. That is why sake rice is used to make premium, high-quality sake. With table rice, milling removes both good and bad nutrients, making it less effective at producing a premium sake.
So, how does milling affect sake? The more the grain is milled and the smaller the grain becomes, the more light, delicate and refined the sake. The less milling, and the more the grain is left in tact, the more rich and heavier the sake.
Clearly, milling has an important impact on sake, but it’s not the only factor. There are over 100 different rice varieties that also have an impact on sake. Some regions in Japan have become famous for their ability to grow popular sake rice varieties. These include, Yamada-Nishiki and Gohyakuman-Goku, which are shipped to breweries all over Japan in an effort to use the best rice to produce the best sake. There is certain merit to this approach, but recently, some smaller breweries have chosen a different path.
Many small breweries have begun reviving heirloom stains of rice and to inject a sense of “terroir” in their sake. This trend has breweries experimenting with old rice varieties that are becoming new again. As brewers get reacquainted with these local rice strains, they are adapting their brewing techniques and producing some exciting sake that is truly an expression of the region. This has been a great trend to diversify the flavor profiles in sake.
At Sakeden, we have a good mix of products that use popular sake rice types, like Yamada-Nishiki, and heirloom rice types that are only grown in a brewery’s hometown prefectures. Here are some great examples:
POPULAR SAKE RICE
Yamada-Nishiki: The “king of sake rice”. Has the potential to produce complex, fragrant, and well-rounded sake. An interesting fact; 80% of all “competition sake” submitted in the national sake competition in Japan is made with this rice.
Our Ryujin Betsuatsurae Daigino
is an excellent example of the complex and fragrant aromas that are produced when using Yamada-Nishiki. This sake is loaded with “ginjo” aroma, as well as other fruit aromas, mixed in with some rice and mint. In addition to aromatics, this sake is wonderfully balanced.
Oze No Yukidoke Hiyaroshi
Our Oze No Yukidoke Junmai Daiginjo Hiyaoroshi
, also from Ryugin Brewery, shows the versatility of Yamada-Nishiki. This sake is sweeter than the Betsuatsurae and the aromatics are more limited to ginjo aromas, like red apple, pear, and cherry. The sake has good body and the finish is very smooth.
Hattan-Nishiki: This is a popular rice type from the famous sake-producing region of Hiroshima. This rice has a tendency to produce lighter sake with some slight earthy components.
HEIRLOOM SAKE RICE
Saka-Nishiki: This sake takes its name after a famous shrine in Shimane where the sake gods each October to celebrate the beginning of sake brewing shine. The sake tends to be soft in texture and have depth in flavor.
Our Aoto Hichisei Junmai 65
uses this local rice variety to produce this medium dry sake that is filled with banana bread, banana custard, and rice aromas. This sake has quite a bit of body and richness, and a long finishes that leaves some lingering sweetness.
Kairyo Hattan Nishiki: Another local rice from Shimane that is incredibly hard to grow.
Our Iwami Ginzan from Ichinomiya Brewery
is great example of this rice. The sake has a wonderful balance of acidy and sweetness. it has typical “ginjo” aromas like apple, banana, and bubblegum, with some spicy and floral notes. The body is light and texture is incredibly smooth. The subtle complexity of this find sake make it very nice food pairing sake.
Tsuyahime: This is a very highly graded rice for eating. In fact is been receiving the highest grade of Special A in taste rankings.
Our Rika Junmai Ginjo “Tsuyahime”
is an outstanding example of a high-quality sake made using table rice. Despite the challenges to brewing with table rice, our talented master brewer Rika Asano, uses her skills to create this wonderful, easy-drinking, sake that is light in body with subtle aromas and flavors, and a nice acidity.