Sake is at times ethereal, and at other times a cultural currency, but as with the other arts, in it we recognize that something more is moving under the surface. Something in it has not simply been made, but it has been created, crafted. Sake is a play of balance, inspiration and chemistry. When it fills the cup, we put our sticky fingers on the glass, press our faces close – we smell, taste, touch and wonder what alchemy is happening that will bring about the finished product.
Like the other arts, it often comes to us as a riddle. How is it made? Does it go forward or backward? What makes it different? How do you best appreciate it? Which kinds do you like or dislike? What are the customs that frame its context? What is its value? Who are its masters and its new bloods? Is there something more than the buzz and the wooden serving box? Is it tangible or abstract? Is it worth talking about as art or is it mere libation?
If art is a sign that points us in a direction, then sake is an arrow whose vector leads us to a target with many rings. In fact, it is a rice pearl encased in layers of starch shells. Art is often the bringing together of decisive elements to reflect a whole greater than the sum of the parts, and so it is with sake.
Since sake’s only two ingredients are rice and water, the type, quality and terroir (a French term that literally translates as “terrain” but has come to mean the way foods and wine express the soil, climate, culture and tradition of a region) of the rice are extremely important. Of the more than 200 varieties of rice grown in Japan and the U.S., approximately 30 of them are used in sake production. Choosing which to grow, where to plant and which soil types are favorable are key factors in successful cultivation.
The farmers who cultivate the sake rice only harvest rice once a year, so it is their entire year’s labor to bring the rice up, polish the grain and make it ready for brewing. In the art of tradition and quality, the very best strains of sake-brewing rice are grown only in mountainous areas that are clay-based and have extreme variance between day and nighttime temperatures, much like the best grand cru wines of the world.
It is the pearl, the inner core of the sake rice that is the heart and
finesse of the finished sake. It is about what is left out, what is left behind, what
is evaporated in the process. The higher the quality of the sake, the less rice is used. In Dijinko sake, the highest quality, up to 65 percent of the kernel is polished off, so just the pearl is left. As with art, less is often more. It is about the quality and character of what remains that even- tually produces the nuance that separates good sake from great sake.
The process of making sake can be broken down. 1.) Grow great rice. 2.) Polish the outer kernel to get the pearl. 3.) Wash the rice. 4.) Steam the rice. 5.) Cool the rice. 6.) Ferment. But there is a secret that defines great sakes: extraordinary water. About 80 percent of sake is water. You can use the exact same rice, brewmaster and kettles but alter the water, and two entirely different sakes emerge. In fact, in Japan the micro-district of Nada in Kobe has been the coveted location for quality sake breweries because of the special Miyamizu water. These springs emit extremely balanced water, containing all the right trace minerals but little or no iron – an element that negatively affects sake’s taste and color. Water is the secret.
The danger and allure of fire, along with its ability to create and destroy, is no more pronounced than in the art of making sake. As little as a one-tenth degree change in temperature in the cycle of making sake can make the sake no longer desirable. It is in that long practiced craft of the brewmasters that the fire is tempered, starting and stopping only at the perfect time. The fire responds under the direction of an artist who can not only control the fire, but also respects its power and energy, and manipulates its properties to bring about the right humidity, cooking temperatures and storage temperatures.
Simultaneously, the art of sake is in the interaction of all these elements to produce complex flavors, aromas and textures. Like all great art, it is a catalyst – for conversation, creativity and socializa- tion. And oh yes, it tastes delicious and pairs incredibly with many of the world’s most interesting foods.
And even though sake is a tradition 1,500-plus years old, it is experiencing a renaissance in Japan and the rest of the world. As with wine, beer, spirits, tea, coffee, chocolate and cheese, the sake world can be divided in to two camps: There are the artisan, rare, small production finds, and the larger, less expensive and mass- produced 1.8-liter bottles you can order at every red lantern stop on the road home. You can find young professionals crammed in to sake pubs paying $20 a glass, and there are bars where regulars shoot cups from large, commonly recognized bottles.
Since creativity and art are grounded in and take inspiration from life, it is with appreciation that we can see both ways of looking at it and enjoying it. We even see transformation, as rice changes from staple and commodity to cultural drink and social custom to practice, craft and finally art form.
Once imagined, we can create something completely original – something that echoes but does not resemble its origin, even as it reflects it. We can approach with curiosity (and thirst) something grown from the original seed, but finished, worked with, reworked and polished like a pearl.
The wooden sake box is known as a “masu.”This came from the practice of sake being made in wooden casks, but some afficianados say wood affects the flavor of quality sake. In some of the more traditional restaurants, the server may put a glass inside the masu and pour until the sake overflows into the box. A full mass is said to bring prosperity.
There are Sakes that taste good warmed, but overheating Sake will usually dampen its aromas and flavors. Often, heating Sake is a way to cover the flavors of an inferior sake.
Whereas wine enhances the taste of food, the opposite is true with sake: Food is meant to enhance the taste of sake.
Akachochin: The red lanterns that hang from bars welcoming customers in for sake, as most of these spots serve a house sake.