Japan Centre Sake Series Part 1: What is Sake and How is it Made?

If you’re looking for the lowdown on all things sake, then you’re in the right place! Part one of Japan Centre’s four-part sake series will introduce you to the sake essentials; a must-read if you’re new to sake and want to find out exactly what it is and how it’s made. There’s also a brief history lesson for those of you who are interested in sake’s ancient origins. 

Over the next few weeks we’ll bring you expert advice from Japan Centre Sake Sommelier Sachiko Koyama, with sake recommendations for all budgets, and ideas for delicious food pairings. Finally, we’ll round off the series by focusing on some creative ways to enjoy sake, including colourful cocktails and sweet fruit options such as umeshu (plum based sake). 

What is Sake?

Sake is one of Japan’s most famous exports; a delicious alcoholic drink made from fermented rice with a unique flavour which can be enjoyed either warm or chilled. You may be interested to learn that the term sake in Japanese actually refers to all alcoholic drinks and the fermented rice drink that we call sake is known as nihonshu in Japan (which translates as ‘Japanese alcohol’). 

A Brief History of Sake 

Records dating back 2000 years show that a drink called kuchikami-zake was made by chewing grains of rice, spitting them into a basin and leaving them to ferment. However sake as we know it today (made from rice, water and koji) is likely to have originated during the Nara period (8th century). 

The Japanese government controlled sake production for many years, but during the 10th century, shrines and temples became the main producers of sake. Originally a drink reserved for nobility and religious figures such as priests and monks, sake can now be enjoyed by all. 

During the Meiji period (19th Century) the government loosened restrictions on sake production which sparked a huge increase in the number of breweries being established. Although over 30% of these stopped operating after an increase in taxes, some are still in operation today, such as Gekkeikan, established in Kyoto in 1637 and one of the most well-known sake breweries in the world. 

Over the past century, advances in machinery and technology have made sake brewing less labour intensive, but it’s still a complex process, and many traditional brewers will have maintained some of their traditional techniques. Long-standing breweries will each have a Toji (master brewer) who has spent years honing their skills and specialist knowledge, which is then passed on from generation to generation. There are a number of Toji guilds across Japan, all of which have their own unique sake brewing traditions. 

Rice shortages during World War II had a significant effect on the sake industry, and quality took a hit as brewers had to resort to adding more alcohol to the rice mix. Luckily sake quality bounced back post-war, and today sake is readily available to be enjoyed at all different types of occasions from a dinner party at home to a wedding celebration. 

Sake Brewing 101

Although sake is made from rice and water, brewing sake is a complex process which requires specialist knowledge, skills, and equipment. Here’s the 101 to give you an overview of how sake is made, from initial rice milling through to the delicious end result:

Rice Polishing (Milling): Sake is categorised by how much the rice has been polished and milled; the more the rice has been polished down to remove the husk, the higher the quality of the sake. 

Soak and Steam: Sake can be made from non-sticky short-grain japonica rice, but premium sake is made from special strains of rice known as sakamai. The rice is washed to remove the outer bran, soaked to absorb water, and then steamed, leaving the outer part firm and the inner part soft.

Koji: To aid the fermentation process, koji (a safe type of fungus) needs to be cultivated within the steamed rice. The rice is populated with koji spores and left in a temperature controlled room for several days. 

Seed Mash: A seed mash (yeast starter) known as shubo or moto is made by mixing koji with more rice, water and yeast. Lactic acid adds acidity which is important in ensuring the mixture doesn’t spoil. 

Main Mash: The seed mash (shubo), more rice, koji and water are added to a larger fermentation tank in three stages spread out over four days. The temperature is also lowered slightly after each step. This is known as the main mash or moromi and it takes around 3-4 weeks for the fermentation process to complete. 

Final Stages: The mash is pressed either by machine or by hand using canvas bags, to separate the liquid from the solids. The remaining liquid is left to stand and any remaining sediment filtered out. Finally, the sake is pasteurised at a high temperature to sterilise it and ensure that any enzymes that might affect flavour and appearance are deactivated. Fast forward six months and after more water is added (to take the alcoholic content down a notch), and another round of filtering and pasteurisation, the sake is ready to be bottled!

Choosing and Enjoying Sake

Subscribe to the Japan Centre blog to make sure you don’t miss the next instalments in our Japan Centre Sake Series. Next up is Part 2: Choosing Your Sake where we’ll take a closer look at the different types and classifications of sake. Sachiko Koyama, one of our Japan Centre Sake Sommeliers will bring you some delicious sake recommendations including options for refreshing sparkling sake, creamy and sweet nigori sake, standard sake, premium junmai daiginjo… and more! 

Japan Centre have directly imported some of the best sake from the finest breweries in Japan and our in-house sommelier team at Japan Centre Leicester Square will be more than happy to help you select a sake to suit you if you are shopping in-store.

Enjoy all this and more by shopping in-store at Japan Centre Leicester Square, Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City. Alternatively you can get fresh produce delivered straight to your door by shopping online at the Japan Centre website.

Words by Emily Lovell