By Katerina Skarbinec
In honour of our fiftieth issue of GMA (woo!), I thought I’d bring to you something a little different from my usual reviews or recipes. I’m sure that most of you know that sake is a big cultural tradition here in Japan. It is used at Shinto events, weddings–there’s even a special kind for New Year! I’m also sure that most of you know that sake is made from rice. But do you know how it’s made? If not, then come with me as I introduce you to the bonus DVD of sake.
First you have to start with rice, which is polished to remove protein and oils and to leave behind useful starch. When making sake, you can’t use the rice you’d normally have in your gyuudon. There is a separate type of rice grown specifically for this purpose, the resulting grain being both bigger and stronger than your typical rice so that it won’t break during the polishing process.
Polished rice is allowed to rest and absorb moisture so that it won’t crack during the next step, in which it is washed and steeped in water. Steeping time depends on how much the rice was polished, and can range from several hours to a few minutes.
The rice is then steamed on a conveyor belt; care has to be taken with the temperature so as not to over- or undercook it. Once the rice cools, a kind of mold is sprinkled over it. Yes, you read that right, mold. It’s a pretty helpful mold called Aspergillus oryzae. Since rice doesn’t contain enzymes for making starch into sugar, the mold adds these to the mix. Without it you’d probably end up with rice porridge sludge. Yum. This mixture ferments for five days to a week.
Water and yeast are added and everything is incubated for another week. Over the following four days, a separate mixture of steamed rice, fermented rice, and water are added in three staggered increments. For most varieties of sake, this final mixture, called the main mash, is fermented for two to three weeks at about 15-20 degrees Celsius. For high grade sake, the temperature is lowered by half to slow the process.
Finally, the sake is extracted, carbon-filtered, and pasteurized, then left to mature before being diluted with water and bottled. Nine months to a year is the required time for sake to mature. Like a lot of industries in Japan, sake brewing was mostly seasonal. This is still true for old-fashioned breweries that only brew in the winter, especially for artisanal varieties. Traditionally a big ball made from cedar leaves is hung outside a brewery when new sake is brewed. The leaves begin green and gradually turn brown, mirroring the sake as it matures.
As you can see, a lot of time, hard work, and care go into making sake. Next time you’re handed some, remember the year of work it probably took to make it. It might make it taste better! =D