MAJOR SAKE TYPES
-shu means “sake” in Japanese and is used as a suffix for many types of saké.
Junmai literally means “pure rice,” and refers to a family of saké as well as a grade of saké within that family. Junmai or pure rice saké is made using water, rice, yeast and koji. There is no distilled alcohol in junmai saké.
Junmai-shu is the first level of junmai saké. Junmai-shus are made with rice which has been milled to 70% or less of its original size. Junmais tend to be robust and flavorful. They are good food sakés because of their hearty personalities.
Junmai Ginjo is pure rice saké made with rice which has been refined to 60% or less of its original size. Junmai ginjos are elegant and refined but still have some of the richer qualities found in junmais. The classic style of ginjo level sakés, which includes daiginjos, is to be a little fruity, as well.
Junmai Daginjo is pure rice saké made with rice which has been refined to 50% or less of its original size. Junmai daiginjos are light, elegant, complex and refined. Some can be wonderfully aromatic, as well. Many have a “ginjo style” fruitiness.
Honjozo, like junmai, describes a family of saké and a level of saké within that family. Honjozo saké is made with the addition of a small amount of distilled alcohol. Adding distilled alcohol brings out additional aromatics and flavors and rounds out a saké.
Honjozo-shu is made with rice which is polished to 70% or less of its original size. Being a honjozo, it is made with the slight addition of brewers’ alcohol. Honjozo-shu tends to be light, aromatic and smooth.
Ginjos are honjozo sakés that are made with rice which has been polished to 60% or less of its original size. Ginjos are more fragrant and complex than honjozos. Some may be rounder and more aromatic than their junmai ginjo counterparts.
Daiginjos are honjozo sakés that are made with rice which has been polished to 50% or less of its original size. People often use “daiginjos” to include junmai daiginjos, too. Daiginjos are lighter in body and more refined than ginjos. Daiginjos will generally be more aromatic than their junmai daiginjo counterparts.
SPECIAL SAKE TYPES
Kimoto: Ki means “original” and moto is the yeast starter; thus, kimoto means “original yeast starter.” Naturally, it was the original way that saké makers completed this essential step. Started in the 1700’s, the kimoto method requires saké brewers to mush up the yeast starter with bamboo poles for hours on end, day in and day out for roughly four weeks. Mushing the yeast starter tightens the mixture and removes oxygen. As a result, lactic bacteria cannot easily survive and lactic acid is naturally created. Kimoto saké tends to be wild, funky, gamey, layered and rich. Kimotos can also have greater length of flavor.
Yamahai: In the early 1900’s, one brewer discovered that all of this hard work was not necessary: if the brewers just monitored and controlled the temperature, water levels, exposure to air and a few other variables, the lactic bacteria in the yeast starter would naturally produce lactic acid which would fight off unwanted bacteria and yeasts. Yamahai saké still takes roughly four weeks to make and a high degree of control and skill, but it does not require the same manual labor as kimoto. Yamahai sakés are deep, layered and complex but tend to be earthier and smokier than kimotos.
Sokujo: The sokujo method is most modern way of making the moto or yeast starter. Brewers simply add lactic acid, which is as natural as what you would find in a health food store. This battles the lactic bacteria and sterilizes the yeast starter. Almost all saké is made using the sokujo method, which takes seven to ten days to complete, and with less risk.
Gen-shu is sake which has not been diluted with water after fermentation. Thus, gen-shu usually has an alcohol content of 20%, whereas most saké is brought down to about 15% to 16%. Gen-shu is generally released and marketed as a special product, but a very small number of brewers make most of their saké as gen-shu without saying it is.
Nama-zake is saké which has not been pasteurized. Almost all saké is pasteurized twice to maintain stability. Nama-zake or “live saké” has not been pasteurized and, thus, has a raw, brash personality to it.
Nama-zake is usually released in the spring instead of going through the six-month storage period which lasts until the fall. Nama-zake should always be kept refrigerated and immediately after being released.
Namazke Gen-shu is unpasteurized, undiluted saké. It is almost always released during the spring. Like gen-shu and namazake, it should be refrigerated.
Nigori-saké, literally meaning “cloudy sake,” is saké with the lees still in the bottle. Saké makers achieve this by running the saké through a coarser filter or by adding the lees back in after filtration. Nigori saké has a creamy mouthfeel and a smooth, easy-going flavor. It should be refrigerated.
Seimaibuai is the degree to which the rice used in a saké is polished. It is always expressed as the percentage of the original rice grain that is left. Thus, a seimaibuai of 70% means that 30% has been stripped away.
Nihonshudo, the dryness rating of a saké, is always expressed as a positive or negative number with the range being from -6 to +7 or higher. Saké with a nihonshudo of +2 and lower is generally on the sweet side, while heading up to +3 or +4 is getting drier. We don’t often employ this term because we want people to discover for themselves.
Acidity: Acidity is stated on a bottle of saké in Japan, with low acidity being around 1.1 and high acidity being over 2.0. Like nihonshudo, we don’t use this term very often so people discover for themselves.
Masu: a masu is a square box used for serving saké.
Go: a go is 180ml of saké. A yongobin is a “four-go-bottle,” or a 720ml.
Shou: a shou is 1.8L of saké. An ishoubin is one of those big bottles of saké you see at Japanese restaurants.
Koku: one koku is 180L and is the standard measure of production volume for a saké brewery. A brewery that is less than 1,000 koku is considered small, 3,000 medium-small and anything close to or over 10,000 to be big.
SAKE PRODUCING TERMS
Sakagura means saké brewery and is a combination of the word “saké,” changed to saka, and kura, changed to gura, meaning “brewery.”
Shuzouten is the commercial term for a sakagura, or saké brewery. It is best translated as “brewing company,” whereas the sakagura is the brewery itself. Shuzou is also used by smaller or older brewing companies. Although confusing to consumers, the brewing company name is almost always different from the brand name of the saké.
The toji is the brewmaster. There are several regional toji guilds in Japan.
Kurabito means “brewery people” but we translate it as “brewers” throughout our literature.
The kuramoto is the head of the brewery, its owner or president.
A sugidama, or sakabayashi, is a ball made of cedar branches that is hung in front of a sakagura. Fresh sugidama are hung at the beginning of October when the brewing season begins. The sugidama turns brown as the winter progresses and it is said that when it is entirely brown, in the spring, then the saké is ready.