Sunday, November 14, 2010

SAKE= "Rice wine"?

It's "Nippon-shu" in Japan, but the rest of the world knows it as "sake". English speakers frequently refer to it as rice wine, although it is made in a process perhaps more like brewing beer than making wine.
Most of us Canadians like it served piping hot, preferably sipped from tiny ceramic cups to keep it warm. It's better now than it once was, but the selection of sake available at your local liquor shop is limited at best. You'll be lucky if you can find anything other than a few low end brands. Find a premium "cold-serve" sake and you'll pay dearly for the privlege.

The Japanese however, are spoiled silly when it comes to sake. And they pay considerably less for their sake given the system of taxation in Canada. It's estimated there are more than 10,000 different kinds of sake in Japan! Some are served warm, some room temperature, others are chilled. A sommelier could find ten ways to serve a hundred fine French wines; so too is the situation with a "sake-snob". Everything from the shape of the glass to the PH of the water used in the brewing process is hotly debated. How much the rice has been polished is very important. Polishing the rice removes the outer layers that are believed to negatively affect the flavour of a sake.
The Japanese have been making sake for thousands of years. Like beer, sake must first convert starch to sugar in order for it to develop that alcoholic kick we all know and love. Wine is a simpler fermentation process (chemically anyway!) as the fruit already contains sugars that are ready to be gobbled up by the yeast, producing the beloved booze and some CO2 to boot.
Basically, sake is made from special rice which has been polished, soaked and steamed. Koji (a type of black mold) is added to the rice and then a yeast starter. Over a few weeks more rice, water and koji is added, creating a "rice mash" known as "moromi" in Japanese. The "Toji", or head sake maker then decides when the moromi is ready to be pressed, filtered and blended. Most sake is pasteurized to "deactivate" enzymes which may change the flavour and colour of the sake later. Pasteurizing the sake improves the stability and shelf life of the sake.

Not all sake is pasteurized. Granville Island based sake maker Masa Shiroki produces unfiltered, unpasteurized sake in small batches. Sake of this kind is fruity and delicate, but must be refrigerated to preserve it's quality. It is not served warm. Like most sake it does not get better with aging. Usually it is recommended that sake be drunk within a year of being made. Decent sake will almost always have a production and/or expiry date.

"Grading" Japanese sake is complicated to say the least. The kind of rice used, the degree of polishing, and whether or not distilled alcohol is added to the sake are a few of the factors to consider.
At Sanbiki, we find most guests prefer warm sake. However we do have premium chilled sakes available and they are starting to catch on. Customers are liking our "Granville Island Sake Sampler" Similar to a wine "flight" with a few different sips of different wines, guests have opportunity to sample 3 different kinds of sake for only $8. Each 1 oz sample includes tasting notes by Granville Island Artisan Sake Maker Masa Shiroki. Melon, citrus and even hints of licorice can be tasted and smelled when you're pointed in the right direction
Warm or cold, we've got a great selection of sake and other alcoholic beverages for you to try. Sorrento-based Crannog Ales supplies us with organic, seasonal ales made by hand and left unpasteurized and unfiltered. The draft ales come in "partypigs"; self contained reusable containers that mean no empties to recycle! And they have a great website to boot! More info on Granville Island sake @
Thanks to Masa Shiroki, Crannog Ales, Steamy Kitchen and Where for photos. More news next week...bundle up kids, its getting cold...stay tuned for "Nabemono"...Japanese style hot pot, perfect winter comfort food!

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