Dietary Diaries

The food inspired musings of a culinarily inclined nerd.

Location: Berkeley, California Bay Area, United States

Berkana signifies rebirth and new beginnings; I have found these in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Sake tasting at the Takara sake brewery

Sake tasting roomFor years, while getting off the 580 freeway into Berkeley, I've driven by the Takara sake brewery, being enticed by the sign painted on the side of their bottling warehouse advertising the free sake tasting experience at their sake museum and doing nothing about it. Well, today, on a whim (actually, boredom and free time coinciding), Pete and I decided to go.

It was quite an interesting experience, to say the least. After watching a short video on the history of sake and how it differs from wine and beer, all the guests had a complementary sake tasting of nearly the entire range of sakes offered by Takara.

Sake (pronounced "sah-kay") is the traditional fermented drink of Japan, and is currently made out of highly polished rice which is then steamed, and fermented with both a special kind of mold (known as koji) and yeast at the same time. The koji mold ferments the starches in the rice into sugars, while the yeast ferments the sugars into alcohol. (Sake is non-carbonated.)

unpolished rice compared with highly polished sake riceWe learned all about the various kinds of sake; "junmai" indicates that a sake is entirely fermented of rice and has not been fortified with added alcohol. "Ginjo" indicates the grade of polishing of the rice grains; apparently, the unpolished kernels of rice have oils and proteins that start the bran on inwards, and the more of the kernel is polished off, the purer the starch. "Ginjo" grade sake has half the mass of the kernels polished away, and "dai-ginjo" (greater ginjo) has between 55% and 70% of the kernels polished away. A high purity starch gives the koji and yeast a chance to impart their subtle flavors without being overpowered by the flavors found in the oils and proteins of the outer layers of the rice. This stuff is then steamed, and part of it is mixed with the koji mold as a starter. Then, the whole of it is mashed together with yeast, and left to ferment. The resulting alcohol concentration is between 12%-16%, depending on the style and brewer.

sake cupThe recommended tasting order for sake is to taste them in order from the driest (lowest remaining sugar content) to the sweetest. Like tasting wine, first one looks at the clarity and color, then swirls it around and smells it, and then tastes it, exhaling after each sip to expose the olfactory nerves to all the fragrances released by the warmth of the mouth. We started with a classic dry sake, which was served warm (between 105 and 120 degrees–not too hot). Then, we compared it with draft sake which was unpasteurized, known as 'namazake' (pronounced as "nama-zah-kay'; 'S' sounds are voiced as z's when they follow vowels if I remember correctly, as sushi is voiced with a 'z' in 'makizushi'). It was quite a bit fruitier tasting. Interestingly enough, all the fruit scents and subtle flavors are a byproduct of the fermentation; nothing is added to the sake but good water, koji, and yeast. We then went on to taste a 'nigorizake,' which was even sweeter, though not as fruity, due to pasteurization. Both namazakes and nigorizakes are served chilled; the flavor of the classic sakes is very subtle and benefits from being served warm, but the fruity bouquets and sweetness of the nama and nigori style sakes do better going down cold while having the warmth of the mouth release the aromatic flavors characteristic of these sakes. (Plus, since nigorizake is unfiltered and cloudy, heating it would make it thicken and cook so it tastes like a runny alcoholic gruel–definitely not good eats.)

The other thing we learned was that sake does not age well beyond the initial post-fermentation settling and aging. A display bottle of old-ish sake could be seen by visual comparison to be yellowish, and its odor was rather rancid and stinky. Unlike wine, sake cannot be aged for long. The unpasteurized namazake style cannot be aged much at all, and needs to be consumed within a week of opening, if stored in a refrigerator. We ended up buying a total of five different kinds of sake from the factory, in part because the freshness could get no better than straight from the bottling plant, and because the prices were so good and the sake so impressive (not what I expected from domestically manufactured sake). . . and as usual, Peter, who is currently in culinary school at CCA, asked for sake recipies. Any tasty findings will be reported soon.

Next intended place of culinary exploration: the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, and if we can afford it, their legendary Café Cacao (And if James is reading this, perhaps he would like to come along to nerd out with us. hint hint ^_~.