Getting the lowdown on high quality sake

From Esquire magazine


Sake is different from what we're used to drinking on an almost genetic level. That difference has to do with fermentation, the process whereby yeast eats sugars and excretes them as alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Anything that has sugar in it can be induced to ferment with no trouble at all. To get any grain to ferment, however, be it the barley used in beer and whiskey or the rice used in sake, you have to first convert that grain's starch, which yeast can't eat, to sugar. In the West, we've always done that by malting -- allowing the grain to sprout, which releases enzymes that turn starch to sugar, and then toasting the sprouts to kill them to keep that sugar from being consumed in growth. In Asia, however, they found quite a different way of doing things. A moldy way.

There is, it turns out, a strain of fungus (Aspergillus oryzae, if you want to get technical) that feeds on starch, releasing enzymes in the process that accomplish the necessary starch-to-sugar transformation. Asian brewers domesticated it millennia ago, and indeed, its use forms the basis of most Japanese, Chinese, and Korean brewing.

While very efficient at producing alcohol, particularly when turned loose on as pure a starch as polished white rice -- at 14% to 20%, sake has the highest percentage of alcohol of any fermented beverage -- it does have a strong tendency to impart a characteristic musty, funky fragrance to the finished product. Properly handled, that can be pleasing even to the untrained Western palate -- a good sake has a unique balance of refreshment and savoriness, with the sweet, clean graininess of a German lager and the palate-cleansing minerality of a good pinot noir. But finding one that fits your comfort level ain't easy.

The classification system is dazzlingly complex. Is it, like most cheap sakes, blended with alcohol, sugar, and various edible acids, or is it pure (junmai; the good stuff)? Or is it basically pure with just a little alcohol added during fermentation (honjozo; also the good stuff, pretty much)?

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