I’M WAY too busy with my beer to pay attention to other breeds of booze. But recently it has been brought to my attention that, because of its similarities to beer, I oughta write something about sake.
If it hadn’t been a pretty public-relations agent who advanced this dubious line of reasoning, it would’ve landed in my Deleted Items folder, because:
a) Sake is made with rice, which is fit for breakfast cereal and wedding parties but not beer; and b) How can you take something seriously when you sip it out of Barbie’s teacup?
Nonetheless, in the spirit of leaving no bottle unopened, I offer Six Reasons Why Sake Is Like Beer:
1. “Rice wine” is a slanderous misnomer.
Wine is made with decaying fruit. It’s basically nature’s way of disposing of the grapes not needed for Raisin Bran.
Sake is made with a grain, just like beer. Instead of barley, rice is used. It’s boiled or steamed into a mash, like beer, and then treated with a mold called koji to spark the fermentation process.
Like beer-making, making sake is an incredibly ingenious process requiring painstaking craftsmanship and a high level of human intelligence – unlike wine, which can be made by monkeys.
2. There’s bad sake and good sake.
Like beer, the bad ones come from factories where they add cheap adjunct ingredients; the good ones are made by small, regional brewers (jizake) with just four main ingredients: water, rice, yeast and that mold I can’t pronounce.
Some sake makers add copious amounts of distilled alcohol during the final stage of fermentation; it’s the equivalent of malt-liquor brewers who add corn syrup to boost alcohol.
3. There’s a bunch of lingo you need to learn.
You’d be lost if you didn’t know a double IPA from a double bock. The same goes with sake, which is made in different styles and varying grades. There are four main types:
Daiginjo: the lightest and often most expensive; fruity and fragrant.
Ginjo: fruity, beefier and complex.
Junmai: full-bodied; goes well with food.
Honjozo: dry and fortified with a small amount of alcohol during fermentation.
4. The best domestic sake comes from the West Coast.
Actually, the only U.S. sake comes from the West. Just as in the early years of the craft-beer revolution, California and Oregon are leading the way with small sake production.
I’m particularly fond of the varieties made by Sake One, the only U.S.-owned sake maker, in Forest Grove, Ore. Its G Joy, served from distinctively heavy black bottles, is fruity (cantaloupe) with a bite of cinnamon. They also make an unfiltered Nigori style that is organic and as cloudy as witbier.
5. It’s tasty either cold or at room temperature.
The brands they serve piping hot at your favorite sushi restaurant are often lower-quality varieties whose flavor (and alcohol) are enhanced when heated up.
But, just as the flavor of some beer styles improves with changes in temperature, some sake – especially Daiginjo – is best when served cold or even on ice.
Don’t get too tied up on the temps, though. As with beer, drink it the way you enjoy it.
6. It’s best when it’s fresh.
Most bottles come with a Budweiser-like born-on date. Other than the specialty Koshu aged variety, sake is meant to be enjoyed within a year of bottling – not cellared like that stuff made by monkeys.
Addendum: Earlier, I foolishly disparaged rice as a grain for beer. I apologize and offer the delicious exception of Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale, made with rice fermented like sake, then mixed with malt and further fermented. The result is as if Pilsner Urquell made a red ale flavored with strawberries.
Want to explore the world of sake a bit more seriously?
Taste the sauce yourself at the 6th Annual Sake Fest on Wednesday, April 14, at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel (12th and Market streets, Center City). Dozens of varieties will be poured by experts. Tickets: $59.50 ($69.50 at the door). Info: www.sakefest.com.