Sake types

Sake types

Of the Japanese words commonly used to describe types of sake, four are official terms in the tax law that define the quality level of the product, and the rest refer to styles of sake that happen to be popular at the moment. Here is an explanation of the types of sake you’ll find in Masumi’s line-up.

Official terms

The official terms classify a sake’s quality grade depending on the amount of rice remaining after polishing (DAIGINJO and GINJO), and whether distilled alcohol is added before filtering (JUNMAI and HONJOZO). Here’s how it works:

Amount of rice remaining after polishing ———DAIGINJO, GINJO

  • Less than 50% remaining = DAIGINJO (super premium)
  • 60% to 50% remaining = GINJO (premium)
  • More than 60% remaining = no official term

The outer layers of the rice contain a lot of protein, fat, and minerals, which can make the sake taste heavy and bitter. Polishing away these layers is generally thought to improve quality by making the sake lighter and cleaner in taste.

Distilled alcohol added or not———JUNMAI, HONJOZO

  • Not added = JUNMAI
  • Limited amount added = HONJOZO
  • Larger amount added = no official term

Note that the term JUNMAI may be used together with DAIGINJO and GINJO to describe a sake type. For example, a junmai daiginjo sake is one that is polished to less than 50% remaining, AND has no alcohol added to it.

Oddly, the term HONJOZO is never used together with DAIGINJO or GINJO. If the sake is polished to less than 50% remaining, and it has added alcohol, it is simply called a daiginjo sake.

The technique of adding distilled alcohol to the mash before filtering has been used by brewers for the past several centuries to enhance quality, or to stabilize the sake and to lower its cost. Whether the effect on quality is positive or negative is a matter of degree, and so the tax law specifies that to be labeled as HONJOZO, the amount of added alcohol must be limited to less than 10% of the amount of polished rice used in the mash, and that the rice must be polished to less than 70% remaining.

When such limited amounts of alcohol are added to such polished sake, the effect is to accentuate the sake’s natural aromas and to produce a pleasantly dry feeling on the palate. Thus, HONJOZO sake is understood to be “high-quality alcohol-added sake.”

Even today, there is far more alcohol-added sake on the market than junmai sake, although the junmai style is quickly growing in popularity because it is perceived to be purer and inherently of higher quality. For us it’s a matter personal taste, and we leave it up to you to choose one, the other, or both!

Pasteurized or not———NAMA

  • Not pasteurized = NAMA
  • Pasteurized once at bottling = NAMACHOZO
  • Pasteurized once during storage = NAMAZUME
  • Pasteurized both during storage and at bottling = no special word

The purpose of pasteurization is to stabilize the sake by eliminating bacteria and by de-activating enzymes that would otherwise change the sake’s character, and to that end, most of the sake out there has been pasteurized twice.

However, the less the sake is pasteurized, the fresher and livelier its character remains, so “nama” sake styles are becoming increasingly popular. Nama sake (pronounced “nama zake”) must be kept refrigerated at all times; otherwise, it will quickly become sweeter, darker in color, and bitter through the action of enzymes. Also, in some cases lactic acid bacteria may grow in the bottle, turning the sake cloudy and giving it an unpleasant, sour taste.

Diluted with water or not———GENSHU

  • Not diluted = GENSHU
  • Diluted = no special word

Freshly brewed sake can have a natural alcohol content of 16% to 19%, but the brewing industry has determined that most consumers prefer less alcohol, so they typically add water before bottling to reduce the alcohol content to around 15%.

However, in the past few decades there has been a trend toward “native” sakes that have not been processed after filtering, and so undiluted, full-strength sakes known by the obscure brewer’s word “GENSHU” have become more popular.

Lactic acid in yeast starter———BODAIMOTO, KIMOTO, YAMAHAI

  • Produced in yeast starter = BODAIMOTO, KIMOTO, YAMAHAI
  • Added to yeast starter = no special word

Lactic acid is essential in any type of yeast starter mash, because this organic acid suppresses the growth of microbes that would compete with the yeast. The difference between these three special types of starters and the usual starter is the way that the lactic acid is obtained. In normal yeast starters, the brewer buys the lactic acid from a supplier and adds it to the starter on the same day that yeast fermentation begins. However, in these special starters, the brewer produces the lactic acid by encouraging lactic acid bacteria to grow in the starter mixture, and yeast fermentation begins only when the acidity has reached the appropriate level. This takes about twice as much time and effort as usual, but it results in sake with complex characteristics that can include higher acidity and/or sweetness, more umami savory aspects, creaminess, and cleaner finish. All three of these special types refer to older methods of making the starter that have been brought back into use in recent times, so here are explanations of each, in order from oldest to youngest.

This method was developed about 600 years ago at the Bodaisen Shoryaku-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. It is the first recorded use of a yeast starter mash to produce sake, so bodaimoto really is where it all started!

Bodaimoto is unique in that the bacteria that produce lactic acid are grown in a separate mixture of uncooked rice, steamed rice, and water. When the acid level is appropriate, this rice and water (called “soyashi mizu”) is then added to a vat of water, steamed rice, koji rice malt, and yeast to complete the starter mash. By contrast, in the later kimoto and yamahai starters, the lactic acid bacteria are grown directly in the starter mixture of steamed rice, water, and koji rice, and then the yeast is added when the acid level is appropriate.

Bodaimoto gave way to newer ways of making the starter in the ensuing centuries, and by the late 1600’s, kimoto had become the predominant method.

The distinguishing characteristic of the kimoto method is a labor-intensive process known as “yama oroshi” (literally “mountain break down”) that is performed in the first few days of production. The starter mixture of steamed rice, koji rice, and water is put into several small tubs, and then the brewers use wooden poles to pound the contents of each tub into a paste that encourages the growth of lactic acid bacteria. The tubs are then combined in a single vat, and when the acid level is appropriate, yeast is added and the starter gets on its way.

Fast-forward to the first decade of the 20th Century, and to the Suehiro brewery in Fukushima, where a researcher named Kin’ichiro Kagi had labored to develop a less laborious way of making the starter. His research focused on that first stage of kimoto—the “yama oroshi” mountain break down bit—and he discovered that the enzymes from the koji malt were potent enough to do the job without all that pounding.

His new method, somewhat laboriously called “yama oroshi haishi” (mountain break down eliminated), was soon abbreviated to yamahai.

Brewers were indeed happy to eliminate pounding a mountain of rice in favor of letting the koji enzymes break things down and kick-start lactic acid production in the vat. Yamahai might have gone on to become the industry standard if it were not for the labors of another researcher working in the same period as Kagi, Mr. Kamajiro Eda.  Eda further simplified the process by replacing the in-vat production of lactic acid with the addition of pure lactic acid purchased from a supplier. Not only did this reduce the amount of labor involved, it also cut two full weeks off the time it took to make the starter, so the method was called “sokujo moto” (fast ferment starter). The method was also fast in overtaking yamahai and all other methods, and it remains the dominant method in use today.