As the grape is to wine, rice is to sake. Like wine, sake is traditionally brewed immediately after the harvest, and, like the grape, rice is discussed by varieties. Some sake enthusiasts have even adopted that annoying wine-industry habit of using the adjective “varietal” as a noun. Indeed, sake is finally coming to America.
This ancient beverage has been brewed for millennia in Japan, but in the last 15 years, sake’s prevalence this side of the Pacific has skyrocketed. Locally, Gekkeikan Sake in Folsom represents the American headquarters of one of the largest sake producers in the world. Tours and tasting (1136 Sibley Street in Folsom) are offered five days a week.
But the best sakes—which are not to be consumed hot, mind you—come from microbreweries in Japan, where they’re produced seasonally in designated appellations. Increasingly available in the United States, these sakes are diverse and often deliciously complex. For example, Kasumi Tsuru brewery’s Honjozo sake is dry, mushroomy and savory; the Yuki No Bosha nigori, or unfiltered sake, is sweet with fragrances of mango, guava, jackfruit and hot alcohol; and Marumoto Brewery’s Chikurin sake is a fantastic surprise, smelling and tasting of honey, sherry and oak, chocolate, figs, and malt.
On the production side, sake is less like wine and more like beer: Whereas wine can just about make itself, sake brewing demands the close and constant attention of a skilled brewer, whose first job is to mill down the rice down from its starting size. After the removal of the outer layers of each grain, a mold called koji is employed in a process of converting starch into sugar. Next, a house-cultured yeast strain is set upon the sweet rice mash in a carefully controlled environment. Alcohol results.
Sake is not a drink for the aging. Often a six-month maturation stage is all the time that passes before even the finest of sakes hit shelves. Find them at our better beer and wine shops—and, for crying mercy, keep them out of the microwave.