The human mind is amazing. Our ability to find solutions to seemingly unresolvable problems keeps fascinating me. Take for example rice. If we forget that it’s the key ingredient of sake making, it would be probably the last product we would pick to try to make alcohol. And still, people noticed the booziness in spoiled rice porridge and eventually created the beautiful drink we enjoy now.
Essence of sake
Rice is the essence of sake. It’s the source of alcohol and gives it its flavour, aroma, texture and the character. It’s like grape to wine but slightly different. The key difference lays in the extent of the importance of the brewer’s skill vs the ingredient’s quality. In case of sake, the former edges over the latter.
As I pointed out in the beginning, rice is not the most suitable ingredient for an alcoholic beverage for one obvious reason: it does not have much sugar. Neither is barley, you would say, but it has been used for making beer for thousands of years. And of course, you are right. But barley is easy to germinate and get sugar in the process.
I guess at some point of human history people noticed that the germinated barley grains were sweet. They probably started making a drink of it. It was imminent that someone would have left the drink in a warm place for too long resulting in the development of alcohol. The technique then was just getting better with generations so we can enjoy a nice cold beer now. The story with rice is a bit different.
How to get alcohol from rice
Everyone knows that to produce alcohol you need sugar, which is consumed by yeast and broken into alcohol and carbon dioxide in the process. It’s easy with wine because grapes have natural sugar. You need just press them and leave for a few weeks and voilà, you’ve got wine. Of course, I oversimplify but you’ve got the gist.
Compared to grapes, rice doesn’t contain natural sugar. However, it has a different carbohydrate, starch. Starch looks a bit like sugar. The main difference is that sugar is a monosaccharide consisting of one glucose molecule, while starch is a polysaccharide consisting of many glucose molecules. If we grossly oversimplify, starch is a chain of sugar molecules.
Basically, starch is good for storing energy, while sugar is good for consuming energy. That’s why barley grains contain starch but convert it into sugar when they are preparing to grow (germination). To do it, they use enzymes to break long starch molecules into short sugar ones.
It’s a bit more tricky with rice. In this case, in order to turn starch into sugar, you need a special microorganism called koji. We will talk about it in the next post in the series as well as about the actual process of making sake out of rice. But in a word, koji is sprinkled on the steamed rice, starting the process of converting starch into sugar.
Now let’s look at types of rice. Not all rice can be used to make sake. Generally, there are two main rice plants in the world: African and Asian. Asian rice is currently dominating in everywhere.
There are three varieties of Asian rice: Indica, Japonica and Javanica. Indica is long-grain rice like basmati. It accounts for approximately 80% of all rice grown globally. Japonica is short-grain rice and grown predominately in Japan. Indica is not suitable for sake production.
There are two types of Japonica rice: uruchimai (粳米) and mochigome (餅米). Mochigome is sticky rice used mostly for making mochi, traditional Japanese sweets. Uruchimai is normal table rice in Japan. It accounts for 90% of all rice consumed in Japan.
Only a small proportion of uruchimai used for sake brewing. There is special sake rice, called shuzo-kotekimai (酒造好適米). Basically, it’s the official designation for rice suited for sake brewing. There are certain criteria the rice should meet to be designated as shuzo-kotekimai. These criteria are assessed by special inspectors, who then certify the rice. Shuzo-kotekimai accounts for only 1% of the total rice production in Japan. However, there are around 100 varieties of sake rice in Japan.
Another type of rice is called sakemai (酒米), which also used to make sake, but which not specially certified. Sakemai accounts for around 4% of rice production in Japan. The rest of the rice grown in Japan is normal table rice.
However, it’s sometimes used to brew sake too. I tried the sake made of table rice and it was very good. Somebody mentioned to me that in regions, which historically don’t grow special sake rice, breweries make sake out of table rice. In any case, the designation of special sake rice appeared in Japan relatively recently, in the second half of the 19th century. Before that sake was made of just table rice.
Sake rice vs. table rice
So what is the main difference between table and sake rice? To answer it, we need to look at a rice grain.
Around 70-75% of a rice grain is carbohydrates, 7-8% are proteins and the rest are minerals, lipids (fats) etc. The more carbohydrates are better for sake brewing as they are turned into alcohol in the process. So sake rice is larger than table rice. For example, the weight of 1,000 grains of sake rice should be 25-30g, while normal table rice weighs 20-24g. This measure is called senryuju (千粒重).
Another important characteristic of sake rice is shinpaku (心白). Translated as “white core”, it’s a soft white area in the middle of a sake rice grain, which consists mostly of carbohydrates. It makes it easier to polish off unwanted proteins and let the koji reach easily the concentration of starch to start the saccharification process. Table rice grains usually either don’t have shinpaku at all, or it’s small.
Other characteristics of sake rice include a lower content of fats and proteins and a high water absorption rate. Also, sake rice remains hard on the outside and soft on the inside after steaming. Table rice, on the contrary, becomes soft outside and harder inside.
The special sake rice is much more expensive than table rice. The main reason for that is that it’s more difficult to grow. Generally, the plant of sake rice is taller, while larger and heavier grains make it top-heavy. As a result, it can be easily blown over by strong winds. There are also special growing conditions, which the plant requires to produce quality grains.
As I said, there are about a hundred of sake rice varieties. However, most of sake is made of a few main rice types. Let’s look at the rice varieties most used in sake brewing.
Yamada Nishiki – the king of sake rice
Where grows best: Hyogo, Fukuoka, Okayama, Saga, Kumamoto
Yamada Nishiki (山田錦) is probably the most important sake rice at the moment. It’s the rice for making ginjo style sake thanks to its large shinpaku and low protein content. This combination yields the famous “One Part Apple to Two Parts Banana” ginjo aroma and delicate and elegant taste.
According to Sake Experience Japan, Yamada Nishiki accounts for “34% of sake specific rice in terms of yields”. I’m not sure if it refers to all sakemai or only to shuzo-kotekimai but in any case, it’s a massive share given that there are 100 varieties of sake rice in Japan. According to Nippon.com, more than 80% of sake submitted for the Sake National Tasting Competition in 2012.
Yamada Nishiki was a product of cross-breeding of the Yamadabo and Tankanwataribune varieties of shuzō-kōtekimai, born in 1923 in Hyogo Prefecture at its Technology Center for Agriculture, Forestry. The newly bred rice demonstrated excellent results in terms of sake brewing and got its now-famous name in 1936.
Hyogo Prefecture remains the main source of Yamada Nishiki rice accounting for around 70% of the rice’s annual produce. Besides Hyogo, Yamada Nishiki is produced in other 32 prefectures in Japan. Its production has been constantly rising in recent years.
So if you buy a bottle of ginjo style sake (like ginjo, daiginjo, junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo) there is a good chance that you will see Yamada Nishiki on the label.
Gohyakumangoku – lean and clean
Where grows best: Hokuriku region including Niigata, Fukui, Toyama, Ishikawa
Gohyakumangoku (五百万石) was created in Niigata Prefecture in the 1930s. Nowadays, it’s the No.2 sake rice by production. Its stalks are slightly shorter than Yamada Nishiki or Omachi, making it slightly more resistant to strong winds and bad weather.
The rice has the earliest harvest compared to other sake rice varieties, in August. The harvest of Yamada Nishiki, for example, is in October. While August is still too hot to start making sake (unless for large sake producers, who make sake throughout the whole year), it takes some time to prepare rice.
After milling, it has to cool down for a few weeks, so breweries can start making sake with Gohyakumangoku well ahead of those, who use other varieties. It probably attracts them to the rice.
Gohyakumangoku produces a clean style of sake: not too fruity, light and refreshing, perfect for light meals like seafood, steamed chicken or vegetables. A perfect Niigata-style of sake, I guess.
Omachi – pure breed
Where grows best: Okayama
Omachi (雄町) is the oldest pure variety of rice discovered in the village with the same name in 1859 in Okayama Prefecture. During the Meiji era, Omachi was one of the three most grown varieties in Japan. That time it was also used as table rice.
However, Omachi’s tall stalks and low resistance against diseases and insects made it very difficult to grow. As a result, farmers stopped to cultivate it and it went almost extinct after the 1920s. It was however rediscovered in the 1970s when the ginjo boom started.
Omachi is my favourite sake rice. It’s quite different from Yamada Nishiki or Gohyakumangoku. Omachi rice usually produces well-rounded full-bodied sake with a deep taste full of umami. It’s normally sweeter than sake made of Yamada Nishiki or Gohyakumangoku.
Miyama Nishiki – beautiful peaks
Where grows best: Nagano and Tohoku region including Akita, Yamagata, Iwate and Miyagi
Miyama Nishiki (美山錦) is a relatively young variety discovered in 1978 through mutation. The rice called Takane Nishiki was exposed to gamma radiation. which produced rice with large and very white shinpaku. It was poetically compared to white peaks of snow-capped peaks of mountains thus the name literally meaning “beautiful peaks”.
Miyama Nishiki is early-harvest rice. Because of that, it’s harder than later harvested varieties. As a result, the rice breaks less easily making more delicately flavoured sake. Miyama Nishiki is very popular in the northern regions of Japan due to shorter summer there.
The sake made of Miyama Nishiki is moderately aromatic with balanced acidity and mild sweetness. It’s clean and crisp but not as light-bodied as the sake made of Gohyakumangoku.
There are plenty of other varieties of sake rice including Hattan Nishiki from Hiroshima, Hanafubuki from Aomori, Kinmon Nishiki from Nagano, famous Dewasansan from Yamagata, Gimpu from Hokkaido and many others. Some breweries use small local rice varieties which do not grow anywhere else.
And by the way, according to John Gauntner, the word “Nishiki” in many sake rice names refers to a beautiful look of rice field before harvest.
So now it’s a good time to buy a bottle sake made of the rice you have never tried before and taste it. Please leave your comments on whether you like it or not. You can look up sake by rice in the Tasting Notes section of the blog. Add if you like the post and want to read more, please consider subscribing!