What sake is made from: Water

What sake is made from: Water

Fabulous four

We now know what sake is and how it originated in Japan. So what does the magic? As everywhere else, Japanese people had to use the ingredients they had aplenty to make alcohol. And this “aplenty” happened to be rice. You can guess that the second ingredient is water as rice is not particularly juicy compared to grapes.

Now, everyone knows that to make alcohol you need two elements: sugar and yeast, which converts the aforementioned sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. And the sugar is exactly what rice lacks. I mean there is no sugar in rice, not a bit (well, probably some traces if any). But it has plenty of starch. They are both carbohydrates, the starch is just a bit more complex.

In order to turn this pesky starch into sugar, Japanese people domesticated a mould called koji, which is the third key ingredient of sake. Finally, I have already mentioned yeast, which eats sugar and produces alcohol. So rice, water, koji and special sake yeast are fab four of the sake world. They bring us the joy of drinking sake.

The beauty of the drink is that in its original method no other ingredients are used. However, the brewer also might add some amount of distilled alcohol. There are a few reasons why it’s done and we’ll get back to them in the post about how sake is made. For now, I’ll focus on the four main ingredients and will start with water.

The importance of good water

Water is the key ingredient of many alcoholic drinks. You might be surprised but the quality of any beer, whiskey and even vodka strongly depends on the quality of water used in the production process. The same is for sake where water accounts for around 80% of the volume and added several times during the brewing process.

The water used at sake breweries is called shuzoyosui. However, according to a comment from OriginSake, brewers often refer to it as shikomimizu to distinguish brewing water from the water for different purposes. Overall, the amount of water used to brew any particular batch of sake is 50 times more in weight than the amount of rice. There are two main uses of water in sake production: for brewing and for bottling.

The water used in the brewing process is called jozoyosui. First of all, it’s used to wash and soak the rice. Secondly, it’s the key ingredient for making the starter and moromi (fermenting sake mash). Basically, it’s the water which becomes sake. It’s also used to wash vats where sake is fermenting.

The water for bottling is called binzumeyosui. It’s used to wash the bottles and to dilute the sake before bottling. Other uses include washing, feeding the boiler etc.

I would say that water is the second most important component of sake brewing after the brewer’s skill. While rice is very important for making great sake, I think given good water, a skilful brewer may still make great sake using even table rice.

What water is good?

Historically, sake breweries were set up next to a good source of high-quality water. And which water is considered high-quality for sake? First of all, it should be low in iron and manganese. These two guys make sake tinted and ruin the aroma and make it look and taste dull. Secondly, it should be rich in potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, which help koji mould and yeast grow faster and stronger.

Usually, the water used in sake brewing is taken from a local spring or river. Sometimes breweries take a normal water from the tap and enrich it with needed minerals to make it suitable for sake brewing. However, I’ve come across some more exotic sources of water. For example, the Tosatsuru Brewery from the Tosa province (Kochi Prefecture) uses deep ocean water for its azure ginjo sake. The water is taken from the ocean, desalinated and used for brewing dry and crisp sake, perfect for seafood. 

Discovery of Miyamizu

Miyamizu Monument in Nishinomiya (photo: Miya.m)

Good water might even have its own name. The water from the Nada area near Kobe is called Miyamizu, the water from Fushimi region in Kyoto – Gokosui and the water from Mount Fuji is called Fukuryusui. There is an interesting story about how the importance of water was discovered towards the end of the Edo period. While it is probably worth of an individual post, I will tell it briefly here.

The story starts in 1840. Tazaemon Yamamura was the 6th generation head of the Yamamura family, which started to brew sake in 1625 in what is now Hyogo prefecture. The family had two breweries. One was in Nishinomiya and the other – in Kobe. The breweries were probably 10-15 km apart, but the Nishinomiya brewery was producing by far superior sake.

Poor Yamamura san was struggling hard to solve this mystery. Probably, the rice is different? He tried to use the same rice at his Kobe brewery but couldn’t achieve the same result as in Nishinomiya. Oh, the workers are just lazy and clumsy. He swapped the workers but with no avail. So he became quite obsessed with it and went through everything until finally in his last attempt to solve the mystery of the superior sake he took the water from Nishinomiya and brought it to Kobe. And behold, he got the same quality of sake! This water was from the Nada area and the brewer named it Miyamizu, which means “heavenly water” (宮水).

Soft or hard water?

Most of the water in Japan is soft. It’s called nansui and makes light elegant and smooth sake. For example, the Fushimi area in Kyoto and the Niigata prefecture both known for the abundance of soft water are two very famous regions producing this type of sake. It’s great sake to drink on its own, enjoying the complexity of subtle tastes and flavours. Personally, I love this type of sake.

Hard water, called kohsui, is less common in Japan and it’s still much softer than the hard water, for example, in the UK or Europe in general.

The hard water makes more full-bodied crisp and dry sake. It’s a great sake to have with food in my opinion. The Nada region in Kobe is one of the best sake-producing regions in Japan thanks to the Miiyamizu water mentioned before. It’s hard water, which comes from Mount Rokko.  A high level of calcium in hard water stimulates the production of enzymes, while other minerals such as potassium, magnesium and phosphates accelerate the fermentation process, which makes it perfect for brewing excellent sake.

As soft and hard water make different sake taste profiles, I heard that an experienced sommelier can even tell by taste from which prefecture the sake came from. Haven’t confirmed it yet though.

Vocabulary

Just to sum up all these Japanese terms,which make our life so difficult!

Shuzo-yosui (酒造用水) or Shikomi-mizu (仕込み水) – water for sake production
Jozo- yosui (醸造用水) – water for sake brewing
Binzume-yosui (瓶詰め水) – water for bottling

Miyamizu (宮水) – water from Nada area (harder water, high in minerals especially phosphorus and potassium)
Gokosui (御香水) – water from Fushimi area in Kyoto prefecture (soft and aromatic spring water)
Fukuryusui (伏流水) – water from Mount Fuji (well-balanced water with crisp flavour and soft texture)

Kohsui (硬水) – hard water
Nansui (軟水) – soft water

So the importance of water is hard to overestimate. Quality water makes great and balanced sake and contributes into its taste, aroma and texture. Next time, when you pick up a sake you would like to try, pay attention on the region it comes from and see what water it is famous for. However, be careful. Very often a prefecture could have one type of water (say hard), but this particular brewery could be located in a small area, which has a different water from the rest of the prefecture. Try and see for yourself, what water you like more.

Kampai!

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