For a lot of people, once they get into sake they never get out because there is so much going on
One question many Westerners ask about Sake is, what is it comparable to? Is it like a beer or a wine? “That is the million dollar question”, says Norum. “It is similar to both beer and wine in different ways so it’s hard to say. We end up saying it is a lot more like a wine in its result. For the evening meal, Sake is the usual thing to have because it goes so well with food.”
One similarity it does have with beer, however, is in the brewing process. Both beer and sake are made from a starchy grain (in sake’s case it is rice) which means the fermentation process starts with the conversion of starch into sugar, unlike with wine where the sugar is found naturally in grapes.
Despite the brewing process, it is the myriad variations of subtle aromas and tastes that make it more akin to a wine. Norum says, “For a lot of people, once they get into sake they never get out because there is so much going on. Each brewer has its own approach and there is so much involved in the process.”
Essentially, the raw materials are simply rice and water but there are multiple steps that need to be undertaken to guide these simple ingredients into what finally becomes good quality sake. While Masumi use many traditional methods in their brewing process and make small batches of quality sake at a time, paradoxically one tradition the company sticks to is that of innovation.
Norum says, “It is traditional to find new ways to make it better. If you look at the history of sake there are long periods where nothing much happened and then there are watershed moments, renaissance periods where a lot happens… For example, when they were able to remove the outside of the rice, it made a huge improvement because most of the outside of the rice is protein, and protein really makes for a complicated, difficult, fermentation process.”
The finer the rice is polished or milled the more premium the sake is considered. Norum says, “This is determined by Japanese law. If you mill it to a required state you can then call it premium.” At Masumi, they sometimes lose up to 45% of the original rice, leaving only the starchy inside and falling well within the percentage threshold for it to be legally called premium sake.
After washing, soaking and steaming the milled rice, the next step is to add the mould. 20% of the rice is taken to a sauna-like room where the temperature can go up to 42C. A mould called Koji is sprinkled on this rice and left for a couple of days where it grows and covers the rice. Koji provides the enzymes needed to break down the starch into sugar.
There are many types of alcohol and in a great premium sake you can get very distinct fruit aromas like banana, pear and green melon
Once this has taken place the yeast is added, which converts the sugar into alcohol. Musami is renowned for the specific yeast cultures it has created over the years. In 1946, the government of Japan created a programme for identifying exceptional yeast varieties that they then made available to everyone in the country. Norum says, “Government scientists came up and had a look with the master brewer at Masumi and they found that the yeast which been developed over the years was exceptional. The government were numbering the different yeasts and this one was made number 7. Today yeast number 7 is the most popular and most widely used in Japan.”
Masumi ferment their sake at low temperatures (between 8°C and 15°C), which is an age-old method that forces the yeast to consume more complex sugars. Norum says, “There are many types of alcohol and in a great premium sake you can get very distinct fruit aromas like banana, pear and green melon. If you force the yeast to work on complex sugars and other compounds that are in there for a longer time, they produce these alcohols that give the sake so much character and depth.”
The fermentation process takes about six weeks and once completed the sake is filtered and ready to be bottled. Sake on average is about 16% which makes it a fair bit stronger than both wine and beer but as it doesn’t contain sulphites or other preservatives it is believed to give less of a hangover. Of course, Humans Invent wouldn’t dream of suggesting people should get drunk but if you are determined to, sake may be the best way to go!
For more information go to www.masumi.co.jp.
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