GetNavi Web proposes a simple four-step process to choose sake with confidence at an izakaya… which true to sake form ends up being not so simple at all as they stray off into lots of detail. But let’s see how far it can take us, and what the Japanese media are telling Japanese consumers about sake – particularly how they’re trying to do basic education and promotion.

The article starts off by assuming that many people are put off by sake terminology, even if they’re interested in trying sake itself.

Step 1 is learning the different types of sake. The article reviews the five types of aru-ten sake, giving a brief explanation of each including ingredients and rice milling ratio. Futsūshu, subtitled “powerful ally of the people” [?] is explained as any sake that doesn’t meet the requirements for a legal classification, which doesn’t mean it can’t be good.

Honjōzōshu is positioned as the standard, and also described as hon-zukuri (本造り, main/original production) and hon-shikomi (本仕込み, main/original preparation/process). The article states that its easy-drinking qualities make it a session sake, and tokubetsu honjōzōshu is described as similar but with a slightly higher milling ratio and more exacting brewing.

Ginjōshu is characterised by the floral notes of ginjō-ka (ginjō aroma) and long, slow brewing at low temperatures. Daiginjōshu has even lower milling and stronger aroma, making it the most aromatic and finest of all the aru-ten classes.

The article then moves to the junmai classes, describing junmaishu as the “real thing” that lets you taste the umami of rice, deep in flavour and suitable for heating, with tobubetsu junmaishu positioned as an “upgrade”.

Junmai ginjōshu is described as brewed by the same ginjō-zukuri (吟醸造り, ginjō-style production) process as ginjōshu, yielding similar floral aromas and fine quality, while junmai daiginjōshu has milder aromas than aru-ten daiginjōshu.

The article then gives a brief explanation of jōzō arukōru (醸造アルコール, variously rendered as brewing alcohol, brewer’s alcohol or brewed alcohol) and milling ratio.

Step 2 is learning specialist terminology, with a useful but unstructured assortment of terms:

  • Hi-ire (火入れ, pasteurisation)
  • Namazake (生酒, unpasteurised sake)
  • Yamahaijikomi (山廃仕込み, yamahai method)
  • Nigorizake (にごり酒, cloudy/coarse pressed sake)
  • Jukuseishu and koshu (熟成酒・古酒, matured/aged sake)
  • Genshu (原酒, undiluted sake)

The explanations touch briefly on other specialist terms like nama-chozo (生貯蔵, stored without pasteurisation), nama-zume (生詰め, bottled without pasteurisation), kimoto (生酛, old starter method using natural lactobacilli and lots of manual labour) and yama-oroshi (山おろし, manual crushing of rice in kimoto), and also add that nigori is popular with the ladies and there’s currently a surge in popularity for aged sake. [Phew. Already complicated enough that your interested-but-bewildered reader may have given up.]

Step 3 is to read the label (or rather learn to read labels). Describing the label as a message from the brewery and/or tōji, the section starts with an image of a label with callouts pointing out alcohol %, yeast variety, acidity, rice variety, milling ratio and nihonshudo (Sake Meter Value). [If your terminology-averse newbie hasn’t stopped reading already, this second wall of vocab may well do it.]

Step 4 is… memorising the Sake Service Institute two-axis/four-zone classification for sake based on intensity of aroma and flavour. The article leaves out the official zone names and instead refers to four zones by the kind of sake you might find there.

  • Top right (intense aroma/intense flavour, SSI juku-shu [塾酒]) – jukusei-koshu zone, deep flavours and intense aromas, hōjun (芳醇, rich and mellow) aged sake. Unusual sake suitable for drinking at room temperature or heated, or as after-dinner drinks.
  • Bottom right (delicate aroma/intense flavour, SSI jun-shu [醇酒]) – junmai/yamahai zone, powerful sake with strong rice-derived umami and acidity. A suitable match for any meal, especially oily Chinese or Western dishes, or spices.
  • Top left (delicate aroma/delicate flavour, SSI kun-shu [薫酒]) – ginjō zone, sake with floral aromas and light, refreshing mouthfeel. Great to drink before a meal or with delicate dishes like sashimi.
  • Bottom left (delicate aroma/delicate flavour, SSI sō-shu [爽酒]) – tanrei zone, sake with less sweetness and acidity that have a clean finish. Nothing striking, goes with any food.

Although that’s technically the end of the four steps, there’s a bonus step! A short diagram of the sake making process to help you appreciate each drop all the more, and the ichi-kōji, ni-moto, san-zukuri motto [一麹、二酛、三造り, kōji is most important, followed by the yeast starter and the brewing process]. [Just in case you hadn’t had enough facts thrown at you by now.]

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Personally, if someone was curious about sake but intimidated by the specialist vocabulary… this is not the article I would write for them. I focus on getting people familiar with just a few words (usually honjōzō, junmai, ginjō and daiginjō) and numbers on the label and that’s it.

I’m also not sure how relevant the types and processes covered are to what you’ll find on an izakaya menu, the article never comes back to this, or how knowing ichi-kōji, ni-moto, san-zukuri contributes to enjoyment. I think people who are curious about how sake is made will seek that information out on their own, so an article aimed at absolute beginners isn’t the right place.

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The translations/summaries of Japanese language news articles and other content provided on this site are part of a personal project to increase the amount of information about Japanese sake available in English.

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