The Rice Stuff

The fact that a great deal of saké is made from just four ingredients can come as quite a shock. How can a Nigori style have distinct flavors of cherry, coconut or honey? And why do I detect floral and melon notes on the nose of my Daiginjo? The answers generally boil down to two factors: 1) A master brewer's selection of each type of ingredient and 2) The brewing techniques they utilize to achieve their vision. We’ll be describing the core four ingredients over the next few months, breaking each ingredient down to show how minute differences can impact the taste, aroma, and quality of any given saké. Today, let’s geek out about rice.

Generally, there are two types of Asian rice: Indica, which is long-grained, and Japonica, which is short-grained. Japanese saké is brewed using varieties of Japonica, specifically varieties that are bred to be non-sticky. Due to their less complex molecular structure, the Koji enzyme can convert the starch to sugar much more efficiently.

So, desirable saké rice is short-grained and non-sticky when cooked.

When crafting a premium saké, the brew master will consider additional quality-yielding factors.

·        Low protein content which conversely means a high proportion of desirable starch.

·        A large "shinpaku" or pure starch component found at the core of each grain. Flat and disc-shaped is ideal.

·        Large grains weighing between 25 to 30 grams per 1,000 grains mean undesirable components can be removed thoroughly.

·        Resistant to cracking during milling/polishing. Cracks and breaks lead to inefficient starch to sugar conversion.

·        High solubility and absorbency during the brewing phase means water can penetrate to the core of the grain during washing, soaking and steaming and creates an ideal vessel during fermentation.

Here are a few of the most common saké rice varieties:

Yamada-Nishiki - Hyogo Prefecture
Known as the "king" of saké rice, Yamada-Nishiki has been around nearly 90 years. Huge grains and large, well-defined shinpaku make it the perfect choice for ultra-premium and highly polished Ginjo and Daiginjo styles. Saké brewed with Yamada-Nishiki tend to have delicate aromas and crisp clean fruit and floral flavors, like Hakutsuru Sho-Une Junmai Daiginjo.

Gohyakuman-goku - Niigata Prefecture and West Coast Japan
Despite a slightly smaller grain, Gohyakuman-goku rice is similarly well-suited for polishing like Yamada-Nishiki and is particularly ideal for making Koji. Also, like Yamada-Nishiki, this saké rice is often used to produce delicate saké with simple, light and dry flavors, aromas and finishes. Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry is a perfect example.

Fun Fact: Over fifty percent of saké is brewed using one of the above rice varieties.

Miyama-nishiki - Nagano Prefecture and Mountains in northeast Japan
Smaller grains similar to Gohyakuman-goku, Miyama-nishiki rice is adapted to growing in mountainous conditions and often yield rich and robust saké. Enhanced sweetness and bigger flavor than its Yamada-nishiki counterpart, Miyama-nishiki saké tends to keep its flavorful identity hidden behind muted aromas. A good example: Nambu Bijin “Ruten” Junmai Ginjo.

Fun Fact: Saké-specific rice is a registered designation.

Dewa-sansan - Yamagata Prefecture
An emergent specialty of the region and relatively recently registered as a saké-specific rice in 1997, Dewa-sansan continues its rise in popularity through Junmai Ginjo batches seeking the distinction of 'Dewa33.' Those saké that achieve the Dewa33 designation are known for their purity, depth and unique hints of herbal aromas. Dewazakura “Green Ridge” Junmai Ginjo showcases this wonderfully.

Omachi - Okayama Prefecture and neighboring prefectures.
One of the oldest saké-specific rice varieties, Omachi rivals Yamada-nishiki in both grain and shinpaku size. The biggest difference is the shape (fat rather than disc-like) and its soft shinpaku. Consequently, this makes Omachi a poor choice for premium polishing rates which results in a greater retention of fats and proteins. As such, Omachi saké is commonly designed with earthy flavors and buttery textures in mind. Like most umami saké, Omachi is often recommended served warm. Heat up some Seiden Omachi Junmai Ginjo and enjoy!

Calrose -  Sacramento Valley, California
The prominent medium-grain rice grown in the state used for all our Oregon Craft saké. Using Calrose is partly a matter of necessity; Importing rice from Japan, but quickly realized it would be cost-prohibitive, and generate a massive carbon footprint. Though Japan has rice types grown specifically for saké, after some research, we found that decades back, Calrose was derived from a Japanese strain used in saké. Fortunately, Calrose has several qualities that work well with the American palate. To generalize, Americans tend to prefer more body, higher viscosity, and a long finish. You get all that from Calrose. Try anything from our Momokawa or g line as examples of the quality Calrose can produce.

As you can already see, when a product as complex as saké uses only four ingredients, the selection of the specific ingredient such as the variety of rice grain has an overwhelming impact. To further compound the point, it is also possible for brewers to use different varieties of rice within a single batch, sometimes identifying a type of rice for Koji and another for steamed rice that is to be added during the main fermentation build.

Stay tuned in two weeks for our in-depth look at the water that makes up our favorite sake.

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