Japan's rice wine

16 October, 2014

Sake is an ancient drink in Japan that is finding fortune across other markets. Jaq Bayles looks at its appeal

The spread of Japanese cuisine around the globe has seen an accompanying fascination with the “rice wine” that is consumed with it in its home country – sake.

While it may be referred to as rice wine, the brewing method is more akin to that used for beer. Since rice does not contain any sugar, it cannot be fermented and must first be converted into sugar with, the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association tells us, “the help of enzymes found in a particular mould called koji‐kin. The resulting koji is then added to yeast known as kobo and left to ferment. It’s from this extremely elaborate and complex process that we get sake.”

The company points out that sake is not made from table rice, but from sakamai rice, the grains of which are larger and softer. “Sakamai is also more expensive since it grows only in certain areas and requires more complex cultivation techniques. These days new types of sake rice are being developed while heirloom varieties are being revived in many areas of Japan. In 2010 there were at least 95 types of rice for brewing sake being grown in Japan.”

That’s a lot of grains and they all contribute to the 580,321kl of sake that was made in 2013. Of that, around 16,202kl is exported, – a figure which grew 2,000kl from 2012 to 2013 – with Takayuki Kanno of Godo Shusei citing the US, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong as major export markets. 

Gogo Suchei’s main target export markets are the US and Asia, but Kanno sees plenty of other possibilities, especially since ‘washoku’ – traditional Japanese cuisine – was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in December 2013.

Kanno says: “Japanese cuisine, including sake, is going to become more common. More and more people would enjoy Japanese cuisine as the world economy grows, thus, more sake would be enjoyed.

Europe certainly seems to be developing a taste for the product, according to Neil Mathieson of Eaux de Vie, which represents Akashi Tai Brewery, which exports 90% of the 500,000 bottles it produces each year, predominantly to European countries.

The company is currently looking to further increase production with a complete refurbishment over the next year. Mathieson says: “We export anywhere we can. As a small, artisanal brewery we take each market separately and look specifically at their requirements rather than having a generic export strategy. Gastronomic and fine wine outlets have provided us with some growth but we see interest everywhere and younger drinkers appear to be more willing to experiment.

“We have a new medium-term strategy rolling out from 2015, with a renewed focus on selected export markets.”

Along with the many types of rice that can be used to make sake, there are many types of sake (see box) and many occasions on which it is traditionally drunk – not to mention the many ways in which it can be drunk. Godo Shusei’s Kanno says: “In addition to traditional methods such as chilled, regular temperature and warm, people now enjoy frozen sake, sake cocktail and sake highball. Sparkling sake is also popular.”





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