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Prior to coming to Japan, I knew absolutely nothing about sake.  Oh, I’d ordered it a few times from our local sushi restaurant, but all I knew was that sake was made from fermented rice, and that you should always drink good sake cold (and drink bad sake hot to hide the impurities).

So when Mrs. Selfish told me she had booked a tour of the Yamamoto Honke Sake Brewery, I was pretty excited.

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Be warned – there is a lot of educational information about sake ahead!

Some Sake Basics

1. Sake is made up of three main components: water, rice, and yeast.

2. A sake’s flavor is derived from the type of water used, how long the rice is fermented, whether or not it is filtered, and whether or not it alcohol is infused.

3. The rice used in sake is a different type of rice that is not meant for eating.

4. Sake is rarely aged.  In fact the best time to drink sake is immediately after it finished.

5. Good sake should be chilled to a temperature of close to 5-10 degrees Celsius (41-50 degrees Fahrenheit).  Once opened, refrigerate immediately. Drink bad sake heated.

6. Unpasteurized sake tastes, really, really good.  Unfortunately, we don’t really get that much of it in the States, so make sure to try it in Japan if you get the chance.

7. The smoothness of sake is largely determined by how much the rice is polished.  After harvesting the rice it is polished repeatedly until much of the unusable parts are polished away.  Most sake rice is polished from 50% – 70%, which you can see on the side of the bottle.  70% means that 30% of the rice has been polished off, and the higher the polish rate, the smoother the sake, with 50% being the smoothest.

8. Sake is losing popularity in Japan, leading to an increase in sake brewery closures.  Japanese in their 40s-50s tend to prefer wine, while younger Japanese have taken to cocktails (the horror!).

How Sake is Made

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Step 1: Harvest the rice.  Farmers harvest then polish to a 50 – 70% polish grade.

Step 2: Wash the rice. The rice enters the assembly line, where it is carefully washed.

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Step 3: Steam the rice.  Rice is steamed once in a machine – below is a more traditional method.

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Step 4: Steam rice a second time.  The rice enters a conveyor belt, where it is steamed for approximately 50 minutes.

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Step 5: Declump the rice.  This is done by machine, and is overseen by workers who aid the process by hand.

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Step 6: Add the Koji.  Koji is a form of yeast that is only used in sake brewing.  Koji is added to the rice and is left there for 24 hours.  The rice is then transferred to a different machine with trays for an additional 48 hours as the temperature gradually rises. The whole mixture is then transferred to a much larger machine, where the sake master adds more yeast.

Sake Plant

Step 7: Transfer to giant James-Bond-Villain looking container. The sake is stored here for several months during which it is turned a few times by giant spy-killing blades.  The sake master adds more water, yeast, and rice until it is 3/4 full. The sake is left to ferment at this point.

The master brewer enters the tank at various times during the process through a hatch on the side to taste the sake and determine when it’s finished.  Distilled alcohol can be added during this step.

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Step 8: Drain the sake.  At this point the sake is drained from the container and put into bags, which are slowly drip drained.  This is unpasteurized sake.

The sake can be filtered using bamboo, pasteurized by heating twice in a bottle, or infused with additional flavors at this point.  The extra rice is sold to local shops where it is used in rice crackers, as soup bases, and in other products.

Sake Equipment

Step 9: Bottle and sell the sake.  The best part!  We ended up trying 6 sakes and buying two.

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Sake in Kyoto

The Kyoto region used to have 100 breweries, but now only has 24.  The Kyoto region uses local spring water, which gives the region a distinct flavor.

If you’re in the area I highly recommend the sake tour at the Yamamoto Honke Sake Brewery.  The brewery has been family owned since it was started in the 1600s.  Tours are conducted in English by the owner and his lovely wife.  The Yamamoto brewery has won top medals in local competitions for the last 3 years, since the introduction of their new master brewer.

If you’re more interested in drinking sake, we found two nice sake bars in Kyoto.

Sake Bar Asakakura

The first bar we tried was Sake Bar Asakakura.  Located a little north of the Pontoncho-Dori street, close to the Gion Area, the bar is tucked away on the 2nd floor of a quaint building.

Sake Bar Asakakura has over 50 types of sake, and the owner is very good at determining your likes and dislikes (plus his English is excellent). The bar has a very authentic feeling about the place – it only fits up to 11 patrons – and we were the only westerners there during our 2 hour tasting.

In addition to the sake the owner also serves people a small appetizer, which in our case were small roasted fish lightly sweetened with aged soy sauce.

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Mrs. Selfish and I ordered a tasting flight – which involved trying six types of sake.  Flavors ranged from dry and fruity, sweet, and full bodied.  Once we determined the sort of flavors we liked we ordered two more servings of sake.  The total price came to 6400 yen (~$64).

Jam Hostel

We also tried sake at the Jam Hostel Sake Bar, which is located at the bottom of the the hostel of same name, and is a 3 minute long walk north of the Gion Shijo station.

Jam Hostel is a friendly environment and the staff is quite knowledgeable.  If you’re looking for a Japanese-y experience, this is probably not it, as the majority of the customers seem to be foreigners staying at the hostel.

The sake is quite reasonably priced, however.  You can get a sampler set of 3 sake from different regions, each pricing out at roughly 1000 yen (~$10).  They also have larger selection of infused sakes.

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Mrs. Selfish and I ordered two sake samplers and two infused sakes, for a total of 3200 yen – exactly half the price of Sake Bar Asakakura!

If you are interested in learning more about sake, I highly recommend taking a sake brewery tour.  Failing that, simply try a few at your local sushi restaurant.  As far as alcoholic beverages go it has a very unique flavor and a deep history – well worth a taste or two in my experience!