Byers: Does sake count as wine?
October 5, 2012
The Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra, better known locally as CATS (www.catsweb.org), is dedicated to promoting cultural diversity through theater, events and workshops.
Their mission is both artistic and educational and focuses on Asian-based themes.
As part of this season's focus on Japanese culture, CATS produced "Tea House of the August Moon." Next, on Oct. 14, they are planning an excursion to the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery in Folsom for sushi-making and a sake tour and tasting.
All of which got me wondering, does sake count as wine?
But before even starting with that question, first a word on pronunciation. We should be saying sa-kay, not sa-key.
However, unless you think you can convince Americans to start saying no-tra dom instead of no-ter dame, well, you're not likely to get far with that argument.
But back to the wine question. Technically, anytime yeast eats sugar creating alcohol, the result can be called wine. Whether it's dandelions, rutabagas, cherries or Zinfandel grapes, the final product can be called wine.
Sake is fermented rice, so yes, it is a form of wine. Of course, it is a little more complicated than that.
When Beau Timken, an American sake guru, opened True Sake (www.truesake.com) in San Francisco in 2003, it was the first dedicated sake store outside of Japan and America's first sake store.
Timken explains, "Sake is built like beer but drinks like wine."
Like beer, sake is created from grain rather than fruit and, like beer, must undergo a process to convert starch to sugar.
Timken thinks that the best sake is produced with just three ingredients: rice, water and koji, rice impregnated with a starch dissolving mold.
The quality of the rice and the extent to which it is polished before fermentation is critical to good sake.
Hulled sake rice is polished in a machine to remove the undesirable fats and proteins surrounding the starch in the center.
While dinner rice is lightly polished to about 95 percent of its original size, premium sake rice is polished to at least 70 percent. Some of the highest quality sakes are brewed with rice polished to 35 percent of its original size.
After polishing, each batch of rice is steeped then steamed in purified water. The quality of the water also matters.
Koji is then introduced to the steamed rice, and a simultaneous double fermentation process begins with the koji enzyme converting the rice's starch to sugar while yeast converts the sugar to alcohol.
For many people, their introduction to sake is the overheated, often sweet and generally, poor quality stuff dispensed from sake machines at Japanese restaurants. When I first tasted sake in a similar setting, I remember thinking: yuk, why would I want to drink that? I would rather have a glass of wine. I never ordered sake again.
But that, it turns out, is like ordering a glass of cheap Chablis from an 18-liter box and then dismissing all wine as inferior.
Sake, like wine, comes in a dazzling variety of styles of which the vast majority should be consumed chilled or at most, slightly less than room temperature. Heating them kills their flavor.
Various factors to consider include aroma, dryness or level of sweetness, acidity, earthiness, body, complexity, and the finish or tail. Like wine, it also comes in a staggering level of prices. If you've got the money, there is a bottle of sake out there to spend it on.
The True Sake store has well over 200 Japanese-brewed sakes in their inventory with prices ranging from $20 to more than $100 for a standard 24-ounce bottle.
For most people the categories are unfamiliar, the words foreign, the labels strange, making the entire experience intimidating. All of which is why Timken created his trademarked TasteMatch concept.
Simply describe your existing wine or beer likes, or dislikes, and he can suggest a sake that will match your flavor profile preferences. Timken suggests "use words that you already know, like earthy, minerally, fruity, dry, rich, robust, fresh, mild, clean or crisp, and we will take it from there. Consider us the Match.com of aligning customers to sakes that they will love."
However, there are other very important reasons for wine drinkers to consider a glass of sake.
Sake is low in acid, pasteurized and therefore requires no sulfur dioxide, low in histamines and has no tannins. So if you are negatively affected by astringent or acidic wines, have a low tolerance to SO2 or get instant wine headaches, you might want to think about sake.
Ironically, in Japan sake's popularity and production has been declining for the last half-century. In 1975, there were 3,229 sake breweries in the country; by 2007, it had shrunk to 1,845.
Nevertheless, the picture is not all bleak. There are estimates that the day is coming when one in five glasses of wine consumed in America will be sake and for the first time ever, there is a proliferation of sake breweries opening outside of Japan, like the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery in Folsom.
If you think sake might be something for you or that you would enjoy a private tour and sake tasting with a little sushi making on the side, then a trip to Gekkeikan with the gang from CATS might be just your ticket.
Contact Jeannie Woods at (530) 265-2990 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets and information.
Rod Byers is a certified wine educator, as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his classes starting tomorrow at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com. He can be reached at (530) 913-3703.
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