Tuesday, March 09, 2010

An introduction to Sake with Tim Sullivan

Tim Sullivan, the founder of UrbanSake.com and one of the few Sake Samurais in the world, is a sake educator, writer and speaker who "spreads the word about Japanese sake around the world with pride and passion". Today, he answers all my questions about the drink that is still unknown in the West.

1. What sake is made from?
Most sake has only four ingredients: Water, rice, yeast and Koji. Some sake is fortified with a bit of distilled alcohol in addition to these ingredients.

2. What are the main sake varieties?
There are six main sake classifications. They are divided into categories based on rice milling rate and ingredients. Rice milling rate is a measure of how much of the rice grain has been milled away prior to brewing and always refers to the amount of the rice grain remaining.

Sake that has no additives (only water, rice, yeast and koji) is classified in the following way:
rice milling rate: up to 61% remaining: Junmai
rice milling rate: 60-51% remaining: Junmai Ginjo
rice milling rate: 50% or less remaining: Junmai Daiginjo

Sake that is fortified with some distilled alcohol in addition to water, rice, yeast and koji is classified in the following way
rice milling rate: up to 61% remaining: Honjozo
rice milling rate: 60-51% remaining: Ginjo
rice milling rate: 50% or less remaining: Daiginjo

3. Why sake is so unique?
Sake has a production process that is unique in the world of alcohol. In a nutshell, "multiple parallel fermentation" makes sake unique. This means simply that Koji converts starch to glucose (sugar) and yeast converts glucose to alcohol in the same tank at the same time. A miracle, really!

4. Why, do you think, is not yet so widely spread and consumed as wine and beer in the USA and in Western countries?
It's cultural. Wine and beer have thousands of years of history in the western cultures. This tradition gets passed down from generation to generation. Sake is just getting started in the West, but I hope to start a few sake traditions of my own!

5. One of people's misconceptions is that sake is only pairing with Japanese food. What other foods and cuisines is matching well with?
Pairing sake with non-Japanese food is just in its infancy, but I think the trick is to follow the taste of "umami"... this is what the Japanese call "savory". It's a wonderful flavor profile that often pairs well with sake. Look for meaty-savory flavors such as mushroom, tomato and Parmesan cheese. Drink sake with any and all foods and not the result. Your palate will tell you what works and what doesn't. It's all about experimentation!

6. Finally, is there any formal training for someone to become a sake master?
If you don't speak Japanese, there are few programs that allow you to become what the Japanese would recognize as a "sake sommelier". My advice is to educate yourself and taste whatever sakes you have access to. Take detailed notes and trust your own palate. If you take time to study Japanese culture, language and history, you will better understand sake.