For the average non-Japanese, ordering sake involves just one simple question: hot or cold? Sake is one of my favourite alcoholic drinks, so why do I know so little about it? After a recent visit to Yashin Ocean House to review their incredible new menu, I was invited to join their Sake Brewer’s Club to see if I could find some answers to my question.
Yashin Ocean House Sake Brewer’s Club
The concept of Yashin’s Sake Brewer’s Club is all about introducing different authentic Japanese sake brewers to London, many of which you won’t find anywhere else. The monthly ticketed event is hosted in the bar at Yashin Ocean House in South Kensington. It is a rare opportunity to taste 3 different sakes from the brewer paired with local nibbles from their region. And also to learn interesting things about the brewer, sake, and Japanese culture.
Yashin already hosted three events so far with each a sell-out. Therefore, booking in advance is definitely recommended. Since the nibbles pairing is just a bite, most people choose to stay on for dinner at the restaurant after. I attended last week’s Volume 3, introducing the Tosatsuru brewery from Kochi region, southwest Japan, and dined at Yashin after. The restaurant is one of my favourites in London for Japanese food with a twist. Some of my favourite dishes include the Miso Cappuccino, Toro Sashimi with Winter Truffle and Omakase 8 (all pictured below), as well as the Iberico Pork and Sashimi Island. Read my review of Yashin Ocean House here.
The next Sake Brewer’s Club event Volume 4 is coming up on Wednesday 30 May featuring sake from Sugihara, Japan’s smallest brewery. The father and son brewery will be introduced by Master Sommelier Isa Bal. The three signature sakes for tasting are “White” Ibi Tokubetsu Junmai, “Blue” Ibi Junmai Ginjo, and “Pink” Ibi Tokubetsu Junmai. At this unique event, expect to learn more about the role of rice in sake brewing, as well as the special rice variety and traditional techniques used by Sugihara. Tickets are £40 and can be purchased from Eventbrite or Facebook.
Sake Basics: Rice Polishing
I knew that sake is made from rice, but what I didn’t know is that the rice is polished first. The polishing is very important as a general but useful indicator of quality and flavour. This is because the outer layers of rice hold a mix of proteins, minerals and fats compared to the middle or heart of the rice grain, which is concentrated starch. The idea is that the more you polish away those outer layers, the purer the flavour. This difference is compared to the flavour difference between white and red wine. It’s a preference, but since you won’t be able to tell from the colour, it’s important to know a little bit more about it.
A key point to remember is that the more polished the sake, the more premium. As the percentage or “seimaibuai” goes down from 70% to 50%, the amount of polishing goes up from moderate to very high. Since seimaibuai refers to the amount of rice remaining after polishing, the lower the number means that more rice is removed.
Highly polished sake (50% or less polishing) is probably the most popular type of sake among novice sake drinkers. Since it is generally lighter, more aromatic and with fruitier notes. Whereas less polished (70% or less) is more savoury, earthy, fuller-bodied and with a subtler aroma. Interestingly, advanced sake drinkers actually tend to prefer the more rustic, less premium brews. The opposite of wine drinkers, which tend to develop more expensive tastes as their appreciation grows.
The Difference between Junmai and Non-Junmai
Junmai sake is also known as “pure rice sake,” made from four core ingredients: rice, koji, yeast and water. By contrast, Non-Junmai or Honjozo has a small regulated amount of distilled alcohol added for stability, vibrancy and aroma. Again, the difference is a matter of preference. Although some sake drinkers are Junmai purists, Non-Junmai sake is typically lighter and easier to drink. Non-Junmai/Honjozo sake is less complex than Junmai and therefore a good candidate for serving warm.
Within the Junmai and Non-Jumai distinction, it gets a little complicated. The term Junmai or Honjozo is also commonly used to refer to sake that is milled to 70%. Sake milled to 60% is called Ginjo and to 50% Daiginjo. Since these can also be made Junmai or Non-Junmai, they are often labeled as Junmai-Ginjo or Junmai-Daiginjo to indicate no added alcohol.
Sake Brewer’s Club Volume 3: Tosatsuru
Yes, you can learn all of this and more by attending the next sake tasting at Yashin Ocean House! I found the introduction to sake highly useful, learning these differences will certainly help me choose sake in the future. It was also a wonderful opportunity to meet Yukiko from the family-run Tosatsuru brewery.
The Tosatsuru family have been making sake for nearly 250 years and are really passionate about their business. Yukiko transported us to Japan with her stories about growing up in a sake brewing family before explaining the selection of sake and nibbles before us.
The first sake is called Washi, a Junmai type, served with some crispy deep fried eel. This sake, she explained, is one of her everyday tipples. Like an aperitif, nice to drink before cooking dinner. High in umami, it pairs well with foods such as tomatoes, gruyere cheese or mushroom pasta. I love these suggestions since non-Japanese too often assume that sake has to pair with sushi.
The second sake came in a beautiful blue bottle aptly named Azure Ginjo. The design of the bottle was carefully chosen to give a more universal appeal to foreign markets. Slightly slimmer than usual sake bottles, the brew is one of their most popular products sold in London. As a Ginjo, it is smooth and balanced, pairing well with red meat or fish such as tuna. Our glass was paired with a bite of smoked bonito tuna with sun-dried tomato relish.
An interesting fact about the first two is that they are both made with “Kaiyoushinsousui” or deep sea water. Tosatsuru sake uses either deep sea or spring water found local to their brewery. Nearby at the Muroto Cape, the deep sea water hits a continental plate 200 meters deep, producing very pure water with a high mineral content. Qualities that are not lost during desalination.
The third and final sake poured was Junmai daiginjo Tosatsuru, a very polished premium sake. Made using pure spring water from the local Yasuda river and less than 40% seimaibuai. The most delicate of the three, it was paired with a light shrimp rice cracker. This versatile sake is generally well suited to Japanese, Asian and European cuisines.
At the end of the event, Yukiko came round to teach us a popular Kochi region drinking game, pictured above! Overall, the sake tasting was a unique opportunity to experience Japanese sake in London. Highly recommend to anyone who loves sake and is interested to know more about the complex world of sake brewing.