All you need to know about sake and where to get them in Hong Kong
01 Jun 2020
- Back in the early 1900s, there were approximately 4000 family-run sake breweries all over Japan while only 800 are still in operation today.
The sakes we taste are mostly, ranging from dry to off-dry, lower acid, with floral, green, tropical and some bread-like characteristics.
Aged sake or koshu stays in the brewery for three years resulting in softer texture, more developed and complex flavours as well as deep umami tones.
Ambrose’s picks: Akishika Shuzō and Yucho Shuzō - organic and chemical-free brewers readily available in Hong Kong
Even though natural wines, craft beers and artisanal spirits have seen victorious surge over the past several years, many have been discovering (or rediscovering) the wonders of sake - made with rice, water, Koji mold and yeast. Back in the early 1900s, there were approximately 4000 family-run sake breweries all over Japan while only 800 are still in operation today.
Read more: A guide to drinking old wine at home
In order to produce consistent and larger volumes of quality (read: faultless) sake, 20 commercial yeast strains have been recognised as the official brewing yeast for all of Japan to use. Production has also been standardised for the same reason. Sake would be made with one of the most common rice varieties with any of the official yeast strains in steel tanks where they’re charcoal-filtered, sometimes fined, pasteurized and bottled. Thus explaining why most sakes taste very similar (although the jury's still out on that one) in terms of aroma and flavour. Sake is also often seen as an alternative to spirits due to its low alcoholic content and often praised for their ‘pure’ flavour profile.
image via unsplash
Japanese food culture came into most people’s lives with sushi. When compared to European or Chinese fare, it’s relatively lighter in flavour intensity, body, texture and density. In a collective effort to push this identity of Japanese food, sakes were made with the same yeast strains compatible with the light flavour bandwidth of sushi. This was successful and has allowed sake to be a dining table staple from all over the globe. So, the sakes we taste are mostly, ranging from dry to off-dry, lower acid, with floral, green, tropical and some bread-like characteristics.
Going back to surgence, aged sake or koshu (read: aged sake) has remained niche for several years but have been gaining popularity in the F&B scene recently. While sake is best consumed within a year of production, its aged counterpart stays in the brewery for three years resulting in softer texture, more developed and complex flavours as well as deep umami tones. In essence, aged sake mimics the trajectory of whiskey ageing and white wine ageing with the Maillard Reaction slowly happening inside the bottle over a long period of time.
Ambrose’s picks: Akishika Shuzō and Yucho Shuzō
These two producers are organic and chemical-free breweries. They’re known for straightforward and minimalistic techniques such as fermenting century-old brewery yeast strains semi-naturally and using a non-charcoal filtration and fining system. These sakes are also readily available in Hong Kong.
Other breweries that produce small batched, artisanal and unique sakes available in Hong Kong are: Chiyo Shuzō from Nara, Mukai Shuzō from Ine, Terada Honke from Nara, Chouchin Shuzō from Aichi and Mii no Kotobuki from Fukuoka.
While growing your own grapes for wine production is essential to produce quality wines; the sake world is slightly different where most producers purchase the rice strains. Oku-san, the Toji or master brewer, unlike most, approaches with a ‘Château concept,’ where he farms his own rice fields alongside 20 – contracted organic and low-yield rice growers.
Oku-san’s sakes are fermented with different strains of yeasts that are isolated in the brewery since its founding year of 1886 in Osaka. The flavour spectrum ranges from extreme umami, bold meatiness and spiced characters to mascarpone, olive and seaweed aromas. Akishika is also extremely famous within the small network of avant-garde restaurants for the sakes’ ageability – Over time, Oku-san’s sakes evolve into flavours of hazelnuts, turmeric and gamey meats.
Yucho Shuzō is a 13-generation brewery located in Nara. It’s known for producing a special sake called ‘Takacho’, a return to the very roots of sake making. In addition to being undiluted (genshu) and non-carbon filtered (muroka), it utilizes the ancient technique of bodaimoto (read: preparing the yeast starter), giving the sake unique richness and acidity.
Originally practiced in the 13th-century by Buddhist brewer monks at the local temple in Nara, Yucho was part of a collective of breweries that revived the process in recent years. An original starter mash is made with water suspended in rice which ferments. They then take that starter to their brewery to build up a bold, old-style and well-balanced sake that’s rich, sweet and tangy. The body is creamy and full with notes of walnuts and bursting with umami.
Where to get sakes in Hong Kong