Rice Wine Not Taking the Heat

I always thought sake should be served hot; boil it until bubbles burst and funnel it into my little ceramic sake jar with matching cups.  That set has been with me for years and it makes it out of the cupboard maybe once a year when I make sushi at home.

This week I was treated to a tour of the Ozeki Sake USA Inc. facility right here in downtown Hollister.   The first thing I learned was that most Japanese sake drinkers prefer their drink slightly warmed,  room temperature, or on the rocks but certainly not bubbling hot.  Sake is not, however, a cocktail in Japan, it is always eaten with food, or if out for an evening at the Sake Bar the wine is served with appetizers like dried squid.

Ozeki Sake has been made in Japan since 1711, the current president had the dream of expanding the company to the USA, and Hollister was chosen as the location in 1979 because of the quality of both water and the availability of rice, which comes from the Sacramento area.  US company president, Norio Sumomogi points to American sales doubling in the last ten years being directly linked to our new found passion for sushi.

Sake production is not much different than the wine making process, but instead of grapes sake is made from brown rice.  What makes Ozeki different and of higher quality is their exclusive use of short grain rice.  The process, which was explained to me by Production Manager Takashi Kida, starts with polishing the grain of rice to remove most of the protein and fat, it is then washed, soaked, steamed and cooled.  The rice is moved into a cedar lined Koji room, where the Koji is added; this spore produces enzymes that convert starch to sugar.  The Koji rice is put into large stainless steel fermentation tanks where yeast and water are added.  The rice mash is fermented for 20 days, then pressed, pasteurized, and stored for six months to mature.  At this point chemistry takes a bit of a back seat and Takashi Kida brings the artistry to light in blending the different batches together to get the company’s signature taste.  The blend is then filtered again and bottled.

There are different qualities of sake, like the difference between a table wine and a premiere wine.  Ozeki Sake, Ozeki Sake Dry, and Ginjo Premier are the three levels of sake produced in the USA.  The difference between the brands is how much the grain of rice has been polished and the coldness of fermentation, 30% of the grain is removed in the regular and Dry, and 50% of the grain is removed for the Premier and it is fermented at 10 degrees Celsius versus 15 C for the regular and Dry.  Sake is between 14% to 16% alcohol by volume.  Takashi Kida recommends drinking the regular sake warm; the smoother Dry chilled, and he likes the Ginjo Premier on the rocks.  Ozeki also makes Mirin, a Japanese cooking wine, for Kikkoman and JFC.

Storing sake properly is important. Once bottled, sake begins to mature and change color, becoming more yellow as it ages. Sake is particularly sensitive to high temperatures and sunlight and so ideally should be protected from light by wrapping in newspaper, and stored where the temperature stays below 68F. Under these conditions, the average sake can be stored for up to 6 months without any change in quality.  Premium sakes which are usually pasteurized only once instead of the usual two times will last up to 2 months if stored at 50F, and like wine, it should be consumed quickly once opened because of oxidation.

More than likely you have had sake when dining out at an Asian restaurant, or you have a dusty bottle on the back shelf of a cupboard waiting for that Japanese dinner you’ve been meaning to make.  I took Mr. Kida up on trying Ozeki Dry on the rocks, and I think I’ve found a new summer drink to sip on during the heat of the day.

I also suggest you make an appointment to take a tour and do a sake tasting.  It’s a local treasure that shouldn’t be missed.

For more information call 831-637-9217.


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