Ask any Japanese person if sake is a beer, and they would argue no, Sake is Sake in its own unique category. In fact, the term sake, in Japanese, is the generic name given to all alcoholic beverages, and what we know as Sake in America is called Nihonshu. (In that sense a Japanese beer could be called Sake, but we digress!)
But what exactly is this mysterious centuries-old national drink of Japan? Is it beer, wine, or liquor? Wikipedia describes Sake as also being referred to as a “rice wine,” but many would argue it’s closer to a beer than a wine.
Wine is a fermented drink, where the sugars which are naturally present in fruits are turned into alcohol. Traditional Sake has no fruit, so where does the alcohol come from?
Sake production has more similarities with beer brewing as it uses sugars from the starch of grains to ferment into sugar. Whereas the grains in beer are more often wheat and barley, sake uses rice for those same starches which are broken down to sugars and then turned into alcohol. Rice beers are very popular across S.E Asia and even some popular American beers use rice in their recipes, too.
But many would still argue that sake is not a beer. It has a completely different taste profile to any beers you may have ever tried, a higher alcohol content than most beers and wines, and is clear in color, unlike your average beer.
Spirits are normally distilled, which sake isn’t – instead, it’s just a fermented alcoholic beverage. So, if it’s not a wine, not a spirit, and not a beer, how do we classify Sake? Let’s take a look at what makes this unique beverage in a class of its own.
The History of Sake
Sake is one of the oldest drinks in the modern world and Sake dates back to the 3rd Century BCE after the introduction of wet rice cultivation to Japan. In Ancient Japan, Sake was primarily produced by the Imperial Court and larger temples and shrines, but in the 12th Century, the manufacture of Sake began by the general population.
By the early 16th Century, the same methods which are used to produce sake today were nearly perfected. The only change to the process was during WWII when the scarcity of rice meant many sake manufacturers would add distilled alcohol to the rice mash. Some premium Sake today still add neutral alcohol to the sake.
After the war, sake production and consumption experienced a boom and peaked in the 1970s. The post-war economic growth allowed for the development of the necessary infrastructure, machines, and factories, to allow mass production to grow.
Along with the bullet train system, transportation was much easier and the Japanese started to experiment with Sake from other regions, focusing on the quality rather than the quantity of Sake consumed.
In the 1990s, hindered by a new Sake-designated taxation system and the rise of the craft beer scene in Japan, Sake production started to fall. Many Sake manufacturers started to look into producing more craft beers.
Fortunately, the growth of the popularity of Japanese cuisine overseas and the development of “craft” sake means sake sales and exports are now on the rise again.
Sake is seen in Japan as a drink of the kami (gods) of the Japanese Shinto religion. At Shinto weddings, the bridal couple performs the ceremony of drinking Sake from lacquer cups and it’s also drunk at festivals where it’s included in offerings to the gods.
How is Sake Produced?
The Sake production process uses four key ingredients, rice, water, yeast, and Koji (a fungus known as Aspergillus Orzyate). Like wine and beer, Sake production uses a process of fermentation followed by filtration.
The fermentation process is closer to beer than wine in it breaks down the starches of grain (rice) into sugar and the sugars into alcohol rather than using the fermentable sugars found naturally in fruits in wine fermentation.
Where Sake differs from beer is the fermentation process only uses one stage where starches are broken down and sugars turned into alcohol simultaneously unlike beer which uses a mashing stage followed by fermentation.
Special strains of white rice are used where the outer layers are milled off to leave the starch-rich middle exposed before being steeped in water and steamed. A mold, Aspergillus Oryzae, otherwise known as Koji, is then added, which converts the starches into sugars.
Once yeast and water are added to the tank the rice is added and the Koji and yeast work together in a unique parallel fermentation to produce the Sake.
Once the Sake reaches the desired level of alcohol content, neural alcohol at about 30% alcohol is added. Cheaper ordinary Sake can often double its volume using this method, but when used in premium sakes in smaller quantities, the alcohol can help to enhance the fragrance and flavor of the Sake.
Fresh Sake is usually pasteurized at 60ºC to kill any remaining yeasts or bacteria that may affect the Sake flavor profile, but like beers, you can also get unpasteurized Sakes, referred to as “Namazake” which is a fresher, more fragrant, and cloudy Sake, similar to many unpasteurized or unfiltered popular beers.
Once the Sake reaches the bottling stage, the alcohol content is around 20% and is usually watered down or diluted to about 15% to 16% ABV prior to bottling for more discernible flavors.
Before we get excited and say Sake virtually is a beer due to the Sake fermentation process being almost identical, we need to look at how Sake is served and the flavor profile.
The Differences Between Sake and Beers
The biggest difference between Japanese Sake and beer is the flavor profile of Sake, which is probably closer to that of wine. Sake shares qualities with wine and is served more like a wine and can be either sweet or dry.
The main difference in flavor from a beer comes from the key Sake ingredient being rice rather than malted barley and hops.
Other characteristics of Sake include a clear color and a higher ABV of Sake compared to the amber color and relatively lower alcohol profile of a beer. Sake has an alcohol content closer to wines, but slightly higher still.
How is Sake Served?
The other key difference between Sake and beer is the way you drink it. Sake isn’t designed to be chugged down, pint after pint while watching the Sunday night football games. It might be delicate craft alcohol, but it will still give you a hangover since it has a higher ABV than most beers and wines.
Instead, drinking Sake is almost like a ceremony every time. It can be drunk when paired with foods, at celebrations, and even occasionally watching major sporting events.
Traditionally, Sake is drunk from a small ceramic or earthenware cup called a Choko or Ochoko. The Sake is usually stored in a small vessel known as a Tokkuri and, according to Japanese customs, the companion’s cup should always be served first. Try doing that with a few bottles of Bud!
All styles of Sake are designed to be sipped straight (don’t shoot it like a cheap shot!) and traditional Sake is often served warmed to between 40 – 50ºç. Lighter suit-infused Sakes in the Ginjo style work best served well chilled in a wine glass with the shape of the glass enhancing the delicate fruity aromas and flavor of the style.
Is Sake a Beer? Final Thoughts
No. Sake is not a beer, Sake is not a wine, and it’s definitely not liquor. Sake exists in its own unique category. Sake is a brewed alcoholic beverage rather than a distilled one. A Sake sommelier in Tokyo would probably be quite glad to take up an argument if you dared call Sake a beer.
Although it may share many characteristics with beer, including a very similar brewing process and many beers like Budweiser now use rice in their production, the flavor, alcoholic content, and color of Sake make it a completely different beverage that anyone would be hard pushed to call a beer.
The best way to experience these differences would be to visit any Sake bar in Japan. You’ve probably seen the wide range of Japanese craft beers which are now available over here in the US, but most Japanese restaurants and sushi bars now also carry a wide range of Sake, too.
Next time you’re getting your sushi fix, why not finish the meal in style with a small bottle of Sake to share with friends? Who knows, you may be pleasantly surprised and awaken a passion for Sake you never knew you had!