Experience:It may only have four ingredients, but there’s a lot to know about sake. In fact, there are only about a dozen certified sake experts in Canada. Chris Maybroda is one of them. Maybroda, who has worked in the spirits industry for nearly 20 years, took the official sake certification course in 2010 in Portland. A former Vancouver resident, a year ago he moved to Edmonton – a market that, until recently, had very little knowledge of sake, says Maybroda. “I realized very quickly that there was an opportunity to be the sake missionary, as it were, to be the ambassador of sake in northern Alberta and bring it to people.”
Pronounced “sak-eh,” this traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage has been around for centuries. Like wine or beer, there is cheap sake and the more premium versions of the drink. Maybroda promotes the good stuff through an agency, called Blue Note Wine & Spirits, the first company to import premium sake into Canada.
“Sake, like most things that are Japanese, is beautiful in its simplicity. It is, quite literally, just four things – rice, yeast, water and a starter mould called koji. That’s what makes it the purest alcoholic beverage out there. For people with gluten intolerances or people with sulfite issues, this is a perfectly pure beverage – provided they’re drinking the premium stuff.
“In all of its simplicity as a beverage, it’s incredibly complex to make properly. There is the milling of the rice and there’s a huge factor in how long you soak the rice and steam the rice. It is brewed, so it is closer to beer than not, but it is not brewed like beer. It’s actually brewed with a process that’s called multiple parallel fermentation. There are a number of different processes going on at the same time, which makes it very unique.
“The word junmai on a label means that there is no additional alcohol added to the sake. If you don’t see the word “junmai” [on a label] , it means they have added a bit of brewer’s alcohol to the sake. That doesn’t mean that the alcohol content of the sake is higher; it just basically means that the toji, the brewmaster, added a little bit of brewer’s alcohol to bring out specific characteristics in that sake that may not come out had they not added that little bit of alcohol.
“Anything labeled ginjo is really where premium sake begins. A grain of rice will start out [at a certain size] and “ginjo” means you have milled away the outside the grain of rice to the point where there is only 60 per cent of the grain remaining. In regular rice, all the starches are all the way through the rice. With sake rice, the starches tend to be closer to the centre of the rice, so the more you can mill away the proteins on the outside of the grain of rice, the more delicate, floral, fruity and citrusy (the drink) – where all of those delicate notes start to get in.
“The term dai ginjo is the next level up, in terms of quality. It means that the grain of rice has been polished away to at least 50 per cent of the original size. It’s incredibly delicate.
“The phrase junmai dai ginjo on a label means the sake has no alcohol added and the rice is at least 50 per cent milled or polished. A junmai dai ginjo is basically the pinnacle of the brewmaster’s art. It’s the highest grade of sake produced.
“Sake bottles don’t have corks; it’s best fresh so a screw top makes more sense. It should be stored in the fridge because the cooler temperature will slow the aging process. Sake will lose its delicate notes and flavours over time but it’s not something that, if you have a bottle of it open in your fridge for a week, you have to worry about it being off.
“The production of sake has changed dramatically in the last 60 to 70 years. This style of sake that you can drink today didn’t exist 100 years ago because the technology didn’t exist pre-World War II. The mechanics weren’t there to mill down the rice to the degree [they can now] . Sake has been around for 2,000 years, in some form or another. The Yoshinogawa brewery [in Niigata, Japan] has been around since 1548. The owner, Koji Kawakami, is the 19th generation of his family to make sake.”
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