Learning to Taste Sake With an Expert at a 250-Year-Old Brewery

With such staggering diversity, wading into the world of Japanese sake can be intimidating. Dozens of factors characterize the beverage, from region to rice milling and more. One of the best ways for beginners to familiarize themselves is through a sake tasting course, commonplace at breweries throughout Japan. However, jumping in blind can lead to disappointment, making it important to study up beforehand. For this edition of our "Culture of Japan" series, we visited the 250-year-old Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery to find out the best way to taste sake under the guidance of Sales Manager Kei Watanabe. Her simple, foolproof sake tasting method will allow one and all to begin uncovering the depths of this ancient ambrosia.

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So What Actually Is Sake?

The ingredients of sake are simple: steamed rice, malted rice, water, yeast (and often brewer's alcohol). Milled rice is steamed and sprinkled with “koji” fungus (aspergillus oryzae) to become malted rice, a portion of which is mixed with steamed rice, water, and yeast to create a starter mash known as “shubo” or “moto.”

Once the yeast has propagated, this starter mash is again combined with the remaining steamed rice/malted rice/water to form the “moromi” brewing mash, completed over three successive stages. The moromi is left to ferment and produce alcohol, before being pressed, filtered, pasteurized, matured, blended, and bottled to create the final product defined as “sake.” As you can see, the brewing process is very intricate, and each stage can be further altered or skipped to create something entirely new and different - which is why breweries are able to offer such a staggering range.

In the Heart of Niigata City: Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery

Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery is a 20-minute walk from Niigata Station, in the center of Niigata City. Considered one of Japan’s most prominent sake hubs, Niigata Prefecture boasts the highest number of sake breweries in the country, while also being its largest producer of rice. Imayo Tsukasa was founded as a sake wholesaler in 1767 before eventually switching to brewing during the mid-Meiji period (1868-1912), giving the company a history of over 250 years.

Nowadays, Imayo Tsukasa seeks to balance tradition and innovation, blending stylish bottles in a slick renovated brewery with time-honored brewing techniques passed down the generations. They are also strictly dedicated to “junmai” pure-rice brewing, meaning that no brewing alcohol is added during the sake-making process, heightening the natural flavors of rice.

Imayo Tsukasa also boasts a comprehensive sake tasting course inviting guests to sample their extensive lineup. While many such tasting courses are hosted by professional sommeliers, self-serve courses, where visitors are given a cup and left to their own devices, are just as common. Imayo Tsukasa employs the latter, and on the day of our visit, we were treated to a generous assortment of over ten different bottles, making us feel both excited and overwhelmed.

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How to Enjoy a Sake Tasting Course With Kei Watanabe

With this in mind, we sat down with Imayo Tsukasa Sales Manager Kei Watanabe to discover the best way to handle a self-serve sake tasting course. Kei is a passionate English-speaking sake-lover who has worked at Imayo Tsukasa for over five years, striving to uncover new, accessible ways of promoting sake to wider audiences. Through her experiences and education, Kei is adamant that, with the right introduction, sake can be enjoyed by all.

Things to Understand Before Drinking Sake

Sake has several clear-cut indications revealing flavor, quality, alcohol level, and more, allowing a basic understanding of each brew before drinking. To begin understanding sake, Kei suggests learning the following:

  • Rice Polishing Ratio
  • Special, Seasonal Brewing
  • Sake Meter Value (SMV)
  • Alcohol by Volume (ABV)

We’ll go into more detail on each throughout the article, so don’t stress if these terms mean little to you right now.

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Daiginjo and Ginjo: Using the Rice Polishing Ratio to Find Top-Tier Sake

To make the most of a sake tasting course, Kei suggests starting from the expensive, high-quality brews. The logic for this is simple: your sense of taste will dull as you become drunk, blocking out finer, intricate flavors. In addition, opting for “dry” (non-sweet, “karakuchi” in Japanese) sake at first is best, as sweet sake is often heavy and rich, and can mask nuanced tastes.

To kick off our session, Kei guided us to the back of the tasting room to find Imayo Tsukasa’s highest-grade sake: “Junmai Daiginjo Supreme.” When tracking down the most exquisite brew in the room, Kei says to search for the words “ginjo” and “daiginjo,” which are ranks determined by the “rice polishing ratio,” as explained by Kei below.

“While protein and fat can make sake rich and complex, it can also overpower delicate elements, like fruity aromas and such. Most protein and fat is concentrated in the outer layers, so the more the rice is milled [polished], the smoother and cleaner the resulting brew, generally speaking.”

Rice polishing ratios are expressed as a percentage, indicating the size of each rice grain after milling. The lower the percentage, the more it has been milled, and the smaller the grains. Imayo Tsukasa’s Junmai Daiginjo Supreme has a polishing ratio of 40%, meaning that 60% of the outer layers of rice have been polished away, while 40% of the core remains, making each grain significantly smaller than unmilled brown rice. Sake with a polishing ratio of 60% or less is defined as “ginjo,” while 50% or less is “daiginjo,” the latter considered to be the highest grade of sake.

Ginjo and daiginjo sake are coveted for their clean, fruity characters, often with alluring aromas to boot. With a 40% polishing ratio, Imayo Tsukasa’s Junmai Daiginjo Supreme naturally presents an invigorating mouthful with a brisk, water-like texture and bouquet of hidden aftertastes, requiring a moment of intense reflection to fully savor.

“Sake like ginjo and daiginjo are often clean, pleasant, and are specifically brewed to bring out the hidden flavors within rice, so I highly recommend them for first-timers,” says Kei.

Keep Your Eye Out For Special Brews

After you've tried the expensive brews, Kei recommends scanning the room for any unique specialities. Alongside the classics, many breweries will offer a signature brew made with offbeat, idiosyncratic techniques or ingredients, and these are often where the talents of the brewery shine brightest.

The pride and joy of Imayo Tsukasa is the “2021 Cedar Barrel Junmai,” sitting amongst the center of the tasting room. This one-of-a-kind sake is brewed in traditional barrels made of cedar wood, an artform largely lost in favor of the steel tanks of the modern industry. Since 2014, Imayo Tsukasa have sought to revive this ancient method, ordering barrels from one of Japan’s few remaining “okeya-san” barrel makers to craft their own wooden brewing barrels.

Kei explains: “the rough, organic nature of wood makes the brewing unpredictable, and the colonies of active ingredients like yeast and koji interact with the wood in unique ways, sometimes creating an unexpected flavor. Of course, there’s always the risk that the resulting brew may not be desirable, which is why most prefer the reliability of steel tanks - but this makes the brewing much more interesting!”

Naturally, with only around twenty breweries still practicing these ancient, strenuous techniques, cedar barrel sake won’t be on the menu at most tasting courses. However, most breweries do pride themselves on their own special creations, so be sure to try them before getting too tipsy!

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A Sake for Every Season

The counterpart to special brews are limited “seasonal sake,” which are released periodically throughout the year. Our visit to Imayo Tsukasa lined up with the release of “Izayoi,” an autumn blend of freshly pressed sake designed to harmonize the contrasting flavors of sweetness and acidity (pictured above).

“When trying a tasting course, definitely take the time to see which brews are seasonal, and make sure to appreciate them to the fullest!” says Kei.

Autumn is also the season for “hiyaoroshi,” a highly-anticipated seasonal sake matured over summer with a single round of pasteurization instead of the regular two, giving it a fresh yet mellowed character. Hiyaoroshi is available in Japan from September and October, although some breweries release it as early as mid-August.

Other seasonal delights include freshly brewed sake, called “shinshu,” which is commonly served during or after the brewing season of winter/spring. Often forgoing pasteurization, and also found under the name “shiboritate,” meaning “freshly pressed,” and has an invigorating, stimulating flavor revered by many as the purest form of sake. Additionally, during the hot and humid summer months, many breweries will release unpasteurized sake called “namazake,” designed to be chilled to beat the heat.

Cheap Local Sake: Not to Be Overlooked

Unlike beer or wine, where lesser-quality counterparts are detested by experts, Kei recommends tracking down the cheap sake of a region or neighborhood for a broader appreciation of the full spectrum.

While unavailable at Imayo Tsukasa, this kind of sake (often dubbed “futsushu” or “honjozo”) aims to satisfy the average drinker. They are what everyday Japanese people are familiar with, and are priced to be affordable for all. The differences in taste and quality are most stark when drunk following the high-quality brews featured above, and they can be differentiated by their high rice polishing ratios and low prices. If unavailable at the brewery, they are all but guaranteed to be centerstage at the local bottle shop.


Sweet Sake: Reinvigorate Your Taste Buds With the Sake Meter Value

After indulging in a few more rounds of dry and seasonal sake, Kei suggested moving onto some sweeter selections. “After a few drinks, the taste buds have grown dull, and the charms of subtle, drier sake will be lost. However, rich, sugary tastes will still come through, making it the perfect time to delve into sweet sake,” says Kei.

Imayo Tsukasa's own sweet brew is named “Karyukai,” which bestows a blend of crisp Niigata-style sake with an appetizing saccharinity. With no added sugar, the sweetness is drawn out naturally from an extra portion of malted rice, aptly demonstrating the diverse range of tastes that can be created from the same basic ingredients.

Finding sweet sake is a breeze, with most brews including “amakuchi,” meaning “sweet flavor” in their titles. Alternatively, you can also try your hand at reading the “Sake Meter Value” (SMV, “nihonshu-do” in Japanese), a positive/negative number expressing the taste of sake. The higher the number, the drier the sake, while negative numbers denote sweetness. Karyukai has a sizable negative SMV of less than -30, showing it to be very sweet, although even sweeter sake does exist. As promised by Kei, the intense sapor of Karyukai broke through our tipsy haze to revivify our palates, readying us for the following rounds.

Koji Amazake: For Those Staying Sober

While one might assume that a sake tasting course is wasted on those who don’t drink, more and more sake breweries are spending time developing delicious low or non-alcoholic brews to ensure everyone gets their satisfaction.

Many of these are called “amazake,” a fermented rice drink enjoyed in Japan since time immemorial. For those drinking sake, amazake should be saved for last, or at least until after the top-tier brews have been thoroughly appraised. As Kei explains, “amazake drinks are far thicker and more potent in flavor than sake. They’ll smother the tongue and make it difficult to clearly taste anything after.”

One of the most common amazake beverages is “koji,” which is available for tasting at Imayo Tsukasa. As previously mentioned, koji is the Japanese name for the fungus “aspergillus oryzae,” a fundamental ingredient of fermentation also seen in soy sauce and miso paste. Amazake is brewed similarly to sake minus the yeast, which is what produces alcohol, and instead uses koji to turn rice starch into sugar. Koji amazake has a sweet taste and thick, milky texture almost like a watery porridge, but is surprisingly refreshing and smooth. While already with a long history, its high nutrition has earned it newfound popularity in Japan, often promoted for its multifaceted health benefits.

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In Summary: How to Enjoy a Sake Tasting Course

Putting together everything we learnt at Imayo Tsukasa, Kei Watanabe’s recommended sake tasting order goes like this:

1. High-quality, drier sake with subtle flavors

2. Brewery specialties and limited-edition seasonal brews

3. Cheaper, local sake (if available)

4. Sweet, rich sake

5. Non-alcoholic amazake

Despite the above advice, Kei stresses to us that sake culture is fluid and free, and she invites all those visiting Imayo Tsukasa to taste as they like. While research and planning is important, she feels that many become hung up on rice polishing ratios, yeast types, brewing methods, and more, and lose sight of the main goal: enjoyment.

“At the end of the day, you are the one who decides how something tastes, so let your mind go blank, and concentrate on whatever flavors appear. My recommended order is a great starting point for beginners, but once you feel you’ve got a grasp on the basics, it’s time to find your own path. There are no rules when it comes to sake!”


Unlocking the Nuisances of Sake Through Tasting

Thanks to the guidance of Imayo Tsukasa and Kei Watanabe, we were able to broaden our appreciation of the complexity of sake. From expensive, premium daiginjo all the way to non-alcoholic amazake, the sheer range available from such basic ingredients was astounding. Of course, this is just the surface of what the hundreds of breweries in Japan have on offer, and once you’re familiar with the above, a profusion of alluring alternatives await - like cloudy, unfiltered “nigorizake,” painstakingly hand-mashed “kimoto” sake, vintage “koshu” sake, and more. Before embarking on a tasting course alone, use this article as a guide to ensure your introductory sake experience is fun, informative, and fulfilling!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Steve Csorgo
From Melbourne, Australia, Steve currently lives in Niigata City. His passions include discovering local sake and traveling as much of Japan as possible.
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