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Amazake; Sweetness & Dryness

# 54

April 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #54
April 1, 2004

-- What is Amazake? 
-- Sweetness and Dryness
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events & Announcements:

What is Amazake?
Amazake -- the word itself, that is -- is comprised of the character for sweet (ama) and the character for sake (with the s "softened" to a z, as it is in nama-zake). And while amazake sure is sweet, it sure ain't sake. But it is tasty, extremely healthy, and becoming easier to find in grocery stores. It is also a source of puzzlement to those interested in sake, and is therefore deserving of a bit of explanation.

First of all, there are actually two kinds of amazake: true amazake, and "poor man's amazake," the latter being admittedly my own moniker. Let's look first at the real thing.

But in order to understand what amazake really is, we need to look at the heart of the brewing process for proper sake. (See how everything in life eventually leads back to sake?)

As readers certainly well know, yeast needs sugar to create alcohol, and in rice we have only starches, no simple sugars. Enter enzymes, provided by that mold of molds, aspergillus oryzae, known in Japanese as koji-kin (koji mold). Enzymes provided by this mold chop those long starch molecules in the rice down into small sugar molecules. These can be processed by the yeast cells.

And so, to enable this throughout the sake-brewing process, these spores are sprinkled on about 30% of the rice used in brewing. Rice with koji mold properly propagated onto it and into it is known simply as koji.

As a tangential aside, koji (whether made from rice exclusively or a combination of rice and barley) is used as a fermentation aid in many traditional Japanese products, including soy sauce, miso paste, the annoyingly popular distilled beverage shochu, and natto, that concoction of semi-fermented soybeans that one either loves or hates.

When visiting a sake brewery, if you are shown completed koji and given a pinch to nibble, it will taste mildly sweet. This is because it is doing what it is supposed to do: converting starches to sugar through enzymatic activity.

Back to amazake. To make amazake, koji is mixed with water and regular steamed rice, and this concoction is maintained at 55C to 60C for 12 to 24 hours. During this time the enzymes go nuts within these ideal conditions and convert starch to sugar in a saccharification frenzy. While this is hardly the controlled process desirable in sake brewing, it is great for making amazake.

However, there is no alcohol at all. Keep in mind that no yeast has been added. Without yeast, there will be no alcohol, sugar or no sugar. If yeast were to be added at this point, it would rudimentally replicate the sake brewing process, but otherwise all we end up with is sugar from starch.

So what's the big deal? Well, it is supposed to be really good for you. Koji is chock-full of enzymes, vitamins and a full array of essential and non-essential amino acids. Things like vitamin B1, B2 and B6, not to mention pantothenic acid, inositol, and biotin. It is also about 20% glucose, giving you the energy you need. On top of all this, it's quite tasty, kind of malty and thick. Traditionally it was most often consumed in the hot summer, and in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, there were small shops selling amazake everywhere. While it is certainly less common today, it seems to be getting more popular outside of Japan.

Now, about that "poor man's" amazake.
Again, in explaining this, we are first led back to sake. (Imagine that!) When fermentation is complete, not all of the rice has dissolved within the fermentation tank. So, the clear or gently amber sake must be separated from those dregs, or lees, known as kasu. This is accomplished by forcing the fermenting mash through a mesh of sorts, leaving the kasu behind as the lovely ambrosia flows through. The kasu that remains behind has a myriad of uses in cooking, and on top of that is the main ingredient in "poor man's" amazake.

To make this version of amazake, kasu is broken up and mixed with hot water, and to this concoction sugar and freshly ground ginger are added. While it may not have as many vitamins and amino acids as the aforementioned real amazake, it does contain a very small amount of alcohol. (Which is not to imply that this is a good tradeoff…) Usually kasu contains about 8% alcohol, and although a good dollop of that will evaporate fairly soon, it is possible that a small amount will remain and end up on your amazake.

Amazake made in this way is quick and easy, tasty and warming. It makes for wonderful sipping on a cold night outside, and is often seen at festivals and other outdoor events in Japan.

So, while it ain' t sake, amazake has its charms a-plenty, and its health benefits galore. As the weather warms up, look for some near you to boost that all-important summer stamina.

Sweetness and Dryness in Sake
Some sake is sweet, some is dry. Until recently dry sake, and very often bone-dry, light sake, was massively popular in Japan, owing in great part to its "refined" image. However, over the past few years, there has been a backlash toward sweet, full-flavored sake, and with a mighty vengeance. Unpasteurized, unfiltered, undiluted sake, known as "muroka nama genshu," has become alarmingly popular, and sometimes the result of this triple-whammy of "uns" is a bit un-sake, in my opinion. But I digress…

There are many things that contribute to the overall sweetness and dryness of a sake, but there are precious few parameters that can help consumers know beforehand what to expect. In fact, perhaps the only truly useful measure is the nihonshu-do, or Sake Meter Value (SMV). While this has been written about extensively in previous newsletters (archived, by the way, at, in short the nihonshu-do is a number that expresses the specific gravity of a sake. It usually runs between -2 and +12 or there-abouts, and lower numbers indicate sweet sake, while higher numbers indicate dry sake. Since the nihonshu-do is often listed on the label, just remember: higher is dryer.

But nothing exists in a vacuum, and sake is no exception. What is it, then, that affects the sweet and dry in sake?

The first and most obvious answer is sugar. In making good sake, fermentation is fairly tightly reigned in, the yeast is basically stressed out and barely fed, and the process is ceased when the desired flavor profile has been achieved. Almost always, there is some sugar deliberately left in the mash. How much is a function of what flavor profile the brewer is aiming for; a dryer sake will have less of this remaining sugar, a sweeter sake will naturally contain more.

But there is not always a direct connection between the amount of sugar remaining in a sake and the perceived sweetness. Many other factors, both tangible and intangible, can affect this. Perhaps the most leveraging of these is the acid content of the sake.
There are a great variety of acids that develop within sake, but in the end ninety percent of them are either succinic acid, malic acid or lactic acid. They are produced by the yeast cells mostly during the early stages of fermentation.

While these various acids will impart subtly different tones and flavors (discernible with but a bit of tasting experience), they can also affect the impact of sweetness. Why? Because acid will suppress the ability of the taste buds on the tongue to sense sweetness. So, if the overall acid content of a sake is high, it  still would not taste all that sweet. This is a good example of why the above-mentioned Sake Meter Value is not all that useful.

Yet another thing that can dry out a sake is the actual alcohol content. While sake can reach 20% during fermentation, it is almost always watered down to a more enjoyable 15-16%. Still, there is a fairly wide range of alcohol in sake on the market, running from 14% or so up until 19%. The point is that even a slightly higher alcohol content will "dry out" a sake quite a bit, and in tasting a range of sake, those with higher alcohol will be easily noticeable as tasting a bit "hotter" than the others.
Next is temperature. Getting back to those taste buds, when the sake involved is a bit warmer, the inherent sweetness becomes even more easily perceptible. Colder sake does not elicit the response that warmer sake does.

And, of course, no two people have the same sense of what is sweet or dry to them, nor - arguably - does any one person have precisely the same concept of sweet and dry on any two given days. Combine these intangibles with others, like the sake you might have just finished tasting, the food you might be enjoying with that sake, and the airborne velocity of an unladen swallow, and it becomes obvious that it is all a very subjective exercise.

Which brings us back to a basic idea that is by no means limited to the sake world: in the end, appreciating sake is a matter of personal preference, honed through tasting a wide range of sake. Nihonshu-do, sugar content, various acids and unladen swallows may all affect your perception of sweet and/or dry, but in the end, it is all about preference and enjoyment.

Good Sake to Look For

● -- Dassai (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Dassai is a fairly new meigara (brand name), about ten years, from a fairly old brewer. There is plenty to say about this interesting kura and the interesting man behind it, Sakurai-san. But that story is being saved for my upcoming book on sake breweries and sake brewers. For now, suffice it to say that this kura is one of the most unique in Japan. The name Dassai means "otter festival," referring to a local attraction (to otters, anyway). One of their sake is made with rice milled down to 23% of its original size: the most highly milled rice used in brewing in Japan. More approachable is their "Junmai Ginjo 50," which as you might have guessed is made with rice milled to 50%. A fresh, mildly melon-laced aroma, enough body and balancing acidity to allow it to stand on its own, yet an overall coquettish delicateness. Very seductive. This delicateness is one fine thread of consistency that runs through all Dassai products. They have just begun to export to North America and parts of Asia.

● -- Kaika (Tochigi Prefecture)
"Kaze no Ichirin" Junmai Ginjo-shu
A recent visit to this kura in Tochigi, but an hour north of Tokyo, reinforced what I had almost forgotten about them: excellent sake, superior control over the brewing processes, a long and traditional history, and nice people to boot.

They began hundreds of years ago simply as a family that had the responsibility of brewing sake for the village. There was no brand name; who needed one back then? Eventually, they took the company name Dai-ichi Shuzo, or "The Number One Brewery," certainly a harbinger of things to come. When asked recently about how well they do in the National New Sake Tasting Competition, the normally reserved and humble Shimada-san mumbled, "Well, actually, we win fairly often. In fact, 'round here, it's bigger news when we *don't* win." And I checked the stats. He's right. They have won a gold medal in the Nationals in nine out of the last twelve years. That shows amazing consistency and precision.

"Kaze no Ichirin" Junmai Ginjo is light, fruity, aromatic and delicate, with a firm and tantalizing sweetness in the center. Perhaps its most distinctive quality is the tight, focused and subtly astringent finish, clean and converging in nature, that leaves no doubt about its deliberateness. Kaze no Ichirin is imported into the US and parts of Europe and Asia.

Sake Events and Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, April 10, from 6:00 to about 9:00, there
will be a sake seminar at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The topic will be "Sake Brewing; Then vs. Now," and will focus on how things have changed over the centuries in sake brewing, what remains the same, and what changes have been beneficial or less than so. Wooden tanks versus stainless steel, koji made by hand versus machine-made koji, and the various methods of pressing are a few of the topics to be touched upon. Also, I will talk about a few of the special occurrences and events of the sake world in the spring.

The cost for the evening -- half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material -- will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing John Gauntner from his homepage at No deposit is required. Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.

Home-Brewing Sake
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at If you wish to contact Jim, please email John Gauntner for Jim's contact info. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing:, and see their site at


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