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Telling Good from Bad
How Much to Pay
Naturally, the best way to know a good
sake from a less-than-sterling brew is simply to taste it. In fact, tasting lots of different sake will help develop your palate quickly, and teach all you will ever need to know.
From the label, you can learn a lot about a sake by noting its classification, i.e. its grade. Although there is massive overlap between types, noting whether the sake is standard, honjozo or junmai-shu,
ginjo-shu or daiginjo-shu will tell you a lot about it. Click here for full definitions, explanations and typical flavor charts of the main sake types.
There is a great disparity in the prices of sake. Why? What is the difference between a 1200-yen bottle of sake and a 6900-yen bottle? What makes one more expensive than the other? And, most
importantly, is it worth the extra money?
Here are a few things that make one sake more or less expensive than another.
To summarize. There are many, many things that impact the cost of sake, and therefore the end price. The next question would be, how
much should you pay? How much do you need to pay to enjoy good sake?
- Rice. There are many different grades of rice. Sake rice is not
the same as eating rice; its composition of starches and proteins is different. Sake rice is harder to grow and is much more expensive to begin with.
- Rice Milling. The next factor is how much the rice has been
milled. The outside of brown rice is milled to yield white rice, and the more of the outer portion of the rice grains that is ground away, the cleaner and lighter a sake can be. Some of the
highest quality sake is made with rice in which only the inner 35% of the grains remains; that means that 65% of the original rice kernel has been milled into oblivion. Yes, this does in general
contribute to quality. But it also drives price up a lot as well.
- Brewing Process. Next, we must look at the brewing process.
Some sake is made with fully automated processes, with machines replacing people at every step. Premium sake is made by hand, in extremely labor-intensive ways, with old tools and
time-consuming methods. Yes, they do make a noticeable (although subtle) difference. And yes, this does contribute greatly to the price of the final product.
- Batch Size. Sake is brewed in tanks, and some less expensive
sake is brewed in batches as large as 50 tons of rice. Huge tanks. The best sake, however, is done in batches as small as half a ton or 800 kilograms. This allows greater control over the
finer aspects and parameters of brewing. And this, too, has a great impact on the final price.
- Length of Fermentation. Sake can be fermented in as little as
18 days, but fermenting for a longer period, and more slowly at lower temperatures, generally creates a more delicate, complex and fragrant sake. This also drives up the cost.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU PAY?
The honest answer is very simple: it is not necessary, nor even desirable, to spend a lot of money all the time. Indeed, the more labor
and time and expense that goes into a sake, the more delicate, sublime and complex it should be. But sake like that, sake at the pinnacle of the brewer's art, is not the kind of sake you want to be
drinking all the time. Very often, sake that is a bit more sturdy, with a wide enough range of flavors and more down-home individuality, is much more preferable. There are many, many occasions when a 1000-yen
sake or so is exactly what you want.
It may be that a heartier sake matches your meal, or you are drinking in a relaxed atmosphere that requires less focus on the sake, or perhaps
a somewhat unique sake is just what you want. The point is that there is perfectly enjoyable sake at all price levels.
Then again, there are times when you will want to drop the cash, to
taste a light, fragrant, layered and complex sake. It is truly special to taste different flavor profiles of top-class sake. Sake like this most definitely has its place and time.
So try it all, moderately priced and expensive. See which appeals, and soon you will know what sake to choose under which circumstances.