Chow Town

Sake is known as Japanese rice wine, but it’s actually beer

The cup of warm sake you’ve probably had up to now bears as much resemblance to good sake as Godzilla films do to great Japanese cinema.

Complexity is available, if you branch out beyond the dreck that many Asian restaurants have offered customers until recently.

Sake is known among the Japanese as rice wine. It’s not a wine though, it’s a beer. Beer is an alcoholic beverage made by converting the starches in a grain into sugar and then fermenting them into alcohol. That’s what is done with rice, in order to make it into sake.

In typical beer production, grains sprout, transforming the kernel’s starches into sugar that the growing seed can use for energy. The grains are mixed with water to make a sweet sort of cereal soup.

Yeasts do the rest, creating the alcohol and the carbon dioxide that provides the foam and tingle. Beers are finished with hop flowers from the hop plant, resulting in flavors, astringency and structure for aging.

Sake’s unique secret is that an enzyme called koji allows the conversion of starch to sugar and the fermentation to happen in the very same tank and nearly at the same moment. Koji — a kind of mold — has been in use for perhaps a thousand years, though no one is clear as to how its use began or by whom.

But the Japanese predilection for calling it a rice wine reflects the myriad faces of sake and the relative flavors, most of them far more akin to wine than beer. Sake styles are as diverse as wine styles, and no less confusing for newbies.

The categories of sake are based upon two facts of sake production — one of these facts is that rice must be polished to remove the proteins and organic compounds covering the center part of the grain in order make good sake.

The top categories are the highly respected ginjo — with at least 40 percent polished away — and the super premium daiginjo — with at least 50 percent removed. Polishing is not an easy task and adds greatly to the costs of sake production. So expect to pay handsomely for a ginjo or daiginjo sake.

A rudimentary survey of sake in this area reveals only a few of the intriguing plethora of high-quality sake, including ginjo and daiginjo. Most of the quality sakes available here are relatively soft, mild and range from tart and dry to mildly sweet. Flavors are as difficult to describe as wine, at least they are challenging to describe to someone who has never tasted sake.

There is certainly pungency to sake that can remind some of beer, but the flavors that intrigue me the most are reminiscent of Riesling wines. Flavors of apple, peach, pear, melon, grapefruit, cantaloupe and banana are not unusual.

And all of the best sakes you can find in this area are best taken cool or cold, like white wines. While sake is much sterner stuff than German Riesling — usually more than twice as much alcohol — the best can achieve remarkable delicacy despite their robust octane.

It might seem crazy to recommend cold sake in bone chilling weather but sake’s power will warm you regardless of its temperature. And you will be experiencing one of the world’s great, traditional fermented beverages.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section.