Anyone who had dipped a toe in the world of premium sake is aware that it can be a surprisingly pricey pool. Not only is that a serious buzzkill, but higher cost is indeed one of the factors that may limit sake growth in the U.S. Imported premium sake is usually more expensive than comparable beer or wine. But why? And, for those lacking an expense account, what are some delicious but affordable sakes to seek out?
The two main factors that contribute to the overall higher cost of sake fall to labor and raw materials. By way of example, in order to produce the sugars needed for yeast fermentation, brewers must carefully grow a fungus called koji (aspergillus oryzae) onto some of the sake rice, which in turn breaks down the rice starch into sugars. This mold propagation step takes a full two days of constant supervision and vigilance in a room heated to about 95˚F.
Sake brewing also requires a highly trained and dedicated labor force willing to work under trying physical conditions. Brewing usually takes place during the depths of winter, and brewers must often switch between the freezing temperature of the fermentation room to the sauna-like heat of the koji room. Dealing with these extreme temperatures, along with the workers’ hands-on techniques—which include stirring the sake tanks twice a day, carrying sake rice directly from the steamer to the koji room, and the daily chemical analysis of each and every tank for sugars, alcohol and acids—all add up to more costs for sake producers.
... sake rice ends up costing at least double the price of eating rice.
Further, almost all premium sake is not made from eating rice, but rather from specially grown varieties of sake rice that have higher concentrations of starch near the center of the grain. Sake rice grows taller than eating rice and is more challenging for farmers to cultivate because the plant's size makes it more susceptible to damage during bad weather. Therefore, sake rice ends up costing at least double the price of eating rice. In addition, sake rice is milled or polished before brewing to remove the fats and proteins found predominantly in the outer layers of the grain and to help isolate the rice starch. The more premium a sake, the more the rice is polished, leaving sometimes 50 percent or less of the grain. This milling, along with the high cost of rice, increases the price of sake even before fermentation has begun.
While this all might sound pretty bleak, there is a silver lining. Even though sake can be generally more expensive than other comparable alcohols, there are always affordable hidden gems to be found.
Three Stellar, Affordably-Priced Sakes
Kinoene Yuuga Junmai Ginjo ($20/720ml)
Iinuma Honke Sake Brewery, Chiba Prefecture
Rice: Miyamanishiki, milled 55%
Japan’s Chiba Prefecture is much more famous for being the home of Narita International Airport than for being a home to famous sake brands. Last year, however, a new sake from oft-overlooked Chiba Prefecture came to the States. This Kinoene brand Junmai Ginjo is called Yuuga, which translates to elegance, grace or refinement. The body is layered and quite smooth, with a lovely twinge of sweetness to balance its overall rich character. Enjoying this 15.5 percent ABV sake slightly chilled brings out its best characteristics and serving it in a white wine glass will help to emphasize Yuuga’s engaging carmel-like aroma. To get all this for just under $20 retail is rare indeed. As for food pairings, green salads with a lightly bitter slant such as frisée, endive or spinach work well. Other green vegetables such as steamed artichoke or asparagus, which can prove difficult to pair with wine, match this sake beautifully. Or, enjoyed Yuuga on its own as an easy-drinking every day sake.
Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto ($18/720ml)
Kurosawa Sake Brewery, Nahano Prefecture
Rice: Miyamanishiki, milled 65%
Rich and full bodied, Kurosawa Junmai uses the kimoto production method. This is the original and more labor intensive way to make the shubo or fermentation starter at the outset of the brewing process. Kimoto-style sakes allows for natural lactic acid buildup in the starter tank and this translates into bolder, richer and more robust flavors. Hints of steamed rice and grain on the palate are balanced with an acidity that makes this sake exceedingly food friendly. An overall smooth body delivers a reliably, easy drinking and enjoyable sake. Also, feel free to experiment with serving temperature. Drinking this sake well chilled will make it taste drier and crisp, but it will blossom with gentle notes of umami when poured slightly warm, around 105˚F. Kurosawa Junmai has the body to stand up to heartier fare, so try it with grilled meats as well as fried food. Favorite pairings include herb grilled chicken or fried pork cutlet with tonkatsu sauce.
Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo ($57/1.8L)
Asahi Sake Brewery, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Rice: Yamadanishiki, milled 50%
When it comes to finding value in premium sake, there is something to be said for buying in bulk. Consider the 1.8-liter size bottles called isshobin. They are the standard in Japan, but much more rare here, and each single isshobin bottle contains two and a half of the standard 720ml bottles. If you find a sake you like and it’s available in the large 1.8-liter format, its a great way to save. One sake that is a tremendous value in isshobin is the much loved Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo. This super premium 15.5 percent ABV sake tastes exceedingly smooth, with an intoxicating mixture of melon and apple notes on the nose. The body is fruity yet nuanced, channeling just a whisper of strawberry. The entire Dassai portfolio is made up only of Junmai Daiginjo sakes and this one is their most affordable. The folks at Dassai recommend pairing this sake with their local Yamaguchi specialty—blowfish sashimi. In lieu of the poisonous fugu, try Dassai 50 with cuts of yellowtail, scallop or sweet shrimp. Moving beyond sashimi, lighter preparations of fish, such as poaching and steaming also work well.