How is Sake Rice Different from Table Rice?

What is Sake rice? Is this the same type of rice that we usually consume in our daily life? These are the common questions a novice would ask himself or assume it is true.  In this article, we shall explore the difference between the two types of rice.

Rice is one of the three major grains besides wheat and corn. It has always played an integral part of Japanese cuisine be it in sushi or in curry rice. More than 300 kinds of rice are cultivated in Japan. 

Basically, there are two kinds of rice plants, The African and the Asian rice plant. The Asian rice plant has three main strains: japonica, indica and javanica. Most of the rice grown in Japanese is japonica rice, which is short grain. It has a sticky texture and is also grown in other parts of the world e.g. in Korea and the USA.  The Japonica rice plants are sowed in March and harvesting will usually takes place around September.  Indica rice is your basmati rice which is long grain and less sticky in texture.  Indica rice is normally grown in India, Pakistan.  The shape of the javanica rice is between japonica and indica rice. Other common Asian rice types include Calrose rice and Jasmine.

Sake breweries usually has contract with farmers to produce the sake rice they need.  Some breweries polish their rice according to the sake grade or some do also buy polished rice according to the required grade. Sake rice usually fetch a higher price due to their higher starch content, a property conducive to quality sake production.

So, what is the difference between Sake rice and Table rice?

Sake rice is known as “Sakamai”. There are more than 100 types of Sakamai in japan.  Almost all Sakamai are result of crossbreeding with the exception of Omachi rice which is the oldest known sake rice grown in Okayama.  The Stalk height of table rice is around 92cm, the weight of the grain is around 22g while a sakamai can grow more than 140cm tall and its weight of the grain could be between 26-28g.  Another difference is the significantly  higher starch content of a sakamai in the white and opaque core of the rice known as shinpaku.

It is still possible to make not only decent but a very good sake from regular rice.  In the past, only table rice was used to make sake as there was no sakamai.  Through years of research, sakamai was discovered. It is just a lot easier to do with sake rice.  The advantage of using sake rice to make sake is the ability to mill (polish) the outer layer of the rice grain which consist of protein and fats, retaining the most important starchy core of the sakamai. Of course, the outermost layer of the rice, the husk, must be removed as well.

Just like grapes in a wine producing world, different regions in Japan specialise in growing different sake rice with the soil and climate playing a role in the terroir.  

The top four most popular sake rice are as follows:

Yamadanishiki : The best sake rice available, also known as the “king of Sake Rice”. It is grown in Hyogo, Fukuoka, Tokushima Prefecture, this sake rice is often used to make more delicate style of premium sake.

Gohyakumangoku : Second most widely used sake rice in Japan.  It is usually grown around Niigata.  It yields light-bodied sake with a fresh, clean taste. 

Miyamanishiki : This high-altitude sake rice grows well in cold weather and produce rich and strong flavor sake.  Best grown in Nagano.

Omachi : One and only pure strain of sakamai that is not crossbreed.  It is grown in Okayama. Sake made with this sake rice have an earthy taste and subtle flavour.

In learning about sake, the list of sake rice is endless, and many other varieties of sake rice one can explore.  While rice alone may not make much impact in sake production, as compared to grapes in wine production, it is still a key ingredient in sake production. The best way to learn about sakamai is to taste and make notes along the way.

P/S: 1st October is an important date for sake as it is the World Sake Day.  It is an annual event held as a tribute to sake. It is also traditionally the starting day of Sake production in Japan.

In 2018, Joshua passed the Master Sake Sommelier examination held by the Sake Sommelier Association in the United Kingdom. That very same year, Joshua is the first Singaporean to win the world’s Sake Sommelier of the Year.”

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