The fact that a great deal of saké is made from just four ingredients can come as quite a shock. How can a Nigori style have distinct flavors of cherry, coconut or honey? And why do I detect floral and melon notes on the nose of my Daiginjo? The answers generally boil down to two factors: 1) A master brewer’s selection of each type of ingredient and 2) The brewing techniques they utilize to achieve their vision. We’ll be describing the core four ingredients over the next few months, breaking each ingredient down to show how minute differences can impact the taste, aroma, and quality of any given saké. Today, let’s talk water.
It might seem obvious that water is a necessary ingredient since rice has no juice to press out, but it is often overlooked. Saké is about 80% water. From a utility standpoint, as long as the water is clean it is generally suitable for brewing saké. However, in premium saké, water composition matters a great deal which is why seasoned saké drinkers can often connect flavor characteristics to unique regions. Like beer, saké is brewed where the quality water is rather than where the grain or other ingredients are cultivated. Also, similar to beer, water makes up over 80% of the final product. So, it is important.
While the benefits of certain minerals when it comes to brewing varies, iron is universally considered undesirable. Iron will cause saké to darken and create unwanted aromas and flavors. It is also known to hasten the aging process. Manganese interacts with light causing saké to become discolored and dampen the overall look and character. Good elements in brewing water include potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid. These aid propagation of yeast and development of Koji. Depending on the style of saké, the mineral levels or ‘hardness’ can create varying levels of bitter/dryness or fruity/floral Ginjo style flavors.
Soft water usually yields a gentler, lighter body, while hard water yields a more robust fermentation which transitions into the final product. In general, saké breweries in soft-water havens such as Kyoto and Hiroshima do very well producing contemporary and more fragrant styles of saké while breweries in mineral-rich areas such as Kobe continue creating and iterating upon more classic styles. From Futsu to Diaginjo, modern brewing technology has enabled breweries all over the world to produce a wide variety of saké styles within each brewery.
SakéOne’s founder chose Oregon because he believed that the best quality water for saké brewing was in the Northwest, specifically on the east slope of the coastal range in Forest Grove, Oregon. Boy was he right!
When enjoying your saké, take a moment to note where it was brewed so you have yet another tool in your toolbox that will help guide you to a new favorite.
Fun Fact: Many large breweries possess the ability and technology to filter elements out or add elements into their batch water, giving the brewery an added dimension of versatility when brewing styles that would otherwise be difficult using regionally sourced water as-is.