While water, the biggest component of wine, comes exclusively (at least in France) from the water contained in grapes, it’s not true for beer, whiskey or sake. (Re)discovery of this essential element for the quality of sake.
The symbolic of water (mizu) in Japan
Source of all life on Earth, water has a really special importance in Japan, in everyday life, in art or in religion.
Lucky people who already visited Japan have noticed that the bathroom is certainly the most important room in the house. You can wash yourself with a shower and relax in a bathtub (you don't wash in your bath!) the bathtube water is kept at the right temperature for the whole family.
Onsen, supplied in water from hot springs, are still popular for japanese people. Here again, after washing you body, you can enjoy different baths, sometimes with therapeutic virtues, while conversing with your neighbor. Nudity makes the social meeting possible without the filters of society.
Speaking about art, we cannot forget the Hokusai wave. In fact, this print made in 1830 or 1831 is called The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The first of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series, it illustrates, among other things, the power of water, which can be as calm and nourishing in the rice fields as it can be furious and devastating at sea.
In terms of religion, water is once again very important. So, when you go to pray in a Shinto shrine, in order to present yourself in front of the kami or the deity washed of its impurities, you must purify yourself before going to pray. This symbolic ritual is take place in the Temizu-ya, a fountain usually located at the entrance of the shrine. You purify your hands and your mouth which we will be used, the firsts to invoke the divinity (by clapping two times), and the other one to pray.
Water and sake
Even when it’s steamed, there is not enough water in the rice to extract enough liquid even if it's pressed hard.
In sake, you have approximately 20% alcohol, sugar, amino acids and other elements and therefore 80% water. In addition to the water that will make up part of the sake, we will use it throughout the sakeification process.
The qualities are very important for the final quality of the sake.
It was in the 19th century that the owner of two sakagura discovered that the difference in quality between their sakes did not come from the equipment nor from the work of the Toji - sake masters - but from the qualities of the water used. The first, coming from the Rokko mountains, was full of phosphorus, potassium and calcium and, in addition, contained very little iron.
“Stronger” than other Japanese waters, the water from this region would give “masculine” sakes - I leave the responsibility for this expression to the Japanese - because it is straighter and drier. In the other way, softer water would give rounder sake.
Beyond these gender considerations, sakaguras are generally located in regions where the water is naturally pure and whose composition allows the creation of quality sake.
Usually from wells or natural sources, sakaguras look for water containing especially magnesium and potassium essential for the work of koji-kin (fungus allowing the transformation of starch into sugars) and yeasts (allowing the transformation of sugars into alcohol).
At the opposite, iron and manganese should be avoided, as they lead to brown colors, premature aging and flavor deviations.
The contents of the various elements are closely monitored especially for the last two, the sakagura not hesitating, if necessary, to filter the water to eliminate undesirable elements.
The multiple uses of water for creating sake
Sake water is classified under two categories: water for sakeification and water for bottling.
Water for sakeification has 4 uses:
- it will be blended with the rice before fermentation to become sake
- it will be used to wash the rice to remove impurities and rice dust following polishing
- toji will soak the rice in it to soften it before steaming
- it is used to steam rice and for all the cleaning of the equipments
Water for bottling has 3 uses:
- with it you can adjust the alcohol level of the sake
- the bottles are washed before bottling
- you can pasteurize the sake and clean the equipment
As we can see, water is everywher during the process of obtaining sake. Depending on the region and the techniques, it will influence the taste and the final texture of nihon-shu.
Sake water should be tasteless, odorless, colorless and transparent, but today some sakaguras make it tasted to professionnals and amateurs and even sometimes bottle it, in order to show the taster the connection to the origin of their sake.