Unbeknownst to the average American, sake production has historically depended on the seasons. While this remains true in Japan due to time-old tradition, as sake continues to grow in popularity worldwide, will the time of year continue to dictate the brewing process in places without distinct seasonal phases?
When it comes to the best season for brewing sake, the winter months are widely regarded to be the most optimal. This is mostly due to the fermentation process working best at sustained cold temperatures [32 degrees Fahrenheit to 55 degrees Fahrenheit]. Whereas the larger shuzo’s [breweries] have the necessary infrastructure [air-conditioned facilities and advanced storage systems] to support sake production year-round, smaller, traditional Japanese breweries utilize the peak winter months of January and February to create a more controllable brewing environment. While it is important to understand that traditionally the seasons played a major role in sake production, technology affords many of the major breweries the luxury of producing sake in the spring, summer and fall months as well.
That being said, the months of the year do play a key role in determining which kind of sake is consumed. Naturally, summer provokes a cold sake while hot sake is the drink of choice during the cooler winter months. Sake is an incredibly seasonal beverage, and due to tradition and preference, different brews are created for different times of the year. Below, I’ve selected a few brews I’d like to highlight, each corresponding to a specific season.
Winter: The Katafune Tokubetsu Honjozo Genshu Black is the perfect brew for the colder months. Honjozo’s are typically light and fragrant and were designed to be heated. This exquisite sake offers a full-bodied texture replete with bursts of citrus, mineral and herbal nuances.
Spring: Yamamoto Honke’s “Sound of Water” Ginjo Sake is best served lightly chilled. A superb nose filled with hints of peaches, grapes and persimmons, this delicate sake is gentle and delicate, perfect for those mild and rainy spring days.
Summer: The Heiwa Shuzo Tsuru Ume “Summer Orange” is Summer in a bottle. This sweet and sour Ume Shu is both bitter and refreshing, similar to a Seville Orange Marmalade. The ideal cool-down brew on a hot summer day.
Fall: One of the few cloudy sakes I’d recommend you enjoy heated, The Gozenshu Junmai Bodaimoto Nigori is brewed by the famous brother and sister team at Tsuji Honten. Made using the 1000-year-old Bodaimoto process, this method of fermentation sees the lactic acid cultivated in highly acidic water with uncooked rice before the yeast starter is made. The result is a tart, yogurt and earthy flavor that is a mouthful to describe and taste.
As of 2023, most sake production still takes place in the Japanese islands. While other countries do produce their own versions of sake, the process in Japan is heavily regulated and deeply rooted in tradition and culture. Many of these nations do use Japanese brewing techniques and ingredients, but to nobody’s surprise, this results in a slightly different taste profile due to variations in geography and climate. Moving forward, rather than focusing on whether the seasons affect sake production, we must pinpoint which breweries have the technology that allows them to produce year-round, and differentiate them from the smaller, more traditional breweries that rely on the colder months to brew their sake for the year.