Sweet Sake BrewsWritten by Beau Timken
I have been saying it for years! A starch sweetness is far more muted than a grape juice sweetness. Huh? Converting a starch into a glucose produces a far more mellow “sweet” taste than simply crushing a grape. So! Well – that is why I still have to pound wine drinkers, who think in terms of wine when they speak about their sake likes and dislikes! “I don’t like sweet sakes.” “I only like dry sakes!” Etc etc. To which I say “Oh really!” Yes – really I say that – “Oh really?”
Don’t get me wrong – some sakes can be sweet, but they are made that way for a purpose. But on the whole – so-called sweet sakes are really not that sweet (in general). Why? Again, back to the basics. Sake is a starch. Rice is a starch. It is not a fruit – I know there are many eaters out there who wish rice were a fruit – but alas it is not. Thus we must convert that “starch” into a glucose by breaking long chain starch molecules into shorter chained glucose “goodies.” Throw in some super charged yeasts and those sugars get converted to alcohol. This is a two-step process, which has more in common with beer making. It is however different than wine making, which produces far more “sweetness” in a juice form.
What are you saying? I will tell you what I am not saying! I rarely use the word “sweet” when describing sake – I will say “fruity.” (And this brings me back to my initial introduction to sake when I tasted honeydew melon in a brew and asked, “How in the hell can rice and water taste like fruit?”) I will also use varying shades of the word sweet – “This brew drinks more rich than sweet.” Why? Because consumers fear sweet like the plague. Sweetness to many is a dirty or vulgar word along the lines of “liberal or conservative.” Sweetness to many is a mindset – why? Because of wine and the sweetness associated with it. I laugh when folks think of sweet dessert wines when talking about sake.
So I use the term fruity! It works. But sometimes I will get those few who say “I don’t do fruity!” And it’s back to my shades of sweet. “Do you like natural fruit sweet – pear, apple, melon, and berries?” Or “Do you like manufactured sweet along the lines of powdered sugar or a nughet?” Or “Do you prefer rich sweet ala maple syrup, caramel, and toffee?” They are there – they exist! But it is so damn hard saying that a sake is sweet when it is really not that sweet in the grand scheme! Wait! Isn’t there a system or a code that speaks to the sweetness in relative terms of sake? Yup! Ye’ol Nihonshu-do!
The Sake Meter Value is the measurement of the residual sugars in a particular sake. The brewers use a hydrometer that essentially floats sugars on water to produce a reading– the higher the number the dryer the sake and the lower the number the “sweeter” the sake. Please see our “Need to Know” section on the website for more information on this. One of my personal advantages to learning sake on my own was that I did not know about the SMV. I was not bound by what a sake “should taste like” according to an instrument. That said I needed a way to track the sakes that I was tasting and recording so I developed my own system – a straight line with arrows on either end. Guess what it said! In one direction – the left side was “Sweet” and the other direction – the right side was “Dry”. I then used a number system from 1-10. This was way before I ever sniffed the Nihonshu-do. (I’m pretty proud of that!) But there I was guilty of saying and using the word sweet – only when I went into retail did I try to curb this speak!
To this day I still use my crude 1-10 scale on every sake that I taste and review. Why? I get all the statistical information about each sake in any case – isn’t that enough? I know the “official” SMV – why do I need to use my layman’s scale? Because quite simply a sake sometimes does not drink according to it’s measurements. For example I could know that a certain brew has an SMV: +2 but it actually drinks a little more dry – like a 4 or a 5 on my scale. Likewise a brew could have a higher/dryer SMV :+6 and drink far more fruity/sweet along the lines of a 2 or 3 on my scale. What’s the point? The point is – don’t get hung up on sticking to the system and picking your brews by shades of sweetness. You will cheat yourself out of some great sakes.
Lastly, by avoiding “sakes” you could very well be denying yourself better “bodied” sakes with more complexity! It’s true! And it is my personal belief that when a brewery tries to make dry sake – they do so at the expense of texture, feeling and yes – body! By allowing the yeast to eat more of the glucose – I sometimes feel that this thins out the brew – to the effect of a dry and clean sake. Rare is the day that I will find a bone dry sake that has layers of flavors and tons of body. Yet, the opposite is true for sakes with some sweetness (albeit muted) that have loads of body and deep expressive flavors.
Now your homework: Check out our inventory and grab four or six sakes with the same SMV and do your own investigating. Of course the “Acidity” may differ, but the overall purpose is to see the shades of “sweetness” – to discover that perhaps even though you don’t like sweet wines – there is a chance that you will like “sweet” sakes. We have a great collection of brews that represent this point well. There are also a new breed of “New World” sakes that are specifically made to be sweet – to appeal to younger drinkers and women, who consider sake to be dry and boozy. They are typically lower in alcohol and drink bright and fruity!
Quit playing the “Drying Game” and get your sweet on!