The westernisation of Asian food and beverage culture is undisputed. You'll easily find an Asian diner rapping about French wines and Scottish whiskies along Singapore's central food belt. Yet, few Asians know their Chinese rice wines or Japanese sakes.
Sake sommelier Keiji Heng sets the record straight. French wines and Asian rice wines surprisingly share similar histories – Western wine dates back to 4100 BC and Chinese rice wines, 4000 BC. Later, the art of rice wine brewery trickled to Japan.
Like matcha teas or latte, sake quickly rose to become one of Japan's most defining beverages. Although the sake has equal potential for virality here in Singapore, it has never — and might not in time to come — mimic the matcha or European wines' meteoric popularity.
Some of sake sommelier, Keiji Heng's selects are available in Kabuke Singapore.
"There are a few contributing factors," Heng observes. The problem starts from within Japan. "Most sake breweries are small businesses with limited marketing capabilities."
The breweries often splurge on the finest rice and water, but allocate little budget to marketing. "They traditionally go door to door, visiting [shops] and restaurants to persuade them to sell their sake." The industry's dependency on face-to-face sales makes global circulation problematic.
Even when bottles of sake manage the trip abroad, their illustrious stories do not travel with them. "Most labels on sake bottles are in Japanese," Heng adds. "Many places locally serving sake are usually unable to share stories with customers beyond what is presented on the label. [It] inhibits the customer from learning more about the history, heritage and method of making the sake."
The reticent sake industry is, in fact, remarkably exciting. In this trade, it's all about the rice and water. "Water forms the backbone of the sake. It is used in washing, soaking the rice, steaming, fermenting, and dilution to bring down alcohol levels. Water forms about 70 percent of sake."
Water itself is a tedious subject matter. "There is the concept of hard water, kosui, and soft water, nansui, in sake – differentiated by higher or lower levels of mineral content respectively." Sake breweries tend to congregate around ideal water sources. Others who are located further resort to building "piping systems or drill wells to access good spring water." In one of Kobe City's wards, the Nada of Hyogo for instance, travellers will find hard water sources amongst the horde of breweries. In Kyoto's Fushimi ward and Hiroshima's Saijo town are soft water sources.
In the eyes of a sake sommelier, Japan is split into water types and innumerable flavour profiles. It sounds daunting, but Heng stresses that it's simple geographical logic.
Throughout the country, sake brewing begins in autumn, immediately after rice harvest season. When temperatures are low in Northern Japan, for example, rice fermentation "takes place at a slower pace, resulting in sake with lower acidity. The food and sake in this area tend to be cleaner and lighter in flavour." Conversely, in the warmer southern Japan, "fermentation occurs faster". The resulting flavours are robust and punchy.
Majority of sake breweries seek out similar, high-quality water and rice. With near identical ingredients in hand, brewing methods make the game. It boils down to simple science – breaking down rice's starch through acid and yeast into sugars. In the process, bacteria have to be removed without compromising flavour.
All these may sound easy to us right now, but it was a method developed in ancient Japan – one incredibly modern and ahead of its time.
Heng notes that most breweries employ a breakneck method called Sokujo. "This is a modern and most commonly used method now throughout Japan because it only takes two weeks to produce the sake." Fermentation is hastened with the help of cultivated lactic acid. The Sokujo method's flavours are "cleaner, lighter".
But recently a new trend surfaced, harking back to the art of slow sake. "One distinctly different brewing method that has been revived recently is the ancient Bodai-moto method, which uses raw rice instead of steamed rice." The method was reportedly developed in 1200AD, in a time when "sake was exclusively made by monks as a tribute to the gods".
You'd be hard-pressed to find trendy sakes like these in Singapore. Off-hours, Heng visits the "Orihara Shoten at Robertson Quay and Shukuu Izakaya along Stanely Street".
But there's a major setback. "In Japan, sake is usually sold by the glass," so consumers can taste multiple sakes at once. In Singapore, sake is sold by the bottle. If guests were to buy a bottle home, they can't keep it for long. "Most sake have a shelf life".
To him, it's one of the crucial reasons why sake appreciation is not catching on in Singapore. "The cost of trying is a lot higher here."
For now, the art of sake appreciation may remain dormant in Singapore. But when you find yourself in Tokyo, Heng recommends the Kurand Sake Market. "You pay about 3,000 yen to enter and get to try around 100 bottles of sake all night. They have these 1.8 litres bottles that sit in display chillers. You select a cup and help yourself to what you want. The line-up changes with the season." Otherwise, Heng's other favourite haunts include the Sake Stand in Shibuya and Junmaishu Senmon Yata in Shinjuku.
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