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The importance of water in sake brewing

 

The ingredients of sake are rice, water, and kōji (the latter being a rice mixture in which a mold has been cultured, used to convert starch to sugar). Sake is produced by combining these three.

 

Even when the same rice is used, sake can turn out very differently when different water and kōji are used. In the case of water, the minerals contained in it can determine whether the sake turns out well or badly.

 

Water influences the taste of the sake

Breweries that produce good-quality sake have — without exception — a secure and abundant supply of good-quality water nearby. With a source of high-quality water, choice sake can be produced.

 

That stands to reason, given that sake is 80% water.

 

And water is not used only as an ingredient in the sake. It is also used for washing and steaming the rice, and for washing the utensils. Water truly is vital in making sake.

 

In cases where good water is not available from a nearby river or spring, it may even be delivered to the brewery by tanker. Such are the lengths to which a brewery will go in order to secure quality water.

 

Just as there are particular varieties of rice that are suited to sake production, water from a particular source can be well suited to brewing sake. One of the things that can distinguish a water source is having an abundance of minerals such as magnesium and potassium. These minerals provide nourishment for kōji-kin (the microorganism that converts starch to sugar) and kōbo (the yeast that converts sugar to alcohol).

 

On the other hand, there are also minerals that are detrimental to the brewing process: iron, manganese, and copper, for example. These metals promote the oxidation of sake. Also, because sake with red coloration is regarded as inferior, it is desirable to use water that does not contain these minerals.

 

Nada sake for men, Fushimi sake for women
Nada is a region of Hyogo Prefecture. The water there has long been famous for its suitability for sake brewing. It has come to be known as Nada no miyamizu (Nada springwater).

 

Miyamizu is classified as hard water that is high in mineral content. With the advance of scientific knowledge, it came to be understood that miyamizu is rich in minerals such as magnesium and potassium, and low in others such as iron and manganese. So it can now be scientifically demonstrated that miyamizu produces good sake.

 

Brewing with miyamizu, with its high mineral content, produces a relatively dry sake. The saying “Nada sake for men” came about because it is perceived as a robust drink.

 

In contrast, the water found in the Fushimi area of Kyoto is softer water, relatively low in mineral content. Because of that, the sake it produces is sweeter and has a mellow mouth-feel. That is why the expression “Fushimi sake for women” developed.

 

Why water hardness affects the taste of sake
Hard water is rich in minerals. These provide nutrients for the kōbo (yeast culture) and speed up fermentation. This makes for a sharp, dry sake.

 

On the other hand, soft water has lower mineral content. This makes the fermentation slower, resulting in a sweeter drink.

 

Given that minerals provide nutrients for yeast cultures, it is understandable that it is harder to make sake using soft water. In fact, using the relatively soft water of Hiroshima, fermentation takes some 10 days longer than the fermentation time at breweries in Nada.

 

In Japan, water is soft in almost all regions. However, as noted above, in some places such as Nada and Fushimi, the water is rich in minerals. One of the reasons why sake brewing flourishes in those places is that they are blessed with good quality water.

 

Nevertheless, even in places like Hiroshima where the water is softer, it is possible to make sake. Soft water brewing methods were successfully developed so that even with soft water, by giving the process extra time to proceed slowly, it became possible to produce a mellow sake. As a result of these efforts, Hiroshima is now famous as a sake-producing locality.

 

There are also breweries that take water from the depths of the ocean and, after removing the salt, use it to make sake. So it’s not only spring water or river water that is used for making sake.


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