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The difference between daiginjō , ginjō, and junmai-shu


There are various terms that are used to refer to sake. Those who have learned a little about sake would have heard terms like daiginjō and ginjō, for example.


The difference between them relates to the extent to which the outer part of the rice grain is removed by polishing. Generally speaking, the more the grain is polished, the higher is the grade of the sake produced from it.


The rice polishing ratio and the classification of sake
Harvested rice that has not undergone any processing to remove outer layer of the grain is called genmai (brown rice). However, few people in Japan eat brown rice. Normally, the outer layer of the rice is polished off before being sold, producing seimai (polished rice).


Rice intended to be consumed as a food (typically as a bowl of steamed rice) is normally polished down to 90% of its original weight. This percentage is known as the rice polishing ratio (seimai buai). A rice polishing ratio of 90% implies that 10% of the outer layer of the rice grain has been removed by polishing.


However, more of the outer layer is removed when the purpose is to make sake. That is because the outer layer is rich in protein and minerals.


Protein is built from amino acids, and the taste of sake becomes too heavy when a large quantity of amino acids is present in the rice used for brewing. Moreover, minerals adversely affect fermentation in the production of sake. To avoid these undesirable consequences, the outer layer of the rice is removed.


Sake is classified according to the proportion of the rice grain that remains after polishing. If the rice polishing ratio is 60% or lower (meaning that 40% or more of the grain is removed), the sake produced with it is referred to as ginjō-shu or junmai ginjō-shu. When the rice polishing ratio is 50% or lower (meaning that 50% or more of the grain is removed), the sake is referred to as daiginjō-shu or junmai daiginjō-shu.


A low rice polishing ratio means that much of the rice grain has been removed, so more rice is needed to produce the sake. As a consequence, both the price of the sake and its grade are higher when the rice polishing ratio is lower.


The term junmai-shu refers to sake made with nothing other than rice, water, and kōji (mold culture for converting rice starch to sugar). When junmai-shu is made with rice of a lower rice polishing ratio, it is referred to as junmai ginjō-shu or junmai daiginjō-shu.


On the other hand, if distilled alcohol (95% alcohol) is added, the resulting product can no longer be called junmai-shu. In that case, if highly polished rice has been used, one just drops the term junmai and refers to the product as ginjō-shu or daiginjō-shu.


Note: These classifications are indicative, and are not intended to be taken strictly.


Improvements in the mechanized polishing of rice
The fact that it is now possible to polish rice to less than 50% of its original weight is largely due to improvements in the machinery used for polishing.


In former times, the task was performed entirely by human effort, treading on the rice with the feet or using tools, etc. Eventually, running water was harnessed to power mills, and it is said that by this method a polishing ratio as low as 70% was achieved.


Nowadays, a ratio of less than 50% can be achieved using machines. Even brewers who pride themselves on making sake “by hand” start with polished rice produced by machine. That’s because it is more efficient and because the polished rice produced by a machine is of far higher quality.


It’s worth mentioning that, even when sake is produced by the same brewer using the same variety of rice, the flavor of the final product will vary greatly, depending on the polishing ratio. The reason for this is that, as was mentioned above, the outer layer of rice contains protein and minerals.


Amino acids give sake a heavier taste, so the higher the polishing ratio (i.e. the less rice is removed), the heavier the flavor of the final product. Conversely, when a larger proportion of the rice is removed by polishing, the resulting sake is clean, light and aromatic.


In this way, the quality of sake is affected by how the rice is polished. Naturally, taste preferences vary from person to person, however, so it’s not true to say that the more rice is polished, the better.


Nevertheless, it is a fact that it is the sake produced from the most highly polished rice that tends to be awarded prizes in competitions.


Normally, the rice polishing ratio does not go any lower than 35%. That is because once the ratio goes below 50% or 60% virtually all of the protein, minerals, and fat present in the outer layers of the grain have already been removed. These figures are kept in mind when brewers make ginjō-shu or daiginjō-shu.

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