Science Gives Sake a Modern Upgrade

Sake being poured at the beginning of the Nozawaonsen Dosojin Fire Festival on January 15, 2018 in Nozawaonsen, Japan / Photo by Carl Court
Sake being poured at the beginning of the Nozawaonsen Dosojin Fire Festival on January 15, 2018 in Nozawaonsen, Japan / Photo by Carl Court / Getty Images / Animated by Matthew Dimas

Some of the cleanest-tasting sakes in the world are being made using a modern twist on the same physics principle used in your washing machine’s spin cycle: centrifugal force.

In sake making, the centrifuge separates the fermenting mash, or moromi, into newly pressed sake and what’s called sake-kasu, the leftover lees that are either discarded or used for cooking. By centrifugal force, the heavier sake-kasu sticks to the bottom and side, leaving behind the clear sake.

The classic sake brewery Katsuyama offers an ideal way to sample the effect. It makes two bottles of sake using the exact same mash—Den was made in the traditional way, and Akatsuki was made using the centrifuge. The taste is quite different, the centrifuge-made sake tasting more complex, somehow both cleaner and richer.

So every sake brewery must be utilizing centrifugal force, right? Not so fast. To understand how the centrifuge fits into the greater world of sake-making, let’s start from the beginning.

The sake centrifuge / Photo courtesy Dassai
The sake centrifuge / Photo courtesy Dassai

The Origin of Centrifuge Sake

The Akita Research Institute for Food and Brewing and the manufacturer Kokusan Denki joined forces to create their sake centrifuge, patenting the machine in 2005. Dassai was the first to buy the machine, but their first sake made with it was disappointing.

“It didn’t show a [significant difference] in taste, so people thought the machine was nothing special,” said Euka Isawa, Katsuyama’s head of export and overseas marketing. But in 2006 Katsuyama debuted Akatsuki, which “gave the sake industry a shock,” says Isawa.

“The quality of sake is 80% determined by how it is made, while the quality of wine is largely determined by the quality of grape.” —Euka Isawa, Katsuyama Brewery

The Traditional Method

“Many sake producers believe that the old fashioned ‘shizukushibori’ (trickle or drip pressing technique) is better,” says Chizuko-Niikawa Helton, member of the Japan Sake Brewers Association and holder of their “Sake Samurai” title.

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But Helton goes on to explain that while sake-brewing history goes back more than 2,000 years, and breweries remain proud of their traditional styles, most are open to new machines that assist with rice milling and soaking; as well as sake mash pressing. “All of this makes a huge difference to the flavor and quality of sake,” she says.

Isawa points out that the industry has always been open to new technologies. “It was not until the 80’s that the popular Ginjo-style sake came into the market,” Isawa says. “Before that, we weren’t able to polish the rice so high. The taste of sake is continually changing.”

The Experiments

After the debut of Akatsuki, around 20 breweries bought the machine for the hefty price of around $188,000 each. With such an investment, the breweries were understandably devastated when most of the resulting sake bottlings flopped. Isawa explains that the centrifuge “is not a magic tool” that automatically produces delicious sake. It took two years for Katsuyama to perfect their method.

Helton agrees. “This centrifuge technique is still not a completely established technique,” she says. “It takes so much time and labor to learn how to work this system. The cost to run the machine and the selling price of the sake often don’t match.”

Katsuyama's Akatsuki centrifuge-produced sake
Katsuyama’s Akatsuki centrifuge-produced sake

What Does Centrifuge Sake Taste Like?

So how does the centrifuge change the flavor and texture of the sake? Beverage Manager at Park Hyatt Tokyo, Yasukazu Yokota, has hosted sake dinners with Katsuyama, and pours both Den and Akatsuki bottles. He says that sake made with the centrifuge has “a richer taste and is more clear.” Akatsuki is also about double the price of Den.

Helton says that the machine produces sake that’s softer, lighter and cleaner on palate. “Technically there is no pressing, so the sake gets less stress than the usual pressing procedure.” She goes on to explain that “it means the sake has a minimum of ‘off’ flavors.”

But how does the method change the taste so drastically, when it starts with the exact same stuff? “The quality of sake is 80% determined by how it is made, while the quality of wine is largely determined by the quality of grape,” says Isawa.

Five Centrifuge Sakes to Try

Dassai 23 Centrifuge
Akita Seishu Yamato Shizuku Tornado
Hokusetsu YK35 Shin
Chiyono Hikari Sasanigori Namazake Awazuki
Daiichi Kaika Junai Ginjo Enshinbunri Namazake

The Verdict

Is sake made with a centrifuge worth the extra cost? “Each one that I have tried has been absolutely amazing,” says Helton, naming the Dassai bottle as an example. Her favorite, though, is Katsuyama Akatsuki. “This sake is super luxurious and silky in texture, lighter than other Katsuyama sakes, but it also has a well-balanced rich umami flavor. This balance is hard to find.”

Published on April 9, 2018
Topics: Japan