Sake An 'adult' beverage for the sophisticated

With the cherry blossoms approaching full bloom, Washingtonians’ attention traditionally turns to all things Japanese, to commemorate Japan’s gift of the cherry trees nearly 100 years ago.

Among the scores of events that honor this century-old gesture between East and West is the Hay-Adams Hotel’s annual sake dinner — a sold-out affair that takes place tomorrow.

Now an annual rite of spring, the dinner began six years ago when the Park Service was having trouble with insects snacking on the cherry trees. Proceeds from the six-course, $125-per-plate dinner are directed toward the Park Service’s efforts to replenish the trees continuously.

Prior to the 70-person dinner, guests will witness the traditional breaking of the barrel. During this ceremony, Kay Enokido, the chief of operations from the hotel, and Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, will tap and remove the lid of a customary wooden barrel filled with sake.

The sake in the barrel, however, is only one of five that Sake Master Kazuhide Yamazaki will serve throughout the evening.

“More people are becoming aware of high-quality sake” as more becomes available in the United States, he said.

All of his selections will be served cold, which has not always been the case with sake. For years, sake was identified with the teapots used to warm it up and the small ceramic glasses into which the steaming liquid was poured. But this step wasn’t just aesthetic.

“Hot sake is like Hunan cuisine,” said Rintaro Tamaki, a minister of finance at the Japanese Embassy and a licensed sommelier. “You can’t tell how good it is when it’s hot.” Or how bad. The relatively poor quality of most sake dictated that it be heated to smooth out its rough edges.

Those days are mostly gone. While many bottlings are still designed to be served warm, the quality of sake has continued to improve and most quality sake is served at lower temperatures.

Sake is something of a hybrid between beer and wine, with its production and shelf life resembling the former and its taste and body more similar to the latter.

In the first few centuries A.D., sake brewing was, as you might expect, a rather primitive process. According to the esake.com website, one method had rice chewed up by virgins and spit into a large vat to ferment.

Fortunately, things have advanced quite a bit. Sake’s only ingredients are water, rice and yeast, which means that the skill of the brewmaster is paramount. Yamazaki likened sake breweries to American “microbreweries” of beer.

“It’s all about the technique of the brewmaster,” he said, noting that most of them are older than 60 and have served long apprenticeships. “You cannot depend on the rice itself. Just because you’re using the highest-quality rice doesn’t mean you get high-quality sake.”

The brewing process, which takes about a month, involves first selecting the rice and milling, or polishing, it to reveal the pure, inner part of the grain.

Next, the rice is washed, soaked and steamed, before being sprinkled with koji, or rice mold. This begins the fermentation process, which really gets going when water and yeast is added to make a mash. When the brewer is satisfied with the fermentation, the solids are pressed out and the liquid filtered before being bottled, pasteurized and aged for six months.

As with any fermented beverage, quality and styles vary widely. More than 60 varieties of rice are used to make sake, many of which grow only in specific regions and have distinct characteristics.

Other factors that influence the final product are the size of the batch, the degree of automation versus hands-on methods and the degree to which the rice is milled. Generally speaking, the more of the outer shell of the rice that is milled away, the better the sake. In the case of the very best brews, nearly 70 percent of the grain can be milled away.

The end result of the brewing process can range from dry to sweet, but nearly all sakes exhibit flavors more subtle than wine. Alcohol content is in the range of 15-17 percent, surpassing that of most wines.

Sakes are not bottled with a vintage. The vast majority are not aged past six months and are designed to be consumed quickly, not cellared.

Given sake’s relatively clean taste and lower acidity than French wine, choosing a sake to pair with food is not the complex art that wine and food pairing is.

“We might continue one sake from the beginning to the end of the meal,” said Tamaki, regardless of how many courses are served. He acknowledges that might be changing, thanks to the influence of French wine.

“Sake is very food-friendly,” agreed Yamazaki. He said it’s simply a matter of selecting a bottle that is sweeter or drier, full-bodied or lighter.

In selecting the sakes for the Hay-Adams this week, he said, “They gave me the menu, and I just used my best imagination.”

But selecting a menu for a sake tasting is a different matter. “It is very difficult to match,” said Peter Schaffrath, the German chef at the Hay-Adams, who attended a food show in Chicago to generate some ideas.

“I’ve been thinking about it all year,” he said.

So have the city’s sake lovers.