1. The problem of the term ‘polishing’…
The Japanese term seimaibuai (精米歩合) is regularly translated (especially by automatic translators) as “polishing” in English. This is a huge misunderstanding, since in English the polishing rate expresses what has been removed, whereas the Japanese term seimaibuai expresses the remaining percentage of the rice grain! Thus, for a sake with a seimabuai of 40%, we express that 60% has been polished and that 40% of the rice grain remains.
For the sake of consistency and education, we have decided to keep the term seimaibuai (which we will no longer write in italics), since it is an essential concept in the world of sake, and one with which all amateurs should become familiar as soon as possible.
2. Junmai sake (junmai-shu)
The name ‘Junmai’ means ‘pure rice’, meaning that only the four basic ingredients are used to make sake: rice, water, koji-kin and yeast.
Until 2004, the appellation imposed a seimaibuai of less than 70%, which is why this criterion is still found on certain websites or in certain books devoted to sake. Since 2004, seimaibuai is no longer a relevant criterion and any sake made strictly from the 4 basic ingredients can claim the appellation ‘Junmai’.
3. ‘Ginjo’ and ‘Daiginjo’ sake
It is in these categories that the seimaibuai comes into play: less than 60% for ‘Ginjo’ sakes and less than 50% for ‘Daiginjo’ sakes. To understand the value of seimaibuai, you need to know that we are talking about whole polished rice grains: the more you polish the rice grain, the more likely it is to break, which is why obtaining a high polish (and therefore a seimaibuai of less than 50%, or even much less) is a challenge for the brewers! Fortunately, they have two valuable allies on their side: technology and genetics. Technology has made it possible to obtain a more gentle polishing, which can leave only 10% of the rice grain, and genetics has made it possible to develop rice varieties that are more resistant to polishing (Yamadanishiki rice or its descendant Sakahomare rice, for example).
Since ‘Ginjo’ and ‘Daiginjo’ refer to the seimabuai and ‘Junmai’ to the ingredients, there are sakes with weak seimaibuai made from the four basic ingredients and bearing the names ‘Junmai Ginjo’ and ‘Junmai Daiginjo’.
4. Honjozo Sake
These sakes are made from the four basic ingredients, to which the brewer adds a certain amount of brewing alcohol to round out the aroma and taste. The result is easy-to-drink sake that is a good candidate for a heated sake tasting.
5. ‘Special methods’
Some Junmai and Honjozo sakes are labelled ‘Tokubetsu’. What does this mean?
‘Tokubetsu Junmai’ and ‘Tokubetsu Honjozo’ sake must have a seimabuai of 60% or have been made using a ‘special method’. And since that’s all it says… it’s up to each brewer to interpret it in their own way and decide that their method is ‘special’! It could be the use of tools or vessels that deviate from traditional ones, a particular way of making sake at any stage, a particular type of ingredient, etc.
Although the word ‘Tokubetsu’ does not give any information about the taste, it does arouse curiosity and invites everyone to find out more about the product in question.