The different types of rice 

When entering the world of sake and the rice needed to make it, rice can be broadly divided into two categories: sake rice, intended for making sake, and table rice, intended for eating.

A few questions arise spontaneously: can you eat sake rice? Can you still make sake with table rice? How are they fundamentally different?

These are the questions we will answer, and more!

What is the fundamental difference between sake rice and table rice?
First and foremost, it’s a question of grain structure: for sake making, the rice grain is polished to remove proteins, vitamins and fat (which tend to produce off-flavours) from the surface layers and thus expose the starch core (called shimpaku in Japanese, literally “the white core”) that will be used for fermentation.
Well, that’s the problem with table rice: unlike sake rice, where the starch is concentrated in the centre of the grain and the proteins, vitamins and fats in the periphery, in table rice everything is somewhat randomly distributed throughout the grain. Whereas the polishing of sake rice makes it possible to eliminate precisely what you don’t want and keep only what you do want, in table rice it is 50-50, and you are never really sure of what you are removing and what you are keeping.

Where does sake rice come from?
Originally, sake rice simply came from a few wild varieties that were used to make sake, since their natural characteristics made them suitable. Nowadays, while some natural varieties are still in use or have even been resurrected, most of the sake rice varieties in use are the result of cross-breeding and genetic engineering to produce better performing rice. For example, with a larger starch core, more resistant to polishing, containing less protein, etc.

Can you eat sake rice?
Yes. Is this a good idea? Not necessarily. Sake rice has unattractive characteristics for eating: the outside is harder and the rice is less nutritious. Sake rice is also twice as expensive as table rice, as it is produced in much smaller quantities. Some restaurants (usually specialised in sake) have started to serve it, for example as onigiri, but these are exceptions.

Can you make sake from table rice?
Definitely. You can even make Daiginjo sake with less than 50% seimaibuai! It’s all a question of taste and know-how: that’s where the experience of the master brewers makes the difference and allows to obtain good sake from table rice.

What are the most common rice varieties?
In table rice, we will present 2 of them:

– the ubiquitous Koshihikari, developed in the Niigata prefecture and now cultivated throughout the country, since this rice represents the largest national rice production. With its rich taste and good elasticity, it is a favourite on the table. The combination with beef is absolutely fantastic!
Hitomebore rice developed in Miyagi prefecture is a sub-variety of Koshihikari found throughout the country, but especially in the Tohoku region. It has larger grains than Koshihikari and is stickier and lighter, so it easily accompanies all kinds of Japanese dishes.

For sake rice, there are the tried and tested staples, but regions often wish to have their own variety of rice, so new varieties have been gaining in reputation recently. It can take decades to develop a new variety of sake rice, so perhaps there is a new variety in the works that will take everyone by surprise soon… There are more than a hundred varieties of sake rice, but here we will present just a few of the most commonly used:

Yamada nishiki
Developed in Hyogo Prefecture in 1923, this rice is the largest production of sake rice, although it cannot be grown on flat land due to the height of its stalk and its large grains which make it very vulnerable to wind. With a starch core of 75% of the grain, very good polish resistance and ease of controlling the development of its flavours during the sake making process, this rice obviously has everything a master brewer wants from a sake rice! It is used to make fragrant Ginjo and Daiginjo sake with a fruity, elegant and complex taste.

The second most produced rice in the country, this rice produced in Niigata and registered under this name in 1957 took about twenty years to establish itself, but its characteristics could not fail to seduce brewers: medium-sized grains with an enormous, well-centred starch core. Sakes made from Gohyakumangoku rice are generally light and crisp, symbolic of Niigata’s “refreshing” style.

This is a wild variety discovered in 1859 and whose genetic lineage accounts for 2/3 of all sake rices, including Yamada nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. Difficult to grow because it is very sensitive to weather and wind, it is not really widespread outside its native Okayama prefecture, which has an ideal climate for growing this strain. A wild variety, this rice has a distinct flavour that shines through beyond the work of the master brewers, something that is quite rare in sake, and which likens it to the notion of terroir so prevalent in the wine world.

Miyama nishiki
The third most widely used sake rice in Japan today, this variety was officially registered in 1978 and is distinguished by its large grains with an opaque starch core. Mainly grown in Nagano Prefecture, this rice is also widely grown in the northern regions of Japan because of its resistance to cold. Its early harvest and ability to give the brewer more leeway in the sake-making process make it a popular rice. It generally produces well-balanced, light and refreshing sake.

Koshitanrei is the latest rice from Niigata Prefecture and is an example of a rice developed by a region to meet a specific need: brewers wanted a local rice that could be used to brew Ginjo and Daiginjo sake. Indeed, the bigger the starch core, the more fragile it is and the more likely it is to break when polished above 50%. This is one of the weaknesses of the prefecture’s Gohyakumangoku rice, so the alternative was to import Yamada nishiki, a rice that is not very compatible with cultivation in cold regions. However, a cross between the two varieties in 1989 produced Koshitanrei rice, registered… 18 years later, in 2007!
The result is a high-yielding rice that is even more resistant to polishing than Yamada nishiki and produces elegantly scented sakes with a light body and soft texture, producing exotic fruit aromas and rice umami flavours.

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