Sake Sensations: The Acid Trip!
I say it often. Actually, I say it a lot! When speaking about the “benefits’ or positive attributes of sake I usually say that sake has “1/3rd the acidity of wine.” This is a good thing. Especially for those folks who suffer from reflux and indigestion issues. It’s also good for pairing with lightly flavored cuisines. But what really is acidity and why does it have such a varied effect on sake.
Acidity is found in all alcohols. And I like to say that it is the first thing that hits the tip of your tongue and the last thing to leave your palate. It is a mover of feeling and flavor and brewers use acidity to achieve different results for different types of sake. For each sake review I usually give the nihonshu-do (Sake Meter Value) for the residual sugars left in a fermented batch of sake and the “acidity” value. These two information points can tell a lot about a bottle of sake.
When speaking to brewers they will all agree that during the fermentation process keeping an eye on the acidity level is an extremely important part of the brewing scenario. They track the acidity hourly to be certain that it does not get too aggressive thus damaging the batch. Particular brewing yeasts are designed to increase the acidity level in a sake, and others are used to lower the acidity count. In a word watching the acidity during fermentation is extremely “dangerous” to the final product, but what about the acidity in your glass?
Acidity is a tool when talking about tasting a sake. Brewers will use elevated acidity levels to counter balance fruity or fruit forward sakes to make them taste less sweet. Acidity in a sense is a cleaning tool that is used to take down large flavors and balance them out a little bit. This holds true for traditionally made sakes like yamahai or kimoto brews. When you see higher acidity values you know that the acidity is being used to do something in your glass. But what are higher acidity levels?
Typically “Acidity” levels in sake are measured from 1.0 to 1.9. The lower acidity sakes can be considered lighter and cleaner sakes and the higher values equate to more full-bodied or full-flavored brews. The average for acidity is usually between 1.2-1.4. That’s what makes it fun when you see sakes with an acidity of 0.8 or conversely 2.1 or even 5.0, which definitely means it’s a unique type of sake like a kijoshu or super sweet “performance” sake.
When we do our Sake Day celebration in year’s past I have always included an “acidity play” tasting challenge. (On a side note this year is the 10th Anniversary of Sake Day, which is the most fun and smartest sake tasting EVER! And if you have never been it is a must! Save the first Saturday in October and let’s make sake history together!) Back to the acidity challenge. Usually I will select three sakes that have acidity levels of 1.0 or 1.1 – 1.3 or 1.4 – and 1.8 or 1.9 and will let the tasters try to pick which sakes have the highest and lowest acidity levels.
Can you taste acidity? The answer is yes, but you are tasting an action more then the acidity itself. Huh? The acidity as we said is working to do something like clean up the sake or take down the fruity sweet flavor or push a boldness. So yes you can taste the action or result of the acidity. But. But. But! Just wait a second now. Sometimes people feel that they can taste the acidity, but more often then not they are tasting the alcohol in the sake. (But there’s acidity in alcohol! Yup!) Some sakes taste frisky or jumpy and that too is part of the acidity play, so more often then not you can taste the acidity. There’s a lot of acidity play in nama-zake or unpasteurized sakes.
Can you cheat acidity? Yes indeed! Temperature is extremely important when it comes to how much acidity you want to “show.” The colder the sake the less the acidity plays a role! The warmer the sake the more pronounced the acidity action. And “in general” it would be better to serve the brighter, fruitier, fruit-forward sakes more chilled and the big full-bodied yamahai types at room temperature.
So do you want to play with acidity? Herewith are some sakes worth exploring to see how acidity impacts the feeling, flavor and action of a sake.