WINTER CLASSIC WARM-UP
Full-Flavoured Sake = Amino Acids = Umami = Flavour
Those of us that truly cherish sake already know how our beloved brew differs from all other forms of alcohol; by a process called multiple-parallel fermentation, enabling it to stand alone amongst its peers. What many advocates of this sacred and historic drink may not know is the importance that amino acids play in making sake truly unique. We first heard of amino acids in those lengthy grade 10 biology classes in days long gone; but do we really know (or remember) what they are; that being the basic building blocks/molecules that form proteins.
Amino acids in a sake are known as “amino sando”, which average between 0.7 and 1.5 (much less than wine and even less significant), where amino acids in wine and liquor are at minute levels in comparison. Each specific style of sake has an average amino acid level between 10-20mg of per 100ml of liquid although In general, higher levels are present in more full-bodied (flavoured), rounder, and richer tasting styles. Based on this science you will find higher levels of amino acids in the Junmai classification, and the brewing styles of Yamahai and Kimoto (which can take twice as long to ferment, generally giving these styles the most amino acids of any sakes). The painstaking process needed to form the sake yeast starter mash (moto) for Yamahai and Kimoto seems to be well worthwhile “labour of love” based on the flavour profiles produced (rich, creamy, yogurty, more prevalent acid levels) and the levels of umami present in the finished brew. It features a vigorous mixing by several men with long toggles, taking many hours, to produce a puree of the mash ingredients. It was thought this vigorous mixing, called “Yama-Oroshi” (pole ramming), was needed for the ingredients to properly meld and work together.
In 1909 the “Kimoto” method was developed. Yama-Oroshi was modified to ditch the vigorous mixing, which as it turns out, wasn’t really needed. The modified process was called Yama-Oroshi haishi moto or Yamahai moto for short. Both Kimoto and Yamahai moto depend on lactobacillus bacteria from the air to infect the moto and create the needed lactic acid.
Lower levels of amino acids indicate a lighter, cleaner, and mellower sake, meaning Ginjo and Daiginjo will have lower amino acid levels. These class sakes are made with the Sokujo moto, which added lactic acid at the beginning of the moto. This resulted in halving the time needed to create the moto, protecting it from wild yeast and bacteria (possibly harmful) from the start and lowering the final acid levels. Sokujo moto is the mainstay for sake brewed at present. It produces a cleaner tasting sake. While Yamahai moto is still used in Japan today, it is more of a specialty method used to produce an earthy full flavor sake higher in amino acids, acid levels and “umamaic” properties than the norm.
There are over 300 amino acids present in nature with only 20 of these amino acids present in all living creatures (researchers from Akita Prefectural University found about twenty-three in sake). Among these are essential amino acids which must be retrieved from an outside source (foods) as they are not produced by our own bodies. There are 120 different nutritional ingredients in sake, with amino acids being the most crucial in fighting off potential diseases. While sake also contains many different natural nourishing ingredients such as vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins and dietary fibers, it is the amino acids that give sake its delicate and refined taste, not the case in wine and liquor. Four kinds of amino acids are considered to most affect taste, with additional acids being greatly beneficial to health. Alanine (increases the immune response and skin elasticity, prevents toxin build-up in muscles, and produces sweetness in the sake). Arginine (needed during stress or injury, works to suppress tumors, hinders the growth of cancerous tumors, and produces the bitterness in sake). Valine (stimulant effect on the brain and body, promotes healthy growth in cells and muscles, aids in tissue repair). Glutamine (found as free amino acid and in proteins within sake, aids in protein metabolism, major role in creating umami and pleasant bitterness in sake - as a side note, most wine contains very little glutamic acid). Proline (very present in the skin and other organs, helps with repairs in tissues and organs), Lysine (detoxification of body tissue, major structural role in proteins) and Leucine (important in metabolizing alcohol, protects liver from toxic chemicals and beneficial for brain function). Dopamine and Serotonin are two other important brain-related amino acids that are also found in sake. The balance of these two amino acids is highly critical with high levels of dopamine in conjunction with low levels of serotonin causing irrational behavior that the brain is unable to control
As amino sando (acid) increases and decreases, so follows the levels of glutamate, so reaching an ideal umami level is achieved by adjusting the amino sando levels. The most important discovery is this is that it’s not the mass amounts of these 4 main amino acids that increases the umami, but the levels at which these 4 are integrated and how they interact throughout the final product in unification with the milling of the rice koji. Production and both yeast aerobic and anaerobic processes.
In 1908 Dr. Ikeda discovered that “glutamate” was the main active ingredient in the umami sensation. He took Konbu seaweed, which the stock it made (dashi present day) had been a cornerstone in Japanese cuisine for centuries and associated with great taste; and extracted the glutamate from it. It was long known that the flavours within konbu held the secret to great taste. It was Dr. Ikeda that coined the term “umami” (said to come from “uma’i” a Japanese word derived from a greater Zen term meaning “goodness”). With the discovery of glutamate other ingredients within certain foods were noted for having umami properties. Namely “inosinate”, which is present in bonito flakes, and “guanylate” which is present in shiitake and matsutake stock were discovered. Oddly enough, bonito, matsutake and yuzu are considered the holy trinity in Japanese cuisine with konbu and miso not far behind.
The correlation between umami in food and sake are paramount in creating the highest sensory reaction within body and mind. High umami food ingredients paired with high umami sake produces incredibly pleasing flavours that are hard to emulate via any other food/beverage combination. Based on the list of foods below that are highest in “glutamic acid” we can see many items on this list that are non-Japanese in origin, which creates a great possibility in creating more modern food combinations to be paired with sake creating ultra-high umami flavour. The enigma for chefs and cooks alike is to find the alchemy that will harness the maximum potential of these ingredients based not only on the amount of ingredients, but on the proper portioning and layering of each, in correlation to one another.
FOODS HIGH IN GLUTAMIC ACID
- Fish sauce
- Raw fish (oilier and fattier the better!)
- Fermented tofu
- Anchovy sauce/paste
- Raw Corn
- Tomatoes (the riper, the higher the glutamate)