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Is Sake Gluten Free?

Sake: The Gluten-Free Option for Your Next Happy Hour

What is Sake?

Have you ever had Sake? Sake is a Japanese adult beverage that has been around since at least the 8th century CE. It is sometimes referred to as Japanese rice wine because it is a fermented rice beverage. Despite its similarities to wine, the process by which it is brewed is more like brewing beer than fermenting a wine. Typically Sakes are aged at least a year to be considered a fine sake. The strongest of Sakes, undiluted, can contain alcohol by volume of 20 percent or more. Although most Sakes are generally between 15 percent and 20 percent ABV. An interesting fact about the production process is that the strains of rice used to create the sake are milled to remove the outer layers which reduce the grain by up 70 percent of the original size.

Ingredients of Pure Sake

There are a total of 4 main ingredients in Sake. Not rocket science but it does take some skill and know-how to produce this ancient Japanese alcoholic drink. These ingredients are water, yeast, sake rice, and koji mold. Let’s take a look at each and how they contribute to the brewing process.

1) Water

Water is a huge part of the overall composition of Sake. In fact, 80% of Sake is actually water, H20. The type of water also plays a big factor in the taste of the Sake being produced. If soft water is used, it normally is quite low in minerals which will produce a cleaner, lighter version of Sake. This type of water is generally sourced from spring water or water produced from snow melt. If well water is used the yield will be a richer, more robust style of Sake. Well water is generally hard water which contains a higher mineral content than soft water. Needless to say, the type of water used has a big impact on the final Sake product.

2) Yeast

There are generally 2 types of yeast used for cooking or brewing. Baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast. Brewer’s yeast is what’s used when making Sake and is described as a wet yeast. This type of yeast is essential in fermenting Sake, wine, and beer. It is a microorganism that produces alcohol but also gives off acids and carbon dioxide. This microorganism takes 20 billion yeast cells to weight just one gram. They obtain energy and grow by digesting food. It’s a small but important component of the fermentation process.

3) Sake Rice

Did you know there are 36 major types of rice? Sake Rice is just one of them. Most strains of rice are for cooking, however, Sake Rice is quite different than the cooking variety. The actual term for this type of rice is Sakamai. It is grown only for making Saki and has good water absorption. Table rice can be used for some Sake brewing as well and is often used as a substitute as it is much cheaper.

4) Koji Mold

Yes, mold is an ingredient in Sake. For most people, this would be a show-stopper. Most people would probably be surprised to hear that mold is actually used in other foods like salami and cheese. Koji is actually an ingredient in many Japanese cuisines in addition to Sake. There is Sake, miso, and soy sauce in addition to others. Koji is also the “National Mold” of Japan. The Koji mold spores are sprinkled onto the rice grains, and grown on the rice over the course of a couple of days. They convert the starch in the rice grain into sugars that are fermentable. The yeast then eats the creates with then creates the alcohol component of Sake.

Can You Drink Sake if You’re Gluten Free

Drum roll please… YES you can for the most part. Even though Sake is made mostly from water and rice, it may not always be gluten free. You still have to be vigilant if you have a gluten sensitivity. Most premium Sake is natually gluten-free. However, non-premium Sake may not be safe for a gluten free diet. Continue ready to understand the differences between the two.

Difference Between Premium and Table Sake

Just like with most other types of adult beverages, Sake does have different levels of quality that will have an impact on your naturally gluten free diet. The main difference between the 2 has to do with the 2 specific factors. One has pure alcohol been used, and two, how much of the grain is left after polishing. Table Sake also known as Futsu-shu, has the majority of the market and represents about a 70% share. The requirements are not very stringent as it only needs to be pressed after being brewed from rice. It is known as the non-premium Sake. The premium sake is brewed only with rice, water, yeast, and koji and has less pure distilled alcohol than the table sake. For those of us with a gluten intolerance, the premium version is the best option.

How is Sake Packaged

If you’ve ever been to a Japanese Hibachi restaurant you’ve probably enjoyed some Sake or seen someone who did. They typically bring it out in a condiment bottle that can be used for cooking. Although many times the chef will offer drinks, from the bottle across the table, to anyone who dares to try it straight out of the bottle. But what kind of bottle does it actually come in? I’ve not actually ever seen it in the bottle so I wasn’t sure either until I did some research. So Sake is bottled in something called a Sake barrel. Since ancient times, the Japanese have used a Sake barrel as a container to carry Sake. It gives the Sake wood aroma flavor and is wrapped in Japanese art. Below is an image of one to illustrate the awesome art.

Sake Barrels
Sake Barrels

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there isn’t one right answer. As with a lot of gluten free diet restrictions, you need to make sure the exact type of Sake you are considering is gluten free. For the most part, all premium Sakes are gluten free but it is important to double-check before consuming to insure it is safe to drink.

Sake: How it’s Made