dec05 cheltenham report isake

December 2005


  • Report 'New Frontiers of Taste' vol.5
    - Isake

    Raise Your Glass to Umami and Sake

    It is fair to say that sake is still something of an unknown quantity to many people outside Japan. An innovative team of sake sommeliers called Isake is trying to do something about that however, by setting the record straight about Japan's national drink, and promoting it as a quality beverage that can be successfully teamed with Western food, partly due to its inherent umami.

    Spreading the Word

    Jean-Louis Naveilhan and Xavier Chapelou are originally wine sommeliers from the South of France. They have teamed up with Kumiko Ohta from Japan to introduce people in the UK and other Western countries to the possibilities of sake. What is more, the fermentation process of the drink creates a good deal of natural umami, which the team sees as one of the drink's great strengths. It was for this reason that they appeared earlier this year at the New Frontiers of Taste Event at the Cheltenham Science Festival (click here for event overview) , to explain just what the connection between sake and umami is.

    In Japan, sake is most frequently encountered served hot in small porcelain cups. In actual fact, such sake can be of low quality, with its poor taste disguised by heating. As Jean-Louis explained however, "today we want to introduce you to the premium quality [sake], the type you drink cold and in a wine glass." He then went on to describe the production process for such sake, which not only accounts for its superior taste, but also for its inherent umami.

    Putting the Umami into Sake

    The basic process involves steaming rice, and then propagating an enzyme (called koji in Japanese) onto it, so that the starches in the rice are broken down into glucose. This process is called saccharification. The resulting mixture is then added to a vat with water and yeast, and left to ferment. It is during this process that the yeast feeds on the glucose in the rice and converts it into alcohol and, more importantly in this case, a variety of amino acids.

    The fermentation process for sake is longer than that of wine. Jean-Louis pointed out that, "fermentation lasts one month, while for wine it is eight to fifteen days. This longer fermentation at a low temperature (11-13°C) will produce up to five times more amino acids than wine." The importance of these amino acids is that they include glutamate, which of course contains the umami taste in its purest form.

    Pairing Sake and Food

    Xavier related to the audience how the Isake team had first experienced the effect of umami in sake for themselves. "Last December we were having a comparative tasting between two wines and a premium Japanese sake, and we found out that not only did sake compliment the taste of the chocolate, but boosted it." At the end of the event, the audience were themselves invited to recreate this tasting experiment for themselves - a task that most were happy to take part in!

    The team went on to describe how the umami present in sake can be put to good use when pairing the drink with food. "In sake pairing, the game is to enhance the flavours by building the umami," said Xavier. "It is the synergy between the amino acids [in the sake] and nucleotides found in food which reveal the umami." In other words, when foods high in the nucleotides guanylate (shiitake mushrooms, morels and oysters) and

    inosinate (pork, beef, tuna, bonito), which are themselves amino acids, are combined with the glutamate in sake, the overall effect is to boost the umami flavour. This synergistic effect of umami also occurs with food combinations, and is a useful way to make food more flavoursome without resorting to salt or other added seasonings.

    The audience at Cheltenham certainly seemed to be convinced by the umami effect. They tried drinking the sweet wine Muscat, followed by a chocolate, before repeating the exercise with port and sake. Several people commented that the sake boosted the flavour of the chocolate in a way the other beverages did not. Another example of umami in action!

    Isake Website:

  • isake

    Traditional sake fermenting

  • Traditional sake fermenting