One of the most interesting aspects of Japanese cuisine is sake. Often praised for its purity, sake can be enjoyed with a wide variety of food, which ranges from fish to meat. Made from koji mold, rice and water, sake is both complex and simple at the same time.
With the food and beverage industry becoming more conscious of healthier diets like gluten-free and vegan alternatives, products are being tailored to fit with evolving consumer tastes. And while sake is enjoyable, it begs the question as to whether it’s suitable for vegans.
Understanding the grades of sake
Before investigating the vegan-friendly qualities of sake, it’s worth understanding the different grades. There are many different blends, but the top four grades of sake are known as ginjo-shu and along with normal junmai and honjozo, make up the six premium sake grades.
- Junmai sake – Made with rice, water and koji without any added alcohol.
- Non-junmai sake – Brewed with rice, water, koji and extra alcohol.
- Futsu-shu – ‘Regular’ table sake.
- Ginjo – Premium sake made with rice milled to 60%.
- Honjozo – Premium sake made with rice milled to 70%.
While there are other types such as namazake (unpasteurised) and tokubetsu (special) sake, the above list is suitable for people who are looking to try it for the first time.
Breaking down the brewing process
By understanding the grades of sake, you can start to think about how each one is brewed and whether it conforms to a vegan diet. Traditionally, no animal products are used in the production of sake, but breweries usually filter it with charcoal. In certain cases, a brewery may decide to use an animal-based gelatin to remove the charcoal.
According to sake expert John Gauntner, most breweries don’t use animal-based gelatin. But it’s important to note that not all sake is filtered with charcoal. Any sake that has not been charcoal filtered is called muroka. Therefore, any sake that is classed as muroka is vegan-friendly because the gelatin wouldn’t have been used.
Going back to grades, it’s safe to say that junmai sake is suitable for vegans because it has been made with only koji, rice and water. The same can be said for junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. Non-junmai sake that has been brewed with extra alcohol may also be considered vegan, so long as no animal-based product has been used in the filtering process.
It’s also worth remembering that most sake is brewed with lactic acid. But the acid is industrially produced from lactic bacteria rather than animal sources.
Trying to work out if sake is vegan-friendly from a label can be tricky. It’s much easier to remember the grades and brewing process. It means you can drink your sake knowing that you’ve found something that suits your tastes.
(This information was gathered from John Gauntner’s Sake: Confidential book. Check out the full review here.)