Imagine this: There is a glass before you that contains a nearly colorless liquid, with maybe a tinge of amber or yellow. You might suspect it to be a white wine. If you smelled it, some of the aromas might remind you of wine too. Maybe there is some peach or melon aromas. Even the taste might remind you of a white wine, some delicate citrus flavors. You would probably not consider it to be beer. The glass though actually contains Saké.
So is Saké really a wine, or might it actually be a beer? That is a question which is not as easily answered as you might think.
The term “Saké” is a generic Japanese term that refers to all alcoholic drinks. The term "nihon-shu" (literally "Japanese sake") is a more accurate term but it is rarely used outside of Japan. “Shu” is a suffix meaning “wine” or “wine-like” beverage. Thus, the Japanese consider Saké to be more like a wine, which is probably why Saké is also sometimes known as “rice wine.”
An important preliminary step to determining whether Saké is a wine or beer is to first define your terms. And that is where we run into a significant problem as there are no widely accepted definition of either “wine” or “beer.” You can find plenty of differing definitions, each with sutle but significant differences. So, how you define those two terms will help determine how you answer the question about Saké. The broader your definitions, the more likely you will come up with an answer.
Some who use broad definitions consider wine to be an alcohol made from fruit and beer to be an alcohol brewed from a grain. As rice is a grain, they thus conclude that Saké is a beer. Yet that is a short sighted conclusion, ignoring many other relevant factors. Their definition is far too broad and can lead to silly results. For example, vodka can be made from either grapes or grains yet it is not considered either a wine or beer.
If we look at more detailed definitions, it seems clearer that Saké is not a beer. Most beer contains hops and is carbonated. Saké never contains hops and is rarely carbonated, and when it is, that Saké is considered to be “sparkling,” like wine. Unlike both wine and beer, Saké undergoes parallel multiple fermentations. Simultaneously, koji converts starch into sugar and yeast converts sugar into alcohol. This separates Saké from both beer and wine.
So is Saké a wine or a beer? I like to think it is actually neither and constitutes its own special category. Sure, it shares elements with both wine and beer but it also has significant differences as well. It may seem more like wine than beer, but you lose nothing by considering it in its own category.
Enjoy Saké for its own unique qualities!