Farewell to an old, chilled friend – my sake fridge!

Sake FridgeBack in 1991 I traded an answering machine that had a miniature cassette tape in it (remember those?) for a refrigerator. It was made by Sanyo, later absorbed by Panasonic. It was made for medicine. My friend found it left on the street in Tokyo, and it had been left there in such a way that someone who could use it would take it; the manual and key to the door were neatly left with the unit.

He no longer needed it, and I did. Conversely, I did not need the answering machine, but he did. We were both happy with the swap.

The unit was already at least a decade old, making it mid-Showa era. The Showa era seems so long ago; just the sound of the word feels nostalgic. Showa.

But I digress. I needed it for my stock of sake, which was currently taking up too much space in my normal refrigerator, which was empty of food due to the lack of space. At least I had my priorities straight!

It was perfect. It could fit dozens of bottles, if I crammed them in there right – and oh did I do that. Both big one (1.8 liters) and small ones (720ml) could get crammed in just fine.

And it was such a trooper. It stayed with me for 23 years, across five residences. It never stopped working! Sure, it got old and worn a bit – the double-paned glass doors did not fit or slide right and called for the omnipotent duct tape to keep sealed. But it kept my sake cold and in good condition. On top of the 20-plus sake in there earmarked for the short-term, I also had half a dozen or so sake aging away in there – the only part of my life in which I can exercise anything remotely resembling patience.

But finally, I had to let it go. It was so old that it used a ridiculous amount of electricity – something akin to $60 to $80 a month all by itself! And the aforementioned unrepairable gaps made that worse. So we decided to get rid of it and replace it, in time, with a new, modern sleek unit made for sake.

On yet another tangent, sake has been called “Hyaku yaku no chou,” or “The best of 100 medicines,” so in fact, this new machine too is made for medicine. But I digress. Again.

The new unit, as of yet not purchased although it has been identified, will fit many more bottles in a more functional space, and uses but $50 a YEAR in electricity. That is like 1/15th what my old friend used.

Also, it was a challenge to throw it away. It was so old that no one wanted to touch it, as things like that must be disposed of properly. And also, being originally for industrial medicine use, there was no rule in place for taking it from a normal consumer. Huh?

Farewell, old friend!

Finally, we worked through that red tape, and paid a 10,000 yen ($100) fee for the privilege of having my old friend hauled away. So, the change had to come. But I was surprised how attached I was to the old fellah. I will  miss it, for sure. In fact, I already do.



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Terroir in Sake – Does it exist?

I have trouble finding one definition of terroir that more than a couple of people agree with.Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery) After scouring the bodies of wine knowledge out there (read: I poked around the internet for an hour) the ones that rang the most true were along the lines of “characteristics that are region or even parcel-of-land specific” or even more simply a “sense of somewhere,” or something that ties a wine to a very specific place. In other words, for any one or more of a myriad of reasons, the wine could not be exactly reproduced anywhere else.

The question of whether or not sake has terroir comes up with increasing frequency, with the main – and very valid – argument that it might not have true terroir stemming from the fact that the rice used in brewing can be brought in from regions far from the kura (brewery) itself. Heck, brewers from around the country brag about using Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo, even when they are half a country away from Hyogo. That’s a huge chink in the armor of any terroir or regionality argument.

There are those that say it is in the water. The argument goes that since the water cannot be moved, and since the water is tied to a parcel of land, then it is the water itself that defines the terroir of sake. And since sake is like 80 percent water in the end, the leverage is huge.

But, in fact, water can indeed be brought in from a distance, and while not commonly done, it does happen. Furthermore, any parcel of land can have half a dozen water sources and types, depending on where and how deep the well is dug. Also, the water in any one place is really sourced in mountains far away, and it drifts underground for leagues upon leagues before arriving at one spot, and as such there are many places along the way with very similar sources of water. So while the water-is-sake’s-terroir argument is not totally unfounded, I cannot buy into it fully myself.

So, then, does sake have that sense of can-only-be-done-here and cannot-be-reproduced-anywhere known as terroir? And if so, from whence does it hail?

I espouse that it does, and that said terroir is found in none other than the kura itself.

Yes, the kura is but a brewery building. At least on the surface. But integrated into that are the design elements of the toji, or the kuramoto (the brewery owner or business decision maker), and perhaps not even that of the present generation. But the layout/design they have, be it new or 400 years old, is what it is, and is unique in countless ways.

We need to expound on that a bit further, but also bear in mind that in my larger definition of kura here, I include the intention and personality of the toji and his or her supporting cast. Just how that crew works within the physical environment that constitutes the kura will be unique to that time and place, and be impossible to reproduce anywhere else.

We also need to include the nature of the kuramoto as well. Is the owner one who is willing to buy the best rice, in advance, and pay top yen to secure it, or instead string out the toji by pulling strings in the background to get decent rice at better prices. Both are valid approaches! And both will contribute to aspects of a kura that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, especially after having been factored into the overall permutation of things happening at a particular kura.

Also, when the kuramoto and the toji are the same person, or at least the same family, then one dynamic is eliminated. Or another becomes evident – depending on your viewpoint. (Half-full or half-empty?) As this is now the case for about a fourth of the industry, it is indeed a significant aspect of any conversation on sake terroir.

But back to the physical structure of the kura itself. To me, this is where a mark of indelible character is impressed upon what is brewed here. There are countless little things, the aggregate of which makes a given sake simply impossible to recreate anywhere else.

The task of trying to convey this is so daunting I shudder at the thought of where to begin. Let us start with size.

How big is the kura; what is its capacity? How many tanks? How big are the batches? Are they same size for cheap sake as they are for daiginjo? Do they have enough to start a tank a day, or just three a week, or perhaps only one a week? Do they have enough people to watch all of that closely or do they automate? What about temperature control? Is the kura in a cold or warm region? How thick are the walls?

Do they mill in house? How do they wash and soak their rice? How big is the koji room, f’gad’s sake? This is huge. Just how much they can make at one time, and what the attention to detail can be are massively leveraging.

Even little things like how far the koji room is from where they steam their rice is an issue. What about the foyer outside the koji room where they cool it down before adding it to a batch? How does that affect cooling and drying out the koji? Big, big, big in terms of effects on the sake!

What about the yeast starter room? Big or small, refrigerated or not, tightly sealed off orModern Tanks more open? And what of the layout of the fermentation tanks? How do they press the sake? Do they have more than one apparatus that lets the sake tell them when to press it, or do they need to coax the sake to be ready so as to keep on a schedule? How do they do that pressing – with a new machine or an older, traditional one?

Note, none of these factors is unequivocally better than another. All are just different. All contribute to the final terroir of the sake made there.

How do they pasteurize as a rule? How do they store? Distance, pipes, pumps, filters – all of these things have their say in the end.

Then there is the unexplainable. Some yeasts work better in some kura than others. No one knows why. It just is that way. One tank might make consistently better sake than another, by virtue of what no one really knows.

It’s in the kura

Remember that all this is before we even throw in the sake-making techniques themselves, or the skill and intention of the toji (brew master). What rice do they use, what yeast, how far do they mill, how good is their sanitation? What technical methods do they use for the yeast starter – normal, yamahai, kimoto or some variation unique to them?

This list could go on, and for a long time. But where it all leads is to the fact that in any one given kura, there will be a unique set of countless conditions that ensure that the sake made there cannot be reproduced anywhere else.
And therein lies the terroir of sake.

So yes, sake does indeed have terroir – a sense of place, a set of circumstances that ties a given sake to a single place, and it essentially cannot be reproduced anywhere else. And it’s in the kura.

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The 102nd Japan Sake Awards

Late last month, the 102nd running of what is officially known in English as “The Annual Gold medal  sakeJapan Sake Awards” was held. While I feel that the “National New Sake Tasting Competition” is much more accurately descriptive, nobody asked me. But I digress.

As most readers surely know, it is a national blind tasting of sake from most of the breweries in the country. It is prestigious if limited in its applicability to daily tippling. But it is fascinating and revealing of trends, technology, and individual skills. I have written about it almost every year, and so feel free to read about past contests, and different aspects of the completion, in the June issues of this newsletter over the past decade or so, all of which can be found in the archives.

This time, let us just take a perfunctory look at the contest this year. Although this was the 102nd running, the rules have changed from time to time, and apparently there are but 55 appraisals for which clear records exist, at least for contests run reasonably similar to the way they are today.

As a background, let us first look at the state of the sake brewing industry, in just as perfunctorily a way. There are 1818 brands of sake these days, made by 1563 sake breweries with licenses to brew, but of those only 1251 breweries are actively doing business (and less are actually brewing, but I digress again; let us save that for next time).

From amongst these, there were 845 entries this year. Each brewery is allowed one submission per brewing license (and a few do have more than one license). So, in the end, almost all will at least submit an entry. It’s has to be newly-brewed (not matured) sake, and it will almost always be a daiginjo.

So, 845 entries. Of those, there were 233 gold medals awarded for excellence. So, about a fourth. This is typical, I think.

The brewery that has won the most golds over the years is 34 for Saura Co., making the sake Urakasumi of Miyagi Prefecture. Next is 33 for Miyasaka Jozo, making the sake Masumi, from Nagano Prefecture.

The longest streak of golds is held by Saito Shuzo, brewers of Eikun sake, at 14 gold medals in a row. The current active streak is a tie, shared by

Takashimizu of Akita and Koganezawa of Miyagi. Both extended that streak to 11 this year.

All are wonderful accomplishments and a part of the long and rich history of this contest, and its significance to the sake industry.


Sandan-shikomi: What’s the Point?

The sake-brewing process is fairly idiosyncratic. No other alcoholic beverage in the world isYeast Starter Fermenting Away brewed quite like sake is. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the ingredients are added in stages. The first two to four weeks see the creation of a yeast starter, to secure a high population of yeast cells, and after that, the rest of the ingredients are added, again, in stages.

How many stages? Three. Hence the term sandan-shikomi, or “adding ingredients in three stages.”

Once the yeast starter is ready, more rice, water and koji (the moldy rice within which enzymes develop that chop the starch in the rice into sugar for the yeast) are added to that small tank, which was itself created with the same three ingredients.

But it is not all added at once. After the starter has been prepared, enough rice, water andModern Tanks koji are added to roughly double the size of the batch. After letting that sit two days, the size of the batch is again doubled. And, one day later, more ingredients are added to again double the existing size of the batch. So in the end, the yeast starter is about an eighth or so of the final size of the batch. (This will of course vary a bit from place to place.)

What’s the point? Why not just dump it in there all at once, and be done with it? It comes down to strength and vulnerability of the yeast.

Bear in mind that there are only so many yeast cells in the yeast starter. Sure, it is like 200 million per cc of liquid, but apparently that is not enough. If that mixture is thinned out too much, then the yeast becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, from wild yeasts in the environment that will not lead to tasty sake, to other micro-organisms that can adversely affect or stop fermentation of the mash.

So one reason to add the rice, water and koji more slowly is to let the yeast catch up. It will reproduce at its own pace and thereby keep its strength in numbers and its ability to fend off less desirable micro-organisms. It helps reduce the vulnerability of the yeast.

Another way to look at it is in terms of strength. If all the rice, water and koji were add at once the yeast would either be overwhelmed by the sugar and eventually peter out before completing its job. Slowly adding it all lets the yeast handle it better. It is a bit like starting a fire: if you take a match and try to start a big log, your chances of success are not nearly as high as if you use some proper kindling, like leaves and small sticks.

Of course, these days, we can indeed light a big log on fire; all we need is something like a blowtorch or a good dose of chemicals. And, the equivalent of a yeast blowtorch exists in the sake world as well! It’s called kobo-jikomi, or yeast infusion (translation mine).

A freshly started "moto" yeast starterAnd it is what it sounds like: no yeast starter is used; instead, a comparatively huge amount of pure yeast is added to the batch right away, allowing it to ferment a full tank right off the bat. In truth, very little sake is made this way, and it is usually cheaper sake made in huge batches. It is a perfectly valid way to make sake, and the resulting sake is often quite good.

But it is almost never seen in smaller batches, smaller breweries, or premium sake.

So, the hassle-laden sandan-shikomi process of adding the ingredients in three stages is the traditional way to make sake, and one that is in fact unique to sake, and is done to help keep the yeast safe and active. That’s the point.

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