Warm Sake Comeback

I’m tellin’ ya, warm premium sake is the next big thing.

Fall-in-JapanAt the end of this summer, I was a judge in perhaps the most interesting sake competition happening: the Kanzake (“Warmed Sake”) Contest. It is hosted jointly by the Sake Bunka Kenkyujo (Sake Culture Research Institute) and Slow Food Japan, and is just what it sounds like: a tasting competition for warmed and hot sake.

There were 30 judges, and we assessed 633 sake from 223 kura. The contest reminded me of just how good warmed sake can be (OK, scratch that: I never forgot that for a moment), and made me feel that the time to promote it again has come.

There were several classifications based on price and temperature. I was judging the “reasonably priced, hot” group. Directly to our starboard was the “reasonably priced, warm” sake group. There was also the “expensive warmed sake” group and the “less than fully orthodox sake, warmed” group.

As we tasted, I was struck by how a few degrees in temperature change could make a big difference. Sake Warming Ultimate ToySince ours was the “atsukan” (i.e. hot, not warm) division, it had to be pretty hot. And it would inevitably cool down as we worked our way through each flight of several sake each. So we had to rush a bit to get through them all while we could still consider them atsukan. Easier said than done.

From time to time there were selections that were actually better when a bit cooler, down into the lukewarm range known as “nurukan.” However, we were to judge them on their merits when hotter, and so, alas, we had to ding ‘em.

So the temperature range makes a big difference.

The results are here, although the document is in Japanese.

However, more important than just which sake did well, the fact that warm sake is returning to the minds and hearts of consumers after a couple of decades of chilled-only premium sake is deliciously refreshing.

Tokkuri, Guinomi, photo courtesy Robert YellinNot just any sake can be warmed; it has to be right for it. That means it needs to have the right flavor and aroma profile. But that is not rocket science. Just taste it. If you think, “Hey, this opens up at room temperature.” then try warming it. Sake with earthy, bitter or even sweeter elements goes well warmed. Conversely, most fruity sake is not suited to warming.Yet there are lots of great ginjo that are in fact enjoyable if not better warmed.

Why do they heat sake? There are several theories, but most point to health reasons. Putting warm sake into your core when it is cold out was considered much healthier. Today, some say that warm sake is gentler on the body, but I am sure just how much you drink supersedes that. Regardless, sake has been enjoyed warm in Japan for centuries upon centuries, and it is only when ginjo started to become popular in the early 80s that chilled premium sake became so popular.

Note, sake was also sometimes enjoyed chilled long ago as well. So, not all sake was hot.

One massive misperception is that good sake is drunk cold, bad sake is drunk hot, and they heat it to hide the flaws. Poppycock.

No brewer in the history of the industry ever tasted his product and said, “Whoa. This stuff sucks. Let’s tell everyone to heat it and fool ‘em.” Never. To be sure, heating rough sake will hide the flaws. But that is not why they do it.

Tokkuri guinomi daimonCertainly, most – if not all – importers of sake know this. But almost none will promote this truth. But hey, I can actually understand that as polarizing a topic makes it easier to convey to the masses, and there is a job to do. Surely getting more and more people to at least try premium sake is a higher priority.

But hey, it is nearing the time to transcend that and move on to the next level, and that is learning how good the right sake can be when warmed.

The revival of warm premium sake in Japan has led to a whole lineup of new toys. Vessels for warming sake and keeping it warm are easy to find now, as are thermometers for measuring the temperature. Just do an internet search an “sake warmers” and see what comes up.

How does one heat sake? In short, indirectly. The best way is to take the vessel into which the sake has been poured and put it into a pan or pot or kettle of just-boiled water. Do not put it in boiling water as the temperature will cause some of the alcohol to blow off and skew the flavor profile. As it warms, sip it from time to time. Keep tasting it until it is just where you want it. A microwave oven will work in a pinch, although it is admittedly not quite as good.

How hot is hot? Ah, if only it were that simple. But try it a little warmer than we are. Maybe 40C to 44C, or 105F to 113F is a good ballpark figure. Each sake will be a bit different, and each person’s preferences will be as well, so the permutations are endless.

Tokkuri (traditional sake flasks) are cool but not obligatory. The same goes for o-choko (cups). But these too are readily available via sake stores, Asian supermarkets, and the internet. Heck, a tumbler or tea cup will work in a pinch. Try it. The time has come. We gotta start somewhere.

It is not rocket science, in fact, it more art than any science.

The point here is to encourage you. If possible, start with a sake that might be recommended as suited to warming. Then learn to look for earthiness, richness and perhaps less prominent aromatics. Then branch out from there to find your preferences. Go bonzo.

Warm sake is set to make that long-awaited comeback. And remember: you heard it here first.

Hiya Oroshi

Fall is Hiya-Oroshi time…and its lack of legal standing

Like almost anything consumable in Japan, sake has its seasons. Examples include warm sake in the winter, nama (unpasteurized) sake in the spring, slightly toned down chilled ginjo in the summer.

And overall, perhaps the best season for sake is the fall. Like, now. Just about everything seems to taste better in the autumn, especially in Japan. I dunno… maybe it is the mercifully cooling temperatures and dryer air, or perhaps it is the yellows, oranges and browns of the foliage. It may even be that so many varieties of fish express fuller and richer flavors once the fall sets in. Whatever the combination of factors may be, it is surely a great season for enjoying sake. In fact, it is one of the top four, methinks.

There is a special type of sake called hiya-oroshi that is released in the fall that has an irresistible charm to it. The word hiya-oroshi has its origins back in the Edo period (1604 to 1868). Back then, finished sake was stored in the large wooden tanks used for brewing. Normally, this sake had been pasteurized once (by heating it for a short time) before being put in these tanks for maturation. If the brewer needed to ship some out, they would have to pasteurize the sake a second time before putting it into small wooden casks – called taru – for delivery.

This is because the outdoor temperature was still high in the summer, which would allow the sake to Rice paddy sunsetbecome warm enough where dormant enzymes and the lactic bacteria that fed on them could both become active, potentially sending the sake awry. A second pasteurization permanently deactivates these enzymes and “dispatched” any bacteria present, removing that fear, but taking at least a bit of the zing of the sake along with it.
However, once it became cool enough in autumn, brewers could fill their taru from the storage tank without pasteurizing the sake, and ship it with no fear of it going bad. The lower temperatures of autumn ensured nothing bad would happen. Such sake – sold in the fall without pasteurizing a second time before shipping – came to be known as hiya-oroshi.
Hiya means cold, and oroshi means to lower something; in this case, sake was lowered from the tank into the taru.

Note that hiya-oroshi is technically the same thing as nama-tzume, i.e. the second of normally-two pasteurizations is foregone. But nama-tzume is a purely technical term whereas hiya-oroshi has a seasonal implication, i.e. it is only released in the fall.

The problem is, though, that the term hiya-oroshi is not a legal definition and is therefore open to variation from brewer to brewer. In other words, it’s the usual fun-and-games of the sake world: a term on a label means a particular thing – unless it doesn’t.

And, also typical of the sake world, the industry maintains the spirit of it all – what is important is intact, even if the details vary a bit. Almost always, hiya-oroshi will be slightly young and vibrant. That much is consistent from brewer to brewer.

But lately there has been a spate of totally unpasteurized hiya-oroshi out there. So while usually, by definition, the second of the two pasteurizations was skipped, some brewers skip both and ship hiya-oroshi as totally nama. And, in fact, I have even encountered some twice-pasteurized hiya-oroshi out there as well. Huh?

Why? Because they feel it suits their style better. How can they get away with this? Because hiya-oroshi is not a legal definition. In the words of Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean, “They’re more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Pour sakeHiya-oroshi – whether pasteurized just once as is traditional or not – often has a bit more of a fresh, lively taste to it than other sake. While not as brash as freshly pressed sake, there can be a slightly youthful edge to it because it has not been laid down as long as most sake has. Naturally, this varies greatly from sake to sake, and from kura to kura.

Furthermore, there has been a half-baked movement over the last decade or so to release all hiya-oroshi on September 9, a day known as sekku, recognized as a turning point in the seasons. But even amongst the regions that push this, no one has gotten everyone to agree to do that. As such, the dates on which it is released vary greatly as well. No matter. It is always about early September, and spreading it across a few days helps keep the hype restrained.

While mostly a local, fresh product that is widely available in Japan for a short period of time, some of it does get out to other places in the world as well. Look for it at a reputable sake shop near you.


Sake Professional Course in New York City, December 7-9

All you need to know about sake! The next Sake Professional Course is scheduled for New York City, December 7 to 9, 2015. The venue is smaller this time and participation is limited to 40 people. It is just about half full, or half empty, depending on your perpsective.

More information is available here, and testimonials from graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day course wraps chokko_smallup with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me.

Following that, the next one is tentatively scheduled for Japan in January, and then the spring in Chicago. If you are interested, feel free to send me an email to that purport now; I will keep track of your interest!

Omachi Rice and the Omachi Summit

riceSake, like much about Japan, is refreshingly simple at first. One need know so little to enjoy it almost immediately. But just below the surface, sake and everything about it become fascinatingly intricate and multifarious, yet also fraught with exceptions and vagueness. And so it is too with rice.

Sake is brewed from rice. Surely we all know that much. There are about 280 varieties of Japonica rice grown in Japan, and most premium sake is brewed from special sake rice (called shuzo-kouteki-mai) of which there are about 100 varieties. Each has its own characteristics; size, starch and protein content, solubility, and preferred climate can be different for each.

And yes, while different rice varieties lead to different flavors in the final sake, it is not as tight a connection as it might be for grapes-to-wine.
The biggest reason for that is that each master brewer can coax the rice to behave in a prescribed way, leading to totally different sake styles from the same rice. Nevertheless, if one tastes enough, it is indeed very possible to see threads of familiarity and style that run through sake made with the same rice.

The most popular and widely grown sake rice is called Yamada Nishiki. About fourth on the list is one called Omachi. Ah… Omachi.

Late last month I attended what is called the “Omachi Summit.” The fact that this event exists at all divulges much about the sake-and-rice industrial complex of Japan.

To short-circuit a potentially long-winded explanation, with but a couple of exceptions, brewers do not more ricegrow their own rice. It is instead grown by individual rice farmers (i.e. not business entities) and is distributed primarily but not exclusively through a network of agricultural co-ops for which we will use the general term “Zennoh.”

And Zennoh is a proper, structured organization with business objectives and a corresponding marketing arm. And the Okayama Prefecture branch of Zennoh is who is behind the Omachi Summit, with this year being the seventh running.

The Omachi Summit is a contest / tasting / party to assess and celebrate all the sake made using Omachi rice grown in Okayama. Note, the sake can be made elsewhere, but the rice has to be grown in Okayama to be a part of this gala affair. Omachi rice can be and often is grown outside of Okayama. But Okayama is its birthplace, and without a doubt the best source for premium Omachi rice.

A bit more about this vaunted rice variety: Omachi was originally discovered in 1866, in a village of the same name in the western part of Okayama Prefecture, where almost all Omachi is grown. It is, for what it is worth, the oldest pure (i.e. not a product of cross-breeding) rice variety in Japan, and was one of the three most widely grown varieties in Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Back then it was also popular as a table rice.

But its suitability to brewing great sake soon became obviously apparent, and more and more brewers in western Japan began to use it. In fact, once upon a time, it was almost common sense that Omachi should be used when brewing top grade sake for contests and such. This was before the days of Yamada Nishiki, and other crossbreeds, of course.

However, it’s very long stalks made it hard to grow and harvest by machine, and so farmers stopped growing it. It wasn’t until the mid ’80s that anyone really began to grow it again – a side effect of what was known as the ginjo-boom. It has become so popular that now it is the fourth most widely grown sake rice in Japan.

As mentioned, Omachi itself is a pure rice strain, unlike most sake rice varieties. But it is found in the “family trees” of 60 percent of all sake rice grown today. How’s that for a stud of a rice!

150605_omachi_chirashiAt the event, there were about 150 sake from about 100 kura spread across 31 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Obviously there are more using Omachi, albeit grown outside of Okayama. They were tasted and scored by a panel of judges, after which we were free to taste and assess ourselves.

So, what does same made from Omachi taste like? In short, it is much more earthy and decidedly herbal than fruity and flowery. Aromas are in general less prominent than they might be with sake made with, say, Yamada Nishiki. The individual flavor components compete against each other in a healthy way, as opposed to blending harmoniously, as they might with Yamada Nishiki. I like the term “herbal, broad and striated” when describing the flavor profile of sake made using Omachi. While hardly an appetizing term, it does conjure the nature of sake made with Omachi, at least in my mind.

In his short speech, the tasting panel chairman explained how the judges were encouraged to look beyond aromas and avoid selecting sake based on alluring bouquets, instead assessing those flavor-driven facets that make Omachi-brewed sake special. Still, it seemed that most of the awarded sake on the tables had quite prominent aromatics. Yet there was also plenty of sake with all kinds of interesting things happening: spice, tartness, astringency, breadth and complexity. While some of these were in need of a bit of fine tuning, you could see where the brewers were trying to go. And you felt like encouraging them in that effort.

The event highlighted and reinforced many things about Omachi. It really is an awesome rice, and sake made using it can be character laden, extremely interesting and tasty to boot. And it is growing in popularity as well. More and more younger brewers are using it, so much so that there was not enough to go around this year. Surely Zennoh Okayama will do their best to alleviate that next year!

In the end, it all supported the truth that Omachi is a very interesting rice, and one well worth studying.

But then again, aren’t they all?

Sake Professional Course in New York City, December 7 to 9

All you need to know about sake!The next Sake Professional Course is scheduled for New York City, December 7 to 9. The venue is smaller than usual so that only 40 seats are available.

More information is available here, and testimonials from graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day course wraps chokko_smallup with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me.

This will be the last Sake Professional Course this year (after all, it does take place in December!); the next one after that in the US will be next spring.  If you are interested, feel free to send me an email to that purport now; I will keep track of your interest!