Search Results for: ginjo

Great moments in sake brewing: how ginjo got to be ginjo

funnelAlthough brewers have been working on making better and better sake for, heck, 900 years or so, the last century or so has been fairly exponential in terms of gains in sake-brewing methods and technology.

Even though we can say that, for many centuries, sake-brewing has remained basically the same, in fact there have been many changes. From just about 100 years ago, technology and science began to augment the well-entrenched experience and traditions of brewers.

Often, we hear that ginjo sake is leaps and bounds better than the sake of yesteryear, replete with complexity of flavor and fragrance that allow it to be appreciated as a such a premium beverage. Let’s look at some of the more significant contributions over the last century to what has become today’s sake.

1568: Brewers in Nara began to heat sake up to about 65C to “remove the evil humours,” thus pasteurizing and providing stability to sake. Louis Pasteur lent his name to this process centuries later, and he got all the credit.

1895: Sake yeast was first isolated. Until this time, yeast cells were allowed to simply fall into the vat Yeast cellsfrom the ambient environment. Finally, brewers were able to see just what the yeast cells looked like, and to study their life cycle.

1904: The Ministry of Finance forms the National Sake Brewing Research Center. Here, research geared toward helping producers make better sake continues to this day.

1910: Sokujo moto, the fast-starting yeast starter, is developed. Until this point, creating the moto yeast starter was a long, exhausting process and an extremely labor intensive part of sake brewing. When it is discovered that the result of the techniques was to create a bit of lactic acid, researchers found that putting a bit of pure lactic acid in at the beginning accomplished the same thing, saving significant labor and time.

1911: The first Shinshu Kanpyoukai, or New Sake Tasting Competition, was held. The longest-running competition of its kind in the world, this yearly tasting continues today and has driven major advances and trends in sake profiles over the years.

1923: Stainless steel tanks begin to replace traditional cedar tanks. As the woody flavor imparted by cedar tanks can be strong, sake brewed in stainless steel tanks is now free to express a myriad of new and delicate flavors, fragrances and nuances. This was huge.

1933: Modern vertical rice milling machines are introduced. The condition of the rice after milling “how Rice floweringmuch it has been milled, how much heat was generated during milling, how many of the rice grains fractured or broke” affects every single step on down the line. With this major advance, rice could be polished more accurately, carefully, and efficiently. This was also extremely huge; it eventually led to the era of ginjo.

1936: The mighty Yamada Nishiki, the king of sake rice strains, is born. It is created as a cross breed between two other sake rice strains, Yamadaho and Wataribune. Although expensive and relatively hard to grow, Yamada Nishiki is the most widely used sake rice, especially when brewing ginjo-shu. There are other rice strains that make character-laden and wonderful sake, but Yamada has yet to be dethroned.

1943: The sake classification system of Special Class, First Class, and Second Class is created by the Yeast starter - another shotMinistry of Finance. All sake is designated as one of these three, with First and Special classes requiring government tasting and certification, and (of course) higher taxes. This system is later abolished in 1989 for several reasons, one of them being that many brewers simply did not submit their sake for certification, thereby keeping prices of great sake lower. As such, the system lost much of its meaning.

Also in 1943, it became obligatory to add distilled alcohol to sake at the end of the brewing process. The obligation was removed in 1946, but brewers were not forced to stop this practice. This can enhance flavor and fragrance and stabilize the brew, but can also be used to simply produce cheaper sake.

1946: Yeast Number 7 is discovered and isolated by Masumi Brewery ofNagano. This yeast is still today the most used yeast in the country. That year, Masumi sake wins every single award in sight for their sake.

1953: Yeast Number 9 is discovered in Kumamoto Prefecture, by the brewers of Koro sake. Yeast Number 9 produces fragrant and fruity sake, with a decent acidity. It is today the most widely used yeast for ginjo-shu, although it has a lot of competition these days. A biggie on the flavor and fragrance fronts.

1968: The first post-war junmai-shu (sake brewed with no added distilled alcohol, nor any additives of any kind) is brewed. Although two brewers, one in Kyoto and one in Kumamoto, claim to have done it first, it marks a move of great significance (i.e. a biggie) by members of the brewing world toward quality and better sake, and profit margins be damned.

1974: National sake production hits an all-time high. Unfortunately, since that point it has been mostly downhill, with production volume decreasing almost every year since then.

1975: The Jizake boom begins. Jizake is a vague term that means sake from smaller brewers in the countryside, or at least sake not from large national brands. Such sake began to gain popularity for its supposed character and regional distinction.

1981: The Ginjo boom begins. Premium sake begins to increase in both popularity and production from this point. Even today, while overall sake production declines, ginjo-shu production increases, albeit by very little.

1989-2015: Dozens of new strains of yeast and new sake rice strains are developed and come into use in sake brewing. Many of these are proprietary, and many are kept within the prefecture of origin. These factors alone contribute to a new and wide range of sake profiles.

All of the above have built upon each other to create sake as it is today. But modern equipment and microbiology alone could not have led to the ambrosia that is the sake of this era. Just as much credit must be given to the craftsmen and craftswomen, and their decades of accumulated skill and refined senses. Indeed, their craft deserves much appreciation!

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Junmai Ginjo does not really exist, they told me.

While visiting an old, very prestigious brewer, I was looking at their lineup. There was no junmai amongst their ginjo offerings. While they had their share of junmai-shu itself, once you got into their ginjo world, there was only non-junmai ginjo products.

I inquired as to why this might be, since it was clearly not just a coincidence. I actually sorta knew, but wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And since no reason was being openly offered, I dared to ask.

I promptly got torn a new… well, let’s just say I was instructed as to the nature of my misperceptions.

By the way, Ginjo, in this usage refers to all types of ginjo, i.e. including daiginjo manifestations (basically, ginjo to dai for, so to speak!). And non-junmai here refers to types of sake to which a li’l bit of pure ethyl alcohol (most often distilled from sugar cane) has been added after fermentation, not for economical reasons, but for sound technical reasons. These include, but are not limited to, drawing out more flavors and aromas, and improved shelf life.

Back to their retooling of my perceptions, I was told: “There is no such thing as junmai-ginjo. Not here anyway. Never has been. And those that make it do not really understand what ginjo is all about. Nor do we care what the Ministry of Taxation says on the issue; their priorities are different than ours.” They expounded a bit, but the point was well taken.

And that point is that super premium sake like ginjo and its to-die-for manifestation daiginjo were developed with the addition of alcohol as an integrated and necessary step. The whole “junmai” version came later, and this particular brewer’s point is that the whole hullabaloo about junmai being more pure came later, and is actually not so traditional, as far as the brewing industry itself is concerned. And who’s to argue with them?

Certainly not I.

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The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here: http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html
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I am definitely not anti junmai at all. Far from it; very far from it. Nor do I question the

A traditional white-walled sake brewery, or "sakagura"

Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery)

validity of junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. I’m just sayin’…you know. I’m just sayin’ that non-junmai types – those made with a bit of pure, distilled alcohol added during the process – are not only valid, not only worthy of our support, but as far as ginjo is concerned, one could say that they are even more traditional. Or at least hold some brewers.

I dunno… I guess it seems to me that, in the sake brewing process, yeast makes alcohol. And some brewers, for some sake, will then add alcohol. It does not fortify the product, as just a little bit is added, and more water is added later to bring the alcohol content back down to “normal” levels. And what is added is pure ethyl alcohol. It’s the same stuff that is already in there. They just add a bit to temporarily (remember that!) raise the overall alcohol content for technical reasons. Just because it was made outside of the process and brought in does not make it unsavory. And no matter what some folks insist, no one can really tell the difference, at least not in premium sake (remember that too!).

So, I am, if anything, anti-anti-junmai, and double negatives notwithstanding, that almost means pro-added-alcohol.

Why? Because very often it makes the sake better – better flavor, better aromas, better shelf life, and very often, a better value. What’s to diss?

All I am saying is give non-junmai a chance; especially in the realm of ginjo.

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The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here: http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html
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Hiroshima is “The Birthplace of Ginjo”

Senzaburo MiuraOr so say some…

Ginjo sake, with all four of its sub-classes, is but seven percent of all sake brewed. Legally, it is defined by nothing more significant than how much the rice was milled before brewing. But technically, it calls for longer-term, lower-temperature fermentation.

How long and how low? Oh, perhaps 35 days fermenting in the tank for ginjo, versus about 20 days for lower grades, and perhaps 8C to 10C for ginjo versus 15C to 17C for regular sake.

But there are those (not surprisingly, the Hiroshima brewing community most prominent among them) that say ginjo brewing developed in Hiroshima. Why and how might this be?

They have Senzaburo Miura to thank for that.

 
 
Mr. Miura lived from 1847 to 1908, and had a challenging, yet varied and interesting life. In truth, while intending to just check a couple of facts for this article, I stumbled upon a veritable bottomless chasm of fascinating information that begs to shaped into a story. Just not this month…

In short, Senzaburo Miura came from a family running a very successful “general store” kind of business, which led to him starting a sake brewery. He went to Nada (which is partly in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, near Kyoto and Osaka), to learn from the masters in the center of the sake-brewing universe.

But across four years, his sake kept spoiling. This drove the sake-brewing part of the family enterprise out of business. As a side note, Imada Shuzo, brewers of the above-introduced Fukucho, bought some of their brewing equipment and tools when they ceased operations. What a small sake world!

Eventually, Mr. Miura’s search for better sake took him to Fushimi (in Kyoto city), where he first learned that brewing sake with hard water (like that in Nada) and brewing it with soft water (like that in Kyoto, and Hiroshima!) call for significantly different approaches. So he took this newfound knowledge back to Hiroshima, figured out how to adjust techniques to Hiroshima’s very soft water, and taught the brewing community in Hiroshima.

From which point sake in Hiroshima took off in quality and popularity, winning every prize in sight for a while. This is the short version of a long, fascinating story.

In any event, Hiroshima water is soft, which dictates slow fermentation, which calls for lower temperatures to chemically facilitate tasty, desirable results. And that calls for more time, since the whole process moves more slowly. This is what Senzaburo figured out: how to brew sake at lower temperatures over a longer period of time.

And this is how ginjo is brewed: at lower temperatures over a longer period of time. Hence, brewers in Hiroshima insist that, via the auspices of Senzaburo Miura, ginjo-shu brewing was developed in Hiroshima.

But there are likely other interpretations…

 

Good News and Bad News from the sake industry

Recent stats in the sake world

We all like to talk about how rosy things are in the sake world these days. It continues to grow in popularity and consumption (with caveats as below) both in Japan and around the world. But if we look at some industry statistics, there are plenty of mixed signals.

For example: In a recent one-year period, a whopping 45 percent of all sake breweries did not make money. More correctly, though, they did not make money on selling sake alone. Often, family-owned brewing companies have other sources of income, like real estate or shops selling other products, or entire other business operations. As one brewer explained it to me, “our sake brewery is hundreds of years old, so even if it makes no money it functions as a calling-card, a marketing presence for our main business. People want to work with us because we are ‘that old sake-brewing family.’”

So while it is surely not optimal for any enterprise to be in the red, it does not mean that 45 percent are about to disappear.

Next, dig this: sake shipments last year were the lowest since 1955. This one shocked me, actually. Sake shipments peaked in 1973 and have been dropping ever since. But to have reached the lowest level in 61 years sounds heavy.

And it is heavy. But check out these facts too. One, futsuu-shu (non-premium sake) comprises about 65 percent of the market. And two, honjozo-shu (barely premium, but good, and actually just suffers from an image problem) is another ten percent. So between these two we have 75 percent of the market, and these two categories are the ones that are dropping. When 75 percent of the market drops at five to seven percent a year, overall numbers head south as well.

However, clearly premium sake, i.e. junmai and the four types of ginjo-shu, are all growing healthily. Very healthily, in fact, to the tune of six to thirteen percent a year. Naturally, the companies that focus on less expensive non premium sake are more concerned about this reality than those that focus on craft sake. The surge in public popularity of expressive and character-laden premium sake is palpable indeed.

I recently was chatting with a fairly large and traditional distributor in Tokyo about this current state of affairs. The numbers keep going down, I pointed out. “Surely you sell a ton of cheap sake as well as all this premium stuff here in this great shop of yours. Are those numbers not cause for concern?”

He waved that suggestion off with a slow, dismissing shake of the head and pursed lips. “Nah. Junmai-shu and the ginjo types are much more expensive, so the average price per unit is way up. Things continue to head in a positive direction for us,” he asserted. It is all a matter of perspective.

And then there are exports. It was recently reported that last year, sake exports grew yet again, setting a new record for the seventh year in a row. While just over three percent of sake is exported, that small market seems to be growing quite steadily at an average of about ten percent a year.

Finally, there was this positive piece of news. The number of active breweries actually grew last year by sixteen, to 1241. In my 24 years in this industry I have never seen the number of breweries actually increase. Of course, I could have just missed it, but to my recall each and every year they have been slowly dropping.

As usual, there is a bit more to the story. There are between 1600 and 1800 brewing licenses out there. Some belong places that do not brew but require license, such as bottling companies and some sake warehouses. So let us say 1700 or so.

And many of these that are actual breweries just ceased operations, yet held on to the hope they could start up again. This could be for any number of reasons, like gathering capital or waiting for the owner inherit to get a bit older, to just waiting for the market to bounce back. But for whatever reason, sixteen breweries restarted operations last year. This, to me, is very encouraging and positive. It made my day, in fact.

So things look good for sake in the years to come, even after wading through the quagmire of statistics that come out almost daily. Indeed, there has never been a better time to get into good sake.

Sake Rice Reality

What it is, and how much it’s used

If you have gotten this far – getting to this blog – then you surely know that sake is made from rice. So let’s start with that base assumption. No other fermentable material is used: no sugar, no grains. But much changes in the sake world, which is not always so proactive in presenting information to begin with. So let’s look at a handful of fun and interesting observations about rice and how it is used in the sake world.

First of all, there is sake rice and then there is everything else, rice-wise. Sake rice is known as shuzo koteki-mai, or less officially, sakamai. Often, regular rice is referred to as table rice. Shuzo Koteki-mai is a legal definition, i.e. there are officially registered sake rice varieties; not just any rice that aspires to it can in fact be a sake rice. There are physical differences.

Just about four percent of all rice grown in Japan is sake rice. And this is split across about one hundred varieties. About. It goes up and down a bit each year as new ones are tried and old ones fall off the list. And, much like grapes, if you know about a dozen, you are amongst most cognoscenti. But in truth, knowing about half that number will serve you well in eighty percent of premium sake situations you encounter.

But here is the thing: most sake is actually not made from proper sake rice.

Looking at the breakdown of the sake market, about 35 percent is considered premium, which means it qualifies for a special designation. What special designations would those be? Honjozo, junmai-shu, and the four types of ginjo. The remaining 65 percent does not qualify for those terms, and that 65 percent is considered just regular sake. Note, much of it is very enjoyable! ‘Tis not to be dissed, at least not outright. But the point here is that this 65 percent of all sake produced is not made with sake rice, but rather run-of-the-mill table rice.

However, almost all premium sake is made using sake rice. Doing so leads to much better sake with much less effort. Note, however, that this is not a law or even a rule. It is not at all obligatory to use sake rice for any sake, not even lofty daiginjo.

Why would a brewer not do so? Simple: cost. Sake rice is two to three times more expensive than normal rice, especially after some special rice-pricing breaks the distribution system allows sake brewers to utilize. So cost is huge. Another reason could be availability. In a low-yield year, there just might not be enough good sake rice to go around.

But for all intents and purposes, premium sake is in fact made using proper sake rice, whereas cheap sake generally is not.

As mentioned above, sake rice and table rice are physically different. Sake rice is larger: the grains themselves and the plants as well. Sake rice has more starch, and less fat and protein. Starch becomes sugar; sugar becomes alcohol. So more starch is good. You can eat sake rice, but that extra fat and protein make table rice taste better.

Sake rice also has those desirable starches physically located in the center of the grains, with fat and protein around that, near the surface. This makes it easy to mill away the outside of the grain and take that fat and protein away, leaving starch behind.

It is harder to grow, or at least to grow well. It calls for more effort and specific climactic conditions. And all these factors combine to make sake rice more expensive as well.

As mentioned above, there are about 100 varieties of sake rice registered. About. The most commonly encountered – and widely considered the best – is Yamada Nishiki. Other names to learn and remember are Gohyakumangoku, Miyama Nishiki, Omachi, and Hattan Nishiki. There are many more, but this small sampling will be found in much of the sake you enjoy. Still, you will encounter dozens of others if you pay attention to such things.

Rarely are they blended. Most often a given sake is made with one rice only. There are, of course, exceptions. One such exception is that sometimes Yamada Nishiki is used for the koji (the 20 percent of all the rice in a given batch that has enzyme-producing mold propagated onto it) since koji exerts the most leverage on the nature of the sake. A less expensive sake rice can be used for the remaining 80 percent, onto which the mold is not grown.

This method walks that fine line of quality and cost control, and walks it nicely. But again, it is not so commonly done. You could say that those that do it are going “against the grain.” (Sorry.)

An important concept related to sake and rice is that the choice of rice does not affect the final flavor and nature of the sake in quite the same way that the choice of grape might affect the nature and flavors of a wine. Yes, the choice of rice is very important. And yes, different rice varieties do lead to flavor profiles that can be associated with them – in general. But two toji (master brewers) can take the same rice, milled to the same degree, and make totally different sake in every way.

How? By creating the koji differently, or through the choice of yeast, or fermentation temperature or time in the tank. There are dozens of options at every step of the brewing process, and those choices hugely affect the nature of the sake. More so than the choice of rice? Perhaps; perhaps not. It depends on who you ask.

But using proper sake rice – and carefully selecting the right one for the job – is still a massively leveraging and important aspect of making great sake. Why? Because good sake rice allows a toji to express his or her skills through the sake. Proper sake rice lets the toji do his or her best work. It is predictable in how it behaves, and just which one is best depends on the style of sake, the region, and the experience of those that will handle it.

There is much, much more to be said about sake rice. There are trends, economics, politics, developments, history, culture and climate changes. Nothing ever sits still in the sake world.

But we can. We can sit still and enjoy the sake in front of us. That’s all we really need to do: enjoy sake. However, should it interest us, we can also begin to pay attention and take notes about rice types and the lore that surrounds each. It certainly enhances sake enjoyment.

Sake Professional Course in San Francisco, April 3 ~ 5, 2017

From Monday, April 3 until Wednesday April 5, I will hold the first Sake Professional Course of 2017 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco. If interested, for more information please send me an email at sakeguy@gol.com. “No sake stone remains left unturned” in this very comprehensive course. Learn more here.

Recent Industry News and Events

What’s Happening in the Sake World in Japan

 
Sake Tax Down, Wine Tax Up

Some fairly significant alcohol tax changes are afoot in Japan. And they will benefit sake domestic consumers in a good way. Sure, the savings to us that result from these changes will be moderate. And in fact, they will likely be offset by inflation, especially since they will kick in slowly over the next few years. But still, we’ll take what we can get.

In short, alcohol tax that the brewer pays to the government is going down for sake, but up for wine. When all is said and done, the tax will be the same on both beverages.

The tax on sake is the same for all grades of sake. While this was not the case before 1989, when higher grades commanded higher taxes, currently, the tax on all sake irrespective of grade or anything else is 120 yen a liter. On wine, however, it is 80 yen a liter. In the fall of 2020 this will change to 110 and 90 respectively, and from the fall of 2023 both sake and wine will be taxed at 100 yen a liter.

Admittedly, this is way out on the time horizon. And furthermore, it is about a 14 yen decrease on a 720ml bottle. By that time, much will have changed and the gains may be absorbed by inflation or a myriad of other influences. But hopefully it will benefit the industry at least a little bit.

One final note: sake that is exported is not subject to that alcohol beverage tax. So sake fans outside of Japan would never see what little benefits there might be.

 
Kaganoi Brewery Burns Down

On December 22nd of last year, there was a massive fire in the city of Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture. In total, 144 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Miraculously, no one died, although 11 were injured. It was a reminder of just how devastating fire can be in small village towns comprised of many old wooden buildings.

One sake brewery, Kaganoi Shuzo, brewers of Kaganoi sake, was severely damaged. All the employees were safe, but the kura building and its 350-year history were irreperably destroyed.

However, the company itself is part of a group of breweries operated by a stable umbrella company that operates several other sake breweries. Soon after the fire, it was announced that the brewers from Kaganoi would spend this season making sake at a sister company, the brewers of Ginban in nearby Toyama Prefecture. They plan to as soon as possible rebuild the kura in Itoigawa and return to brewing sake there.

It is very bold and courageous, and I want to support them as much as possible. If you see Kaganoi sake, express your support by buying a bottle!

Yamada Nishiki Piling Up

The rumor is that Yamada Nishiki rice is in excess these days.
A few years ago, due to the increase in popularity of premium sake, there was a shortage of Yamada Nishiki. Actually, there was more to the story than just ginjo’s rising popularity.

There is in Japan a government policy of “encouraging” rice farmers to decrease their production by paying stipends to those that stay within specified limits. This keeps the rice market stable since demand is going down and too much rice would lower prices to the point that rice farming becomes even more unprofitable.

While there are politics and more behind all of that, in short, when limits went down, rice farmers tended to axe sake rice first, as it is harder – or at least more hassle-laden – to grow and distribute. Also, they thought sake consumption was declining. It was, but only the cheap stuff. In short, there was a lack of communication between the sake industry and the rice farming industry.

A genuinely clever win-win solution was devised in which rice limits remained in place but orders for sake rice could be accepted and that sake rice grown, yet outside of the frame of any imposed limits. Bingo!

However, for a handful of reasons, Yamada Nishiki production has increased to the point where there is too much on the market now. This is not yet to the degree that it is a huge problem, and there are ways such as discounting to make that excess go away. But it is, in the end, an indication of just how complex and challenging balancing the needs and realities of both the sake industry and the rice farming industry can be.

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Sake Professional Course in San Francisco, April 3 ~ 5, 2017

From Monday, April 3 until Wednesday April 5, I will hold the first Sake Professional Course of 2017 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco. If interested, for more information please send me an email at sakeguy@gol.com. “No sake stone remains left unturned” in this very comprehensive course. Learn more here.

 

Yamagata Sake gets Geographical Indication

Note to readers: Just a few days after this newsletter was sent out, the government finished its open hearing, and it became official: Yamagata Sake has been granted bona fide Geographical Indication, the first entire prefecture to do that in the sake world. Congratulations to them!

The Sake of Yamagata Prefecture
…and its move toward bona fide Geographical Indication

Several years ago, in July of 2014, the Yamagata Prefecture Sake Brewers’ Association began the process of securing a designation of their sake as a Geographical Indication recognized by the World Trade Organization and various international treaties. In order to qualify for something like this, a product (any product applying for a GI) must possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. Securing such a designation gives the region and its producers the exclusive right to an appropriate indication on the label.

Japan’s National Tax Administration (“NTA”), the branch of the government overseeing sake, opened a Rice paddy sunsetpublic hearing on the topic on October 19 of this year. It was not made clear how long this stage will take, but assuming it does pass smoothly, Yamagata Sake will come into existence as a bona fide Geographical Indication (GI) for sake. One more region in Japan, the city of Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture, has qualified for a GI for the sake of that region. However, it only applies to the five breweries in city of Hakusan; the rest of the breweries in Ishikawa Prefecture are unaffected. Yamagata Prefecture will be the first entire prefecture to secure this distinction.

This will follow the NTA’s designation of “Japanese Sake” and “Nihonshu” for sake brewed in Japan, which were recognized December 25, 2015. In total, there are currently seven alcoholic beverage GI designations in Japan, other five applying to wine or shochu. Yamagata would be the eighth.

Once complete, the Yamagata Brewers’ Association will oversee things, and indications are that they will create a graphic image indicating the Yamagata GI for use by the 51 brewers in the prefecture.

Here is a bit more about the sake of this great region.

Yamagata prefecture lies packaged at a somewhat awkward angle in the lower left-hand corner of the Tohoku region. Surrounded by mountains but with a stretch open to the Japan Sea, it looks like it was designed specifically to absorb the cold and snow.

There are at present 51 sakagura brewing in Yamagata. The oldest of these dates back to the Japanese “Warring States” era of long civil war, while the youngest can trace their roots to the beginning of the Edo period. Even the new kid in town is an old and dignified character.

Most of these are smallish, traditional kura. While there are a couple of large-ish brewres, automation and computers, for all their cons, pros, advocates and foes in the brewing world, are certainly not unheard of up here, but they seem to be the exception and not the rule.

Those mountains and that big pond seem to have kept things all in the family for a good number of centuries. A great deal of the sake consumed in Yamagata is made there, and a comparatively small amount of what is brewed there leaves the prefecture, oh pity of pities.

To the southwest lies Niigata in all its brewing glory, and not too far to the northeast sits Iwate. Both prefectures are the home of a “toji ryuha,” or guild of master brewers, known as the Echigo Toji and Nanbu Toji respectively.

Despite this proximity to easily accessible experience, Yamagata has long handled things by themselves. In other words, the master brewer at most of the kura inYamagata are not from the major guilds in the nearby regions, but rather were “raised” inside the prefecture.

There is great cooperation amongst the kura in Yamagata with respect to education and training of these “home-grown toji.” In an interesting contrast to the sake-brewing sphere of most prefectures, ninety percent of the “kurabito” (brewery workers) are indigenous Yamagata locals. This spares them the long winters far from home historically so common among the brewing staff of the sake industry. Furthermore, there are a great number of kura not even adhering to the semi-feudal toji system.

The climate is ideal (read: cold and snowy) for brewing. Sake-slaying bacteria don’t exactly thrive at these temperatures. What does thrive, however, are several strains of wonderful sake rice that almost seems to challenge and sneer at the harshly cold weather. Much of the sake brewed here is made with such fine sake rice strains. These include Miyama Nishiki, Kame no O, Dewa Sansan, Dewa no Sato, and a handful of other Yamagata-only sake rice types as well.

The type of sake found here is in general relatively light and clean, often (but not always) with a good sturdy acid presence. But perhaps more than any other prefecture, much of the sake here seems to have an abundance of personal character and individuality. There seems to be plenty of uniquely distinct yet almost magically balanced sake. Having said that, the term that the prefecture promoted and that the NTA embraced in defining the qualities associated with the sake of the region was やわらかくて透明感のある酒質, yawarakakute tomeikan no aru shushitsu, or “sake with softness and clarity.”

The Brewers’ Association web page, found here and only in Japanese, refers to the region as “Ginjo Okoku,” or “The Empire of Ginjo-shu,” alluding to the extremely high ratio of sake brewed there that is ginjo-shu, especially when compared to that of other prefectures.

On the whole, the prefecture is active in continuing to improve their skills and the quality of their product. There are several strains of Yamagata-only yeast, as well as a special strain of koji developed in the region as well.

All of this combines to make Yamagata Prefecture a leader amongst the six prefectures of the Tohoku region, the northeastern part of Japan that has garnered great attention in the sake world over the last decade or so.

The granting of Yamagata Sake as a bona fide GI will certainly further the region’s efforts to convey to the rest of the world just how good their sake is.

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Sake Professional Course in San Francisco, April 3 ~ 5, 2017

From Monday, April 3 until Wednesday April 5, I will hold the first Sake Professional Course of 2017 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco. If interested, for more information please send me an email at sakeguy@gol.com.

Significance of Shinpaku

amanoto_dsc3593The main raw materials of sake are rice and water, and rice is the only fermentable material used in its production. And just as the grapes used to make good wine are significantly different from those bought at the supermarket, the rice used to make premium sake is significantly different from that which we find sitting under the fish in sushi, or in bowls in meals.

In truth, most sake – perhaps 75 percent of all produced – is actually made from regular table rice. And a lot of this is perfectly tasty sake. But when we meander into the realm of premium sake, especially ginjo, almost always it is made with proper sake rice, which is significantly different from regular table rice.

While there are many ways that sake rice differs from other types (size of the stalk, size of the grains, more starch, less fat and protein), the most talked about of them is surely the presence of a shinpaku.

kome-shimpakuIn proper sake rice, the higher-than-normal starch content is mostly concentrated in the center of the grains. Why is this so heart-warmingly special? Because we want to get at the starch, which will be converted to sugar and then into alcohol. But we don’t want the fat and protein, which would lead to off-flavors and contribute rough elements to the sake. So with the starch neatly concentrated in the center, all we need to do is to mill away more and more of the outside of the grain, and by doing that we remove the fat and protein and leave only the starchy goodies behind.

That packet of starch in the center is called the shinpaku. The word itself is written with the characters for “heart” and “white,” and not surprisingly, when one looks at sake rice, you can clearly see that the heart of the grain is an opaque white, with everything around that being somewhat translucent. In regular rice, however, the color is uniform throughout since the starch, fat and protein are more mixed up and uniformly distributed.

rices2Why does sake rice have the starch in the center, and fat and protein around that? Part of it is just the nature of those strains. But it also has to do with climate and growing conditions. Regions with hot days and cold nights are best for sake rice production, as the cold nights coerce the plant to send the starch to the center of the grains. In “bad years” for rice, seasons being too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, or when the night and day temperatures had less variance, fewer grains will have a decent shinpaku.

What is interesting is that it is not the starch itself that makes the center of the grains white. What happens is that the starch molecules are round at the ends, and as they rush to get to the middle they don’t interlock well, and they leave tiny air pockets between their ends. These diffuse light passing through, giving the opaque appearance we see.

Beyond different varieties or strains of rice, within each type there are grades based upon how well it was grown. This is a function of locale, climate, and skill of the producer. And one of the big points of assessment is the percentage of grains with a visible shinpaku. This is also one of the standards in the official assessment of sake rice versus table rice in general.

There are many more factors beyond the shinpaku and its size that are involved in qualifying good sake rice. But the shinpaku is the most visible, if not the most talked about.

kome-kurabeNote, too, that one can make decent-to-good sake from regular rice. It takes a good toji and good tools, but just a few of the many examples of table rice from which decent sake is brewed are Koshihikari, Sasanishiki, the illustrious Kame no O. So one can indeed make decent sake from table rice. It’s just easier to do so with real sake rice.

Finally, the question often arises, if a brewer is using table rice, why do they bother to mill down to 70, 60 or even 50 percent of the original size? If table rice has no shinpaku, isn’t that meaningless and wasteful?

The answer lies in the fact that in truth, all rice to some degree has more starch in the center and more fat and protein near the surface, whether or not this is manifested in a visible shinpaku. It is just that this is all more distinct in sake rice; much more starch is in the center, and much more of the fat and protein is near the outside of the grains.

So more milling will have a positive effect on table rice as well when it is used in sake brewing, just not as pronounced as with good sake rice. As usual with sake-related things, it’s all a tad vague.

 

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Sake Professional Course
in Japan 

Tuesday, January 10 ~ Saturday, January 14, 2017
Recognized by the Sake Education Council

No sake stone remains left unturned

“Quite simply, the best and most thorough sake education on the planet.”

From Tuesday, January 10 to Saturday, January 14,  I will hold the 14th  running (and 38th overall) of the Sake Professional Course in Japan.

SPC 1The Sake Professional Course in Japan is far and away the best possible sake education in existence. Three days of lecture and tasting, each evening capped off with dinner and fine, fine sake, followed by two days spent visiting four sake breweries of different size and scale – punctuated again with fine sake and a great meal each evening make this course as comprehensive as it could be. If you are serious about sake, and especially about working with sake, there is no other course for you; this is it. Satisfaction is guaranteed.

The course is recognized by the not-for-profit organization The Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered near the end of the week.

Flavor ElementsThe course will be held from the morning of Tuesday, January 10 to the evening of Saturday, January 14,2017, and will be focused in Tokyo, but with a two- day excursion to the Osaka – Kyoto – Kobe area to visit four sake breweries of various scale. Geared toward professionals, but open to anyone with an interest in sake, this course will begin with the basics, and will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. It will consist of classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions, four sake brewery visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food. Participants will stay together at hotels in Tokyo and Osaka. Lectures will take place in a comfortable classroom, and evening meals will be off-site at various sake- related establishments.

The goal of this course is that “no sake stone remains left unturned,” and the motto is “exceed expectations.”

During the three classroom days, we will discuss various aspects of sake and the sake world, including grades, production, rice, yeast, koji, water and more. Tastings specific to the just-discussed topics follow each lecture, thereby allowing participants to understand with their senses the theory just presented. Participants will not simply hear about differences based on rice types or yeast types, they will taste and smell them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and regionality, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well.

Food and sake, the state of the sake-brewing industry, the culture and history suffusing sake are regionality are just a few more of the wide range of topics to be covered. Every conceivable sake-related topic will be touched upon, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting session.

Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

The Tokyo classroom venue is the Japan Sake and Shochu Producers Association in the Shimbashi area.

Yeast cellsThe cost for this five-day educational experience is ¥190,000. This includes all instruction and materials, as well as evening meals with plenty of sake each night. Other meals, transportation to and from as well as within Japan, and hotel are not included in the tuition. To make a reservation or if you have any questions at all, please send an email to John Gauntner at sakeguy@gol.com .

For more information, a downloadable pdf announcement and a view of the daily syllabus, please go here . Testimonials from past participants can be found here as well.

Recent Trends in Sake Profiles

Judges tasting awayThe government in Japan, in particular the National Tax Administration, monitors trends in sake preferences amongst consumers, as expressed by trends in sake production. The results of the analysis of data from last year’s sake was released a short while ago. While it is nothing shocking, it is interesting to see how things change. Here are a couple of tendencies culled from that slurry of data.

 

  1. Drier junmai-shu

Junmai-shu continues to grow in popularity, although not as fast as a few years ago. But it has also continued to become drier on the average.

  1. Richer sake

Junmai-shu also has a higher amino acid content than other types, not surprisingly. But all sake in general is getting richer, as measured by a higher average amino acid content.

  1. Increased levels of ethyl caproate

koshikiAgain, hardly surprising, but the level of the ester ethyl caproate, which leads to aromas like ripe apple, tropical fruit and licorice or anise, has been on the increase. Curse it. This is hardly surprising considering that ginjo and daiginjo continue to grow very strongly in popularity.

  1. Decreasing alcohol content in futsuu-shu

Drip Pressing SakeNon-premium sake has seen a decrease in alcohol content overall. Ginjo et cetera has seen alcohol levels stay fairly high, likely for increased impact, but in non-premium futsuu-shu alcohol has dropped a bit on the average. I am not sure what the significance of this point is, though, nor was it elucidated upon in the government report.

While most of these mini-trends are predicitble extensions of sake’s growth and popularity these days, it is fun to check the pulse of sake from time to time.

Flavor Elements of Sake  –  Part II

What else makes your sake taste and smell as it does?

 

Flavor ElementsIn a previous post, we began talking about the “flavor elements of sake,” i.e. what things – ingredients, methods and “after-care” – combine in various ways to make the sake before you taste and smell the way it does. And last month we looked at the main ingredients and their contributions. Rice, water, yeast and koji all play their roles, and those roles are intertwined. If you missed that, you can check it out here.

This time around, let us consider the following brewing processes, the choice of which will alter the path a sake-in-waiting will tread. While there is potentially no end to the points would could consider, let us narrow it down to six: milling, yeast starter, pressing, pasteurization, whether or not added alcohol has been used, and aging.

And just like the ingredients side of things, none of these six processes have an absolutely guaranteed air-tight cause and effect relationship with the final sake. All are intertwined with the many other choices involved. But there are tendencies for sake made with these methods to end up tasting and smelling a certain way. So let us look at those admittedly tenuous-yet-valid connections.

Imada yamadanishiki 70/35Milling
More than anything else, milling affects lightness: the more the rice is milled before brewing begins, the lighter and more refined the sake will be. But milling affects more than just the lightness as well – more highly milled rice can indirectly lead to more fruity aromas. And other things affect lightness or heaviness as well. But in general, the more you mill the rice, the lighter and more refined the sake will be.

This is because milling the rice more takes away increasingly more of the fat and protein lurking near the surface that lead to richer, fuller flavors.

Note that more milling is not always better, even though that point is used often in product marketing. Lighter sake is not unequivocally better than richer sake; not at all. And more milling does not guarantee a lighter sake. But the tendency is in fact there.

Yeast Starter
More than anything else, the choice of yeast starter affects flavor elements like sweetness, acidity and umami, expressed perhaps as “clean-ness versus richness.”

Yeast starter -This section could be expanded to fill several books, at least. But since we do not have that luxury now, let us break it down a bit. There are three main ways of preparing the yeast starter, a few less mainstream but very valid ways, and tons of variations beyond that.

What are those three main methods? Wincing at how inappropriate it is to constrain them to a single paragraph, they are: sokujo, kimoto and yamahai. Sokuju the most modern (yet still over a hundred years old), used to make 99 percent of all sake out there, and leads to clean sake.

Kimoto is the oldest and most traditional, very little is made, and leads to richer sake, often with a bright (almost tart) acidity and fine-grained flavor.

Yamahai is also about 100 years old and often yields richer, wilder sake with higher sweetness and acidity.

However, the above three descriptions are just tendencies, albeit solid ones to be sure. But not all yamahai is wild, not all kimoto is fine-grained, and not all sokujo is squeaky clean.

Note these three methods are also affected by everything else: milling, rice, yeast, water and more. The choice of yeast starter alone does not guarantee anything.

And the method chosen affects other things than the over-simplistic flavor profiles described above. But in short, the choice of yeast starter method affects clean-ness versus richness.

Pressing Method
More than anything else, the choice of pressing method affects expressiveness and intensity.

After a month-long fermentation period, the mash is pressed through a mesh, removing the remaining rice solids and sending the completed sake through. Not surprisingly there are a few main methods in use for this pressing step, and just as unsurprisingly they lead to different type of sake.

yabutaMachine press
Most sake is pressed using a machine that does this very efficiently. The fermented mash is forced through mesh panels leaving the dregs clinging to the mesh and the golden ambrosia comes out the other end. This machine does a great job and saves untold amounts of labor.

 

funeFune (box press)
However, a brewer can perform this step in other ways too. One such method involves pouring several liters of the fermented mash into a meter-long cloth bag, and then piling those bags into a large, sturdy box maybe two-across, twenty-long, and ten-high – or thereabouts. The lid is then cranked down and into the box, and the sake comes out a hole in the bottom. Sake pressed in this method is usually called funa-shibori and is often more pronounced, expressive and aromatic.

 

ShizukuShizuku
For those brewers and sake for which this is just not going far enough, the same bags o’ mash can be tied off and hung, and not squeezed at all. This drip-pressing method is called shizuku, And the sake that drips out is even more extravagantly aromatic, expressive and definitely intense.

However, many other things affect the expressiveness and intensity of a sake; the pressing method is just one of ‘em.

So in short, machine press – just fine; funashibori (box press) –  more lively and aromatic; shizuku (drip press)  – even more intense and expressive.

DSC00118Pasteurization
Most sake is pasteurized by heating it to about 60C or so for a short time. This stabilizes the product by killing off lactic bacteria and stifling enzymes that would otherwise feed those bacteria. When sake is not pasteurized it is called nama-zake, and is a very different animal.

Nama-zake can be livelier and more vibrant, often with more pronounced characteristic aromas. These aromas may be woody at first, and cheesy if the sake is not kept cold and away from oxygen.

While many find properly cared for nama to be more appealing, it is not unequivocally better – just different. Furthermore, nama-zake will mature much more quickly than pasteurized sake.

So, in short, nama is usually livelier in aromas, and pasteurized sake more settled and deep. But of course, there are exceptions.

Junmai vs. Jon-Junmai
Junmai means the sake was made with rice, water and koji only. If the junmai word is not on the bottle, then a bit of distilled alcohol has been added just after fermentation and before pressing to help extract more flavor and aroma, lighten the sake a bit, and improve shelf life as well. (Admittedly, in cheap sake lots is added to stretch yields, but in premium stuff this is neither the goal nor the result.)

Junmai types are often richer and fuller, especially compared to their non-junmai counterparts. So junmai ginjo is richer than (added-alcohol) ginjo, and junmai daiginjo is richer than (added-alcohol) daiginjo. Unless it isn’t.

Sometimes, that is simply not the case, and many people cannot tell the difference in most situations.

Ergo, in a nutshell, junmai types are slightly richer than added alcohol types. Usually.

Pour sakeAging
This is the simplest of the method-related generalizations here: aged sake takes on color, a sherry-like quality, earthiness and more pronounced flavors. Many factors affect this: the milling of the original sake, whether it is junmai or added-alcohol, time, temperature and vessel.

But in its simplest form, the more mature a sake is, the more intense and sherry-like its flavors and aromas become – most of the time, that is.

Most sake is shipped and meant to be consumed young: within a year or two. Very, very little is aged for more than a couple of years. While that rabbit hole, too, is deep, fascinating and enjoyable, it is a very small part of the market for now.

Along with last month’s assessment of the main ingredients of sake, the above runs down a few of the many options a brewer has in making sake, and how those choice will more than likely – but not absolutely – affect the fine nature of the sake. A quick review of the last line in each section should suffice as a quick-n-simple assessment of how each step affects the final product, and should hopefully be useful in knowing why your sake tastes the way it does, or what to expect based on the info on the label.

But superseding this all is the warm-n-fuzzy elusive nature of sake. As soon as we think we got it figured out, it hoses our hubris. And therein lies the fun.

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Taste 80 sake at SPC Toronto!Fond of doing things at the last minute? Then check out the Sake Professional Course to be held in Toronto October 3, 4 and 5. Learn more here.