Search Results for: junmai

Non-junmai Types: An Interesting Idea

From whence does the added alcohol come?

Yeast cellsIn recent years, the line between junmai-types vs. non-junnmai-types divide seems to be strengthening, in many senses. One such sense is sake style. Brewers that focus on junmai seem, at least to me, to be making the richer and fuller styles that junmai types can be, and those that make non-junmai, i.e. added-added alcohol types, seem to be making lighter, more aromatic and seamless sake styles that added alcohol affords.

While there is a lot of information out there on these two divisions of the sake market, here is a semi-brief synopsis. About 80 percent of all sake has pure distilled alcohol added to it just after fermentation. Water is later added to bring the alcohol back down, so it is not really fortified. When alcohol is not added the term junmai is put on the label.

So junmai-shu, junmai ginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu are the three premium types of rice-only sake. Honjozo-shu, ginjo-shu and daiginjgo-shu are the three types of added alcohol premium sake. For the 65 percent of the market that is non-premium sake, this addition of alcohol done for economic reasons. For the 15 percent of the market that is premium and non-junmai (honjozo, ginjo-shu and daiginjgo-shu), this added alcohol is done for good technical reasons: it helps extract flavor and aromas, and predisposes the sake to time in the bottle.

In recent years, the junmai types have grown in popularity, but the non-junmai types have been a bit maligned, unfairly so in the opinion of many, myself included. Those that are anti-added-alcohol say they can taste it, it gives them a hangover, it is somehow cheating, and other unfounded arguments. While a rant is not the aim of this article, the topic is one about which many in Japan feel passionate.

However, interestingly, in blind tastings many ostensibly dedicated junmai fans will choose non-junmai sake over junmai sake. This I have seen again and again. But like I said, this is not intended to be a rant.

Rice only sake = junmai-shuBeyond the untenable arguments above, though, there are a couple of valid positions. Namely, whether or not sake is made from rice, and whether or not the ingredients are domestically sourced. For example, brewers must list on the label the source of rice. They are permitted to use imported rice (very, very few do, and only for very, very cheap sake), but in the ingredients list it must say “domestic rice” or “imported rice.” The same stipulation is not, however, applied to added alcohol.

Almost without exception, the alcohol used when making non-junmai sake is roughly distilled from sugar cane, imported into Japan, and then distilled again for purity. By the time it gets to the brewers it is pure ethyl alcohol, blended with water for safety reasons. So it is not made from rice, and it is not from Japan. To have a product like sake – the national drink of Japan – which is known as a rice-based product – be made with something other than rice, and other than Japan-based ingredients can be a sore point with some folks.

Again; not me. I enjoy sake completely unfettered from such concerns. Perhaps I am just a hedonistic simpleton. But I digress.

So yes, junmai types are growing in popularity in Japan, but so is an understanding of the very positive aspects of added alcohol sake.

And related to all of this: I recently saw in an industry publication a very interesting idea that has arisen of late.

In order to make premium sake, inspected rice must be used. Inspection ensures certain levels of quality in the rice, which will vary from rice to rice. And in any event, rice in general is just expensive in Japan.

But what if the alcohol used for making non-junmai were to be distilled from really, really cheap rice – broken stuff or rice that did not pass inspection. Again, since it is taken down to being pure ethyl alcohol, the quality of the original rice should not matter.

Surely this is more expensive than sugar-cane based alcohol. But the other side of the coin is that by using this, the entire product can be rice based, and one hundred percent domestic. Surely this will help the agricultural sector as well, since even schlock rice has a use.

What I am curious about is, if premium sake were to be made using added alcohol, but that alcohol was tobinirimade from domestic rice, would the junmai jihadists concur on its validity as sake? Certainly the quality would be there, or at least, there is no technical reason it would not be so. If so, the idea holds potential for the sake world in bringing non-junmai types back to the fold, and the rice-growing industry would benefit as well.

Making non-junmai using alcohol distilled from domestic rice, even domestic schlock rice, would not be cheap. Surely it would be more expensive than using imported sugar-cane based alcohol. But just as surely there is a market for such products.

And, equally as surely, there is a sector of the market that does not care, only cares about price, enjoys cheap sake – and deserves to have it. So to insist all sake be made in that way would not be fair to all brewers or all consumers. But I see a compromise.

What if cheap sake were to continue to use imported ethyl alcohol and premium sake, i.e. honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo, were to be limited to added alcohol made from domestic rice? This could be indicated on the label, just like the source of the rice.

While I think this is a great idea, it is clear there would be humongous challenges. It would be hard to Fermenting mash ("moromi")regulate or enforce. Brewers might be reticent to try this for a handful of reasons, from technical to image-related to economic. Many consumers might not be convinced, won over, or trusting. They may choose to stick with their junmai-only mentality – which of course is their prerogative.

Furthermore, sake brewers are – for the most part – an intelligent lot. Something tells me that someone somewhere along the line has thought of this. If it has not been realized, there must be a good reason. As an indication of this, there are a few brewers that distill their own junmai-shu and use that as the alcohol they add to their sake. So some experimentation has taken place, but nothing remotely resembling widespread adoption.

Finally, as almost all premium sake that is exported is of the junmai varieties, this is not a problem that will resonate with many. It is not exactly rocking the sake world. It is, however, an interesting potential solution that may present opportunities to a handful of challenges at once. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next few years.

George Carlin, Tokubetsu Junmai & Tokubetsu Honjozo

Would that there be a tokubetsu junmai, Fodder?…

The late, great comedian George Carlin, in a skit called “I used to be Irish Catholic,” speaks of a timeGeorge Carlin
when he and his friends would ask a priest named Father Russel weird questions during what they called “heavy mystery time.” One such deftly crafted conundrum concerned “Easter duty,” or receiving communion during the Easter season. George himself tells it with a thick New Jersey accent, rendering it much funnier than mere prose. Nevertheless:

“Hey, hey, hey Fodder! Hey, uh, suppose that you didn’t make your Easter duty and it’s Pentecost Sunday, the last day, and you’re on a ship at sea. And the chaplain goes into a coma! But you wanted to receive. And then it’s Monday, too late… But then you cross the International Date Line! Would that there then be a sin, Fodder?”

I remember this story each time I talk about the grades of sake called tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo.

In short, tokubetsu means special, so tokubetsu junmai is special junmai, i.e. a bit better than regular junmai (but not quite as good as junmai ginjo), and tokubetsu honjozo is special honjozo, i.e. a bit better than regular honjozo (but not quite as good as ginjo). And, importantly, there are legally defined rules that determine what makes them special.

So, a junmaishu or honjozo can be tokubetsu, i.e. special, if it conforms to any one (or more) of three rules. One, it is made with 100% proper sake rice. Two, the rice used has been milled to ginjo levels, i.e. to 60% of its original size or better. And three, “something else special, approved as such, and listed on the label.”

The qualifying point will almost always be one of the first two above. Like, 99.9999 percent of the time, it will be. But the possibility exists that there is some bizzare-o reason a sake is qualified as tokubetsu. However, for all intents and purposes, we can forget about that third rule.

But when lecturing about these wonderful and under-appreciated two grades, there is invariably someone who wants to get to the very bottom of all this, and understand it with crystal clear clarity. Sake doesn’t roll that way, but nevertheless, they want to try to nail it down. So (s)he will come up with all kinds of weird concoctions and ideas, and will ask, “Would that then be enough to call it a tokubetsu?”

It might. It might not. It would be up to the folks in the National Tax Administration. But it is all but moot since almost without exception what qualifies a sake for tokubetsu will either be ginjo milling, the use of sake rice, or (commonly) both.

In fact, the only exception I recall ever having seen was a junmai-shu mixed with a slurry of daiginjo nigori-like dregs. Approval was received, the label explained it, and the sake sold as a tokubetsu junmai. But, really: whatevuh. It was an anomaly.

It needn’t be that difficult nor complex. Just bear in mind that, for all intents and purposes, tokubetsu junnmai and tokubetsu honjozo are legally defined grades that are special by virtue of having been made with 100% proper sake rice or by being made with rice (not necessarily proper sake rice) milled to ginjo levels, i.e. down to 60% of the original size or more. And often, it conforms to both of these rules.

Sake Types at a GlanceWhy am I putting so much energy into this explanation? Because tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo are some of my favorite sake. They are clearly a cut above the simple grades below them, but they do not conform (get sucked into?) the ginjo-flavor-and-aroma borg above them. Plenty of almost-rustic character, lots of interesting things happening in their flavor profiles, but still quite refined. While there are comparatively fewer products in these two grades, they are very much worth exploring and spending time with; eminently enjoyable.

If these are that good, why then don’t the brewers that make them bump them up just a notch and sell them as ginjo and junmai ginjo? Surely most of them would qualify, and if not, could be tweaked to do so!

Indeed, this is true. There are a handful of possible reasons, and one is that often breweries have products in the ginjo and junmai ginjo realms that are standard and sell well. To introduce another sake in the same category could confuse consumers. Or perhaps by backing the specs off just a bit, a product like a tokubetsu jumai or tokubetsu honjozo can sell for a bit less, at a different price point. And surely, there are other well-considered reasons as well.

But in the end, just remember that tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo are knocking on the door of junmai ginjo and ginjo, and that in all practicality their legally-defined specialness derives from either sake rice or ginjo milling.

But yes, once in a blue moon, there may be another qualifying reason. And so we can continue to ask, from time to time, after stating a curious if appealing set of circumstances, “Would that then be enough to call it a tokubetsu?”

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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!

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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Warm Sake in the Waning Summer: Junmai Kan

Odd as it might sound, I am sure that the best way to get over the heat of the summer is a night of warm sake. While I might not have thought this just a scant few days ago, a call from Sato-san, brewer of Koikawa in Yamagata, convinced me otherwise.  All it took was one look at the list of who is attending.

On Sunday, August 26 from 5pm to 7pm at the Rihga Royal Hotel in Takadanobaba (say that after three glasses of warm sake!), this year’s Junmai Kan Natsu-no-en event will take place. The cost is a mere 9500 yen for a buffet of “Wa Yo,” i.e. western and Japanese food.

Much more significantly, there are 24 outrageously great brewers there, all making junmai sake suited to warming. While I am neither a junmai fanatic nor a warm sake fanatic, I do enjoy both, and will surely *enjoy* Sunday.

So, like, who are the brewers about which I am excited that will be present? Try these on for size:

Tabito (Akita), Wataya (Miyagi), Hiwada (Miyagi), Koikawa (Yamagata), Sato no Homare (!) (?) (Ibaragi), Tsukinoi (Ibaraki), the venerable Shinkame (!!!) (Saitama), Hourai (Kanagawa), Ryu (Kanagawa), Kikuyoi (!!!!) (Shizuoka), Tenyurin (Mie), Akishika (Osaka), Suwaizumi (!!!) (Tottori), Asahi Juji (Shimane), Asahigiku (!!!!) (Fukuoka) Chochin (Aichi)
…and more.

Sign up and reserve online here:
http://www.rihga.co.jp/tokyo/event/detail/sake.html

Will warm sake really make me feel cooler in the summer heat? The first answer is, I don’t know. And the second answer is, I don’t care. I love warm sake, the older I get (!!!) the more I like it, and this is a collection of some of the finest, not to be missed.

Hope to see you there!

 

Non-Junmai is Sake Too! Justification From On High

A while back, I participated in an event in Osaka in which I was 
 
privileged enough to be a part of a panel discussion with perhaps the most famous toji (master brewer) in existence. Actually, from just last year he took on the title “honorary toji,” and in his place at that particular brewery is another gent that is the de facto toji. Those are some big-ass shoes to fill!
 
The famous toji in question is one Mr. Naohiko Noguchi. Most of his career was spent brewing a sake called Kikuhime, but in his later years he “retired” and then came out of “retirement” a few hours later down the road making a sake called Jokigen. Both of these kura are in Ishikawa Prefecture, from whence Mr. Noguchi hails. This is, of course, also where the guild of toji to which Noguchi-san is affiliated, the Noto Toji guild, is centered. He has been referred to as one of the “Noto Toji no Shiten-oh,” or one of the “Four guardians of heaven of the Noto Toji guild.”

He is known as much for his sharp mind as he is for his brewing skill, and indeed, on that day he was as sharp as anybody in the room, if not sharper than all. And as we had lunch with a couple other folks before the event began, he wasted no time in asking me about sake overseas, and how it was received. He bore down on me with intense, hazel eyes tempered only by a genuine and warm smile.

“How do people overseas feel about junmai versus added-alcohol sake?” he asked. One could sense he had a well-formed opinion just waiting to be expressed.

“Well,” I began as politely as I could, “not much aru-ten gets over there. Most of it is junmai.” Aru-ten is verbal shorthand for added alcohol sake, i.e. anything not of one of the junmai varieties.

“However,” I continued, I do not think there are very strong opinions either way, yet.”

At which point he let fly with that well-formed opinion, albeit from a purely technical standpoint.

“They both have their place, you know. Sure, even I drink mostly junmai,but ya can’t go dismissing anything not junmai just for silly reasons like purity. It’s just another method, adding alcohol is, and it leads to a different kind of sake. Which of the two is better depends on what you are trying to make, and when you plan to drink it.”

I would have asked him to continue if given the chance. Warm smile intact, he spared me the trouble and just kept talking.

“If you are going to drink it relatively soon, sure, junmai is by and large a better way to make it. But if you want to lay it down to let the flavors consolidate, you are better off making it with a bit of added alcohol. And if you expect it to sit on a shelf for a while, same deal. Junmai, ya know, it gets a bit darui (heavy, sloppy, slow) when it matures.”

While I have of course experienced that non-junmai stands up to time in the bottle better than junmai, somehow hearing it from this uber toji made it so much more valid in my mind. And it was the first time I heard a brewer himself explaining that just when he expected a sake to be drunk would affect his decision on whether or not to add alcohol. Fascinating! With card-carrying members of the junmai jihad seemingly on the increase, having a master brewer of Noguchi-san’s stature acknowledge the fact that aru-ten too is proper sake was both reassuring and satisfying.  (Dare I say vindicating?)

As more and more sake becomes available in many countries around the world, I encourage you to seek and find your preferences. And in so doing, at least consider the idea that all brewing methods have their reasons and legitimacy. Drink the sake, not the label. This is especially applicable to aru-ten and junmai styles.

Sake Swag

I am not a big collector of souvenirs, autographs or the like. But 
 
aftermeeting Noguchi-san, I later sent him a simple postcard acknowledging what an honor it had been to hang out with him for a day. I expected no response, but a scant few days later I did receive a postcard in return, in beautiful if barely readable cursive characters.

 Now this is cool, I thought. This is not something one comes upon every day! I keep it in a special file-cabinet folder called “Sake Swag,” that I admit I  created just for this postcard. (So far, it’s the only thing in there.) The balance of his calligraphy belies the balance of his sake, I thought.

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.

The Origins of Yamada Nishiki – Whence did the king of sake rice come?

Yamada before harvestIn the April issue of  blog, archived here, I wrote comprehensively and effusively about Yamada Nishiki, the current king of sake rice varieties. It is the most widely grown, and – amongst the 100 or so sake rice varieties in use today – it most easily lets brewers make the best sake they can.

Note the choice of wording. That diction was chosen to represent what most brewers and sake professionals try to convey. Yamada Nishiki itself does not necessarily lead to great sake; however, in the hands of a good toji, it is much easier to make great sake using that rice than any other. While certainly there are many opinions, most would agree on this, methinks.

What that really implies is, in the end, the skill, intention and techniques employed by a brewer contribute more to the final nature of a sake than the choice of rice. But the rice is also an extremely important factor, as that allows the brewer to work his or her craft to the utmost.

Curiously, many a toji (master brewer) will insist that it is his or her main role is to create a good environment for the koji and yeast so as to allow the sake to brew itself, and then basically get out of the way. But even through that interpretation, great rice like Yamada Nishiki makes that job easier.

As much adulation as I lavished upon it a few months ago, there is more to say that is historically quite interesting. Let us look at that here.

imada yamadanishiki 70 / 35Before launching into its history and roots, let’s quickly review why it is significantly easier to make good sake using Yamada Nishiki. The grains are large, which means more potential for fermentable starch inside. The starches are concentrated in a ball of starch in the middle, and well centered, meaning it is easy to mill the outer fat and protein away, revealing only the starch. And, that protein and fat are at low levels to begin with, lowering the potential for off-flavors.

And again: it is favored by brewers less for how it ends up tasting than for how it behaves and how it can be handled in the fermenting mash. For example, it dissolves at an ideal, manageable speed. If the rice breaks down and dissolves and ferments too quickly, it can lead to a lot of off-flavors. But if it does not dissolve fast enough, the flavor has no character, or breadth or depth. Neither extreme is good, and Yamada Nishiki walks that fine line.

Looking back, there are a number of events and political changes that brought about the phenomenon of Yamada Nishiki.

The first big change was in 1874, six years after the Meiji Restoration, when the government changed the way rice growers were taxed. Until that time, rice farmers paid taxes with rice itself; a certain chunk of all that one grew was shipped off to the government for their use.

Yamada Nishiki rice floweringBut after that change, tax was due in money based on the amount of land they owned. This means that all of a sudden rice was a commodity, a product to be sold on the marketplace that would lead to revenue to pay such taxes and cover living expenses and savings. As such, the more one grew the more one made, and farmers were all of a sudden very motivated to maximize yields and to do that by growing high-yield rice varieties. Sake rice varieties are decidedly not that kind of rice. So, even though demand for rice was increasing, the production of sake rice with its low yields began do prodigiously drop.

Then, in 1893, the government undertook research to identify and develop strains of rice more conducive to modern times and cultivation methods.

They formed a national agricultural research center and gathered all the rice types from all the localities they could, selected from amongst them a lineup that was particularly good, and got going with the research. The next year, Hyogo Prefecture started their own version of that research center that aligned their work with that of the national government. They then started looking for varieties that would be suitable to be selected as main ones to be used in a wider expansion that would benefit Hyogo’s agricultural economy.

riceStill, as mentioned above, sake rice production was on the decline. Compared to the easy to sell table rice, sake rice was hard to grow, it is quite tall and therefore falls over easily, and yields per field are much lower. It therefore costs farmers more to grow it, and there is less of a market for it. So in order to secure the high quality sake rice they needed, the brewers of Nada (modern day Kobe and Nishinomiya cities in the same prefecture, Hyogo, where the largest breweries have been for 250 years) created a contractual system with the farmers in the region (then known as the Harima region, now just a part of Hyogo) to secure a stable supply at a price that made it worth it to the farming community.

 

From about 1897, farmers and Nada brewers worked back and forth and hammered out these agreements that led to an system called muramai seido, which still exists to some degree today. It identified the best rice fields in Harima and set relative prices on rice from the surrounding fields as well. Once this was established, rice producing towns and villages or Harima began to sell their rice as a group, and the big brewers of Nada would purchase rice from those villages. This close cooperation helped the sake brewers to train and raise great rice farmers nearby. Note, though, that this all began even before Yamada Nishiki was created, and the rice from the Harima region was not as valued as it would later become.

Next, in 1912, the first rice varieties suitable for sake brewing that would promoted by the government as suitable for both large-scale cultivation and good for sake brewing (i.e. “sake rice”) were selected: Yamadaho and Wataribune. (Remember those names!)

Then in 1923, they manually crossbred Yamadaho and a version of Wataribune called Tankan Wataribune (“short-stalk” Wataribune) to create one strain that would be used for research. It was given the unglamorous name of Yama-watari 50-7 during that research stage. It did in fact get selected for as a rice the government would promote, and was in 1932 certified as a bona fide new rice type. Next it went into feasibility testing to assess its suitability to large scale production. Obviously, it passed, and was finally christened Yamada Nishiki in 1936.

However, it was not immediately recognized for its greatness and languished for a few years.

This is because the Nada brewers strongly preferred to use rice from what was then called the Hokusetsu region, which is now the northern part of neighboring Osaka Prefecture. They insisted it was softer and that it was easy to make koji using it. It was also considered to be fragrant and encouraged vigorous fermentation.

While this also may have been true, the truth is that they were very accustomed to the rice they had been using, and they were concerned that if they tried a new rice, it might be hard to get it to behave as they wanted to. It was easier to stick with what they knew. The risk of sake spoiling during fermentation, rendering the entire tank wasted, was higher in those days, and throwing another variable into the mix only increased the possibility of that happening.

Yamada Nishiki’s big break, so to speak, came in 1942, when the war necessitated rationing of rice. The rules surrounding this dictated that the brewers were not allowed to bring in rice from other prefectures, and had to use rice grown in their own prefecture. This seems natural considering the circumstances of the day.

So that meant that Nada brewers (remember, Nada is in Hyogo Prefecture, the next prefecture westward from Osaka) had to use Hyogo rice, not Osaka rice. And this meant that the brewers had no choice but to try this new Yamada Nishiki stuff from Hyogo.

Once they began to use it, though, they be like, “whoa, this stuff is good!” Using it, they found it was even easier to make good sake, and so turned their attention toward using increasingly more Yamada Nishiki. While it can be expensive, and while there are other great rice types, Hyogo-grown Yamada is still most brewers’ choice for at least their most extravagant sake.It has gradually grown in usage, but has always remained comparatively expensive. Although it is now the most widely grown sake rice, but it only took this lead in the mid-90s. Currently in Hyogo alone there are 5500 people growing it.

One reason it remains so good is that Hyogo growers take very good care of the DNA, so to speak. If one grows any rice and just haphazardly uses last year’s seeds to grow this year’s rice, pollen et al from other rice types will naturally get mixed in and the sake will lose its purity and its erstwhile main characteristics will become diluted. So at the sake rice research center in Hyoto, each and every seedling is inspected one at a time to be sure it has has maintained the original and necessary characteristics of Yamada Nishiki.

Rice only sake = junmai-shuThese are then grown to yield more seeds, which are then grown to yield even more seeds, that are then distributed to seed cooperatives, who then distribute the seeds to the farmers to use to grow the rice. So count ‘em: that is only three generations from purity each year, no seeds are any more than three generations from individually inspected and assessed purity. Dig that.

Of the myriad ways to enjoy sake, of course appreciating its flavors and aromas and its relaxing benefits are the most accessible. But the behind-the-scenes history, anecdotes and conversation fodder equally enjoyable. Well; almost.

Remember the roots of the rice the next time you enjoy Yamada Nishiki in a cup.

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Sake Professional Course in Japan

From Tuesday, January 10 through Saturday, January 14, I will hold the annual Japan-based running of the Sake Professional Course in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. For more information and/or to make a reservation, please send me an email to that purport.

fune1More information about the course, the schedule, the syllabus and the fun is available here, with a downloadable pdf there as well, and testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day courses wrap up with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation for a future course, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me.

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.