Search Results for: toji

Toji Guilds: What do they do differently?

fune1One of the biggest factors contributing to the quality of the sake from a given kura is the skill of the toji, or master brewer, in residence therein. And while technical texts and other means of advice and support are much more available to brewers today then, say a century ago, the experience, intuition, and decisiveness of the person in charge is still of paramount importance.

It is probably fair to say, though, that the industry is less dependent on the various guilds of master brewers than they were back in the old days. And in fact, I myself have been seeing less (not zero, mind you, but less) significance in the differences between the various guilds themselves, beyond their formidable cultural and historical presence.

Sure, we hear about slight differences, like the Nanbu guild does it this way, but the Echigo guild does the same step another way. But in the end, the overall level of technical prowess is higher than it used to be, toji or no toji, guild or no guild. And so many other factors guide the decisions of any given toji – such as house style or modern consumer needs – that those little differences between the guilds get squashed in comparison.

Nevertheless, I am pretty sure there is a lot about sake brewing about which I have no clue, and recently learned a bit about some of the real technical differences in the way different guilds of toji brew, and teach their protégé.

The toji guilds are centered around old farming regions, and most of the toji of a particular guild would Shizukustay close to home. But as the number of guilds and therefore toji has declined drastically (many are gone for good, or have but a couple of members), those that have maintained their numbers begin to necessarily spread out a bit, practicing their craft in kura farther and farther from their main region. Also, as there are textbooks, computers and seminars these days, the differences between the gilds is less clear cut than it used to be, in terms of technology, methods, and logistics.

And so I found myself in Ishikawa Prefecture, on the Noto Peninsula, home to the Noto Toji Guild. It is a narrow strip of land so sparsely populated, mostly with tobacco farmers, that in some higher spots one can see water on both sides, a testament to how few buildings there are.

One brewer I was visiting, a tiny operation, had as their toji the son of the owner, destined to take over himself in due time. But oddly enough, due to some affiliation from university, he was affiliated with a totally different guild, the mighty Nanbu Guild, basically centered in Iwate way up north.

So here sat this Nanbu toji in the middle of the home town of Noto toji. While it may not seem like much in writing, I was surprised and impressed. In any event, this particular gent had the chance to speak with many a Noto Toji as he was surrounded by them, and that juxtaposition made for great conversation as we strolled around his kura.

I found one particular technical difference big enough to surprise me and encourage further discussion.

 

Men at workWhen brewing a tank of sake, after the yeast starter is prepared, it is mixed with more rice, enzyme-rich moldy rice called koji, and water, added in three separate doses over four days. After that, the resulting fermenting mash – called the moromi – is allowed to ferment away for from 20 to 35 days or so. As it goes about its fermenting business, the temperature in that tank will rise. The highest temperature it reaches can be anywhere from 10C to 18C, depending on the grade of sake and ten million other things.

It was explained to me by this Nanbu Toji surrounded by Noto Toji that the Nanbu guild liked to let that temperature run up freely and of its own accord. “It gives us the fine-grained, clear flavor we are famous for,” he explained. But the Noto guild prefers to hold that back, forcing the moromi to take as much time as is feasible to come up to that higher temperature. The words used to me were, “Osaete, osaete,” or “They hold it back, as if saying ‘Easy now, killer, easy now.’” As he explained to me, he held his arms out, palms facing me and pushing forward, as if holding back an invisible force. And again, there is a reason. “It gives them the full flavor and quick finish that is their trademark,” I was told.

The differences are quite significant. We’re not talking a day or two here, but more to the tune of a seven days. In other words, one school says the highest temperature can be hit in a week, another says hold it back and make it take 14 days or so. To me, having that much variance in the basic brewing methodology is surprising.

But they’re right. If left on their own to brew sake as they like (i.e. without owner or consumer “suggestions” or “guidance”), Nanbu toji-brewed sake is indeed clear and fine-grained. And without a doubt, Noto toji-made juice is quite full – until the end, when it cleans out astonishingly quickly.

Well, I initially chalked this up to his particular perception. But the next day I had the good fortune to visit another brewery, this one firmly ensconced in the region’s Noto toji hands. And as the evening’s discussion with that toji wore on, we returned to this point.

I began to describe to him what I had been told. “I have heard that the Nanbu toji let the temperature of the moromi run up freely, whereas you Noto guys tend to?” He cut me off at that point.

With his arms out, palms pushing toward me as if holding back an invisible force, he interjected “Osaete, osaete?” And added a bit more verbiage to the tune of “Easy now, killer, easy now. Gotta hold that puppy back a bit.” Not only did he know where I was going, the very words were the same. The gestures were too, for that matter. This kind of indicated to me just how deeply ingrained their thinking is on the issue. “It’s what gives our sake the full flavor yet clean finish Noto Toji are known for.”

I was impressed by not only the differences, but also by the acute awareness of those differences on the part of the journeymen themselves.

I reiterate, though, that these differences are likely less significant than they once were. Textbooks, computer-generated curves and the equipment to allow brewers to match them, and modern understanding of the processes have usurped much of the effect of those older, empirically driven methods. But still, the differences in the practices of the various toji guilds are alive, well, and infinitely interesting.

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Lauding Toji

Giving credit where credit is due!

Recently, I read an article that came to me mysteriously by email about how winemakers in general deserve more attention and credit. The article suggested that too often folks fall in love with terroir, i.e. all that connects a wine to a certain place, and as such that the role of the person who actually called all the technical shots along the way gets downplayed, and that that shouldn’t be. The gist of the article was that hundreds of decisions are made between grape and bottle, and that deserves to be recognized and appreciated as well.

Which got me thinking: what about toji? Does the master brewer at a sake brewery get the credit that he or she deserves in creating a great sake?

Very often, perhaps as often as in the wine world, the person that guided and influenced the process gets very little attention or credit. It goes to the rice, or the generations of great sake that forged the reputation of the brewery, or sometimes even the region in general f’gad’s sake. Rarely, or at least not often enough, does it go to the toji.

So: Does the toji matter? Hell yes, the toji matters!

Long ago, the toji mattered, arguably, even much more than today. Back in the day, kuramoto (the brewery owners themselves) rarely even entered the brewery. And when they did, it made the brewing staff antsy, it did. “What’s he doing in the kura? He doesn’t have any business in here!” But things have changed.

Remember, back in the day, most toji brewed fairly close to home, and had but one style to aim for (the local one), and was pretty much stuck with local rice. But all that has changed. These days, toji might travel very far from home. The rice they use might be from anywhere, and brewers have a much bigger market at which to aim than the local yokels. Often, the kuramoto (the brewery owners themselves) dictate what is to be brewed, and the toji just complies. Either way, the toji is making gazillions of decisions about each fermenting tank every day.

In fact, in these modern times, there are more or less two ways of coexisting: one in which the kuramoto leaves it up to the toji and stays out of his way, and the other in which the toji brews up whatever is ordered by the kuramoto. Both are alive and well and living in Japan.

And let us also remember too that more and more often those two are the same: the
kuramoto is the toji, owner-toji as they are called. As tough as this can be, it eliminates a lot of problems. (Assuming schizophrenia is not part of the equation, of course. But I digress.)

The interesting if unrequested article that came to me also touched on the concept of manipulating wines, and my own reading on that subject indicated that the jury is still out on how much or how little of this is acceptable. But it again got me thinking.

While surely the same argument can be had for sake, at least to some degree, even the most un-manipulated sake has the bejeezus manipulated out of it from start to finish. The rice is milled, soaked, steamed, molded, mixed and forced to temperature. Water is added as needed, alcohol might be added, and the mixture is pressed at the end. Each of these manhandling steps has myriad aspects that combine to become part of the aforementioned gazillion decisions.

Having said that, any toji will tell you that he or she doesn’t really make sake per se, they just prepare the ingredients, create as an ideal an environment as possible for what they want to accomplish, and get out of the way. The sake brews itself, with a mind of its own.

Does a toji manipulate a sake? Hell, yes! Does it matter? Hard to say!

One owner of a somewhat large brewery once shared with me his thoughts on a what makes a great toji. After several glasses of some of his own fine hooch, he got down to the truth.

“You know what makes a great toji? I’ll tell ya what makes a great toji! Forget this gold medal stuff. Forget the prizes. Gold, schmold! Give me a person who year-in and year-out can deliver consistent quality of sake, the same stuff no matter what happens. No matter what the rice is like, no matter how warm the winter is, no matter what major piece of equipment breaks down in the peak of the season, no matter what personality conflicts he has in his team, and no matter who gets sick when… he still manages to brew consistent, dependable sake! Now that is a great toji”

So yes, in the final analysis, toji make a huge difference and should be lauded much more than they are.

Do some get attention? Yes, mei-toji (famous toji) have always been a part of the industry, and there are a handful that are recognized as such. A few have even been designated by their local prefectural or the national government as famous craftsmen or even intangible cultural assets. But still, not as many as one might think, and certainly not as many as are deserving of such recognition.

Why does this not happen more often? One reason is that they are a humble lot. Traditionally, toji were happy to stay in the background, being masters of their realm was enough, and even those with tyrannical streaks could be tyrants in that slice of their universe. Traditionally, they were not meant to be the “face” of the sake; that was the kuramoto’s job. To the outside world they were just doing their job.

But this is all changing, and so I say yes, let us make a bigger deal of the toji, and a more personal deal out of them too. They deserve it.

There are still a couple of seats remaining open for the Sake Professional Course in Japan, the most thorough sake education on the planet. Five days of sake bliss: learning, tasting, eating and visiting breweries. Held in Tokyo with a trip to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. Learn more at http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcjapan.html 

 

Pilfering Yeast

Yeast StarterBrewer Number One stood up and faced the crowd. And he talked about his sake. Its lively yet balanced nature is the result of a family of yeasts, one of which was discovered at his brewery several decades ago, he explains. It has contributed to – if not created – the high reputation enjoyed by all of the sake in that region, which only came into sake prominence about 30 years ago.

Brewer Number Two spoke next. While several years younger than Number One, they are friends (or were, anyway) and both went to Tokyo Agricultural University, the “UC Davis of the sake world.” With his typically dry sense of humor, he jokingly (or so we thought) explained how Number One’s father actually stole that yeast from his brewery to get it all started.

Several days later, Brewer Number One send Brewer Number Two an email that basically e-tore him a new e-asshole. “You should not be saying groundless and untrue things like that; you will confuse and mislead people.”

While it was an email between the two of them, I know Number Two well enough that later, he told me about it, and even showed me the e-tearing email. “I actually thought it was a true story, but it seems I was confusing my anecdotes. I have cleared that up now, but not before Number One laid into me about it.”

What is this all about, this stealing of yeast? How does one steal a naturally occurring micro-organism, and why would one if it is just floating around in the air? I mean, you can’t just stuff it in your pocket and walk out the door, can you? And is it illegal?

Yeast CellsYeast is massively important to the making of great sake. While they contribute to aromas more than anything else, good yeasts will also ferment strongly and not peter out too early, tolerate high levels of alcohol, yield appropriate levels of acidity that are not too high nor low, and much more.

While long ago all yeast was naturally occurring, dropping in from the ambient environment, these days brewers get yeast from a few supply chains. These often include local research centers as well. Sometimes, as in the case of Brewer Number One, these yeasts never officially leave the prefecture. And there are those brewers that still use proprietary yeasts, stuff they found in their brewery that does not get released, which is how it all used to be.

And so, if you could get your grubby little paws on the yeast from a great brewery, you could often use it yourself, transposing its main characteristics onto those of your own brewery and sake. And doing so surely would not be illegal, provided that something like “breaking and entering” was not involved.

Nothing like this takes place these days, of course. With so many great yeast strains so easily available, there is no reason to do so. But in the not too distant past, it did happen from time to time.

How does one steal micro-organisms that one cannot see?

Oh, let’s say you visit a brewery whose sake you respect. You just want to pass through, see their setup, ask a question or two and see if you can learn a thing or two from the venerable toji. And as you look down into a tank of fermenting mash and its rising swaths of foam, you smell the aromatic goodness and note how vigorously it is fermenting. Just before you move on to the next tank you let your hand nonchalantly drop down near the surface and scoop up a fingerful of foam. And as you turn to walk away, you casually wipe that off on the underside of the brim of your baseball cap. You just stole their yeast.

When you get back to your own kura, you wash off that area of your cap or sleeve and do what you need to do to revive and let multiply the yeast you know is in that slightly grimy discoloration on your cap. If you do it properly, you will be able to propagate that and eventually use it in your own sake.

While surely not simple, it is far from impossible, and happened often enough that many kura were loathe to let brewing personnel from other companies visit them. Or so I have heard.

Foam on the top of a fermenting mashAgain, this really does not happen anymore; nor was it ever a huge industry problem. But I have heard about it from several brewers, elevating it above simple legend. Also, just getting a good yeast is not the end of the challenge. A brewer with any new yeast needs to learn its idiosyncrasies during preparation, throughout fermentation, and beyond.

Furthermore, they would not be able to talk about it, and brag how it was painstakingly isolated over several years from amongst ten thousand others by the prefectural research center, or any other such romantic story. Nope.

Nor would it have roots or traceability. All they could really do is call it, “proprietary.” So there are no huge advantage to doing this, nor any real need anymore. It’s a bit like stealing sand from the beach.

But back to our true story, enter Brewer Number Three, nicknamed Mr. Unabashedly Unscrupulous. Apparently, he did in fact visit Brewer Number Two years ago and did in fact steal their yeast. However, he was not able to successfully reconstitute it, and as such it was all for naught. In time, he ‘fessed up about it; no harm done. But wow. Such audacity.

And, when Brewery Number Two chided Brewer Number One about his father’s supposed heist, it seems he was crossing his wires.

“Yeah, I mixed up my yeast-thievery stories and characters,” he admitted to me later. “I suppose I should check my facts before saying things like that in public…” he conciliatorily conceded.

Again, to be clear: this is not something that happens anymore, and is certainly not a problem in the industry. It is nothing more than a fun little anecdote that goes far to convey the important role that yeast plays in making great sake.

The only thing that we need to remember is that the gift of aromas you enjoy in your sake tonight are driven by the choice of yeast.

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Ten Reasons to be in Denver

The next Sake Professional Course will take place in Denver, August 28, 29 and 30, 2017. Here are ten reasons you really want to be in one of the ten remaining seats.

10. No sake stone remains left unturned. Every single aspect of the sake world is covered in excruciating detail.

9. Certification: you can become a Certified Sake Professional as recognized by the Sake Education Council.

8. Just one more reason to spend three days in Denver in early autumn!

7. You have been working hard, and deserve a break that is only three days, fun and educational, and that will serve you for a lifetime. 

6. The 1500 or so folks that have already taken the course across the past 11 years have good things to say about it.

5. It is organized, flows logically, and manages to get a massive amount of sake information internalized in three short days.

4. You’ll learn about koji, toji, yamahai, kimoto and muroku nama genshu – and taste them all! (Well, not the toji…)

3. You will become eligible for the Level II Course, with Advanced Sake Professional certification testing, held in Japan in February of each year, from which only about 220 people have graduated.

2. This course opens the door to a lifelong romance with what is easily the world’s most interesting and steeped-in-culture drink.

1. You will taste upwards of 90 (count ‘em!) sake across three days. Nowhere else can you get exposed to so many in a focused environment.

 

Learn more about the course here

Read testimonials from those that have taken in in the past here

To sign up, or if you have any questions, please send an email to sakeguy@gol.com .

 

The End of the 2016 – 2017 Brewing Season: Koshiki-daoshi and Kaizo

It was well into the evening when the phone rang, but my caller i.d. told me the call was from the cell phone of the owner and presidente-for life of a kura with which I work closely. Since he fits into both the friend and business associate categories, I happily answered.

He began the conversation with the Japanese-language equivalent of, “Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty ha-a-a-a-mmered.” Not your typical call from the owner of a prestigious sake brewery, to say the least.

And to what do I owe this honor? Surely there must be a reason you have called at this hour and in this, er, state?

“Indeed, indeed. Today was ‘kaizo.’ It’s over. We are done for this season. That’s it. Owari! All we have to do is clean up and we are so outta here until the fall.” He seemed to momentarily forget he lived in the old house attached to the kura. “And, thanks to your support,” he continued with typical Japanese uber-humility, “we managed to finish the brewing season this year without any major difficulties.” I was fairly sure I had nothing to do with that, and of course politely deferred.

“Wow,” I responded. “That’s great. Congratulations. Another season down! I am sure you are relieved, and I am just as sure your sake will be great again this year.”

“Hold on. There is someone here that wants to talk to you.” The cell
phone got dropped at least twice and bashed into something made of glass on its way to whomever it was destined. Things like that happen in a room full of happy, buzzed sake brewers. Actually, I knew who it was going to be before I even heard the familiar voice.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty hammered too-hu-hu-hu.” It was the relatively young toji (master brewer). “We made it through yet another season. And thanks to your support, we finished without a hitch.” Yeah, yeah.

The true reason behind their call, driven though it was by the unbridled exuberance of the evening’s “kaizo” celebration, party, was to thank me for a positive assessment of a new sake they came out with that I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste several days earlier. I had coincidentally ran into the two of them, armed with a bottle, at a sake pub the night before a big Tokyo tasting. Regardless, it was great fun to hear from them, and congratulate them on completing the season.

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As many readers certainly recall, sake brewing runs roughly from the fall It all starts when this is harvested

until the spring. Just when a kura begins to brew sake and when they finish for the year depends on a number of factors, including of course how much they brew. On top of this, dynamics including the number of people actively working in the brewery, the number of tanks, size of the batches, how old or new their equipment is, and how often they start a batch will all combine to determine just when they start and end. But typically it runs from mid-October to mid-April.

As the season draws to a close, there are two significant days that the people in the brewery owners and brewers together will celebrate. One is called “koshiki-daoshi,” the other is “kaizou.”

“Koshiki-taoshi” refers to overturning the rice-steaming vat. The koshiki is the large vat in which rice is steamed every morning or so. Traditionally these were wooden, but rarely does one see that anymore. Most are steel these days, and in fact, many are fully automatic. Long ago, when the last vat of rice had been steamed, the koshiki would be turned on to its side, cleaned thoroughly, and left to dry and be put into storage until the next brewing season begins the next fall.

When the last batch of rice has been steamed for the year, and the koshiki has been knocked over for that final thorough cleaning, the brewers can see the light at the end of the brewing-season’s tunnel. Hence the the celebratory nature of the day.

Of course, that last day’s vat of rice will then be put into the last tank that is still fermenting, and after that there are still three weeks or more of waiting for that tank, and others still bubbling along, to finish fermenting, and then be pressed, filtered, pasteurized and sent to mature for a while. So even after koshiki-daoshi their work is far from done. Still, they know they are getting close to the end of six months or more of long, hard days.

“Kaizo,” on the other hand, is written with characters that mean “all (has been) made,” and naturally enough indicates the day on which the last tank has been completely finished, and therefore all the sake for the year has been brewed. All there is left to do is to sweep up, tidy up, and pack up.

Pour sakeAfter koshiki-daoshi, typically, the brewers and other employees of a sake brewery will often have a little bash in or nearby the kura. A nice dinner, warm toasts to each other, and plenty of sake. While, from what I have heard, it is more common to have this little party after koshiki-taoshi, obviously the folks at some places – such as those that called me in the story above – wait until kaizo, when presumably they can sleep late the next day.

Much has changed in the sake-brewing society, and while long ago the entire brewing staff lived in the brewery for the whole brewing season, which was six months or longer. Today, however, many (if not most) brewing personnel live close to the kura and commute. The significance of koshiki-daoshi and kaizo must have been much greater back then.
Nevertheless, both koshiki-daoshi and kaizo are culturally and historically important milestones in each kura’s brewing season.

Why would any brewer use a foaming yeast?

Why make it harder than it needs to be?

There are countless varieties of yeast used in sake brewing today. Yeast converts sugar (that has been created when enzymes in the koji break down starch in the rice) into alcohol. So, no yeast, no sake. But it does much, much more. But the most evident expression of yeast in sake is aroma. Basically, yeast yields aromas.

If you smell banana and melon in your sake, that comes from the yeast. If you smell apple and anise, that comes from the yeast. If you smell bacon and smoke, that comes from bad yeast.

Almost all brewers select and manually add the yeast of their choice for each sake. And, in a very few cases, yeast can drop in from the air and naturally occur. These can be categorized in a handful of ways, most usefully perhaps in terms of “classic” yeasts and “modern” yeasts, with the former giving more overall balance and the latter being more aromatic.

But another way to categorize yeast is “foaming” and “non-foaming.” The difference is just as the terms imply: foaming yeast froths up on the top of the fermenting mash, whereas non-foaming yeast does not. Other than that, they are pretty much the same.

Foaming yeast are much, much more common and were in fact the standard for centuries. Why are the foamless ones foamless? What happens, it seems, is that most yeast cells will cling to bubbles of carbon dioxide that are created and then rise to the surface. Foamless yeast cells, on the other hand, for whatever reason do not cling to these bubbles and so are not carried up, up, and away. Since the bubbles are unencumbered, they pop, and there is no foam rising high above the mash.

Many yeasts have both foaming and non-foaming manifestations. An organization called the Nihon Jozo Kyokai (Brewing society of Japan) distributes the lion’s share of sake yeast to the industry. The yeast varieties they distribute are numbered, as in number 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, and 18. These are the most commonly seen, although there are others. When a -01 is added, that indicates a foamless version. So 601 is a foamless 6, 701 is a foamless 7, and 901 is a foamless 9.

During production, the two types of yeast behave very differently.

For instance, since the foam rises in great swaths during fermentation, brewers cannot fill a fermentation tank to the top with ingredients when using a foaming yeast. If they did, the foam would overflow, taking yeast with it, and fermentation would peter out. Using a foamless yeast eliminates this problem, since there is no foam to overflow. So the brewers can fill the tank to the top from the beginning, and this means brewers can get about 25 percent more sake from each tank. That is significant.

Also, when foam does rise and fall, the remains that cling to the side of the tank are a veritable hotbed of bacterial activity, an orgy of undesirable microorganisms just hankerin’ to drop back in and do damage to the unsuspecting ambrosia-in-waiting below. So this must be assiduously cleaned off by the brewers. Not only is this hard and time consuming work, it can be dangerous. So by eliminating the foamy remains, time, labor, and risk are spared. Yet one more advantage of foamless yeast is that the yeast cells move and work a bit more freely, so that fermentation proceeds a smidgeon faster and can finish a day or two earlier.

So foamless yeast is faster, easier, and increases per-tank yields significantly. This naturally begs the question: why in the world would a brewer not use a foamless yeast?

In a word (or two): sensory input. Visual data. Insights that chemical measurements cannot provide.

I recently visited the brewer of Matsuo, Ryuta Tanaka, deep in the backwoods of mountainous Nagano prefecture. As we meandered through his kura, we eventually made it to the moto room, where all the yeast starters are created. Most sake here is made using a yeast known as Number 14, the non-foaming counterpart of which is 14-01.

“All of our sake is made using foaming yeast; 14-01 is fine, but I gotta have the foam,” he began. “Sure, I give up yields. Sure, it is more of a hassle. But this sake stuff has a life of its own; it doesn’t always proceed as expected. So the more info I can get, the better I can roll with it and guide it to end up as tasty.”

During the 20 to 35 day fermentation period, the surface of the mash will change daily. After a few days, the foam will appear, peaking at about the tenth to the twelfth day, and then slowly collapse and contract into a skin-like surface. Experience and intuition let a master brewer look at the foam on any day and know how healthy the yeast is, and what the sake will end up tasting like when done. Foamless yeasts, for all their benefits, do not offer nearly as much visual feedback as to how the fermentation is proceeding.

Tanaka-san continued. “With experience, it is amazing what I can tell from the appearance of the foam. F’rinstance, I can look at the foam on any given day and tell you what the nihonshu-do will be on the next day!” The nihonshu-do is the specific gravity, and it will tell the brewer how fast sugar is being produced and how fast it is being fermented. So it is a seminally important measurement to sake brewing.

“Usually, we have to measure that daily with a hydrometer; but I can eyeball it based on the foam,” he stated, obviously pleased with this. “That’s the way sake has always been made; brewers used their five senses to get the job done. They didn’t need no stinkin’ hydrometers!” While I admittedly took a bit of liberty with that translation, the gist was certainly the same.

Last month in this space we talked about sadistic sake fans. While their counterparts may exist in masochistic brewers, often the older, hassle-laden ways are, indeed, better. While there are certainly many opinions, increased sensory data is one reason for that.

Sadistic Sake Fans

Suffering does not (always) equal better sake

Sake sadists. They’re out there. You may be one of them. In truth, “sake romanticists” might be just as applicable a term, although it garners less attention. “Sake sadists” makes a better eye-grabbing headline.

To what does that refer? There are many people out there – inside Japan and out, Japanese and not, some that know their sake well and some that do not – that seem to like a sake better if they are led to believe that the brewing staff suffered more when brewing it.

Let’s sake that two glasses of sake were put before someone of this bent. And let us say that for the one on the right, he or she was told that, in order to make this level of quality, the koji was made in such a labor intensive way, and with so much more attention to detail, that the toji (master brewer) had to get up every 90 minutes to check on the moisture and temperature, every day for five months of the year. (Such sake exist!) And let us tell him or her that the one on the left was made using modern equipment that accomplished the same thing, without the koji-person needing to even get out of bed.

I can all but guarantee that if these two sake were placed before a sake sadist, he or she would like the one on the right. Deprival. Discomfort. Fatigue. Angst. These are sometimes mistakenly considered to be connected to craftsmanship and quality.

And in truth, sometimes they are. Very commonly the old ways do, in fact, lead to better sake. That is why they have been doing it that way for centuries upon centuries. But not always. Sometimes the ease and comfort that modern technology affords is, actually, just as good as the labor intensive ways, or even better.

Sometimes technology can in fact augment craftsmanship. Not replace it, mind you, but seriously augment it.

An example of this arose when visiting a brewery in Shimane (Ok, it was Rihaku) with a handful of visitors from the US. The president and toji-for-now was explaining how they made their koji. Let me preface this by saying that the company is now transitioning from having an old, experienced toji who could make do with a minimum of modern conveniences like thermometers and scales, and who still cranked out consistently great sake, to young staff that are far less experienced.

He led a dozen of us into his koji-making room. Therein, steamed rice with a mold sprinkled on it would spend 48 hours or so of pampering and tweaking, permitting the mold to grow into the rice, giving off the enzymes that will liquefy the rice, and convert its starch to sugar. Koji making: the heart of the sake brewing process.

He tapped the thigh-high stainless steel table with the heel of his palm as he spoke. “This entire table sits on a scale. We can see the weight of the rice that sits upon it,” he explained as he pointed to a red LED display in the corner.

“Moisture content is everything in completed koji. It guides the mold, and also affects how fast things dissolve. And we know for each batch of koji precisely what we want that moisture content to be.

“And, because we know how much dry rice we started with, once we load it up here and weigh it we know what the moisture content is at that point. Naturally, that means we know how much moisture we need the rice to give up through evaporation.”

He continued, obviously pleased with his new toy.

“By spreading the rice out over a larger and larger area of the table, we can create more surface area, and blow off less or more moisture, as needed. We adjust that moisture content during the first 24 hours of the koji-making process.”

He walked over to the corner of the table, and showed us what is basically a ruler along the edge of the table that indicates the distance from the edge. He then showed us a large, laminated card with a graph printed on it.

“Like I said, we know what we want the moisture to be when our koji is completed. And we know what the moisture content is when the rice comes into this room. So we know how much we need it to give off. And, finally, for a given thickness of the layer of rice sitting on this table, we know how much it will blow off, the speed at which it will dry out.
“So by looking at this graph, we can see that if the rice on the table weighs X kilos, then we spread the rice out on the table as far as point Y. If that is done properly, the perfect amount of moisture will evaporate, and we will have perfect moisture in the rice as we go into the crucial second day of koji making.

“If we set it up this way, with just one experienced person in here, heck, even you guys could make good sake.” This was immediately followed by a surely unintentionally condescending snort.

“But,” he continued, “consumers these days do not want to hear that. No one wants to hear how modern technology and clever ideas makes sake brewing easier. They want to hear how much effort and angst and hard work we had to do. They want to hear how we suffered to achieve that attention to detail.” He smiled wryly as he slowly shook his head.

“Somehow, people think that the more the brewer had to suffer, the better the sake. Of course, there are steps of the process in which that is close to true. But there are also plenty of clever tricks and modern tools that make sake that is just as good, with less effort.”

He then went on (and on) about how the old toji who had retired a few years ago made do with so much less. He was able to do much of his work without entire tables on scales or graphs. He was so experienced in his craft that he was able to do almost everything by observation, experience and intuition honed through years of dedication to his craft.

Surely there are still toji like that. But not many. As the industry changes, and the brewing staff at more and more kura change from old gnarly guys from the boonies to local youths enjoying a newfound passion, impossibly accurate intuition and modern tools will continue to coexist.

And it will therefore become increasingly important to rein in “sake sadism” and even “sake romanticism”. As long as it tastes and smells good to us, it matters not how it got there.

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.

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.

This Year’s Rice Solubility – and how it affects sake

13withtweaksSake is, as we all know, brewed from rice. Rice, in turn, is a very focused expression of soil, climate, and each year’s weather conditions such as sunshine, rain and typhoons. Every growing season is different, and there are good years for sake rice and bad years for sake rice.

In most breweries, the toji (master brewer) will begin the brewing season with lower grades of sake. One goal in doing that is to be able to feel out the rice, to test it, to see how easily (or not) it will absorb water and, ultimately, dissolve into components while fermenting in the mash. The more easily it dissolves, the more flavor it will impart to the resulting sake. The less easily it dissolves, the lighter and more insipid the resulting sake will be. Finding the middle ground is key.

One great thing about sake brewing is that brewers can do a handful of things that can help the rice behave the way they want it to behave. In other words, they can make up for a bad year of rice and help the sake taste great again this year, at least to a certain degree. And naturally it helps tremendously if they know what is coming, and how to expect to have to deal with it.

 
riceWouldn’t it be great if someone analyzed it for them? Sure, brewers might know the weather of their immediate vicinity. But since rice can be brought in from other regions, wouldn’t it be great if the brewers could learn what to expect from each season’s rice, each of the main varieties of rice, from each region of Japan? Then they could use such data to determine how to tweak their brewing methods to adapt to each year’s and each region’s rice.

 

OK: Done.

The National Research Institute of Brewing is a research organization that has over its 110-year history been under the wing of multiple branches of the government of Japan, and also semi-privatized. Much could be written about this significant organization and what they do, and you can learn for yourself at www.nrib.go.jp if you like. But one thing they do each October is prepare a report for the brewing industry called the “Expected Suitability of This Year’s Rice to the Brewing Process.” (清酒原料米の酒造適性予測)

The short, four-page report talk firstly about its aim, which is explained above. It then runs down the average temperature in Japan for each ten day period in the two months of the growing season after the ears of rice appear, August and September, which are the key months related to the maturing of the grains. It briefly compares these to historical averages.

Next, the report runs down the eight major regions from northeast to southwest, commenting on the solubility of the rice for each, compared to both an average year, and to the previous year in particular

smallf chikurin 200801003_1Then, it waxes technical. It explains in excruciating detail how higher averages temperatures lead to longer Amylopectin (one of the two components of starch) chains. This means that the starches will dissolve very easily in the moromi (fermenting mash), which means more flavorful sake if controlled, but big-assed sloppy flavors if not reined in. It also accordingly means that resulting sake will be more susceptible to aging the adverse effects of aging.

Conversely, lower temperatures lead to shorter Amylopectin chains, meaning the starches will not dissolve very quickly or easily in the moromi, leading to lighter sake if done right, but tighter, shallower and less flavorful sake if its idiosyncrasies are not compensated for properly. Colder temperatures also lead to sake that will mature much more slowly, being reticent to give it up to the passage of time.

Curiously, one would think that the average reader of this report would not need to bone up on this stuff, so they must have had the intention of broadening the appeal of sake when they determined the content.

chikurin 20080902_3Summer in Japan this year was again hot, just about as hot as last year was. The warmer temperatures of the past decade and then some have continued. Furthermore, the islands of Japan were pummeled with typhoons this fall, meaning lots and lots of rain. Factoring in all that and more, the prognosis was that this year’s rice will be not dissolve very well; not too bad, mind you. Just not so well.

What does this mean in more concrete terms? It means that the brewers will need to do things like help the rice absorb a bit more water than usual so that it dissolves a bit more easily. This will ensure that sufficient flavor presents itself.

However, fear not! All is not lost! So much is involved in the complex sake-brewing process that a skillful brewer can often make up for a bad rice crop with effort, experience and intuition. In fact, what brewers strive for year after year is consistency in their main products out on the market. Naturally, there are inevitable changes each year, but a truly skillful toji will minimize these.

Fermenting mash ("moromi")That’s the cool thing about sake: in making it, we can meet nature half-way. What will most noticeably suffer are the highest grades of sake, contest sake especially. But for most of us, what we will be drinking will be as good as it usually is; but we should not forget that added burden that will be on rice farmers and brewers to make it that way. Sake, like wine, remains an integral expression of nature.

 

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Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.

Sake Confidential