Separated At Birth

I don’t always drink beer. But when I do, it’s usually Pilsner Urquell.

OK, that’s not true. It is usually from one of Japan’s quite passable large brewing companies. But without a doubt, my favorite beer in the world is Pilsner Urquell. And that tells you a lot about my preferences.

Sure, I enjoy Belgians, double-secret-probation stouts, and hopped-to-bejeezus IPAs as well. They can be very interesting. But when no one else is around and I reach for a beer, if left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate toward simple, clean but far from insipid styles like Czech pilsners. Subtle and quaffable. ‘Nuff said.

Pilsner Urquell typifies these qualities. The clean, light backdrop lets the Saaz hops present flavors and aromas that are just present enough, but not overbearing. “Hodo-hodo” is the term in Japanese. Just enough – not too much.

I don’t always drink beer. In fact, I usually drink sake. And my preferences are of the same vein. In other words, I find aged sake, nama-zake, muroka nama genshu (read: the 2×4-upside-the-head of sake) intense yamahai sake, and other less orthodox styles to be fascinating. I never pass on tasting something, no matter how much funk may have overcome it – or be designed into it. They are all interesting, and almost all enjoyable, and all have their time and place.

But when no one else is around, and I want to quaff as I am wont to do, I reach for simple, subtle, hodo-hodo sake – like Koro.

Fortunately, there are many, many sake like Koro out there. So on any given day my options abound! And in truth, I do not drink Koro that often. But I single it out as it is made using Yeast Number Nine. In fact, the folks at Koro created Yeast Number Nine, or at least first isolated it. And they brew their sake to exemplify all that Nine can be.

I have written about Yeast No. 9 fairly recently in this blog; my point today is that Koro is to sake what Pilsner Urquell is to beer. Everything I said about P.U. applies to Koro: simple, subtle, sippable, yet refined and exquisitely balanced. “Separated at birth,” so to speak. And, they were recently sighted together, a very rare occurrence, at a San Francisco establishment.

Neither stayed around very long, as you might imagine, but I did manage to get a rare shot of them together. They tend to hang in different circles, so it might be a while before we see them together again. Except at my house, that is.

 

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Announcing the 10th
Sake Professional Course
to be held in Tokyo Japan, January 21 – 25, 2012 

34From Monday, January 21, until Friday January 25, 2013, I will hold the 10th Japan-based Sake  Professional Course in Tokyo, with a side trip to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe region. This is it: the most important thing I do all year, and beyond any doubt the best opportunity on the planet to learn about sake.28e” No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned” is the motto, and “exceed expectations in that” is my goal.  If you want to learn all you need to know about sake to function consummately as a sake professional at work, or if you are simply a sake lover with an insatiable appetite for sake-related knowledge, then this is the course for you.  The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course. Go here for more information. To reserve a spot, send an email to sakeguy@gol.com .

A Snapshot of the Sake Industry as it is today: Statistics and Politics

A Snapshot of the Sake Industry
As it is today: Statistics and Politics
In a change of pace from the technical – cultural – historical topics most commonly covered here, let us look a snapshot of the sake-brewing industry in Japan, the stats that surround it, and the politics that suffuse it.

In short, the sake industry in Japan is not exactly thriving. Yet things of recent are at least a smidgeon better than they were. Unless they’re not.

Statistics. We all know the clichés surrounding statistics. They can indeed be confusing.

For example, if I look at the statistics for the sake brewing community published in industry rags, there are just tons of ‘em. We have stats for calendar years (January to December), fiscal years (April to March) and “Brewing Years”, a period unique to the sake world that runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following year. Then there are monthly statistics as compared to the same period last year, and year-to-date stats as well. Some go up, some go down, they often contradict each other, and lead to radically different interpretations.

And all of these exist for each prefecture, and each major region in Japan as well. Furthermore, they are broken down for cheap sake and premium sake too. While each statistic is in and of itself significant to somebody somewhere, taken together they are just overwhelming. What’s a budding analyst to do?

Cutting to the chase, the sake industry overall was in decline for 16 straight years before rising a whopping one percent last year. But the upward trend has seemingly continued into this year, although not every prefecture was up every month. I then read that demand was mysteriously lower this fall, the period when sake usually sells the most. Yet, year to date numbers are still up for 2012 as a whole.

Next, the big talk is how the larger brewers are not raising prices due to price wars on their cheapest sake, sold in 2-liter boxes to the supermarkets. As such, revenues are way, way down. If volume is up but revenues are down, things cannot be said to be improving.

And, since 75% of the market is inexpensive sake, these things cannot be ignored. But the numbers for premium sake (junmai-shu, and the four classes of ginjo-shu, but NOT including honjozo-shu) are up an average of 5% almost without exception. Which is good news… right?

 

In the end, all we can do is take a bird’s eye view and assess things in the broadest terms, using statistics over the longest term. And things do, from that vantage point, seem to be subtly improving.

Next, a few months ago, the then-State Minister for National Policy, Mr. Motohisa Furukawa, designated sake as Japan’s “National Alcoholic Beverage” and began the “Enjoy Japanese Kokushu (national alcoholic beverage)” initiative.

However, a few weeks ago, Mr. Furukawa was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle. Will his replacement, Mr. Seiji Maehara, pursue the sake-aid initiative with the same requisite alacrity? Hard to say. But also, even if he does not, it seems like at least some momentum for the program has been created. Let us hope that that has some positive effects.

Then there is “Special Clause 87.” This is a clause in the alcohol tax laws that gives a significant tax break (it began as 30 percent but was gradually decreased) to smaller brewers in the industry (read: 90 percent of the brewers!). It was meant to be temporary, to help smaller brewers modernize their equipment and infrastructure. And it has been repeatedly extended but is due to expire at the end of this year.

Now, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers’ Association is appealing to the government to make that permanent, and to return it to its erstwhile 30 percent. If it is not extended again, some say a third or more of the industry could disappear overnight. While it means about five billion yen (about $62.5M US) less revenue for the government, it also helps local economies to come closer to thriving. It is expected to be at least extended, but one never knows until all is said and done. Let us cross our collective fingers!

As an aside, there are currently just under 1300 sake breweries in Japan. However, less than half are reasonably profitable!

On the somewhat brighter side, exports are doing very well, up 14 percent on the year. However (and there is always a “however”) this accounts for only about two percent of all sake produced. Compare this with about 30% of the wine of France and Italy being exported. If the industry is to return from the brink of continued contraction, then domestic consumption has to improve too!

And so, at the end of the day, what does this snapshot of the industry reveal? In an nutshell, it seems that the winds have indeed begun to shift in a more positive direction for sake. But until those winds blow strongly enough to clear out the fog, it may be a bit too early to break out the sparkling sake.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Announcing the 10th
Sake Professional Course
to be held in Tokyo Japan, January 21 – 25, 2012 

34From Monday, January 21, until Friday January 25, 2013, I will hold the 10th Japan-based Sake  Professional Course in Tokyo, with a side trip to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe region. This is it: the most important thing I do all year, and beyond any doubt the best opportunity on the planet to learn about sake.28e” No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned” is the motto, and “exceed expectations in that” is my goal.  If you want to learn all you need to know about sake to function consummately as a sake professional at work, or if you are simply a sake lover with an insatiable appetite for sake-related knowledge, then this is the course for you.  The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course. Go here for more information. To reserve a spot, send an email to sakeguy@gol.com .

Blending Rice in Sake Brewing …or rather, the lack thereof…

“Perhaps a hundred.”

That is the simplest answer to the question, “how many types of sake rice are there?” At any one given time, there are about a hundred.

Why the vague answer? First of all, because we are dealing with sake. It’s just the way it is. But also, I say “perhaps a hundred” because at any one time, there are about a hundred being grown across Japan. Each year, few more sake rice types are created through crossbreeding or spontaneous change, and a few are abandoned by the growing and brewing communities. So, it might be 90, it might be 110, but about a hundred are used each year.

Of those one hundred or so, kind of like grapes used in winemaking, if you know of the top dozen or so, you’re fine. Those dozen will make up the lion’s share of the rice used. The usual suspects: Yamada Nishiki, Omachi, Gohyakumangoku, Miyama Nishiki, Hattan Nishiki – these are the most visible and oft-encountered varieties.

A natural progression along the lines of this topic will eventually meander to, “Do they ever blend these rice varieties?” And the short answer is, “no.”

Basically, a sake will most often be made with one rice and one rice only. Are there exeptions? Of course there are. There are always exceptions in the sake world. But most of the sake out there is made with one and only one rice.

Why? Why not blend? The biggest reason is that different rice types behave differently. The way they behave when being milled, being soaked and steamed, having mold grown upon them, and most importantly the way they dissolved in the moromi (fermentation mash) are different. And if brewers want one thing during sake making, it is some semblance of predictability, a way to know that things are proceeding in the way they hope.

Living things like moromi (fermenting mash) do not always behave like we expect, so the way to counter that is to remove what variables you can. And if you have two different rice types going about their own business with their own idiosyncrasies in the same tank, it is much harder to deal with the other countless variables, and create the sake with an aimed-for level of consistency.

There are other reasons as well, but in the end, more than one rice is not usually used in a given tank. But as stated above, there are exceptions. What of those exceptions? Why and how? In short, very often a better rice is used for the koji, and a lesser rice is used for the kakemai. In other words…

Many readers surely recall that about 25% of all the rice going into a

given batch of sake has a mold (aspergillus oryzae) grown onto it. The resultant moldy rice is called koji, and from it come the enzymes that chop the starch in all the rice into sugar, which can then be fermented by the yeast. The remaining 75% of the rice added to the batch contributes more starch albeit no more enzymes, and is known as kakemai. And it is the koji, and by extension the rice used to make it, that holds much more leverage over the nature of the final sake.

So back to our blending topic, in the rare occasions that we do see more than one rice used in a single batch, the most common example is that a better rice is used for the koji (the more important moldy stuff), and a lesser for the kakemai (the still-important-but- less-so starch-contributing stuff).

Stated conversely and perhaps a bit less appealingly, one way to lower the cost of a sake is to use a lesser rice for the kakemai. And this is when we might see blending.

Note that rice is almost never blended for flavor-related reasons, like grapes might be. Sure, while different rice types do have differing flavor profiles, the rice-to-sake flavor connection is not as tight as the grapes-to-wine flavor connection. So the practice of blending would not yield such pronounced or predictable results. But note, to this principle too, there are some exceptions.

Also, as a quick yet deceivingly important point: note that sake brewers are not obligated to list the name of the rice used on the label. Many do, especially for premium sake, but there is no obligation to do so. But if they do in fact choose to list the name of the rice, they are then obligated to say what percent of the total amount of rice used corresponds to the listed rice. “Yamada Nishiki 100 percent,” for example. Or “Yamada Nishiki 25 percent, Kita Nishiki 75 percent,” might be another commonly seen example.

Finally, this might change. I have heard from more than one brewer that – especially for small, boutique brewers, blends of individual tanks that yield the most enjoyable, unique and premium sake – may be the way of the future. There is nothing preventing this, and I personally think it would be a welcomed move that would improve sake’s appeal and specialness.

Still, at least for now, blending rice types and blending discrete tanks for one-of-a-kind flavor reasons is not at all a common practice in sake brewing. Just beware the exceptions.

 

Hiroshima is “The Birthplace of Ginjo”

Senzaburo MiuraOr so say some…

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

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

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

They have Senzaburo Miura to thank for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are likely other interpretations…

 

Why is October 1 Sake Day (“Nihonshu no Hi”)?

Happy “Nihonshu no Hi,” or Sake Day!

October 1 of each year is officially designated “Nihonshu no Hi,” or “Sake Day.” But why October 1? Why not April 1? Or May 20, or any one of 364 other valid days?

There are, not surprisingly, several reasons. However, the biggest reason is related to the written character for sake.Long ago, it consisted of only the right half of its current form; in other words, the original form of the character for sake did not include the three short lines on the left side, which, by the way, represent water, or at least liquid.

 Rather, the original character for sake consisted only of the part that was made to look like a jar, indicating something holding liquid, which was of course an alcoholic beverage of some sort in the mind of those looking at the character.

 Enter the Chinese zodiac: 12 animal signs that are traditionally used to number years in the traditionally accepted sequence. Long ago, by the way, it also was used to count two-hour periods in each 24-hour day.

 The tenth of these is tori, or chicken (or perhaps rooster or cock). However, the written character assigned to each of these animals as used in the zodiac is not the standard characters used when referring to the animals in normal writing, but rather a special character and reading used only in these traditional Chinese zodiacal instances.

 Also, one reading of this character is “toh,” which is a synonym for ten, a point that is of course tied in to the association of this particular character to the tenth hour, month and year in a cycle.  

So, by fortuitous coincidence, the tenth year, hour and month, i.e. October are represented in the ancient Chinese zodiac system, also embraced by Japan, by the old character for sake. And, coincidentally, sake brewing begins in the fall, usually in October. And that is why the first day of the tenth month, October 1, is known as “Nihonshu no Hi,” or “Sake Day,” in Japan.

 As with everything in the culture of sake, it is hardly random, yet hardly obvious. Therein lies its appeal.

The Sake Notebook – all you need to know about sake in a concise, enjoyably readable package! For Kindle. For Nook. For iPad. Downloadable pdf. Learn more here.

Sake’s Hidden Stories – what the other sake textbooks don’t tell you.  Learn about the brewers behind the brew. For Kindle. For Nook. For iPad. Downloadable normal pdf. Learn more here.

Visit Sake World, learn all about sake, and sign up for a free newsletter here.

 

 

Something as Simple-sounding as Pasteurization…

…Isn’t simple in the sake-brewing world!

Sake brewing can be, to put it mildly, complicated. Just getting from rice to

ambrosia calls for milling-washing-soaking-steaming-molding-fermenting-pressing and a dozen other -ings along the way, each with deep complexities involved. And that is before we begin to consider the variations that each and every brewer applies.

But after that’s all done, once the completed sake drips out, we are done with the hard-to-understand stuff, right? I mean, we just have to store it, pasteurize it, cut it with water, and bottle it at some point, right? That’s pretty straightforward, right?

Wrong. The last few steps, as seemingly simple as they sound, exert massive leverage on the nature of the final product. How and when a sake is pasteurized, how long and at what temperature it is stored, and even whether it was stored in a tank or bottles – all these sound simple, but can make or break a quality sake, regardless of how good it might have been at pressing time.

 

350-year old matsu (pine)

We sat on his garden’s porch, the brewer and I, looking at a 350-year old pine tree. As I pondered the fact that that pine tree has been around exactly seven times as long as I have, we chatted about recent issues in brewing. The brewer in question is of stable (read: large-ish) size and of outstanding reputation, well deserved too. And he commented, “In fact, the biggest issue I face now in keeping one step ahead of the competition in terms of flavor quality is pasteurization. We keep tweaking things, and even after all this time it is still a bit of trial-and-error.”

At first this surprised me. I mean, you’d think they would have that down by now. Three hundred and fifty years should be enough to figure out something like pasteurizing your sake, right?

Wrong. It ain’t that simple, it never was, and it always needs tweaking. Let us consider some of the various ways it can be done.

Simple, commonly seen pasteurization setup: sake runs through coil submerged in hot water

First, remember why sake is pasteurized. Momentarily heating it up will deactivate enzymes that would feed a form of lactic bacteria, and kills any of that bacteria that might be there as well. If sake is not pasteurized, it must be kept cold to not allow the enzymes to do much, or the chances of it going funky are significantly higher. But you knew that, right?

 And nama-zake, or unpasteurized sake, is not unequivocally better than its pasteurized counterpart anyway. But that is a rant for another day.

 

Still, there can only be a couple of ways to go about this kind of a thing, right?

Wrong. There are so many variations to pasteurizing that it is daunting to even think about cataloging them. How many times it is done (once or twice?), to how high a temperature (about 65C for most), how quickly or slowly it is heated (could be very gently and slowly, could be instantaneous using a heat-exchanger), how fast or slowly it is cooled down, is it done en masse by the tank or to individual bottles, and if so, by showering those bottles with hot water or letting them sit in a trough of the stuff? And the timing! Sake matures more quickly when nama (unpasteurized) so the final maturity is hugely swayed by the timing of pasteurization.

One standard way is to run the sake through a coil that is submerged in hot water, as in the photo above. A more modern and much more expensive way is the flash-pasteurizer in the photo below.

All of these will vary from sake to sake, grade to grade, product to product. And of course, they will vary from brewer to brewer as well. What works for one brewer or sake product will not necessarily work for all, if any, others!

And they will change over time, either based on new research or experimentation or on new market needs, i.e. consumers preferring the results of one method over the other. As one example, much sake these days is pasteurized only one time, and stored in bottles not tanks. This pain-in-the-arse method gives sake with a more discernible, fine-grained flavor to it. So if a kura’s sake suits this style (not all does!), this is a trend commonly followed.

The point here is that there are countless variations on how to do something as simple-sounding as pasteurization, and each brewer has his or her own methods and preferences. The standard one-line explanations of olde rarely apply anymore. But ask anyway, should you get the chance. And when you do, bear in mind that even the simplest-sounding steps in sake brewing are anything but simple.

Final note: I, personally, prefer pasteurized sake most of the time, as I can perceive more depth in it. But nama-zake (unpasteurized) can be zingy, fresh, young and lively. And certainly it can be more attention-getting, if often less subtle. By all means, explore both realms and decide your preferences.

Sake Brewing Tanks – What are they made of?

 

Old brewing tank from Showa 33 (1958)

Sake is no longer brewed in wooden tanks. In fact, they began to be phased out about 70 years ago and have pretty much been non-existent since just after the war. They were replaced by what is almost exclusively used today, ceramic-lined stainless steel, or sometimes, bare stainless steel.

Why were they phased out? A number of reasons. One, for the most part, brewers do not want to impart the woodiness into their sake (taru-zake is one exception). The line between character and idiosyncrasy is not just crossed, it is shattered with woody sake.

 Next, the wood absorbs some of the sake during fermentation, so yields are a bit reduced – so much so that in days of olde brewers were given a break on taxes for sake absorbed by the wood. And the grain of the wood is very hard to clean thoroughly, and provides a hotbed for bacteria. With the ceramic lined tanks, brewers can just hose’em off when done.

Interestingly, long ago, when wood was used, they did not at that time either want to make their sake overly woody. So when a tank was made by the coopers that were such an indispensible part of the brewing team, it was not used to make sake right away. Rather, it sat around for a few years to air out, and/or was used to store water or rice. It did not earn the right to have anything ferment in it until the woody essences had slowly evaporated.

As always in the sake world, there are exceptions. There are a handful of brewers that do make sake in wooden tanks. But really, it is maybe 30 out of 1300, and they make perhaps one to three batches a year in wood. It is by no means a trend or movement, just an anomaly.

Which is not to diss the sake that comes from those tanks! It can be quite interesting, and perceptibly different. Surely just a bit of wood gets imparted, but often the flavors end up quite integrated and fine-grained.

Sake brewed in wooden tanks, what little of it there exists, is called ki-oke jikomi. While not very common, if you come across the term, now you know.

Everything you wanted to know about Yeast Number 9

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of perhaps the most important sake-brewing yeast strain of all, the Kumamoto yeast, also known as Yeast Number Nine.

While the yeast itself, its qualities, and its various aliases are worth knowing about, the history and culture surrounding all this is interesting as well. It all took place down south in Kumamoto Prefecture, thanks to the efforts of a man named Professor Kin’ichi Nojiro.

Back in the Edo period, when samurai clans still ruled the various provinces, before the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when power was returned to the Emperor and modern government was installed, there was no sake as we know it in Kumamoto. Instead, the ruling clan had dictated that a red type of sake, known as “akazake,” was the only type of sake to be brewed. It was likely an economical decision, an effort to make Kumamoto the capital of this curious brew. (The color comes from an ash put in the sake to preserve it. It is still available today; it all comes from Kumamoto and is used only in cooking.)

While that worked for a while, it put Kumamoto a bit behind the rest of the country in real sake brewing technology. In order to address this, Kumamoto Prefecture put a lot of research effort into brewing good sake, forming a company that functioned as a brewery and research center. It is still around today, and the wonderful sake brewed there is called Koro. One of the main forces in the research center devoted to that effort was Professor Nojiro.

Among other advances in brewing techniques, he discovered a yeast strain in 1953 that soon propelled Kumamoto sake to the top of the sake-brewing world. Initially, it was known as the Kumamoto Kobo (yeast). Soon, a very similar yeast was isolated, and thereafter the two came to be known as KA-1 and KA-4.

Eventually, an organization called the Nihon Jozo Kyoukai, or Brewing Society of Japan, began to propagate and sell this yeast to brewers around the country. Henceforth, when supplied by this organization, it came to be known as Association Yeast Number Nine.

So, to clarify, for those that are interested, if the label says Yeast #9, it came from The Brewing Society of Japan, who got it a few months before that from the company that makes Koro in Kumamoto. If it says KA-1 or KA-4, you know that brewer has a connection and was able to snag some directly from Koro, without going through any other organization.

It is very difficult to keep yeast strains like this pure over the generations and generations of reproduction required to use them in large quantities year after year. Those doing that work must test carefully to be sure that the qualities of the yeast do not change. The folks at the Kumamoto research center work hard to create consistent KA-1 and KA-4 each year, and the Japan Brewers’ Association gets fresh stuff from Kumamoto each year, ensuring their strains are pure as well.

This family of yeast is very suited to making aromatic yet clean ginjo-shu. And today, more of that kind of fine sake is being produced then ever before. This leads to great demand for the #9 strains. So what some prefectures do (most notably Yamagata, but other places as well) to make it more accessible is to buy some Kumamoto Kobo from the source, then propagate it at home, and distribute it amongst those that want it in that prefecture. This is significant only because amongst Yamagata sake, one can find a yeast called Yamagata KA, which is Yamagata home-grown Kumamoto Kobo.

So at the end of the day, KA-1 and KA-4, Kumamoto Kobo, #9, and Yamagata KA are more or less the same yeast. Consider it “family number nine” or maybe “Kumamoto lineage.” Naturally, there are those who insist the original pure strains from Kumamoto are better. But what is important to remember is that this line of yeasts is the most widely used yeast in ginjo sake brewing, and has stood the test of 50 years’ time without being dethroned, and without significantly mutating. 

So what is so special about it? In brewing, it ferments thoroughly and slowly at low temperatures, allowing brewers to control the fermentation closely. This all leads to wonderfully smooth and fine-grained flavors, good aromatic acid content, and lovely fruity aromas reminiscent of delicious apples and perhaps melon. Clean and bright sake with wonderful balance is the trademark of this line of yeasts. Indeed, there is nothing quite like classic #9 flavors and aromas in a sake.

Indeed, these days especially, there are many other great yeasts. Whether or not they will still be great in 50 years is yet to be seen. And it is certainly possible to enjoy your sake without giving a hoot about the yeast used. But often, the more one tastes, the more one wants to know why certain sake have the aromas and flavors they do, to know what makes a sake the way it is. Should your interest get to that level, remember ole’ Number Nine.

The company that makes Koro is still alive and well, and ownership of it is shared amongst all the other brewers in Kumamoto. The president-ship rotates amongst the presidents of the other Kumamoto brewery owners.

Koro is truly a lovely sake in all of its manifestations. Then name itself means “fragrant

Koro Junmai Ginjo

dew.”  I like to refer to it as the Pilsener Urquell of sake. It really is the quintessential manifestation of ole Number Nine. Melon, a light spritzy acidity, and incredible balance from beginning to end. Just ever so slightly restrained and understated, it is a tad different from the aromas of much modern ginjo sake. It is very limited in its availability in the US. And that is just the junmai ginjo. They make a daiginjo as well that is hard to get anywhere.

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.