Ringing in the New Year – Literally! Joya no Kane

Happy New Year to everyone!

May 2014 bring peace, health, happiness and prosperity to you all. The first of those four is likely enough, but let us aim high for the coming 12 months.

For the first time in perhaps I decade, I spent New Year’s Eve waiting for midnight to come, after which my family and I went to a local Buddhist temple (in our case, Hokokuji). I live in Kamakura, once a Buddhist stronghold in Japan, and there are at least four temples within a ten minute walk of my house. Add another ten minutes to my walking radius and add perhaps another ten temples. I can see one from the window of my office room, and hear the bells each day. And bells are why we made our way there, in the first dark minutes of the very young year.

There is a custom known as “Joya no Kane,” which refers to ringing of the bells at a temple, traditionally 108 times, one for each of mankind’s worldly desires that cause us suffering. Things very from place to place, but many temples will allow us layfolk to stand in line and ring it once time to rid us of our wordly passions and purify us for the upcoming hear. My family lined up in the cold for our turn at one meditative moment into which much significance, prayer, and positive energy are channeled.

A brief prayer. A swing of the log-like implement into the large, tubular bell. We absorb the reverberations of the deep, vibrant sound, then bow gently, and turn toward home, with heightened expectations for the coming year. That, in a nutshell, is Joya no Kane.

I recall a musician friend of mine, now deceased, who tried to explain the concept of the 108 passions, known as Bonno. She embodied them unabashedly and enjoyably. All 108, I think. They are, she explained, the physical and emotional temptations that keep us from heaven, and cause us suffering on earth. “But,” she added with an emphatic smile, “without Bonno, there would be no music!” Nothing has ever rang more true, no pun intended.

Some might have a Bonno to pick with sake (pun intended this time), but I will take my chances.

Again, a Happy New Year to All

O-toso: New Year’s Sake – A drink on the day keeps the doctor away

It is a rare occasion and ceremony that does not include some sake in Japan, and that harbinger of renewal, New Year’s Day, is no exception. Although sake figures prominently in O-shogatsu (New Year’s) celebrations from morning to night, opening the year with a prayer for health in the form of drinking O-toso is perhaps the most interesting.

Just what is O-toso? It’s sake that has been specially prepared by steeping a mixture of herbs in it for several hours. Drinking it with family in ceremonial fashion first thing on New Year’s day is said to ward off sickness for the entire year ahead, as well as invite peace within the household.

The tradition of O-toso originally came from China, and originally the mixture consisted of eight herbs. Things have naturally changed slightly over the years, and some of the herbs have changed as a couple in the original concoction were deemed too potent. But most remain true to the original recipe.

Included in the mixture are cinnamon, rhubarb and sanshou (Japanese pepper), as well as a few not commonly seen in the west, like okera (atractylodis rhizome) and kikyou (platycodi radix). It’s stuff you never knew you needed, much less existed.

O-toso was adopted in Japan back in the ninth century during the reign of the Saga Emperor in the Heian era. Back then, on December 19 of each year the herbs were placed in a triangular bag and hung from the branch of a peach tree hanging over water. At four in the morning on New Year’s Day, the herbs were put into sake and steeped for several hours before being partaken of in the morning.

During the Edo era (1603-1868), the custom became common among common folk as pharmacies would give out the O-toso mixture (known as O-tososan) to patients as year-end gifts. This practice continued to some degree until about 20 years ago.

The custom has evolved into a fairly ritualized form over the years. After morning greetings on O-shogatsu, the O-toso is drunk using a special set of three lacquered vermillion cups sitting on a small dais. The three cups fit inside each other, and are drunk from in order of size: small, medium then large. It is poured not from a normal sake tokkuri, but from a special vessel resembling a kyusu (teapot).

The O-toso is drunk in order from the youngest in the family to the oldest with the intention that the older members of the family can share in the joy of youth imparted as the cups are passed.

Drinking O-toso is said to ward off infectious diseases like colds for the year. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks O-toso, everyone in the family will be free from illness. If the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year.

Making it at home is easy, provided you know where to go and pick your wild bekkatsu (smilax China), bofu (ledebouriellae radix) and uzu (aconite root). Combine those with the five mentioned above and you’re golden.

A simpler solution if you happen to be in Japan, or near a Japanese food store outside of Japan, is to go and pay just a wee bit indeed for an elaborately packaged teabag of O-tososan. On New Year’s eve, stick that puppy in about 300 ml of sake and let it steep for seven or eight hours. It will be ready first thing in the morning.

It is also possible to use mirin (a kind of cooking sake), which has less alcohol, or a mixture of mirin and sake. While this may make it taste a bit sweeter, the taste of O-toso made with good sake is not bad at all. A bit medicinal and slighter bitter, perhaps, but interesting.

Also, should guests visit during the first three days of the new year, they are first given a glass of O-toso, and after that a glass of sake.

As is the fate for many traditional rituals, the O-toso ceremony is not as commonly practiced these days as it has been in the past. Many younger people, in fact, may not know all that much about it. Although all things run their natural course, it would be a pity if O-toso were to totally fade away.

Those not in Japan should be able to find the O-toso teabags at drugstores or grocery stores in Japanese neighborhoods.

Another common type of sake enjoyed at New Year’s time is taru-zake. Like O-toso, taru-zake is not a brand of sake, and almost all brewers make some. Taru-zake is made by taking regular sake and letting it sit in a taru, or wooden cask for (usually) a couple of days. It then takes on a fairly strong and pleasant cedar taste and aroma. While this usually overpowers any subtler flavors and aromas (which is why premium sake is rarely used for taru-zake), it can be very enjoyable and tasty.

Just after New Year’s Day, when people gather for traditional year-opening ceremonies in communities, families and companies, taru-zake is often the sake of choice. Very often, taru-zake is enjoyed from the small wooden boxes called masu, and with a pinch of salt in one corner.

For those outside of Japan, both taru-zake and masu are available if you poke around. At least in North America, one recommended brand of taru-zake is Ichi no Kura from Miyagi, although at least one domestic brewer makes some as well.

Be it O-toso, Taru-zake, or something else, all the best to everyone in 2013!

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

 

Sake’s True Colors

Most sake is, when we get it, close to transparent. But it was not always this way, and that statement is meant both in terms of one given sake, and sake in general over history.

When sake is first born, i.e. separated from the rice lees after a month-long fermentation, it has a lovely light amber tint to it; in fact, some just-pressed sake can have almost a green tint to it that is indeed truly beautiful.

However, sake is soon stripped of that via charcoal filtration. Active powdered charcoal is mixed into the sake (temporarily turning it ink-black!), and when that is filtered out it removes the coloring aspects to some degree, as well as some rougher flavors. This is a surprisingly precise operation, and can be adjusted fairly minutely. It can also be overdone, not surprisingly.

Why is this done? Because color in sake somehow, sometime, somewhere along the line became associated with something less than full purity and freshness. Shame, that. To be sure, sake does take on color as it ages, but the presence of color does not necessarily indicate age or roughness. Not at all.

Has it always been this way? Heaven’s no. It all began, goes the word on the sake-street, about 40 or 50 years ago in Niigata, and soon caught on all over the industry. And to be fair, there are some sake out there that are not charcoal filtered, and as such proudly display that goldenrod luster. Such sake will often (but not obligatorily) have “muroka” (unfiltered, slight misnomer though it may be) on the label. Muroka, for our intents and purposes, means “not charcoal filtered,” and usually will maintain the original amber-green-goldenrod tint. It’s natural, and its beautiful.

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 

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 

 

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.

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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.