The Flavor Elements of Sake: What makes your sake taste and smell as it does

Yamada Nishiki rice floweringWhat is it that makes a sake taste and smell the way it does? What goes into and drives the myriad flavors and aromas we enjoy in today’s sake? We could get really technical. We good go chemical if want to, but it would not likely be pretty.

But what if we take a step or two back, and from a simple ingredients-to-results point of view ask “why’s it taste and smell like that? What makes it sweet or dry or rich or thin or fruity are ricey or sharp or round?”

Again: we could get technical. But in truth, a caveat-augmented simple explanation is more than enough. In other words, we can present the most general reasoning, the one that represents 70 percent of the truth, and then acknowledge that the remaining 30 percent exists as exceptions.

So let us look at what affects the way a sake tastes, smells and otherwise presents itself to us. The sources of those elements will be one of three things: ingredients, brewing methods, and after-care, or post-brewing handling methods. While there are countless ways of assessing the nature of sake, let’s narrow it down to those three.

And breaking it down further, let the ingredients be narrowed down to rice, water, koji and yeast. Yeast cells(Actually, since those are the extent of sake’s ingredients, that ain’t really narrowing it down, but you know…) And let us consider the following steps as the brewing methods that affect the nature of the sake: milling, yeast starter methods, pressing methods, pasteurization, whether or not alcohol has been added (i.e. whether or not it is a junmai style) and aging.

And finally, (But wait, there’s more!) we have region and final specs like the nihonshu-do (or SMV) and acidity. While these are more results than causes, we can extract info from them.

Since this is far too much for one enjoyable reading session, let us approach this over a couple of newsletters, and let us start this time with the basic ingredients of sake: rice, water, koji and yeast. And breaking it down to its most welcoming presentation, it might look like this.

Yamada NishikiI. Rice = Flavor
In short, rice affects flavor. But rice affects more than just flavor – umami and mouth feel for example. And other things affect flavor other than rice. But more than anything else, the choice of rice affects flavor.

There are about 400 types of short grain “Japonica” rice grown in Japan, and about 100 of the are sake rice types. While not all are distinctive in the flavors they provide, many are. Bear in mind that the rice-to-final-sake connection is not nearly as tight as the grape-to-final-wine connection. Much more affects the sake along its evolution in the kura. But the connection is still an important one.

Some rice will give sake balance and fullness, others will indeed affect specific flavors like sweetness or characters like acidity. Some lead to broader mouthfeels while others are much more narrow in their unfolding. And some lead to no discernible qualities other than lightness.

Yeast starter -II. Yeast = Aroma
In short, yeast affects aromas. But yeast affects more than just aromas – acidity and alcohol for example. And other things affect aromas other than yeast. But more than anything else, the choice of yeast affects aromas.

Do you smell melon? It’s due to the yeast. Banana? That would be yet another yeast. Apple and licorice? That is from yet another family of yeast strains. Is it entirely this simple? Oh, God no. But basically, aromas are a result of the choice of yeast.

III. Koji = sweetness/dryness and umami.
In short, the way the koji is made will affect how sweet or dry the sake will be. Also, since the higher the ratio of koji to plain steamed rice, the more the amino acids, the more umami the sake will have.

But koji affects more than just sweetness and umami. And other things affect sweetness and umai. But more than anything else, koji affects sweetness/dryness and umami.

Koji, KompletedKoji provides enzymes that convert starch to sugar. Just how strong those enzymes are, and at what stage of the brewing process they are most active, will determine how sweet or dry the sake is. If the koji leads to lots of starch-to-sugar conversion early on, that sugar will be readily converted to alcohol leading to a dry sake. If sugar comes along later in the process when the yeast is petering out, it will remain in the sake and lead to sweetness. In truth, this too is more complicated. But therein lies the gist.

Also, the more koji that goes into the batch, the richer and fuller the sake will be, expressed in terms of umami, that sixth taste, the concept of which is becoming much more familiar to the world at large.

Of course, koji leads to other aspects of the sake, and if not created properly can lead to faults as well. But basically, sweet-or-dry and umami are tied to koji.

IV. Water = mouth feel.
In short, the water – and in particular the mineral content of the water – affects mouth feel. But water affects more than just mouth feel – like how vigorous or lackadaisacal the fermentation proceeds. And other things affect mouth feel besides the source of water. But more than anything else, water affects mouth feel.

Soft water yields a softer, more absorbing mouth feel, and is actually more suited to ginjo production as well. Harder water often leads to a fuller mouth feel with a quicker finish.

Men at Work at Rihaku Brewery

Men at Work at Rihaku Brewery

As alluded to above, there is much more that affects how the sake ends up. Just how the ingredients are coaxed and guided during the brewing process is the next phase of all this. We will look at that next month, but for now, remember that rice leads to flavor, yeast yields aromas, koji leads to sweetness or dryness, as well as umami, and water leads to mouth feel. Basically. Sort of.

It all rests comfortably in the vagueness of all that sake is. Fortunately, we need deal with none of this to enjoy it.

Kampai! For the Love of Sake

Kampai! For the Love of Sake: The Movie

On August 19th the movie “Kampai! For the Love of Sake will open at theaters in Los Angeles and New KampaiYork. The movie is a documentary that traces the maze-like path that led three individuals to immerse themselves in the sake world. One is Kosuke Kuji, president of Nanbu Bijin Shuzo (making Nanbu Bijin sake) in Iwate Prefecture. Another is Philip Harper, toji (master brewer) at Kinoshita Shuzo, brewers of Tamagawa sake. And the third is myself, John Gauntner. The movie is quite well done, going back and forth and covering the human angles for each of us.

It currently is scheduled at the above two theaters and will show at other venues later. However, it is also available via various Video-On-Demand platforms from August 19th. In fact, you can pre-order it from iTunes here.

Check out a trailer here  and a slightly shorter one here as well.

Kampai again!While it focuses on the paths of the three of us, a couple-few more people make appearances, including Haruo Matsuzaki, the “sake palate from  you-know-where” industry consultant, and Daisuke Suzuki of Suzuki Shuzoten, brewers of Iwaki Kotobuki, who had to leave their kura in Fukushima due all that happened on March 11, 2011, are are now located in Yamagata.

Be sure to check it out!

Happy New (Brewing) Year! 28BY has begun.

Happy New Year! Happy New “Brewing” Year that is! Welcome to 28BY, or “The Year Heisei 28 Brewing Year.”

Suwa water fallsWe have calendar years that run from January 1 to December 31. And we have fiscal years that are more variable, but tend to run from April 1 of one year until March 31 of the next, especially in Japan. And, most relevant to us, we have Brewing Year, or Jozo Nendo, which runs from July 1 of one year until June 30 of the next. Here’s an explanation of why that exist as it does.

First of all, while Japan does relate to the fact that this is 2016, officially and traditionally it is called Heisei 28, or the 28th year of the era of Heisei. So to go from Heisei to western years, subtract 12 – this will work well most of the time. A bit of a mathematical hassle, especially when drinking, but not an insurmountable obstacle.

While most sake is best young, sometimes sake is aged by the kura before being released. And sometimes, we can see an indication of the year in which it was brewed. This should make it all simpler – provided we know how to read that information. The problem is that a given sake brewing season stretches across two calendar years.

Sake brewing starts in the fall of one year and ends in the spring of the next. So, if a sake were labeled only as year Heisei 27 (2015), it would be brewed in one given season if it were January of 2015, but be a completely different brewing season – with different rice, weather, and possibly even more – if it were October 2015. This difference could be likened to two totally different vintages in the wine world. So, we need a bit more detail.

This point did not escape the clever folks in the brewing industry who rice ready for harvest

needed a way to speak about the sake of one season, unencumbered by trivial details like how the rest of the world measures time. It also was a Imada yamadanishiki 70/35necessity from the viewpoint of the folks at the ministry of taxation, who also needed a more efficient way to tax kura on their output.

And so long ago they came up with the concept of the “Brewing Year,” or BY. Just like fiscal years can differ from calendar years, in Japan the Brewing Year runs from July 1 to June 30th of the following year. This, then, encompasses the entire brewing season of every brewer in the country in one clean 12-month period.

So, BY27 ran from July 1 2015 until June 30 2016. And sake brewed last fall and into this spring would be considered part of BY27. And, BY27 and we have entered into BY28. So, even though calendar year 28 (read: 2016) is half over, we just now started BY28.

Why do they use July? Why not October 1 (Sake Day!) or another day in the fall when brewing begins? Well, consider that there are various scales of operation. A tiny brewery might begin in November and finish in February. More common is starting in October and finishing in April. A very large brewer might start as early as August and run until the next June. And there are even one or two that brew all twelve months of the year.

Yeast StarterSince production is focused on the coldest month of the year, January or so, brewing operations will expand in both directions from that point. So by starting in July and running to June, the industry can capture a single brewing season for all brewers, big or small. While it ain’t rocket science, it is at least somewhat clever.

How does this help us? Well, when we see a sake labeled, for example, 26BY, you know that since Heisei 26 is 2014, this sake was brewed in the season beginning in the fall of 2014, and running into the spring of 2015.
That would make it about a year to a year and a half since being brewed, just about right for much sake, if young by some mature sake standards.

Note, this is not on all bottles. It is common to talk about it with producers and other sake adherents, but the only time it is actually printed on a label is when the sake has been aged deliberately, and the brewer wants you to know just how long it has been aged. It is indispensable in those situations, since the date that must be printed in tiny characters in the corner of the label legally indicates about when it was shipped from the brewery, and that may not let us know just how long it was aged before that.

Again, since aged sake is such a small drop in the bucket, you will not see this so commonly. But if and when you see such mysterious nomenclature, you will know precisely how old your sake is.

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

Sake Confidential

 

 

2016 Japan Sake Awards

The most prestigious contest in the industry

Gold-medal-sakeIn May, the 103rd Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai was held in Japan. The official translation of this contest is the Japan Sake Awards, but the literal translation is much more descriptive if slightly unwieldy: the National New Sake Appraisal Competition. It is the longest running competition of its kind, and I write about it each year. Those interested can search the archives for the June or July issues of this newsletter over the past decade or so.

For the click-averse, here is a summary of the main points of this vaunted competition.

 

• It is by far the most prestigious sake tasting in Japan

• The sake submitted is not stuff you can normally buy, but added-alcohol daiginjo made specifically for this contest. It is brewed to have a minimum of faults, but still stand out. How’s that for a challenge?!

• Between 800 and 900 of Japan’s 1200 sakagura will submit an entry to the contest. Each company is allowed to submit one sake per brewing Sake Tasting Cupslicense, i.e. one per brewing facility owned. Some big companies own more than one facility so they would be permitted one for each.

• Sake is tasted blind in round one, and about half make it to round two.

They are then tasted blind again, and about half of these will be designated as gold, the rest that made it into the second round are designated as prize-winners (the term “silver” is not used, although the gist is the same).

• So about 220 win gold each year, and while prestigious, it is not that commonly used in marketing as the average consumer has no idea this contest even exists.

• For the sixth time in ten years, and fourth in a row, Fukushima Prefecture won more golds than any other prefecture, and as has been the case for the past decade, the entire Tohoku region did very, very well.

• This year, due to the hot summer, it was expected that many of the submissions would have too much flavor, or be too sloppy in the flavors, i.e. less restrained. But this concern proved unwarranted.

• Much winning sake was on the sweet side, with extra glucose to balance out bitterness contributed by yeasts that give fruity aromas. But the finish on much of this sake was clean and balanced, so all was in order.

Amber glasses• To me, the most interesting occurrence was that Aramasa from Akita won a gold medal, but did it with the oldest yeast in continuous use, Number 6, which is not known for the modern tropical fruity and anise-esque aromatics that normally win the attention of the judges. Furthermore it was a kimoto sake, i.e. brewed in a way that usually leads to more umami and gaminess, not typically what one finds in prize-winning sake at this competition. As I am seeing more and more in the sake world, “what is old is new again.”

• While the sake submitted is not normal market sake, the flavors, aromas, styles and leading prefectures are a harbinger of where sake is currently headed. Therein lies the contest’s appeal.

There is so much to be said about this competition: the changes over the years, the remarkably-few-yet-still-there-to-some-degree politics, the history, the records, the reasons it came to be. Much of that can be dug up in the archives of this newsletter, but more importantly it seems as though amidst today’s sake popularity, at least a few more people are showing an interest in this historically and culturally significant competition.

At these links, you can see the results and more in English (!).

Non-junmai Types: An Interesting Idea

From whence does the added alcohol come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sake Industry Snapshot

How many producers, how much sake?

chartAs interest in sake grows around the world, naturally enough more and more people express curiosity about the sake industry at its source and origin: Japan.

There are many angles from which the industry can be viewed and analyzed. Certainly sales growth and production numbers are one such metric. And as important as they are, those numbers are in constant flux these days. Sales of premium sake grows but overall production still drops as the older generation that was the main market for inexpensive sake gradually passes on. Certainly the growth of premium sake is a more appealing number, and surely it is a better indicator of what to expect in the future.

Another metric, one that is more tied to the traditional infrastructure of sake brewing, is the number of brewers active in the industry. And even these numbers can be confusing and open to interpretation.

DSC02231For example, one survey on sake exports mentioned that of 1613 companies surveyed, 1526 responded. However, there certainly are not 1613 active sake brewers. It makes more sense when we realize that some companies that just bottle product also need licenses. Furthermore, there are a good-sized handful of kura that are no longer brewing, but refuse to throw in the towel, and so are “taking a break” from sake-producing activities. And, there are some companies – I would estimate ten percent – that have more than one facility, each calling for a separate license. So bundle all those together and perhaps we will get to 1613 or so.

Another survey by the National Tax Administration determined that during the brewing season that ended in July of 2015, there were 1225 sake-brewing facilities, down 11 from the previous year. However: there are breweries in existence that do not actually brew themselves, for any one of a myriad of reasons. They instead outsource it from factories that are under-capacity, and bottle it and sell it as their own. Some do this with only part of their lineup, others do it for all the sake they sell.

Practices like this are good for small companies with a local market but that might not have the manpower or capital to actually produce it anymore. It can also be helpful to the outsourcing company as well. So while not everyone would enthusiastically support this sector, it fills a need.

When I arrived in Japan in 1988, there were 2055 kura selling sake. Now there are 1225. So we are down 830 sakagura in 28 years.

Based on estimates from traveling the country, working in the industry, and actually counting breweries all around the country (I have a lot of time on my hands…), all observations indicate that there are probably close to 1000 sake companies actually making sake. And that may be a high-end estimate.

So, how many sake breweries are there in Japan? About 1600 with licenses, about 1200 selling product, and about 1000 actually brewing the stuff.

3 chokko smallAmongst those thousand, how much sake is being made? About 550 thousand kiloliters a year (of recent). Let that number sink in: over half a million kiloliters. Of that, 13 percent is ginjo (including its four subclasses), and 12 percent is junmai-shu. Interestingly, just a scant 20 years ago, both ginjo and junmai were but four percent of production each.

How much rice did the industry use last year? About 250 thousand tons of genmai (unmilled rice), or 164 thousand tons of milled rice. Let that number sink in too. The average seimai-buai (milling rate) was 65 percent.

Of the 1225 kura out there, 41 are considered large, i.e. 1300kl or more. All 41 of these companies export sake. Of the small companies, the tiny craft brewers sector, 93 percent export sake. But still, 70 percent of all sake exports come from the big 41 kura. Indeed, the polarization of the sake industry is very interesting.

In spite of all this, only three percent of all sake brewed is exported. Only. Three. Compare that with the Koji Makingtwenty to thirty percent of French and Italian wines that are exported from those respective countires. Or, compare that with scotch whiskey, for which 90 percent of all production is exported. Wow. Either we have a lot of catching up to do (the sake glass is half empty!) or the sake future is so bright, we gotta wear shades when we drink it (the sake glass is half full!).

Either way you look at it, start by filling the sake glass up back to the brim, and enjoy it. If everyone does that, the sake future is indeed a bright one.

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The next Sake Professional Course will be held in Las Vegas Nevada, August 8~10, 2016.

No sake stone remains left unturned! Learn more here . Interested? Please send an email to sakeguy@gol.com today.

 

The Merits of Staying Small

The 2015-2016 brewing season is drawing to a close. This month and next, most of the 1200 brewers in the country will be pressing their last batches and cleaning their tools, then closing shop until the fall of this year. As I look back at the kura I visited, one particularly interesting place sticks out in my mind.

IMG_2626In February I visited a brewer making a sake called Kirei, written with the characters for turtle and age. Tortoises live a long time, hence the auspicious connotations. It is a tiny company in Nagano called Okazaki Shouten, with the brewing being done by two people, the husband-and-wife team that own it. They do, in fact, have a little bit of part-time help along the way.

Obviously, they cannot make very much sake. In fact, it is a true micro-kura, with their yearly production being only 100 koku. A koku is a traditional unit equaling 180 liters, so that means they only make the equivalent of 10,000 large 1.8 liter bottles, or 2000 nine-liter cases.

There are hundreds of such small kura around Japan. Such places may barely eke out an existence, which is just fine by (at least some of) them. Their sake might range from “fair to middling” or it might be great like Kirei, and they may in fact have other sources of income. It doesn’t matter. They love doing what they are doing. And that is all that matters.

However, in the case of Kirei, their smallness has not crimped their quality at all. Not. At. All. On the IMG_2694contrary, the reason they are so interesting is that last year their sake was the top sake in the government-sponsored tasting for the Kanto-Shinetsu region of Japan, which includes not only venerable Nagano but revered Niigata Prefecture as well. And Shinshu Kirei was tops. Wow. That is impressive.

But with such a small production, obviously there is not much of this sake to go around. Certainly the opportunity is there for them to expand, grow, develop, invest, hire – and all that stuff. Many would think they would ride this wave, and certainly they could. Some folks might think that any businessperson in his or her right mind would do so, right?

Sure. But sometimes it’s not about that.

As Okazaki-san, husband-half of the dynamic duo, led me around the kura, the conversation naturally moved in that direction, and of his own accord he addressed the questions that he must get so often get asked. Why not make more sake? Why not grow, develop, expand?

“I dunno,” he begins. “Sure, we could hire someone and increase our production at least a little bit. But the risk is for a company of our scale is huge. This new hire would then be a full one-third of our labor. Should something happen, we would immediately lose a huge chunk of our staff.”

As we moved amongst the two rows of tanks of moromi (fermenting mash) they use in the small fermentation room, he continued.

“But it’s not only that. If we were to hire people, I would necessarily need to go into management of our staff, and do other things related to maintaining and managing growth. While that is all perfectly valid and good work, it is not what I want to be doing day-to-day.

IMG_2676“In other words,” he summed it up, “if we try to grow much, I will not be able to look after the moromi.” So maybe he loses out on a chance for growth, but he’s going to be happier doing what he loves, and that energy will get conveyed into his sake.

Very cool. They know what they want to be doing and are aware of the consequences of their choice to do that, as well as those of choosing something different – to grow. And they daily make a conscious and rational decision: they choose the merits of staying small.

I’ll drink to that.

Note, there is also a brand Kirei in Saijo in Hiroshima. The brand name and characters are the same as the company introduced above, so to eschew confusion they often add the traditional name of Nagano Prefecture, Shinshu, to the name of this sake, i.e. Shinshu Kirei.

Note, too, their sake is light and young, with great balance and breadth rather than just impact, and perhaps more defined by banana and melon aromas than the wilder fragrances of many modern ginjo sake.

Yamada Nishiki – more than you ever wanted to know

riceYamada Nishiki. One cannot tread far into the sake world without encountering the name of the most important sake rice in existence today. Yamada Nishiki.

It is the “king of sake rice,” there is no challenger in sight. It is the best choice for top-grade sake for a handful of reasons, and it is as expensive as it deserves to be. Yet, while it is admittedly deserving of its reputation, it can be a bit “in your face” sometimes. Yamada this and Yamada that, yada yada yada. (Yamada yamada yamada?)

But, what is it, really? What is behind its fame and success? From whence did it come and when? What, f’gad’s sake, is the big deal? I mean, it’s rice, right?

Just after spring plantingIndeed, it is just one variety of sake rice, of which about one hundred exist today. And it is the most grown sake rice, with about 1000 of the 1200 kura in Japan using at least some. But note, it is not by any stretch of the imagination the only game in town. There are plenty of other sake rice varieties that are interesting and lead to outstanding, deliciously enjoyable sake. The point of this article is not to worship Yamada Nishiki nor to idolize it, but to present some background as to what it is and why it is.

Taking a half-step back, let us recall that sake rice is as different from table rice as good wine grapes are from the fruit we buy at the grocery store. It is larger, has less fat and protein, and more starch which is centered in the grain, thus allowing the offending components to be more easily milled away and removed from the equation.

Most sake, in fact, is not made using sake rice. The 65 percent of the market that is non-premium (if enjoyable!) sake is made using much less expensive table rice, i.e. rice for eating. And much of that is perfectly enjoyable sake. Even some premium sake is also made with table rice; it is possible to make very decent sake from such rice.

However, the truth is that it is immensely easier to make good, tasty sake from proper sake rice. And not only is most premium sake is in fact made using sake rice, but in order to make great sake you must have great, proper sake rice. End of story. Full stop.

Furthermore, the better the sake rice the easier it is to make good sake, and great sake. Even within the realm of sake rice – and even within the realm of one variety of it – there are greater and lesser producers, harvests, regions, fields and grains.

Better might mean larger, more starch and in a manageable position and Yamada Nishiki floweringa manageable size  within the grains, solubility that is just right, and more. Of course, price will vary with that quality, and the quality of the grains in even one single field will vary too. (They will be separated by size and other criteria, and a good or great field will have more great grains than a ho-hum or mediocre one.)

So wuzzup with Yamada Nishiki? Yes, it is big, even for sake rice. And it has an ideal-sized and centered starch center (known as a shimpaku, which means “white heart”) enabling it to be easily milled so as to remove the fat and protein and leave the starch behind.

During fermentation it dissolves readily – but not too readily. It is harder to grow than regular rice, but not nearly as challenging as some other types of sake rice. And, of huge importance, it is predictable. Brewers know how it is going to behave – or at least, a bit more so than with other rice types. One reason for this is that it is so widely used that there is data out the wazoo.

Rice paddy sunsetWhat does sake made with Yamada Nishiki taste like? It has breadth and depth, and flavor that billows into the expanses of one’s palate. It has a wide range of flavors that somehow work together well, often with ideal levels of sweetness and umami. However, it is extremely important to remember that the range of flavors and aromas is massively wide, since in the end rice is only half the story. The way the brewer manipulates, directs and coaxes the rice through the production process is, as they say, “the rest of the story.”

Just like any agricultural product, each variety of sake rice grows better in some regions than others, and has climates and soil types within which it thrives. Often these can be small and vary with just a short distance. And the best Yamada Nishiki undoubtedly comes from Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan, within which sits the city of Kobe.

Even within Hyogo there are regions, villages and even plots of land that yield superior Yamada Nishiki rice. And the two best villages in the region, country, world and Universe for Yamada Nishiki are Yokawa and Tojo. If you remember two place names related to top-notch Yamada, let it be those: Yokawa and Tojo. But as is always the case with sake, it’s not that simple.

Yokawa is a township in the city of Miki in Hyogo Prefecture. However, Tojo no longer exists, at least not officially. (So, yes, you are being asked to remember the name of a place that no longer exists. Ain’t sake fun?)

Tojo was a region that was annexed during a spate of consolidation of sparsely populated municipalities Imada yamadanishiki 70/35that took place in Japan a few years back. So now, what was the township of Tojo is currently the city of Kato. However, the Yamada Nishiki from Tojo was so damn good that it had branding power. So the growers of the region formerly known as Tojo banded together and registered “Tojo-grown Yamada Nishiki” as a registered trademark. So Tojo-grown Yamada Nishiki exists even if Tojo itself no longer does. Ain’t sake fun?

Why does it grow best here? A veritable plethora of reasons! The soil is rich in minerals. The climate is perfect, and the Rokko mountain range to the south isolates the area just enough to make the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures significant, which sake rice prefers since this climactic condition helps the starches accumulate in the center of the grain.

Yokawa-cho in particular is high in elevation, and the growers there use rice fields cut into the mountainside like a set of descending shelves, which lets the water flow down through the fields smoothly.

Yamada before harvestFrom whence did it come? Yamada Nishiki was created in 1936 as a crossbreed between two other rice strains, one being Yamadaho. This was also a great sake rice, but was too tall and lanky and frustratingly difficult to grow. So the prefectural agricultural research center at that time (which has since morphed into a broader organization but still exists in spirit) crossbred it with a shorter, sturdier sake rice called Tankan Wataribune. This made the progeny that became Yamada Nishiki more manageable and better in many ways.

Sake rice can be shipped all over the country, and brewers from northeast to southwest seek Hyogo-grown Yamada Nishiki for their top grades of sake. Not all, mind you, but many. However, Yamada Nishiki is also grown in many other places in Japan, some almost as well as Hyogo. In fact, 33 of Japan’s 47 prefectures grow at least some Yamada Nishiki, although a full 60 percent of all grown comes from Hyogo.

Interestingly, though, Yamada Nishiki seeds have never officially left Hyogo Prefecture. This is Rice bag labelsignificant because, in order to put a premium grade of sake on the label, a brewer must use rice that has passed a certain level of inspection. And in order to have rice inspected, the rice must be registered with the local authorities, and the seeds must also be sourced from a proper source. It is all a bit gray, sometimes even to sake producers.

So if the seeds never left Hyogo, how do other prefectures know that what they have is the real thing? And why do other prefectures recognize it? Hm. Not sure about that. Let’s chalk that up to the mystique suffusing this venerable rice and sake in general.

Also, credit must be given to the largest sake brewers in the country, the current-mass producers of sake in the Nada region in Hyogo. It was they that drove the production of this standout rice from the start. When their technology began to help make decent sake with less expensive rice, Yamada Nishiki became more available to the rest of the sake industry. As is too often the case, their significant role may be unappreciated.

All of the above combines to create the legend, the reputation, and the mystique that surrounds and suffuses Yamada Nishiki. So next time you come across it – and that should not be long if you drink sake on anything remotely resembling a regular basis – bear in mind it is not just another rice. It’s Yamada Nishiki.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CIMG7247Only about five seats remain open for Sake Professional Course Chicago 2016, March 28~30. Learn more here, and contact me if you are interested in attending.

How old is the sake industry, and who are its oldest members?

CIMG1932Sake has a long and storied history, going back centuries and centuries. Just how many centuries is a matter of interpretation: exactly when did the rice-based mash look and taste enough like today’s brew to call it sake? The answer likely depends on who is trying to convince whom of what.

But most agree that sake brewing goes back some 1700 years, based on archeological finds that show that the locals were deliberately making an alcoholic beverage from rice. It hardly resembled the glorified ambrosia we take for granted today, but if you want to trace the history of sake, that is where it leads.

We also hear from time to time about kami-kuchi sake. This was made by folks chewing rice a bit and spitting it into a vat around which they stood. The enzymes in their saliva converted the starch into sugar, after which yeast in the air took things from there and converted that into alcohol. Appetizing, iddn’t it?

But really: this is cave-man stuff. There was never a commercial product. No one really made proper sake in this way f’gad’s sake. Nor do any of Japan’s written histories or sake-brewing records mention tanksany such a method. Yet so many writers likes to latch on to it and open stories about sake with references to it. It just makes for good article content fodder, at least the first thousand times you read it; then it just gets old and annoying. But I digress.

Lots of progress was made in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries in Buddhist temples in and about Nara, and that transitioned into the current method of making sake, which has remarkably remained pretty much the same, at least in terms of principles and objectives. Sure, modern machines save labor and cost. And very cheap sake is indeed made using methods that are far from traditional methods that yield stuff that does remarkably resemble sake.

But most premium sake is made in old, hassle-laden methods that have been around for centuries. Modern machines can help avert labor by moving heavy things around. But the assessments at each stage and the on-the-fly tweaking are performed in traditional painstaking methods.

ShizukuMost breweries are owned and run by families (way over 90 percent are family owned operations) that were once aristocratic and can trace their lineage back sometimes tens of generations. As such, many kura today have long, long traceable histories.

In fact, there are still about 300 sake companies in Japan that were founded before 1800, in other words, that many have an over-200 year history!

Here is a list of Japan’s oldest sake breweries and the area in which they are located. Note, the top ten alone are all more than 458 years old!

10. Ueda Shuzo in Nara, brewers of Kicho, founded in 1558

9. Konishi Shuzo in Hyogo, brewers of Shirayuki, founded in 1550

8. Yoshinogawa Shuzo in Niigata, brewers of Yoshinogawa sake, founded in 1548

7. Shusenkurano in Nagano, brewers of Genbu, founded in 1540

6. Tomita Shuzo in Shiga, brewers of Shichiyonyari, founded in 1543

5. Yamaji Shuzo in Shiga, brewers of Kuwazake, founded in 1532

4. Kenbishi Shuzo in Hyogo, brewers of Kenbishi, founded in 1505

3. Hiraizumi Shuzo in Akita, brewers of Hiraizumi, founded in 1487

2. Sudo Honke in Ibaraki, brewers of Sato no Homare, founded before 1141

1. Imanishi Shuzo in Nara, brewers of Mimuro Sugi, estimated to be over 900 years old.

Currently there are less than 1200 brewers that continue to sell sake, Old Kura

although several hundred more have retained their licenses to do so. There were as many as ten thousand at one point in the early twentieth century. While it may be tempting to focus on how many have disappeared, it is amazing to see that such a traditional industry has survived more or less intact, and is now after decades of decline beginning to turn around gradually.

Let us all do our part! Enjoy some sake tonight with a heartfelt “kampai!” for the history of sake and its oldest members.

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CIMG7247Only about five seats remain open for Sake Professional Course Chicago 2016, March 28~30. Learn more here, and contact me if you are interested in attending.