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.

The One-Hundred Year Aged Sake Project

Sake Warming Ultimate ToyLast month in this newsletter we talked about aged sake, and pointed out that, although it is not quite mainstream, matured sake, known as koshu or chouki jukusei-shu, can be extremely interesting. And that is one reason the Nippon Jozo Kyokai, i.e. the Brewing Society of Japan introduced above (BSJ), a while ago began the One-Hundred Year Aged Sake Project.

Just what is the One-Hundred Year Aged Sake Project? Pretty much just what it sounds like it would be: a research project to age sake for one hundred years. Here are some specifics.

The idea was born in December of 2005, as a cooperative effort between the BSJ and the then-ten year old Chouki Jukuseishu Kenkyuukai, or the Aged Sake Research Group. Also, the National Research Institute of Brewing, NRIB, and Tokyo Agricultural University, known less formally as “Nodai,”( the “UC Davis” of the sake world), are helping out a bit as well. The stated purposes of the experiment are (in far less eloquent words than the original text) to “see what happens” and to “learn more about the possibilities related to aging sake.” Yeppir. Pretty much what you would expect.

Most of the sake will be aged in the iconic red-brick building (seen below) in Tokyo that housed the NRIB from 1904 until this year, when it moved to Hiroshima.

The amount of sake progress made within those hallowed red-brick walls is unfathomable. It really is sacred ground to the sake world. The sake aged Koshiki on its sidethere will sit on wooden (hinoki, like cypress) shelves with no metal anywhere near them. The rest, stored at Nodai, will be handled by placing the bottles inside metal tanks. Temperatures will be maintained between 15C and 20C.

Each of the 33 brewers participating will submit one 1.8 liter glass bottle, or the equivalent amount in either titanium vessels, or Kutani or Bizen (two types of traditional Japanese ceramics) vessels. Wow. I am not sure why they insisted on those two styles of pottery, but that is cool. Very cool.

And for good measure they have thrown in one bottle of sake made in 1925, already 80 years into its aging, found in a kura in Wakayama.

Sake Tasting CupsAlong with the one bottle of sake destined to sit a full century, each kura submitted ten smaller bottles (720 ml) to be used at ten along-the-way tastings to be held every ten years. The first of those tastings was held this past November, exactly ten years since it all was laid down. I was fortunate enough to be invited to that tasting, and even if only for the uniqueness of it, the event was fascinating.

Of course, it went beyond the appeal of mere uniqueness, and the aged sake that were presented displayed a fascinating range of flavors, aromas and directions of maturation. It was really difficult to try to assess them all as a whole since the range of aromas, flavors and intensities was mind-boggling.

I am thinking (or rather, hoping) I will be around for another couple-few of these, but will have to defer the tasting of the final round to someone a lot younger than I. Perhaps one of my grandchildren can represent me.

While I reiterate that very little sake is aged, most brewers do not make any aged sake at all, and that long-term aged sake is a totally different animal, I also will again add that it can be very interesting. Perhaps aged sake will be all the rage in 2105.

You can learn a bit more about the Aged Sake Research group here although it is in Japanese. You can learn more about this project itself here, and see a couple of pictures of the site as well.

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Sake ConfidentilInterested in Sake? Pick up a copy of my latest book, Sake Confidential, A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment.

Learn more here.

Yeast for Sake Brewing: Whence does it come?

Yeast cellsYeast is a crucial ingredients in sake.

The three main ingredients of sake are usually given as water, rice and koji, which is steamed rice with a mold grown upon it that converts starch to sugar. But although not usually listed as an ingredient, yeast is crucial in that it converts that sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and many other things that make a sake taste and smell the way it does.

Yeast does and will occur naturally in the environment, but is – with only a couple of exceptions – manually added. More than anything else the choice of yeast determines the aromas of the final sake, although as we have come to expect with sake, it ain’t quite that simple.

There are hundreds if not thousands of yeasts used in sake brewing today.

Tons of ‘em. Oodles and oodles of ‘em. I am fond of saying that “everybody and his brother has a proprietary or special yeast.” Many (if not most) of them are recently developed and are to some degree experimental; if the resulting sake is a hit, great. If not, the brewer may move on to other yeast choices. As such, many are not long for this world. Indeed, few will last the test of time.

Not that it has always been this way. The surge in proprietary and specially developed yeast strains is about 25 years old now, I reckon. Before that the Yeast Starterindustry focused more on a handful of tried and true yeast strains that have been around for about a century. And before that, everyone depended on their own in-house ambient yeast, which alone could make or break a kura’s reputation.

Where do they come from? With so many out there, obviously there must be multiple sources. But it is probably safe to say that most sake in Japan is made using a yeast obtained from the Nippon Jozo Kyokai, known officially in English as the Brewing Society of Japan.

The “BSJ” has been around since 1906, originally as a group of researchers that had recently graduated from a governmental sake production course.

Their main functions are R&D, and of course stocking and distributing microorganisms, mainly sake yeast. The yeast strains themselves were for the most part discovered in sake breweries around Japan, and most have been around for decades and decades.

They are meticulously reproduced and kept pure year after year, providing stable and dependable fermentation to sake breweries all over Japan. While yeasts can have all kinds of names, those from the BSJ are recognizable by their very simple nomenclature, such as #6, #7, and #9 – which belie their significance in the industry.

While numbers one to five do exist, they are no longer distributed due to what is considered to be excessive acidity. In fact, amongst the handful of yeast strains that are actively supplied, the main ones to remember are numbers 6, 7, 9, 14 and 18-01. They were named in order of discovery, and the higher the number, the more ostentatious the aromatics. (Sorta. It’s not quite that simple, but for sound-byte purposes, that’ll do in a pinch.)

Yeast starter - another shotIn terms of how these are reproduced, it varies a bit from yeast to yeast. But basically, stock yeast cells are put into an environment that encourages reproduction. Kind of like a love hotel for yeast, I guess. The resulting yeast cells are harvested, and washed with sterilized water, analyzed for purity and quality, and then bottled in little glass ampules.

Yeast cells mutate very quickly, and so the cells must be checked to be sure

the compounds they produce and the other characteristics are true to the original. Otherwise the acids, esters and alcohols could change, and brewers would end up with sake that is totally different from what was sought.

Once these ampules arrive at the kura, brewers will then use them by pouring the pure yeast directly into a yeast starter, or alternatively, giving the yeast cells a kick-start via a nutrient solution of koji and water. There are also other ways, of course.

However, as alluded to above, the BSJ is not the only source of yeast. Far from it! Many prefectures have their own research organizations that develop yeast strains for use by local breweries, and many breweries have their own proprietary strains as well. “Developing” yeasts really means isolating them from amongst countless strains naturally occurring in the air. (No genetic modification is done at all.)

But for almost all of these modern yeast types, rather than being a yeast that rose naturally to the top both literally and figuratively, they were the result of an active search for particular qualities like fruity aromas. Certainly there is nothing wrong with this; it is still a natural process. But many of these more modern yeast type are comparatively ostentatious in their aromatic profiles, with apple and licorice and tropical fruit more apparent than the banana and melon of olde.

Furthermore, many of these new whippersnappers amongst the ranks of yeast do not tolerate time well, in other words, the sake made using them changes comparatively quickly in the bottle, sometimes leading to bitterness in the background of the sake.

This is not to discredit or criticize their use, nor the sake to which they lead. Much of it is wonderful and popular, to be sure. The only point here is to highlight some of the differences.

However: it does seem to be that the modern yeasts, for all their lively aromatics, are very slowly falling out of favor. Perhaps a more correct way to say that is that there seems to be a slow but evident return to the more classic yeast types, in particular #6, #7 and #9, with a dollop of #14 in the daiginjo department.

Is this clearly measurable? Nah; not yet. It is still a fledgling trend. And it may not gather critical mass, and the tendency to use modern yeasts may continue. As such, not much is clear on the yeastern front at all. Vibrant ginjo aromas are still popular, even if less pretentious sake does seem to be making a comeback.

It is important to emphasize again that there is no one superior yeast or group of yeasts. As long as the sake is enjoyable by a significant number of people, anything goes. “It’s all good,” as they say. But the slight trend toward the classics, both in terms of aromas, choice of yeast, and brewing methods such as kimoto that tie in well with more less brazen yeasts, is interesting to observe.

More and more producers are providing yeast information for the sake available both in Japan and overseas. Be sure to take note of this information – and your own observations – as you enjoy sake from here on out. It can only enhance your sake experiences.

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Sake ConfidentilInterested in Sake? Pick up a copy of my latest book, Sake Confidential, A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment.

Learn more here.

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 2016!

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Three holiday sake gift ideas:

Sake Confidential

(1) A subscription to the magazine Sake Today http://ow.ly/VOYWi

(2) the book Sake Confidential http://ow.ly/VOZ24

(3) the 99-cent app The Sake Dictionary http://ow.ly/VOZ6c

The only question is, how much do you – or that special someone – want to read?

 

Aging Sake at Home – or not?

A Bronx TaleIn the movie (and play), “A Bronx Tale,” the members of a particular fraternal organization centered around their ethnicity ran a bar into which a group of members of another fraternal organization, this one centered on their preference for two-wheeled vehicles, attempted to enter.

“It’s a private club,” they were told. “You have to leave, you have to leave.”

“But we want nothing more than to have a drink in your fine establishment, sir. We mean to cause no trouble,” came the response.

“Fine,” they were told by the semi-philosophical owner. “You are free to have a drink.”

Well, not five seconds after getting beer in hand, the bar exploded into pandemonium, with the bikers Now Youse Can't Leaveshaking and shooting their beer and creating every kind of ruckus imaginable.  At which point the head wise guy shuts the door ominously, looks around the room, and says, “Now youse can’t leave.”

Immediately, as if on cue, a dozen or so club-wielding affiliate members poured out of the back room and exacted justice.

“Now youse can’t leave.” The movie, as good as it was, has been relegated to the attics of my mind, save for that one line. “Now youse can’t leave.” And so it is with some of my sake.

Backing gingerly back into the realm of sake-talk, we are often told “the rules” of sake care and such, but it is very important to remember that in the world of sake there are countless exceptions to every rule. One of those is the rule of drinking your sake young. Sure, it is true that almost all sake is meant to be consumed young, and that traditionally and historically it has always been done so (again, with some exceptions notwithstanding).

Drip pressing daiginjoOf course, all this naturally leads to questions relating to how young is still young enough, or conversely stated, how old is too old? In actuality, there is no simple answer, which is why following the “younger is better, don’t mess around with aging sake at home” philosophy is best at first. But the ultimate truth is a bit higher than that.

The fact is that well matured sake can be very interesting, if you are into it, if you are open minded about what constitutes good, and if you have a sense of humor (for those inevitable mis-judgements).

There are several vaults for sake in my office, some cold, some not. Over the course of time, the nature of my work dictates that many a bottle finds its way to me. Try as I might (and oh, I do try), I cannot drink them all in a timely manner. So I often find myself peering into a three-level storage bin six bottles deep and as many wide, pondering what has to go next. And inevitably, I will find one or two that I feel should be tasted soon or they could potentially begin that long, slow, downhill slide.

But one of the great joys of this process is to find one or two that definitely should have been consumed a couple of months earlier. And if I think they can stand up to it, I look at ‘em and say with a forced sinister smile, “Now youse can’t leave.” And I deliberately lay them down for months or more, knowing full well the risk I am taking in doing so. Sometimes I am pleased with the results; other times I just tell myself that I am.

My point is decidedly not to suggest you indiscriminately leave your sake laying around. Rather, I simply want to point out that the world of aged sake does in fact exist. While it may be a small percentage of all sake made, and while few brewers make it, and even fewer apply an organized approach to producing it regularly, it can be a fascinating part of the sake world.

Aged sake is not unequivocally better, nor any more special, and in general only commands slightly higher prices. It is not really collectible and does not increase with value. And like most of us, it does not much resemble what it was in its youth. However, aged sake is in fact very interesting and worth checking out whenever you might come across it.

Tanks of sake awaiting perfect maturity

Should you come across an aged sake, by all means try it. Should you find one that has been forgotten, or one to which you did not get around to drinking after purchasing it years ago, do not despair! Lower your expectations, raise your sense of humor, and try it. You may be very pleased with the results, and if not, you have gained a useful education on how sake ages.

Such are the idiosyncrasies of the sometimes frustrating, often-times interesting, always one-step-ahead-of-human-intellect world of sake.
This kind of vagueness does not stop at aging sake; it keeps us all guessing at every step. After a certain period of time, after crossing a vague threshold of sake understanding, we become so interested in sake’s intricacies and exceptions that even if we wanted to stop studying it, we find we cannot.

This is the point in time when sake itself looks us all in the eye and says, “Now youse can’t leave.”

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Three holiday sake gift ideas:

Sake Confidential

(1) A subscription to the magazine Sake Today http://ow.ly/VOYWi

(2) the book Sake Confidential http://ow.ly/VOZ24

(3) the 99-cent app The Sake Dictionary http://ow.ly/VOZ6c

The only question is, how much do you – or that special someone – want to read?

Toji Guilds: What do they do differently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sake ConfidentilInterested in Sake? Pick up a copy of my latest book, Sake Confidential, A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment.

Learn more here.

Batch Sizes: Various Philosophies

 

tanksThere are many things that determine how good a batch of sake will be. And there are equally as many opinions about each and every one of those things. Factors that some brewers consider indispensable or key, others will downplay or even outright contradict – if not diss – with opposite philosophies. Depending on your threshold for vagueness, it can either be frustrating or fascinating.

One of these factors is the size of the batch, or the “shikomi,” measured in kilos of rice that went into a given tank to create that batch of sake.

Perhaps typical is a ton to a ton-and-a-half (a metric ton, mind you, so 1000 kg or 2200 pounds) of the combination of the rice and koji (the rice that has had koji mold propagated upon it). But there are those of the opinion that much smaller shikomi, say 600 kg or so, are infinitely better for super premium sake.

Perhaps the smallest size I have seen is 500kg on a practical level, although smaller sizes exist as well. But done at this scale, yields are quite low. And brewers need to ask themselves, from an economical point of view, is it worth it in the end? When considering the time required to do each of the many steps, then have it take up tank space, press it and filter it when fermentation is complete, bottle it and care for it and more – it would be so much more economical to double, triple or quadruple your yields for true efficiency. And many, many breweries function at those larger economies of scale.

Naturally, though, at some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vicious vengeance and quality begins to noticeably suffer. But just where that occurs, and how each toji (master brewer) feels about it, varies hugely.

For example, some do not think that smaller is always better, citing the truth that it is much harder to DSC04422control parameters such as temperature in those smaller tanks over the long run. To achieve a given flavor and aromatic profile, brewers guide the moromi (fermenting mash) along a very tight temperature curve. Smaller batches are more subject to various factors that might send them out of spec, so to speak.

Conversely, a largish tank would lumber along so much more heavily that wild swings in temperature would not likely happen. But of course the counterpunch to this is that if your temperature and other parameters stray from the fold of the ideal, it is easy to bring them back into alignment with small batches, back to where you want them to be, whereas in big batches the sheer mass makes it harder to forcibly change the temperature once it has strayed.

But again: there are various philosophies. One hugely famous toji of almost unmatched accomplishment insists that larger batches of about 1.5 tons are ideal. He also insists on slightly customizing his tank dimensions, because by doing so the moromi mixes itself and he does not have to mess with using long poles to mix it up. It all occurs naturally in his kura as, inside the tanks, carbon dioxide bubbles stick to dissolving rice particles and the countless yeast cells, rising to the top, where the gas is released and the now-dense glob sinks again. And if your shikomi size is right, it all circulates perfectly, around and around and around…

One fact worth mentioning, however, is that almost always the more premium grades of sake are indeed made in comparatively smaller batches, at least compared to the shikomi size of the lower grades of sake for that brewer. And contest sake, too, is almost without exception made in smaller batches. But this surely arises from the aforementioned ability to tightly control key parameters.

Lately I have come across this information on the back labels of some sake bottles: they actually tell us the size of the shikomi.

Now what in the world are we supposed to do with this information? In the end, the flavors and aromas of a sake before us are either appealing, or they are not. Biasing our minds with such information before tasting will but encumber our enjoyment by unnecessarily prejudicing it.

taka-awaBut as always, there are a myriad of opinions. One big gun of a distributor in the Tokyo/Yokohama metropolis insists that a sake has to be made in a batch that is 600 kg or smaller to be decent. He cites his ten-year convincing effort focused on one famous kura to lower their shikomi size from a ton to 600 kg, and when they did, they won a major international award. True, the smaller shikomi size might have had something to do with it, but so might a gazillion other things. But hey, what do I know.

So enjoy your sake for its flavors and aromas. And should you come across the shikomi size, now you know its significance, and its potential liabilities.

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Sake ConfidentilInterested in Sake? Pick up a copy of my latest book, Sake Confidential, A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment.

Learn more here.

Honjozo’s Demise and Statistical Skewing

Rice only sake = junmai-shuThe proponents of junmai types over added alcohol types are quick to point out how fast the junmai types are growing in production and consumption, and how fast the added-alcohol types are decreasing. And this is true enough; certainly the awareness of and preferences for junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo are growing steadily. Misplaced though the reasoning may be. (Did I just say that?)

But as always, there is bit more to the story than any one interpretation of static statistics states, alliteration fully intended.

For one, futsuu-shu, the 65 percent of the market that is all made with good dollops of added alcohol for economic reasons, continues to contract fairly quickly. However, even if we limit the analysis to premium sake, tokutei meishoshu (“special designation sake”), i.e. honjozo, junmai-shu, ginjo-shu, junmai ginjo-shu, daiginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu, the junmai types grow faster than the non-junmai types.

Still, there is one caveat that is conveniently ignored: that of the enigma of honjozo. Why is this? Because it is indeed premium, although (oxymoronically) at the very bottom of premium. And it is contracting faster than any other type of sake, even lowly futsuu-shu.

And this makes the numbers appear the way they do. In other words, if you look at all premium sake together, sure, junmai types are growing faster than non-junmai types. But if you take out honjozo, then the non-junmai types are growing just as fast as the junmai types.

My point is not to prop up added alcohol sake, nor to diss junmai jihadists. (Did I just say that?) But rather, the point here is to show how fast honjozo is dropping, and to consider why that might be. And lastly, to propose that it might not be as bad as it looks.

Let’s look briefly at the history of honjozo. Adding pure distilled alcohol to sake has been around since 1942, when it was enforced with good purpose, to save rice during hard times yet to let the industry survive.

When things settled down in post-war Japan, all sake continued to be brTraditional rice steaming vatewed with added alcohol – most often for economic reasons. But along the way, brewers learned the great things that can happen to a premium sake by adding a bit of ethyl alcohol to the mash just after fermentation – and then a bit more water later. These include coaxing out more flavor and aroma from the rice, improving shelf life, and making the final sake smoother and more well-rounded. Then, in 1968, two breweries more or less simultaneously begin brewing junmai, after which junmai types s-l-o-w-l-y gained momentum that continues today.

Honjozo became an industry designation in the early 70’s, and means “the original brewing method.” Which it is not; but hey, there were on a roll. What honjozo does mean is that the amount of distilled alcohol added is strictly limited, with the spirit of the rule being to show that it is added for good technical reasons like those outline above, but not just to increase yields. Also, the rice must be milled to 70 percent of its original size as well. Back in the early 70s, before junmai caught on, and when heavily-doped futsu-shu was closer to being the norm, honjozo was considered a step above in terms of both brewing philosophy and quality as well.

However, as junmai and ginjo grew in popularity, the once-lofty honjozo began to lose it significance, and so it continues today.

Why might this be? Because it is, increasingly, in this no-man’s land between cheap sake and premium sake, at least in terms of marketability. It is not futsuu-shu, but nor is it ginjo. Consumers like extremes, and honjozo is neither here nor there in the opinion of many. Sad, but true.

In other words, if someone wants to drink cheap, honjozo is too expensive and too good. If someone wants to drink premium, honjozo is perceived as the lower end of that spectrum, and summarily passed over in favor of something with the hallowed ginjo word on the label.

ShizukuFrom the brewers’ point of view, it is pretty much the same. With jus a bit more milling of the rice, a brewer can classify it as a ginjo and benefit from all that fanfare and marketing. In fact, much honjozo was made with rice milled enough to qualify it as a ginjo anyway in the silly rice-milling wars commonplace today. So sometimes, all they really need to do is to decide to label it as a ginjo. Done.

Conversely, with just a bit less effort, a brewer can sell it as a futsu-shu, and a rather good one at that, giving it a distinct advantage on the shelf when compared with really cheap sake. So the benefits of labeling a sake as a honjozo began to fade away, and continue to do so.

To be sure, there is still plenty of great honjozo left, especially tokubetsu (special) honjozo. And much of it is some of my favorite sake to drink! Not overly fruity or aromatic, still tinged with idiosyncrasies, yet clean, smooth and pleasant. Not all of it, mind you; but much of it is so.

Alas, for these reasons, the contraction of honjozo will likely continue. But in truth, the sake itself is not going anywhere, it is just being reclassified as other stuff, either a notch up or a notch down, perhaps with slight tweaking. While it is a shame to see historically significant grade of sake dry up, I myself think that the sake that remains in that classification will even more aptly represent what good honjozo can be. And I, for one, am looking forward to continuing to enjoy them. Yet I also expect them to continue to skew the statistics.

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Sake Professional Course in New York City, December 7-9

All you need to know about sake! The next Sake Professional Course is scheduled for New York City, December 7 to 9, 2015. The venue is smaller this time and participation is limited to 40 people. It is just about half full, or half empty, depending on your perpsective.

More information is available here, and testimonials from graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day course wraps chokko_smallup with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me.

Following that, the next one is tentatively scheduled for Japan in January, and then the spring in Chicago. If you are interested, feel free to send me an email to that purport now; I will keep track of your interest!

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Sake ConfidentilInterested in Sake? Pick up a copy of my latest book, Sake Confidential, A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment.

Learn more here.