A long, reflective sip of sake’s craft and science
By JOHN GAUNTNER
Sake’s history goes back centuries and centuries, but just how many is a matter of debate. Regardless of the answer, over the last century or so gains in sake-brewing methods and technology have been exponential.
Oct. 1 was Nihonshu no Hi (Sake Day) as designated by the brewing industry. In honor of the millennium’s last Sake Day, let’s look at some of the major contributions over the last century to what has become today’s sake.
1895: Sake yeast was first isolated. Until this time, yeast cells were allowed to simply fall into the vat from the ambient environment. Finally, brewers were able to see just what the little bugs 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 was a long, exhausting process. When it was discovered that the result of the techniques was to create a bit of lactic acid, researchers put a bit of pure lactic acid in at the beginning, saving significant labor and time. A biggie in terms of significance to the industry.
1911: The first Shinshu Kanpyokai (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. Another biggie.
1933: Modern vertical rice-milling machines are introduced. The condition of the rice after milling — how much it has been milled, how much heat was generated, how much 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, prettily and efficiently. A huge biggie.
1936: The mighty Yamada Nishiki, the king of sake rice strains, is born. It is created as a crossbreed between two other sake rice strains, Yamadaho and Wataribune. Although expensive and relatively hard to grow, Yamada Nishiki is quite often the sake rice of choice when brewing ginjo-shu. There are other rice strains that make character-laden and wonderful sake, but Yamada has yet to be dethroned. A biggie in terms of enhanced sake flavor and fragrance profiles.
1943: The sake classification system of Special Class, First Class and Second Class is created by the Ministry 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. (Second Class is a default for all those not qualifying for First or Special Class.) This system was abolished in 1989.
Also in 1943, it became legal to add at least some distilled alcohol to sake at the end of the brewing process. 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 of Nagano. Masumi sake wins every single award in sight. This yeast is still the most used yeast in the country.
1948: Rice shortages force the legalization of sanzo-shu, sake effectively tripled in volume during production by the addition of distilled brewers alcohol in copious amounts. This practice was never entirely discontinued in the industry.
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 postwar 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 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 all downhill, with production volume decreasing each year.
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.
1989-2000: 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.
Of course, 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 their decades of accumulated skill and refined senses. Indeed, their craft all too often goes unappreciated.
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On Oct. 21, I will be holding a blind sake tasting, with a short lecture and a meal, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. For reservations, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, fax me at (0467) 23-6895 or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108.
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Heiankyo (Kyoto Prefecture)
Junmai Ginjo-shu, Namazake
Seimai-buai: 50 percent
This sake is from the heart of the famous Fushimi region in Kyoto, and from a brewery better known for its main meigara, Tsuki no Katsura, and perhaps even more so for their nigori-zake.
It is a shiboritate (freshly pressed) namazake (unpasteurized), so it is not easy to find now, since the brewing season has not yet begun. However, the sake-brewing season begins next month, so within a couple of months, this sake will again be available. It will be more easily available in Kansai, but their distribution is good, and Seibu stores (among others) should have it when it comes out. It is a classic Kyoto sake, soft and approachable, with a very mild fragrance. Clean, delicate and refined, it will go well with meals of gentle flavors. The producer recommends drinking it at 8 C.