What’s in a number
By JOHN GAUNTNER
At the end of each Nihonshu column, a recommended sake is introduced to readers. Along with the name and grade, three “vital statistics” are also given. These numbers — the nihonshu-do, the acidity and the seimai-buai — are supposed to give a clue as to how the sake might taste.
There may be more than a few readers who do not know or recall what these numbers refer to, and why they may be significant. Here is a quick review, followed by a surprising departure from the past.
The nihonshu-do is an indication of the likely sweetness or dryness of a sake. Although theoretically open-ended, for most sake today the number sits between -3 and +12. The higher the number, the drier the sake will taste, with neutral falling around +3. Chemically, the nihonshu-do measures the density of the sake in comparison to pure water.
How well a given sake works with food is often related to its acidity. It helps the flavor spread across the palate, and can also give sake a bite or keep it soft and mellow. Most sake have an acidity of between 0.7 and 2.0, a fairly limited range, with 1.1 being typical. Acidity and the nihonshu-do work together to give some indication of the flavor profile, as a higher acidity can make a sweet sake seem less so, and vice versa.
Finally, the seimai-buai, or “degree of rice polishing,” indicates how much of the rice grain remains after milling. A seimai-buai of 55 percent, for example, indicates that 45 percent of each grain of rice was ground away before brewing. The lower this number (35 percent is not uncommon for daiginjo), the more clean and complex a sake will taste (in theory, anyway).
The nihonshu-do, acidity and seimai-buai are listed on the bottles of many (if not most) good sake, and can be found in most of the marketing books and catalogs on sake.
But here’s the kicker: These numbers are not all that important. Why? Because so many other things affect the flavor profile of a sake that the margin of error is hugely compounded.
For example, the hardness or softness of the water used in sake will contribute greatly to the sensation of sweet and dry and acid presence.
The sense of acidity can often be at great variance with the number expressing it, as it is affected by complexity of flavor and even small variations in alcohol content.
Finally, the seimai-buai, while an important indicator, is not something most tasters can tell by sipping. Too many other factors affect the flavor, and the seimai-buai alone does not say much about the flavor profile.
For the above reasons, from next month this information will no longer be listed with the name and grade of the sake introduced in this column. For those readers with a sense of nostalgia, however, these not-so-vital statistics are given one last time below.
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Iwanoi’s Daiginjo from Chiba prefecture
Iwanoi (Chiba Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 40 percent
Iwanoi has been brewing ginjoshu since the beginning of the Showa Era, much longer than most places. It has nice, hard water that allows vigorous fermentation. This daiginjo is layered and complex, full of various flavors falling over each other to express themselves. Lively but still delicate.
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Japan Times Ceramic Scene columnist Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar April 14 at the sake pub Mushu. Anyone interested in attending should contact me by fax or e-mail.
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