Romancing the sake rice
By JOHN GAUNTNER
With wine, it’s all about the grape, and this leads to boundless potential for conversation and enjoyment above and beyond flavors and aromas.
The same potential exists for sake and sake rice. In sake, the rice alone does not determine everything; the skill and methods of the brewers are still half the battle. Nevertheless, the choice of rice will lead to — in general — a discernibly unique flavor profile.
Sake rice has more starches, and fewer proteins and fats than table rice. Also, these starches are concentrated in the center of the grain, allowing the undesirables to be easily milled away.
But not all sake rice is created equal. Although there are dozens of varieties, there are but 10 or so that are important. The most ubiquitous of these is the hallowed Yamada Nishiki often used in top-grade sake. But if Yamada is the king of sake rice, Omachi is certainly the queen.
Omachi was originally discovered in 1859, in a village of the same name in the western part of Okayama Prefecture, where almost all such rice is grown. It is the oldest pure-rice variety in Japan and was one of the three most widely grown varieties in Japan during the Meiji Era (back then it was popular as a table rice).
However, its very long stalks made it hard to grow and harvest by machine, and so farmers stopped growing it. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that anyone really began to grow it again — a side effect of what was known as the ginjoboom. Now it is the seventh most widely grown sake rice in Japan.
In fact, once upon a time, it was almost common sense that Omachi should be used when brewing top-grade sake for contests and such. This was before the days of Yamada Nishiki and other crossbreeds, of course.
As mentioned, Omachi is a pure-rice strain, while nearly all sake-rice varieties are the result of cross-breeding. Omachi, interestingly, does not cross-breed well for some reason and is not often seen in the “family trees” of other sake rice (yes, these things do exist!).
However, there are three well-known and very important sake-rice varieties that are descendants of Omachi. These are Gohyakumangoku (a lot of great Niigata sake is made from this rice), Tamazakae (which is used quite a bit in Kansai) and Aiyama (made famous by Kenbishi and now used by Juyondai).
Today, there are about 300 breweries using Omachi. That isn’t very many, considering that there are more than 1,500 breweries in Japan. Most of these are, not surprisingly, located in western Japan.
One reason for the relative paucity of breweries using Omachi is simply experience. It had been out of circulation for so long (from the ’20s until the ’80s) that many brewers have forgotten the subtle points of brewing with this rice.
So what does sake made from Omachi taste like? In short, it is much more earthy and herbal than fruity and flowery. The individual flavor components compete against each other in a healthy way, as opposed to blending harmoniously, as they might with Yamada Nishiki.
Romancing the rice is just as feasible as glorifying the grape. Omachi and its story (the above is just the tip of the iceberg) are proof of that.
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Sake Hitosuji (Okayama Prefecture)
This brewery is located in the heart of Omachi rice territory and has contracts with about 90 farmers in the region to secure a large amount of the best Omachi grown.
Its sake, including this junmai ginjo, exhibits the best that Omachi has to offer. Complex, earthy and layered, Sake Hitosuji drips with character and presence, and goes down well both slightly chilled or slightly warmed.
On June 1, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Robert Yellin and I will be hosting another sake and Japanese pottery seminar, 6-9 p.m. at the sake pub Mushu near Shin-Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations. Participation is limited to 40 people. The cost for half a dozen sake samples, ample food and a hopefully enlightening lecture is 7,000 yen. If you would like to attend, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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