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What is Sake, Actually?

Issue #1: August 99

In this issue:
Feature Article: What is sake, actually?
News on imported sake
Sakes you should look for…
Where to buy sake when in Japan
Good sake pubs
Reader feedback
Sake Availability Project: Request TO readers
In the Next Issue
Subscribe/unsubscribe information
Publication information

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Welcome
Welcome to the first edition of the Sake World email newsletter. This newsletter will be distributed monthly, on the first of each month. Our goal is to disseminate interesting and useful information about sake, including where to buy it and taste in  North America and Japan. It is hoped that through this newsletter, a greater interest in sake will develop. Reader feedback, questions and comments are always welcome and encouraged.

Sake is certainly  worthy of worldwide consumption and appreciation. Despite the comparisons with wine, it is a unique beverage, light and unassuming, but with a deep potential for appreciation. However, a  fundamental  appreciation and understanding about sake, its production, and the culture surrounding it must develop for sake appreciation to go to the next level outside of Japan. Hopefully, this newsletter will help to  facilitate that.

Consumer demand can be very powerful. At present, archaic laws in the US make it very difficult if not impossible for consumers to get good sake. Beyond that, as sake is not yet a mainstream beverage, distributors and retailers nationwide are reluctant to give sake sufficient shelf space or the proper care that ensures quality. If, however, enough consumers clamor clearly and loudly, things will change. It is one of the goals of this newsletter to promote such change.

True appreciation for any beverage ?ike craft beer and wine ?an only gain critical mass and rise above fad level if there is a widespread fondness and interested on a grass-roots level. Average individuals need to be able to relax with a bottle of sake, to get to know its ins and outs, and what makes it  special. Then and only then can true connoisseurship come about.

Enjoy.
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What is sake, actually?
As this is the first issue, it seems fitting to actually describe what sake is, and how it is brewed. Many readers may be well familiar with this, but a little review never hurts.

Many liken sake to wine as it is not carbonated and has a similar alcohol content, others to beer since it is made from a grain. Technically, it is more like beer in its production as it is indeed brewed (NOT distilled) from grain, namely rice. It is appreciated and consumed more like a wine, though. But no reason to split hairs, let’ just allow it to have its own category, sake.

Looking at how wine, beer and sake are brewed should make it more clear just what sake is.

Wine is a fermented beverage. Fermentation is the process in which yeast converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which in the case of wine, is allowed to escape. Sugars are already present in the grape, and these sugars are ready for use by the yeast cells as food and nutrients. Although this simple and short explanation does not do justice to the age-old art of making wine, it will serve our purposes here.

Beer calls for another step. There is no fermentable sugar in barley grains, only long starch molecules that must  be broken down into smaller sugar molecules, some that will ferment and some that will add to the flavor in other ways. To accomplish this, several other steps are necessary. First, the barley must be malted. The grains are moistened and warmed to start the germination process. This creates enzymes that patiently wait in the grain for their opportunity to create sugar from starch.  Next, the malted barley grains are cracked and mixed with water, and kept at specific temperatures for periods of time. This activates our patient enzymes, which chop the starch molecules into smaller sugar molecule, a process is called saccharification. The times and  temperatures of this “mashing” determine how the long starch molecules will break down into fermentable sugar that will be available as food for the yeast,  and non-fermentable sugar that will contribute to other aspects of the flavor. Only after these sugars come into being is yeast added, and fermentation is then allowed to proceed.

Sake is also made from a grain; rice. However, the enzymes that break the starch molecules into fermentable sugars in sake making come from koji,  which is steamed rice that has been carefully cultivated with a mold called koji-kin, Aspergillus Oryzae in English. This magical mold eats its way into the rice grains, and chops the long starch molecules into smaller molecules that can be used by the yeast cells as food. The resulting mixture is put in the  same tank with the yeast and more steamed rice, so that sugars are being produced by the koji and fermented by the yeast in the same tank at the same time. This has been dubbed “multiple parallel fermentation,” a direct translation of “heiko fukuhakkoshiki.”

That’s an overview. The process itself, however, is complex. It is very  difficult to convey in a few words what people spend a lifetime learning. So much of it is done by experience and intuition that simply explaining the process does not justice to the art.

In the end, the little gem of wisdom worth taking away from all this is that sake is brewed from rice in a process that is fairly unique in the world of alcoholic beverages.

Subsequent issues of this newsletter will study in depth the various steps involved in sake brewing. Each of them is critical and has the leverage to affect the final product greatly.
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News on Imported Sake
There are literally hundreds of sake products OK’ by BATF (Bureau of Alcohol,  Tobacco and Firearms) for import into the United States. This does not mean that all are being actively imported at present, nor that they are being at all marketed or distributed properly.

For a listing of all sake presently being imported, check out the BATF website at http://ows.atf.treas.gov:8877/, then enter 981 in the Product  Class/Type box and hit Begin Search. Although this is supposedly complete, there seems to be a few holes as I have seen sake in the US that is not on that list. It is, however, fairly comprehensive.

Naturally, this list will grow continuously. It will  be hard to keep tabs on what is available and where, but we mean to try.
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Sake To Look For
Sake Recommendations
Since most readers are in the US, the five sake reviewed here have been  chosen as they are available both in the US as well as Japan. Although distribution may be limited in some areas, a bit of searching should prove profitable.

I have chosen not to put in the nihonshu-do and acidity here. They are interesting numbers, much like the residual sugar or specific gravity of a wine  or beer, but in the end do not have all that much to do with the experience of flavor that one has when tasting. There are a myriad of other superseding factors.

It was also, admittedly, a matter of practicality. I did not have the data for all  sake mentioned, and consistency seemed to be more of important than thoroughness. In the future, such data should be included as it can indeed give clues as to how a sake will fit into a taster’ preferential realm.

1. Tsukasa Botan: Senchu Hassaku
Tsukasa Botan is a fairly well known, large brewer from Kochi Prefecture on the  island of Shikoku. Tsukasa Botan makes a fairly wide range of sake, with this particular one bearing the sub-brand, so to speak, of Senchu Hassaku. The  sub-brand name refers to a document signed on a shop off the coast of Shikoku that played a big part in the overthrow of the Shogunate at the time of the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800′s.

Tsukasa Botan’ Senchu Hassaku is very dry, from beginning to end. However, it maintains some satisfying edge to the flavor, and could hardly be considered boring. There is a very light fragrance that ?almost because of its lightness ?works well with the flavor.

This one is easy to spot; you don’ need to be able to read Japanese. The label of the green bottle is black with fluorescent orange characters splashed across it.

2. Masumi: San-ka
Masumi comes from Nagano, and has the distinction of being brewed at the highest kura in Japan, altitude-wise. Home of the Nagano Olympics.

They are famous for their sake: Masumi has a wonderful, straightforward and simple style. The junmai-shu is basic, good sake that presents absolutely nothing to complain about. A great value, actually.

Masumi is also well known for having discovered (isolated and identified might be more proper diction) the most commonly used yeast in sake brewing,  Number 7. (Yeast that is distributed in pure form by the Central Brewers Association is given numbers; they are up to 16 now.)

San-ka means mountain flowers. It is most accurately read as two distinct  syllables, so as to not confuse it with decaffeinated coffee. Same spelling, different pronunciation. The sake itself is very fragrant and very light. It is a very well made daiginjo with just the right amount of balance in almost all things. It may not have any quirks (in a good sense) that would make it stand out, but it is all but guaranteed to please all comers.

3. Takaisami
Brewed in one of the least populated regions of  Japan, the San-in region, consisting of Tottori Prefecture (where Takaisami comes from) and Shimane  Prefecture. Beautiful nature; mountains and the Japan Sea. Many wonderful sakes also come from this region.

Takaisami means the “ravery of the hawk.”A great image for a great sake. The toji (head brewer), Mr. Sakamoto, has been a toji for over 40 years, and an underling for years before that. Half a century of spending six months of each year living in the kura and brewing.  He mentioned in an interview that when he got married, three days later he left to go to the kura for the winter to brew.

Takaisami has a very solidly constructed flavor to it; sharp and angular corners imparted by the proper placement of bitter and tart elements, supplanted by a  grassy touch. Fairly dry, with a nice crispness to it.

The well-grounded fragrance is flowery, but with a bit of earthiness and greenery tied into it as well. It all works very, very well together. Highly recommended to say the least.

4. Kamoizumi
Hiroshima Prefecture has long been a major sake brewing region, coming in 5th or 6th each year in production volume, almost tied as it is with Fukushima up north. And not just quantity, but quality reigns here. Hiroshima has, since the inception of government-sponsored tasting competitions, made excellent showings, often walking away with more awards than anywhere else.

Hiroshima sake is  fairly unique. Comparatively speaking, it is rather sweet.  Naturally there are many exceptions, but compared with ultra-popular Niigata dry sake, Hiroshima sake is soft, absorbing, and sweet.

Kamoizumi is unique even within these boundary conditions. There is a  heaviness, an earthiness, a settled aspect to the flavor. Deep and rich for a sake, Kamoizumi also presents a seductive, light golden color.

The richness associated with the flavor comes across as smoky and mossy, with a very light caramel touch behind that. For those that like warm sake,  Kamoizumi is a wonderful choice; almost all grades of their sake can be enjoyed warm as well.

5. Wakatake Onna-Nakase
Wakatake is a meigara (brand name) from Shizuoka Prefecture, more famous for green tea than for sake. Until about ten years ago, Shizuoka sake was just average, really. Then, a good amount of local government-funded research and cooperation brought Shizuoka sake to the front.

Wakatake’ Onna-Nakase ?he name means “ake the women cry,”is a fine-lined but well constructed daiginjo. The fragrance is light, and a bit acidic, but supported by flowers and melon-like essences.

The flavor itself is gentle and balanced, and would soon be overpowered by any strong-flavored food. Rice-like flavor, faint though it may be, is bolstered by a balanced mouth feel neither dry nor sweet.

Hard to find, this one is, but worth the search. Wakatake also makes another sake called Onikoroshi, Demon Killer, that is also of fine standing. Although not as delicate, its richness makes it a bit sturdier. It may be a bit easier to find. The inference behind the name is that this sake is so damn good it would kill a demon.

6. Masu-izumi
Toyama Prefecture sits tucked beneath Niigata on the Japan Sea side of Honshu. The icy cold waters make Toyama well known for its fine fish and seafood. It would be worth a visit for just that alone. Although Toyama does not brew sake on teh volume-level that their northerly neighbor does, plenty of excellent and character-laden sake does flow out of the prefecture. Masu-izumi is indeed among the best.

Most ginjo-shu either has a great, ginjo flavor that can be complex and layered and fruity, or has a wonderful nose that titillates and  scintillates, often  being a  combination of flower and fruit. These are sometimes referred to as aji-ginjo (flavor ginjo) and kaori-ginjo (fragrance ginjo). Masu-izumi, however, seems to  somehow combine the two together to come up with a winning combination in terms of ginjo flavor and ginjo fragrance.

The fragrance is far from overpowering but easily discerned and has its  share of staying power. Look for peaches and other soft fruit, with a layer of light flowers beneath that, and a rice-laced base as well. The flavor is fairly  crisp and well-defined, not all that dry and with a perfect flavor-spreading acidity as well.

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Where to buy good sake in Japan
Passing through Japan on business or vacation? Live there but don’ know where to shop? Here’ a quick guide.

The simplest way to find good sake is to hit the major department stores on the Yamanote line. Seibu and Tokyu in Shibuya, Odakyu and Keio at Shinjuku,  Tobu and Seibu at Ikebukuro, and Matsuzakaya in Ginza are sure bets. Each has between 50 and 100 different brands; plenty to work with. Often, sampling  is possible of one or more brands being highlighted. Usually the staff are well-informed, too.

There are, beyond the department stores, dozens of good sake shops throughout Tokyo. One that is very recommendable and fairly accessible is Sakaya Kurihara, just between Hiro and Roppongi, near the Chinese Embassy. Lots of great selections, and the Kuriharas are extremely helpful (although Japanese on ability on your part helps). Moto Azabu 3-6-17, 3408-5378

One more is Suzuden, three minutes from Yotsuya Station. Be sure to go into the basement, where there are three refrigerated rooms housing sake, the temperature of which is inversely proportional to the quality of the sake  within. You’l need a jacket if you plan to browse for daiginjo. Yotsuya 1-10, 3351-1777

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Good Sake Pubs
This quick intro is, unfortunately, a bit Tokyo-centric, but will hopefully expand with reader input.

Sake pubs like this will come in all manifestations, from serene to boisterous,  moderate to expensive. Some serve a wide range of standard sake, where others stock sake that cannot be had elsewhere.

Try The Za in Shibuya for a young and lively crowd, low prices and about 40  excellent sake. Taruichi in Kabukicho specializes in whale and great sake, with a nice izakaya atmosphere and fair prices. Sasashu in Ikebukuro is upscale and beautifully traditional. Not cheap, but nice. Fukube near Tokyo Station is shitamachi at its best; decent sake, dirt cheap and comfortable.

Sasagin in Yoyogi-Uehara throws excellent food into the great sake equation at prices that bring you back. Eternally popular Akaoni in Sangenjaya has a huge  selection of sake, always with new stuff coming in. Awesome sashimi. Not excessively priced, but not cheap. Mushu in Awajicho has a funky interior, a very interesting food menu, and a wide range of unique sake. Below average prices.

Finally, check out Kuri, scheduled, directly across the street from Sakaya Kurihara in Moto-Azabu. It’ tiny, seating perhaps a dozen, but offers  upwards of 100 sakes, much of it very special and unique. Also, these will be available in 50ml “hot”sizes as well as 90ml half glasses, and 180ml full  glasses. Makes it easy to sample several types and still make the walk home. There is an all-English version of the sake menu, too. The fare will be mostly small curiously-flavored snacks from around Japan chosen to compliment the sake. The short walk from Hiro or Roppongi is worth it.

Directory to above shops:

The Za: Udagawa-cho 25-9, 03-3461-9598
Sasagin: Uehara 1-32-15, 03-5454-3715
Akaoni: Sangenjaya 2-15-3, 03-3410-9918
Mushu: Kanda Awajicho 1-1-1, 03-3255-1108
Taruichi: Kabukicho 1-17-12, 03-3208-9772
Sasashu: Ikebukuro 2-2-2, 03-3971-9363
Fukube: Yaesu 1-4-5, 03-3271-6065
Kuri: Motoazabu 2-11-1, 03-3497-0881
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Reader Feedback
Beginning next issue, we will entertain questions and pass on information gathered from readers for readers. Questions? Comments? Criticisms? This is the place for them.

To submit a question or comment for the reader feedback section, send an email with “eader Feedback”in the subject line to sakeguy@gol.com. Be sure to include whether or not you want your name and/or email address to appear in the newsletter.

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Sake Availability Project: Request TO Readers
It’ a bit of a vicious circle, kinda chicken-and-egg, if you will. Sake cannot really become popular and truly appreciated until it is easily available. Yet, it cannot  become more easily available until  there is a market of discerning consumers to support it.

Well, we have to work with what is available right now, and cause things to  grow from there. The first step in this, methinks, is to get a grip on just what is available where, and disseminate that information.

I receive almost daily requests asking where one can find their favorite sake, be it Kubota or Kamoizumi or Tsukasa Botan, in their city, be that LA, New York,  Dallas or elsewhere. Rarely am I able to be helpful.

Hence the birth of the Sake Availability Project, the eventual goal of which is a  directory of just what sake is available where around the country. Readers familiar with Tom Dalldorf’ Celebrator Beer News magazine will no doubt know the craft beer directory found in that magazine. We are aiming for something like that.

We at Sake World will be working with just about every source we can to hunt down just what is available and where. Naturally, this is a moving  target, with new sources coming others leaving all the time. But we need to at least try.

But we need to appeal to readers as well. If you have the time, simply send an email to sakeguy@gol.com, giving the name of any shop near you handling a reasonable (ten or so) number of imported sake. Contact information would be great too, if possible. From there, we will slowly consolidate the information and present it in useful form. Any and all help will be appreciated.

The first version of this SAP-directory will appear in next month’ Sake-World e-newsletter.

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In the Next Issue (scheduled for September 15, 1999):

The brewing process, step by step
Yeast strains: what effect do they have? Where do they come from?
Reader Feedback and Q&A
Where to drink sake in the US
More sake reviews
Actually, this issue can be viewed online by clicking here.
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