The Brewing Process – A Closer Look
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
April 15, 2000
IN THIS ISSUE:
Sake brewing process: a closer look at the pressing issues
Umami: the sixth taste?
Sake to look for
Sake-related events (US, Japan)
It’s April, and as the last few cherry blossom petals flutter down, sakagura (sake breweries) everywhere are seeing the light at the end of the brewing season’s tunnel. Although a handful of larger breweries will continue cranking throughout the year, most places have but few batches to go, if that. Soon enough, there will be nothing left to do but wait for the moromi (fermenting concoction) in the tanks to run its course.
At that stage, the sake is still a white, milky mash of sake, yeast, and unfermented rice solids. Before it is ready to drink, the clear sake must be pressed away, separated from the lees of the mash. This process is called shibori, or joso.
Naturally, this pressing process has been taking place at each brewery since the late fall, as each batch is pressed immediately following its 18 to 35 day ferment. In fact, the timing of this step is of crucial importance in determining the quality of the final product. There are several methods by which this shibori is accomplished.
By far the most common is by machine. The moromi is pumped by hose to something resembling a five-meter accordion, which slowly compresses and traps the solids between mesh screens, sending the fresh-squeezed nihonshu out a hose. Technically known as an assaku-ki, but more often referred as a Yabuta (in honor of the company monopolizing the market), the amount of labor it saves is immense as the process is almost completely automated.
Much sake, however, is still pressed the old way. It’s significantly more labor intensive, but it does arguably lead to better sake. Some would say that the difference is all but negligible, but the market gets what the market demands.
The moromi is first poured into small cotton bags (perhaps a meter long) which are laid in a large wooden box (perhaps two meters high and three meters long), on top of which a lid is placed. Known as a fune, the sake is pressed out by cranking the lid down into this box.
Sake pressed in this manner, called funa-shibori, is often divided into three sub-batches. When the sake-bukuro (the bags with the moromi) are first put in, sake is allowed to run out by gravity alone. This sake is known as ara-bashiri, (which translates as “rough run”) and as the name implies, can be a bit rougher than usual. Next, the lid is cranked down applying pressure to the sake-bukuro. What comes out is known as naka-dare, and is generally the most prized of the press. Finally, after sitting overnight, the remaining sake squeezed out is known as seme.
Still another method exists, taking already sublime sake a step further. The bags of moromi are tied off at the neck and suspended, allowing the sake to drip down. No pressure whatsoever is applied to the moromi. This is called shizuku (drip), or the more evocative term kubi-tsuri (hung by the neck). It has its ardent fans, but many folks would be hard-pressed to notice the difference.
Whichever method is used, just-pressed sake, known as shibori-tate, has a charm all its own. The alcohol content is high, about 20 percent, as it has not been “cut” with water yet to bring it down to the usual 16% or so. The fragrance practically leaps out at you and tweaks your nose mischievously. The flavor is much what you’d expect: young and somewhat brash, and could do with a bit of mellowing.
The solids left over from the pressing process are known as kasu. Kasu itself has many uses, and works particulary well as a coating on grilled fish. (Many liquor shops carry kasu, particularly at this time of the year, for those who’d like to try their hand.) It can also be distilled to create alcohol used in making non-junmai sake.
Now is a fine time to try shiboritate. Most sake shops carry it.. Much of what is available now is also namazake, or unpasteurized sake. Although it may not present the finely-hewn profile that six months of aging will lend it, nama shiboritate will always impress and please with its liveliness and freshness.
Describing and conveying the flavor of sake has always been problematic. How does one explain a gustatory experience in words alone? It certainly isn’t easy.
And, as sake flavor profiles become more complex and subtle, it is bound to become even more difficult.
Long ago, before the days of amazing new yeast strains, modern technology and market-enlarging infrastructures, sake was much simpler. Much if not all sake was divided into two camps: amakuchi or karakuchi (sweet or dry). True, today as well we can quickly say a sake is sweet or dry relative to some standard we hold, albeit completely arbitrary. But there is so much more happening in a glass of sake to talk about.
One other system used to describe sake flavor, and in particular the balance of flavors is the “go-mi” (five flavors) system. The five flavors are karami (dryness), amami (sweetness), sanmi (acidity), nigami (bitterness) shibumi (tough to translate, but try astringency or tartness). This is originally from Chinese Taoist theory, which says that if you consume these five flavors, you will remain healthy. (There are actually other manifestations of the go-mi, but this one is most common.)
A good sake is said to hold these five in balance. But observant readers will surely notice that there are some holes in this theory. For example, dryness and sweetness are mutually exclusive, are they not? And the other four are no less arbitrary than any other chosen flavors. But who are we to argue with Taoist priests?
It was long thought, however, that the human tongue can only sense four flavors: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Recently, however, western science is catching up to Eastern intuition in identifying a fifth bona fide flavor: umami.
Unfortunately, however, umami does not have a simple English translation. It is best described as that aspect of a yummy food or drink that makes you say, “Mm, that’s good. I think I’ll have a bit more of that!” Some examples from the plethora of words that close in on the meaning of umami include: deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, savory, well-rounded… you get the picture.
Parmesan cheese, meat, soy sauce, scallops, uni (sea urchin): all these are high in glutamate and generally satisfy the palate. Much wine, too has great umami, and many wine tasters have begun to use the word as part of their tasting vocabulary.
Umami has been found to be caused by several substances, including the amino acid glutamate, and its chemical salt form monosodium glutamate, the much-maligned MSG. Although a small percentage of the population is allergic to MSG, it has over the past few years been considered safe for almost everyone. When present in its “free” form, i.e. not bound to other amino acids, glutamate exudes umami.
In April 1997, two researchers at the University of Miami isolated taste buds that respond only to glutamate. (There is more information on this topic floating around on the internet, should you be interested. A search on umami will turn up quit a bit.) This apparently qualifies it as a fifth taste, a fact that must certainly bring relief to centuries of chefs in the East.
Sake is often described as having umami, or not having umami. Not surprisingly, it is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle). However, one cannot simply say “the more umami the better.” It is very much a matter or preference.
Dry, light sake often has little umami at all, and is indeed prized for just that quality. Other styles of sake have that rich, meaty quality that umami describes, and are in demand for that. Tasting a wide range of sake help determine your own preferences.
Although it is not what everyone wants, too little umami in any sake will make it taste thin and weary. Yet, too much umami can often correlate to “zatsumi” (off-flavors), or a rough and noisy flavor profile. As in all things sake, balance is best. Other factors, like sweet/dry and acidity, must be taken into account to strike that balance.
Much cheap, mass produced sake, with its gads of added distilled alcohol, is low on umami. Fine, top-grade ginjo-shu sake may not be considered, upon sipping, to have much umami, as it would cloy the deeper recesses of flavor and elegant fragrances it was brewed to exude. But nor would it be considered lacking in umami.
Sturdier stratums of sake, like typical junmai-shu, are more often where good, solid umami-laden sake can be found. But there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake that these guidelines are all generalizations that cannot hold a candle to tasting experience.
Sake to look for…
1. Umenoyado, Junmai-ginj~o-shu, (Nara)
Well rounded, as it should be, having been carefully aged at low temperatures for two years before shipping. Nice bouquet balancing flora and lighter fruity essences. Good body and subtle richness with various flavors blooming at different times. Although quite nice when chilled, a plethora of flavors awaken just below room temperature. It all guarantees you never, never tire of this ]one. Available in the US, but a bit hard to find.
Umenoyado is also famous for Mr. Philip Harper of England, who for almost ten years has been brewing at this kura. He is the only non-Japanese brewer in the entire country. His excellent book, An Insider’s Guide to Sake, is available at stores as well as on the sake-world.com website. Raging: 92
2. Oroku, “Kei” Ginj~o-shu (Shimane Prefecture)
A unique sake with an unforgettable distinction, that being its heavy and strong prune-like undertone. Although the body is fairly light, the sensation of flavor is, on top of that, fairly heavy. Nice flowery and raisin doused fragrance. This sake also comes in a nama-zake (unpasteurized) version that is a bit spritzier and more fragrant.
In 1962, upon consultation with the Shimane Prefecture Industrial Research Center, they dug a well about two kilometers from the kura, and began to haul water back from there for brewing. It became known as the “Golden Well,” and the water proved to be just what they needed to begin to produce the wonderfully soft, full but clean sake that is their trademark. Rating: 92
3. Suwaizumi, “Mantensei” Junmai-Ginjo, Tottori Prefecture
An interesting junmai-ginjo-shu in that it is somewhat different from average. Lighter and younger in feel than most junmai, with not nearly the acidity or heaviness that most have. Even, rice-like flavor with a slight chestnut touch in the background. The fragrance, too, is more floral than average. Note yet available in the US.
Suwaizumi also make a wonderful daiginj~o called ~Otori that is worth the search if you come to Japan. Rating: 87
4. Kameizumi, Nama Junmai Ginjo, (Kochi Prefecture)
A better-than-classic Kochi sake: very dry, but with enough “umami” and meat to it to make it fascinating. An overall softness makes this sake very approachable, and easy to drink overall. As this particular selection from Kameizumi is nama-zake (unpasteurized}, it is a bit fresher and more fragrant than average. A truly wonderful sake, best ever so slightly chilled, that works with light food. It seems perfect for a small group to use as the main sake for a long evening. Rating: 92
5. Yamatogawa “Shuseigankai” Junmai Ginjo (Fukushima Prefecture)
Yamatogawa uses a newly developed yeast called by various names, with F-1 being the easiest to remember (and Utsukushima-Yume Yeast being the hardest). This yeast helps bring out more aromatic components during fermentation, and hence this sake is more fragrant than your average junmai ginjo. The flavor is light and soft, transparent and absorbing up front, with a clean and grainy rice flavor and slight sweetness.
Yamatogawa makes a very wide range of styles of sake. Much of it is mellow and gentle, and some very light and fragrant ginj~o-shu. Available soon in the US.Rating: 89
Be sure to check out the Ginjo-shu Kyokai’s spring sake tasting event on Thursday, April 27. For those that do not know, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai is a group of 83 sake brewers from around Japan that gather twice a year for a sake tasting open to the public. Each will present five or so of their sake for sampling; much of it will be freshly pressed, young sake. If you want to find out and taste what really good sake is, this is the place.
The cost is a measly 4000 yen, and you receive a bottle of ginjo-shu to take home as an omiyage, so that the tasting itself is rendered basically free. Be warned that there is no food at all available, only bottled water. A pre-tasting small meal is highly recommended if you want to avoid undue inebriation. You can use the ubiquitous spittoons, but why bother.
The event will be held in Osaka and Sapporo at a later date. In Tokyo, it will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. For more information an any of the three events, call the Ginjo-shu Kyokai at 03-3378-1231 and ask for an invitation to be sent. Or, fax them at 03-3378-1232 with a written request to have them mailed. Although you do not need to make a reservation (what’s one more person in a group of a thousand), it certainly cannot hurt. If you are interested in sake, this one is worth leaving work early for.
Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, April 22, at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). After an informative lecture, there will be seven or eight nigori-zake available for tasting. Although the seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san’s level of knowledge and experience are incredible. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen for lecture, sake and meal. Those interested can make a reservation through me at email@example.com.
If it is not too late:
John Gauntner will be giving a series of four presentations on sake, all to be followed by a tasting of a half dozen sake. Information for each of these events is below.
April 18 – “The Culture of Sake: Lecture & Sake Tasting” at Columbia
University, sponsored by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture,
Columbia University. Lecture begins at 5:30pm in the Satow Room, Lerner Hall. (Broadway & 115th St.) Call 212-854-5036.
April 20:– Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
“The World of Sake: Lecture & Tasting” — Sponsored by the Japan Society
of Boston (617-451-0726) and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese
Studies at Harvard Univ. (617-495-3220). Lecture begins at 6:00pm at the
Harvard Faculty Club, 20 Quincy Street, Cambridge. Admission: $28
(Japan Society members) and $35 (non-members). Interested parties can call one of the above numbers for more information.
April 22 — Cleveland, Ohio, Japan America Society of Northeast Ohio (JASNO)
Lecture on sake and tasting to follow, to be held at a room in the Asia Plaza, near downtown Cleveland. Lecture begins at 7:00 pm, with appetizers and sake tasting to follow. Interested parties should contact JASNO Vice Chairperson Kei McMillin at (216) 795-1604 or fax (216) 721-3743.
April 24 — Sponsored by the Japan Society of Northern
California, San Francisco. Lecture and tasting to follow. Program begins at 6:00 pm. Contact Corey Oser, Program Officer for the Japan Society in San Francisco, firstname.lastname@example.org
All these programs are open to the public. As alcohol will be
served, minimum age is 21.
In the next issue (scheduled for May 15, 2000):
-Sake brewing process: a closer look at one step
-Sake to look for
-Sake-related events (US, Japan, elsewhere)
-Reader Feedback and Q&A
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