Brewing Season’s Hatsu Shibori
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
January 18, 2001
IN THIS ISSUE:
-The sake-brewing season’s Hatsu-Shibori
-Sake and health
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
>>>>Happy New Year to all readers! <<<<
[The sake-brewing season's Hatsu-Shibori]
Here we are in the depths of a real winter. Although the days have begun to grow longer again, the continue to grow colder as all around us remains in hibernation. But this is just the time when the sake-brewing season is traditionally at its peak.
With actual brewing of initial batches having begun in November, most (if not all) breweries have pressed their first batches of the season. Naturally this does not apply to large brewers that brew year-round, and there are also many that start earlier or even later than the average. But traditionally and statistically, the first few weeks of last month see the pressing of the first tank of the year at many breweries.
And along with this first pressing comes a handful of terms – with greatly overlapping meanings – to describe the resulting sake.
After the tank of rice, water, koji and yeast has run the course of fermentation, the clear sake must be separated from the white slurry of rice solids that remain. This “Pressing” is usually done by a machine that forces the slurry though fine mesh panels, catching the solids and letting the amber ambrosia pass through, although there are other, more labor intensive, quality-imparting methods then these machines.
Regardless of the method, this pressing step is known as “Shibori”,and the first pressing of the brewing season is “Hatsu-shibori”.We can often find sake labeled “Shibori-tate”,or “Just pressed “on the shelves of sake retail shops.
We can also see sake labeled Shinshu,or new sake,which is sake that is, well, new. Most sake is aged after pressing for from about six months to about 18 months, although there is great variation in this as well from brewery to brewery. Aging sake like this allows the Beaujolais-Nuveau-like brashness to mellow and round out, not unlike wine. Shinshu is sake released without this maturation, and as such has a fresh and brash youthfulness to the flavor.
So, one might ask, what is the difference between a shibori-tate and a shinshu? The main inference is that a shibori-tate is just out of the presses, with all of the attendant brashness that implies, whereas a shinshu may have been pasteurized, filtered, and tweaked, but simply has not been aged for long, if at all. And yes, there is a whole lot of overlap there.
Another term seen even on sake imported into the US (and perhaps even brewed there) is ara-bashiri. In short, this refers to the very first part of a batch of sake to come out of the presses. Ara-bashiri literally means rough run,which is a good descriptive term, as sake like this is a but more full and lively than the later part of the pressing. But, as in all things sake, the differences can be subtle.
Much sake released now is also nama-zake, which is sake that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization in sake means temporarily heating it gently to deactivate enzymes that could alter the flavor. These active enzymes could send the sake awry and out of balance if it is not kept cold. Sake that has not been pasteurized (i.e. nama-zake) has a zingy, fresh, appealing lilt to the fragrance and flavor, although this aspect can overpower the true nature of the sake if it is not kept in check during production.
Much shibori-tate is nama-zake as well, as is much shinshu.
Not enough terminology for ya? Here are a few more that, while by no means limited to this time of the year, may be a bit more common to this season.
“Genshu”is sake that has not been cut with water after brewing. Sake ferments naturally to about 20 percent alcohol, which is a bit high to allow the fine nuances to come through. It is therefore usually cut with water to bring it down to about 16 percent alcohol. Genshu has not had water added, and therefore is a bit stronger. This often complements the rough-and-tumble brashness of shibori-tate sake.
“Muroka”means unfiltered. Most sake, after pressing, is at some point in time filtered using powdered active charcoal to fine-tune the flavor and remove unwanted aspects. (This filtering process is curious to watch, as they actually dump a bunch of fine, black powder into this lovely sake, then filter it out.) Muroka sake has a wider range of flavor components, and again refraining from filtering augments the appeal of freshly-pressed sake. It all works together.
Note the mutual exclusivity amidst these terms. For example, you can have a shibori -tate nama muroka genshu, and it would not be at all uncommon or strange, even if it is a mouthful (in more than one sense of the word).
But in the end, the terminology is just that, and all that really matters is enjoying freshly-made sake when it is best.
Along with the arrival of the season’s first sake comes the proliferation of sugidama,. If you are in Japan, certainly you have seen these here and there, the large globes of tightly bound sugi (Japanese cedar, or more accurately, cryptomeria) leaves about 50cm ( 18 inches or so) in diameter, suspended by a cord in front of sake pubs and sake shops.
Sugidama are also known as sakabayashi, and originated in the Edo period, and are hung out in front of sake breweries when the first batch of sake is pressed each year. It’s a sign to local sake fans that says “hot hamn, it’s ready!”As time passed, it came to be used by sake dealers and sake-serving pubs for the same purpose.
The sugi tree holds religious significance in the Shinto religion, particularly in connection with O-Miwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, which houses a deity of sake brewing. Traditionally, the leaves from the sugi on the grounds of this shrine were used to make all the sugidama for sake brewers everywhere, or so it is said.
Although there are several stories, one says that if the leaves of sugi are soaked in the sake, that sake will not go bad. Until about 60 years ago, tanks for sake brewing were made of sugi wood, as are the small boxes called masu traditionally used for drinking sake. This wood is seen as being best for protecting the sake from spoiling.
As the sugidama are made in late fall or early winter, the needle-like leaves are still green. Over the next several months, however, the green needles turn brown. Originally, it was said that when the color had changed to brown, the sake had aged enough to be optimally ready for drinking.
Just-brewed sake, with all the attendant but superfluous terminology, and green sugidama hanging around are two of the enjoyable symbols of birth and newness in the sake world. They come at a good time.
[Sake and Health]
The joys of sake can be boundless indeed. But naturally, moderation is the key to both enjoying sake over a long period of time, and enjoying the actual health benefits of sake.
Sake can be so fascinating for those that are interested in delving deep into the brewing world, with its traditions and culture, and just plain fun for those who like to enjoy it on a simpler level. But in the end, it is an alcoholic beverage, and must be treated with the requisite respect and responsibility. Indeed, with sake and health, a little bit goes a long way, but too much of a good thing comes all too easy as well.
The salutary side to sake is well documented. Over a dozen medical studies worldwide have concluded what common sense has dictated in almost every culture on the planet: a moderate amount of alcohol consumption is beneficial to one’s health.
Consuming a moderate amount of alcohol has been linked to lower death rates from all natural causes, especially diseases of the cardiovascular system. This is in comparison to both consuming no alcohol, and consuming excessive amounts.
Alcohol appears to slow down the accumulation of fat deposits in the arteries, mainly by increasing levels of the good cholesterol, HDL. In other words, alcohol thins the blood, protecting against heart disease.
To a certain extent, alcohol seems to affect the body in the same way as free radicals, exhibiting an apparent antioxidant effect, protecting the arteries from damage, and reduces blood clotting, reducing the risk of stroke.
An article in the one of Japan’s three major daily newspapers, the Mainichi Shinbun, in an article that was part of a series on sake, gave the results of a study conducted by no less an authority than the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Conducted from1990 to 1996 among about 20,000 people, the subjects were aged 40 to 59 years of age, both male and female, from all over Japan. The study indicated that the group of participants consuming a small amount of alcohol has the lowest rate of death from cancer than those consuming no alcohol, or those consuming much more.
But what about sake, nihonshu that is, when compared with the other alcoholic beverages available? There are many reports of the superiority of sake over other beverages, but most in the end seem to be on shaky ground. Few come from proper research organizations.
However, a study in Aichi Prefecture by the Choju iryo Kenkyu Center (Longevity Treatment Research Center) that appeared in the Mainichi Shinbun on November 22 yielded some interesting results. The study measured the intelligence, ability to concentrate, and instantaneous decision making ability of people in the 40 to 79 year range, combined into a 100-point index called the EIQ. A drop in this index indicates changes attributable to aging.
In the study, those that drank sake or wine rather than beer or distilled beverages had an average score two to three points higher than the other groups. It is surmised that this may be due to the levels of the enzyme polyphenol in sake and wine, say the researchers. However, it was also surmised wine and sake are usually enjoyed with meals, and that it was the vitamins and nutrients of proper meals that yielded the true benefits. Hence aforementioned shaky ground.
The study hedged the results by saying the study is as of yet inconclusive, but did go on to point out that there was no such beneficial effect for those subjects that drank more than three servings a day.
More practical and provable is the fact that sake has no sulfites, and is therefore an excellent replacement for those that like white wine but have an allergic response to sulfites that causes asthma-like symptoms. Sake also contains no fat, no cholesterol, no caffeine, and no nitrates, although this can also be claimed by most beverages
Beyond this is something well known by the average person: a drink or two is one good way to relax, blow off steam, and relieve stress.
Then there is the little issue of calories. In most straight alcoholic beverages, the lion’s share of calories comes from the alcohol in the beverage, with residual sugar being not as significant. Alcohol has about 7 calories per gram, and a 180ml serving of sake has about 190 calories.
More significant is what we end up eating when we drink, as alcohol stimulates appetite. Typical sake nibbles seem less caloric than beer munchies. Sake and sashimi, therefore, might be construed as being better than beer and pretzels assuming, that is, you don’t finish off with a huge late night meal on the way home. So what is first put forth as medical science again ends up being common sense.
The pitfalls of over consumption are well documented, and more significantly empirically obvious. Over consumption both short term and long term are detrimental in countless ways to body, mind and spirit. There are those that swear that good sake does not leave one with a hangover. Whether or not this is true for some people, it is not true for all, and more significantly if we are talking hangovers, we have already pushed the envelope of what is too much.
All this leads to my toast to you for the new year: enjoy the best beverage on the planet responsibly, in moderation, and in good health. Happy New Year.
[Sake to look for...]
As we are in the depths of winter, at least those of us north of the equator, I thought it might be nice to focus on sake that is nice when gently warmed. Although most premium sake is indeed better slightly chilled, there are some that exhibit their most charming facets when gently warmed. How gently is that? Naturally, we will all have our preferences, but about 50 C (122 or so F) seems about right. Experiment, but don’t scald the flavors away!
>Brand name: Denshu
Denshu is perennially on a list of favorite sake, especially favorite O-kan(warmed sake) selections. Denshu has a proper rice flavor with a great texture to it. A very mild fruity tone to the fragrance as well. A sake-drinker’s sake that grows on you quickly. Available in the US.
>Brand name: Kamoizumi
Product name: Ryokusen
Grade: Junmai Ginjo
Rich, woody and earthy tones make this sake immediately recognizable. Despite its comparatively heavier flavor profile, it is clean and deliberately crafted. A lovely, goldenrod color gently emanates from this sake. Nice cool, but can render one silent when properly warmed. “Gently”is the key. Available in the US.
>Brand name: Shinkame
Product name: Hikomago
Grade: Junmai Ginjo
Perhaps my personal favorite sake for warming. A strong flavor, but more crispness and astringent/settled rice flavors than woody or earthy tones. Aged three years before shipping, so it is incredibly well rounded. Shinkame is made in small quantities at a small brewery; as such it can be hard to find. Not available in the US.
>Brand name: Sumiyoshi & Taruhei
A strong acidity and strong amino acid content bolster the rich, earthy and woody essence of this sake, yet make it seem fairly dry and crisp overall. Another stronger-than-average sake flavor. Taruhei, a sake made by the same company, has an even heavier, wilder flavor profile. But warming definitely rounds out the flavor of both. Taruhei is available in the US, Sumiyoshi is not.
>Brand name: Maihime
Product name: Karakuchi Ippon
Maihime means “Dancing girl”,and shares the name with a Nobel-prize winning novel (but this sake had the name first, it seems). The one selection in this issue that should be served slightly chilled. A soft and clean flavor of billowing richness lies just beneath the slightly crispness. Slight citrus tones suffuse the fragrance and finish.
[Sake events and other miscellany...]
UPCOMING SAKE SEMINARS
February 10, 2001 (Japanese)
Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, February 10, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho; you can take the brand new O-Edo subway line!). The topic is the sake rice of dreams, Kame no O, its history and current state in the industry. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 17, 2001 (English)
On the evening of Saturday, February 17, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and John Gauntner will be hosting their firsrt sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the millenium, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. See below for directions. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email John Gauntner. Participation is limited to 45, and should fill up fast.
The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and two enlightening lectures with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.
John will speak on the sake basics, as it is the first seminar of the year, and Rob will talk about pottery styles (kilns) and types, and will have many wares on display with perhaps some for sale.
Directions to Mushu:
Mushu is the big red door just above exit A5 at Awajicho station on the Shinjuku and Marunouchi Subway lines, which are also connected by underground pass to the Shin-Ochanomizu station of the Chiyoda line. Mushu’s number is 03-3255-1108. The address is Awajicho 1-1-1.
New book on sake:
The Sake Companion, published by Running Press
A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at email@example.com. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: , and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word subscribe without the quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to email@example.com. For a list of other useful commands, send the word “help”, less the quotes, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to email@example.com
I think this sake home-brewing effort needs to be encouraged and supported, as it will lead to a faster grass-roots knowledge of sake and its complexities, which in turn will lead to more consumer demand for the good stuff, which will lead to more availability and lower prices. Or so we hope.
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Look for the next issue of this newsletter February 15, 2001.
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