Aki-agari and Hiya-oroshi
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
November 30, 2001
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Aki-agari and Hiya-oroshi
-eSake.com Web-based US Sales Up and Running
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
Aki-agari and Hiya-oroshi
Finally things are beginning to cool down as we move through nature’s most endearing season. Along with the rapidly turning leaves, cooler breezes, and better food, autumn is the traditional time when sake brewed the previous season goes on sale. Two types of sake you may come across in your autumnal perusing are aki-agari and hiya-oroshi.
Although sake is not aged long term, it is in general a bit too young to drink when the brewing season wraps up in the spring. Both the flavors and the fragrances are brash and sharp-edged, and a bit of time sitting quietly helps round out and deepen the sake. This maturation period is known as chojuku.
Traditionally this was just about six months, and so the fall became the time when properly aged sake was released. Naturally, brewers often had to release some sake earlier to satisfy demand. But the connoisseurs knew that properly matured sake was well worth the wait. Sake released in the fall after the proper maturation period came to be known as aki-agari.
The only problem is that the term does not apply too well to modern times.
Fall still remains the traditional time for releasing sake, and this is the season with industry tastings galore. But in actuality maturation periods are far from uniform. Along with the advent of refrigeration came massive flexibility in terms of maturing sake.
These days, some brewers still only mature their sake six months or so, but others do so for a year or longer, and many at very low temperatures, to get just the profile they are looking for. Temperature affects the speed of changes during maturation, as does the choice of aging vessel (bottles or tanks). This allows brewers to tweak their flavor profiles, and maintain consistency throughout the year. But everyone does it a bit differently, and it makes the term aki-agari a tad less applicable.
Today, aki-agari refers in a broad sense to sake from the most recent batch released in the fall. You may see it at sake shops and department stores all across Japan.
Then, there is hiya-oroshi. The word hiya-oroshi has its origins back in the Edo period. Back then, finished sake was stored in the large cedar tanks used for brewing. Normally, this sake had been pasteurized once (by heating it for a short time) before being put in these tanks for maturation. If they needed to ship some out, they would have to pasteurize the sake a second time before putting it into small cedar casks – called taru – for delivery.
This is because the outdoor temperature was still high in the summer, which would allow the sake to become warm enough where dormant enzymes could become activated, potentially sending the sake awry. A second pasteurization permanently deactivates these enzymes, removing that fear, but taking a bit of the zing of the sake along with it.
However, once it became cool enough in autumn, brewers could fill their taru from the storage tank without pasteurizing the sake, and ship it with no fear of it going bad. The lower temperatures of autumn ensured enzymes would not be activated. Such sake – sold in the fall without pasteurizing a second time before shipping – came to be known as hiya-oroshi.
Over time, hiya-oroshi has come to refer to sake not pasteurized a second time, i.e. before shipping, regardless of the season. Although a bit uncommon, you can find sake labeled hiya-oroshi in seasons other than autumn, these days.
Hiya-oroshi often has a bit more of a fresh, lively taste to it than other sake. While not as brash as freshly pressed sake, there can be a slightly youthful edge to it. Naturally, this varies greatly from sake to sake, and from kura to kura.
Aki-agari and hiya-oroshi are two words commonly seen in the fall that have evolved in meaning, changing and growing with the sake world itself.
When you think about it, the realm of sake flavor profiles and types can be perceived as a bit, well, narrow, can it not? From the sweetest to the driest, from the most acidic to the least, from the roughest to the cleanest, we are not exactly talking about major bandwidth. This, in fact, can be the appeal of sake. Within that narrow range are deep but subtle facets to be explored.
And so it was that in 1970, a group of Niigata brewers got together, and thought “Hey, can’t we come up with something really different, but still have it recognized as decent sake?” The result was Akai-sake.
As might be gathered by the name, Akai-sake is red sake. It is indeed proper nihonshu. It tastes and smells like decent nihonshu. The alcohol content, the production process, the overall feel are all that of normal nihonshu. But it is red.
The first question obviously is “So, how do they do it?” There are, actually, several ways to create a red color in sake. One is the rice; there are strains of rice that are reddish and purplish. But these are not the kinds of rice best used in sake brewing. A cool color is a cool color, but if the sake doesn’t taste good, it is all for naught, marketing-wise.
There are also strains of yeast that will yield a reddish tint. But again, yeast wields such leverage over the final flavor and fragrance that going with established yeast strains is best if you are going to mess with other parameters, especially since many wild yeast strains give off way too many acids to make good sake. Tweaking more than one major variable at a time forces a brewer to relinquish excessive control.
What is left is the koji. There are strains of koji, appropriately named beni-koji that creates a reddish tint in the final product.
Niigata is one of the few prefectures that has a fully-functioning prefecture-run sake brewing research center. It was through the auspices of this organization that akai-sake was developed, and they chose to do it via the koji.
Nothing holds more sway over the final flavor than the koji, that mold that creates sugar from starch. And the choice of what strain to use is not trivial. But obviously they found one that gave color while maintaining a proper sake flavor profile.
In akai-sake, only a portion of the koji mold used is that which creates a red tint. Just enough to give the tint, not enough to adversely affect the flavor. That balance is delicate, but they have pulled it off quite well.
There are 11 kura in Niigata (out of 100 or so) that have chosen to participate in the Akaisake Kyodo Kumiai, the association promoting akai-sake. But each uses the exact same labeling and packaging, and the recipe and methods are the same. While there will naturally be subtle differences from kura to kura, it is basically the same product.
The color, when you have it in front of you in a proper glass, is more of a peach, or an orange-tinged red than a full-on crimson. Wine fans would call it a slightly off rose, without a doubt. Others might say auburn or persimmon laced. More importantly, it is lively colored, with a nice luster to it, and indeed looks quite appealing.
The flavor and fragrance were a bit surprising in their pleasantness. I expected roughness and acidity, with perhaps exacerbated sweetness to balance that, as is so common in sake that strays from the fold and hovers on the fringes. Not at all with this sake.
The fragrance is honey-laced young apple with a dash of cinnamon. The flavor is smooth and balanced, and while a bit sweet (*especially* for Niigata sake), it is not cloying at all. The sweetness is backed by a fruity astringency that is well within the envelope of enjoyableness.
That’s the good news. The bad news only exists if you are a purist. It is not premium sake at all, but rather bottom shelf – at least in terms of ingredients. There are added sugars (during fermentation) and acids for flavor-adjusting, as well as (likely copious amounts of) added distilled alcohol. In the end, it is more like a mixed drink than it is proper sake. But with its appealing color and flavor, for most folks it is an enjoyable product.
While a bit of an anomaly, and not likely to win any major awards, akai-sake is a variation on standard, straightforward nihonshu. While only brewed in Niigata, it is widely available.
Readers interested can find akai-sake at Daimaru Department Store at Tokyo station, among other places.
eSake.com Web-based US Sales Up and Running
eSake.com is now actively shipping sake to 20 states. Just reading about sake is certainly a tad less fulfilling than actually tasting it! All eSake sake comes from small brewers of super-premium product. Proper sake can be astounding in its depth and variety of flavor and fragrance, and is certainly a far cry from the pitiable plonk poured piping-hot at many Japanese restaurants.
Please check out the website at www.esake.com. It offers a wealth of information on sake, and is easily the largest and most comprehensive sake knowledge center on the web. Navigation is enjoyable and simple. Here, you will learn about the millennium-plus old craft of sake brewing, the craftsmen and guildsmen that brew it, the types and grades, and plenty of other
interesting and useful information. The site alone is worth hours of browsing time.
To find out if eSake currently ships to your state, or if shipping is scheduled to begin soon, please go to www.esake.com.
Sake to look for
The kura that brews this sake is located in the town where the rice Kame no O was discovered a century ago. The young president somehow finds the time to play guitar and sing (quite well, in fact) in a band. They make a wide range of sake using several rice varieties, mostly northern Japan varieties like the aforementioned Kame no O and Miyama Nishiki, as well as the Yamagata-only Dewa Sansan. Koikawa is just a tad on the full side, but clean and well defined overall. A wonderful supporting acidity is one thread of distinction running through all their sake. Koikawa has two products available in the US: “Koi no Kawa Junmai Ginjo” and “Koikawa Daiginjo ”
Until last year’S brewing season, most sake from this kura was sold under the name Shoko. For the past five years, they made one tank of special sake and called it Tensei, that was sold in advance to members of a club. This allowed the new young toji (head brewer) to polish his daiginjo-brewing skills. Finally, when they all felt ready, they made the decision to enter a new era with a new name for their sake, and they last year came out with a line of four sake under the name Tensei, or Blue Sky.
The current president, Kumazawa-san, is quite young, and has spent some time in the US. About a decade ago he was hitchhiking around, and called home to check in. “We’re throwing in the towel,” he was told. “We are shutting down the brewery; we just can’t make it succeed.”
“Hold it,” he told his family. “I’ll be right home, and I will take things from there. I know I can make it work.” And indeed he did. Their sake gets better each year, and they have begun brewing craft beer as well. Kanagawa is not quite a bastion of great sake, and in fact is third from the bottom of all sake-brewing prefectures in terms of amount brewed. But Tensei is helping to change the image of Kanagawa sake.
Overall, Tensei is a wonderfully layered sake, soft at first with flavor filling the palate from the recesses. The junmai ginjo in particular is something one will never bore of.
It’s hard to find water better than that in Shizuoka, which is why the best wasabi is grown here. Shizuoka is also the best source for green tea. But not much rice is found in these parts, and it was not known for its sake until a few decades ago. Now, Shizuoka sake is overall a personal favorite; light, smooth and fragrant, if simple.
Kikuyoi is a tiny kura that maintains a great balance between that kind of light sake and stuff with a bit more character and feel. Light and fruity and complex, this sake is truly fun to drink.
Like Kumazawa-san of Tensei, the son of the owner here too was in the US, but rather than hitchhiking, he was studying to be a trader on Wall Street. Aoshima-san had gone with the blessing of his father, who somehow would manage without him to take the reigns. But as his friends and associates in the US asked him about his home, family and culture, he slowly came to realize that what he really wanted to do was indeed to brew sake.
So home he went, and began to brew with an insatiable passion. His dedication is incredible, and unlike most owners, he is in there daily and nightly brewing with the others. Aoshima-san has also tied up with a local rice farmer to brew sake that is as Shizuoka as it can get, named after the farmer and his rice: Matsushita-mai. Although they are quite a small kura, and their sake can be a bit harder to find, it is well worth the search.
Sake events and other miscellany…
UPCOMING SAKE EVENTS
Brewery Visit: December 22, 2001
On Saturday, December 22, there will be a tour of a sake brewery in Kanagawa. The brewery we will visit, Kumazawa Shuzo, also brews some fine beer, and has recently changed their main brand name from Shoko to Tensei. If you are interested in sake, there is nothing that can replace seeing where it is actually brewed, smelling the smells, tasting the product through each step of its manifestation. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. There is no charge, but participation is limited to 20.
Seminar: January 19, 2002
On the evening of Saturday, January 19, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting our first sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the new year, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. As this is the first seminar of the year, we will cover the basics of the sake and Japanese ceramics worlds.If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 50. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.
Note, there will be no newsletter next month, December. Also, the naming scheme will be adjusted. Currently, I publish a newsletter near the end of the month, calling it the current month痴 issue. It seems more appropriate to refer to it as the issue for the following month. Therefore, the issue released in January will be referred to as the February issue.
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).
Also worth searching for:
-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.
-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Rikyubai in Osaka) in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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