The Nihonshu-do; Acidity in Sake
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
March 1, 2002
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Acidity in Sake
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
In this issue, we will look at two commonly seen numbers associated with sake, chemical indicators that are sometimes listed on labels, shelves, and in books reviewing sake. These are the Nihonshu-do, and the acidity.
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Perhaps the best way to select sake is to taste enough to know your preferences, and ask advice from reputable dealers. But we all need to foray into the unknown and try new sake from time to time.
When looking at the label of an unfamiliar sake, there are often several numbers listed on the label. These are supposed to be helpful, but can tend to only confuse and obfuscate at first. The nihonshu-do is one such number.
Listed on many sake bottles, or maybe on a tag on the shelf, the nihonshu-do is a number that is supposed to provide an indication of how sweet or dry a sake might be. Usually this number runs from -3 to +10 or so, although it is theoretically open-ended. Although the era when sake was classified into either the sweet or dry camps – and nothing else – is long gone (except for in the mind of a few old curmudgeons, perhaps), this parameter is still often encountered.
Technically speaking, the nihonshu-do is the specific gravity of a sake, or the density of the sake relative to pure water. In the fermenting sake mash known as the moromi, koji mold breaks down starches in the steamed rice into various types of sugar molecules. Most of these (such as glucose) will be converted by the yeast into alcohol, carbon dioxide and an array of flavor-defining components. Others (non-fermentable sugars) will remain behind.
The combination of heavier sugar and lighter alcohol will yield a measurable density to which a number can be affixed. This density is measured with a hydrometer ? a small cylinder set to float inside a small tube of water. On to this, a totally arbitrary scale has been assigned.
Somewhere on that arbitrarily affixed scale, a density corresponding to that of pure water exists. For a sake with this reading, the lighter alcohol and heavier residual sugar combine to return the density to that of water.
Negative values, by ancient industry convention, indicate more residual sugar, and positive values indicate less. As mentioned above, most sakes today have nihonshu-do values between ?3 and +10, although theoretically there is no limit. Generally speaking, the higher the nihonshu-do value, the drier the sake.
But the question of what constitutes sweet and dry is not exactly scientific. Years ago, zero was assigned as sake with that value was considered neutral. But consumer tastes and sweet-dry perceptions change capriciously. As the popularity of dry sake has grown wildly, the nihonshu-do of a sake generally thought of as neutral has risen to about +3 or so. A sake claiming to be dry would hover at maybe +8 to +10, while ?3 would indicate a fairly sweet sake. Or so goes the theory.
If only things were that simple. Beyond the nihonshu-do is a myriad of other factors that help determine how a sake will taste. Most significant may be the acidity (described below).
In several English-language books on sake, the nihonshu-do is referred to as the Sake Meter Value, or SMV. Don’t get freaked if and when you come across this; it is exactly the same thing, rendered in a supposedly more easy-to-remember form.
In the end, the one nugget of wisdom you need to walk away from here is this: the higher (more positive) the number, the drier the sake; the lower the number, the sweeter the sake. In theory, anyway.
While the Nihonshu-do, or SMV, is less commonly encountered outside of Japan than on sake labels sold domestically, it still is listed occasionally.
Acidity in Sake
Another commonly found piece of such information on or near sake labels is the acidity. Yet another (especially for ginjo-shu) is the amino acid content.
The acidity, or san-do of a sake, is not exactly an intuitive indicator.
The numbers that express the san-do are generally between about 1.0 and 1.8 or so. That is not a wide range, and most often the number seems to be about 1.1 or 1.2. The question is, 1.1 or 1.2 what?
Years ago, I began a quest to understand this. In turned out to be a monumental effort. I searched high and low, and asked almost everyone I could (outside of sake brewers themselves). Responses to this question placed to those that “should” know gave rise to whole plethora of silly answers. “Well, ..er, they’re units! Yeah, units.” Percent, tenths of a percent, and parts per million were some other replies, all expressed with sincerity and confidence.
It was truly hard to find anyone that knew in the world outside of sake breweries. Not that it is going to make that much of a difference in the enjoyment of sake, but you think people would be curious. Finally, I went straight to the source, and found out from a brewer.
Momentarily digressing beyond the normal scope of this newsletter and delving into a mercifully short chemistry lesson, here’s the explanation.
The number expressing the san-do of a nihonshu is the number of milliliters of liquid sodium hydroxide needed to neutralize ten milliliters of sake.
One more while we’re at it. Another commonly seen number, although somewhat less so, is the amino acid content. The amino acid content is expressed as the number of milliliters of liquid sodium hydroxide to which formalin has been added needed to neutralize ten milliliters of sake. Now you know.
There are many acids that develop within sake, but ninety percent of them are either succinic acid, malic acid or lactic acid. They are the product of the life cycle of the yeast cells, and twenty percent of the acid is developed in the moto, the yeast starter. The remaining eighty percent develops as the moromi ferments over the next few weeks.
So, what does all that mean to the average taster? Basically the acidity (and to a degree, the amino acid content) can give you at least a vague idea of what a sake might taste like just from looking at the label.
In particular, the acidity and the nihonshu-do are very often used together to give a pre-purchase indication of what the flavor profile might be like. A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.
There are so many things that affect the fragrance and taste of a sake that to allow the description to depend on two parameters is limiting at best. But you have to try.
There are several graphical representations used by sake distributors and consortiums in an attempt to show how a sake will taste based on these numbers. Several publishers of ginjo-shu advertising catalogs show the sweet-dry and acidity axes with a dot showing where the sake in question sits. As if a little dot on a graph is going to impart the flavor of a fine brew.
To a slight degree, the various grades of sake can be vaguely generalized by typical acid content. For example, ginjo-shu often has slightly lower acidity, being light and fruitier. Junmaishu usually has acidity levels slightly higher on the scale. Sake made with the kimoto or yamahai method of preparing the moto will have even higher amounts of acid present, and can be quite puckering. But as in all things sake, there is great overlap here.
Amino acid content is just as subjective and vague. Most sake has an amino acid content of somewhere between 0.8 and 1.2. A low number generally indicates a straightforward or delicate sake with a narrow bandwidth of flavor, and a higher number indicates a richer, settled sake, often with significant more “umami.” Often, too high an amino acid content can correspond to roughness and off-flavors, elements that just don’t seem to belong in the flavor profile.
But all this techno-babble is really only moderately useful, and only before you’ve tasted a sake. Once you’ve tasted it, you know all you need to know about acidity, sweet and dry, fullness of body and anything else.
The level of acidity will not always match presence of acidic flavor (known as the san-mi) in the sake, due to alcohol, water quality, type of rice and other factors. Some sake will taste sharp and cutting, when in fact the acidity is not that high chemically. The opposite can also be true.
In the end it’s just a number, more useful to brewers than to consumers. At the same time, paying attention to acidity, amino acid content and nihonshu-do can be fun. Doing so can give rise to lively discussion, and help us pay more attention to our perceptions.
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Although it is very common, but not universal, to see the nihonshu-do and acidity listed on a bottle of decent sake, this was not always the case. Many give credit to Mr. Takeshi Sato for getting the ball rolling in encouraging sake brewers to provide this information. Sato-san runs Taruichi, a wonderful sake pub-izakaya in the Kabukicho district of Shinjuku in Tokyo (03-3208-9772), which specializes in whale cuisine and rare sake. Taruichi was the first place to begin listing such information on its sake menu several decades ago.
Sake to Look For
This month I want to focus on two very, very small kura and their sake. Both are located in Fukui Prefecture, both are quite popular these days, and both are outstanding sake.
Hayase Ura (Fukui Prefecture)
Hayase Ura is a very small brewery located in one of the least populous prefectures of Japan. They make less than 60 kiloliters a year, or about 3000 cases of sake only. Not much; but they have been brewing here since 1718.
Most recommendable are their Junmai-shu and their Junmai Ginjo. Both products are not subject to charcoal filtration, leading to an ever-so-slightly fuller flavor profile. Yet, both also display that typical dry character for which Hayase Ura is known.
Hayase Ura Junmai Ginjo is clean up front, and mildly fragrant, with aromatics reminiscent of green apple and herbal notes. While slightly full in the middle, the finish tightens up quite nicely.
Hayase Ura Junmaishu is much richer overall, with a more prominent acidity and a fuller texture and weight on the tongue. Lovely with a wide range of flavorful food, and most enjoyable just slightly below room temperature.
Hanagaki (Fukui Prefecture)
Hanagaki is also a tiny kura, found in yet a different region of Fukui Prefecture. The area around the brewery is known for its lush and plentiful water, which has been selected as one of the “100 Best Water Sources” in Japan. The soft texture expresses itself well in the sake flavor profile.
Perhaps most worthy of mention are two products: Hanagaki Junmai Ginjo and Hanagaki “Kome Shizuku” Junmaishu.
The Junmai Ginjo is lively and fruity, with a mix of fruit led by an apple presence leading into a full, but fine-lined and balanced flavor profile. Wonderfully enjoyable and incredibly quaffable.
The “Kome Shizuku” Junmai is well structured yet refined, more sturdy and full then the junmai ginjo. A very mild fragrance bearing threads of Hanagaki distinction titillates and invites, leading in to a concentrated rice-like wonderfully weighted presence on the palate.
Neither Hayase Ura nor Hanagaki are currently available outside of Japan. While this may change, it is nice to have sake to which to aspire to drink!
The eSake.com Monthly Updater
Readers interested in buying excellent sake over the Internet should go to the eSake Updater sign-up page at:
The Updater is a monthly email service that provides information about what sake is available, what specials eSake may be running, and what US states may have recently come into the fold of deliverability. Also included will be information on updates to the eSake.com site, including stories on the various brewers and seasonal happenings. The eSake Updater will be significantly shorter than this email newsletter, and is intended only to keep readers updated on available sake and updates to the site. At the moment, eSake sells premium sake over the web in Japan (nationwide delivery) and in the US (35 states).
eSake.com is now shipping premium Japanese sake to 35 states. All eSake sake comes from small brewers of super-premium product. 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. The site alone is worth hours of browsing time. To find out if eSake ships to your state, or if shipping is scheduled to begin soon, please go to:
Sake events and other miscellany…
UPCOMING SAKE EVENTS
Brewery Visit: March 16, 2002
On Saturday, March 16, I will be leading a tour of a sake brewery in Chiba. The brewery we will visit, Iinuma Shuzo, brews sake sold by the name of Kinoene, and is located out near Narita Airport. (I myself have not yet seen this brewery, and do not know what to expect – except a good time.) 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.
Yet another brewery visit: March 17, 2002
Busy, busy! On the following day, March 17, I and Matsuzaki-sensei will be leading a tour of a sake brewery in Yamanashi that brews a sake called Shichiken. Chances are high that we will go by bus, and the charge will be perhaps 10,000 yen for the bus, lunch, and some sake (for the party in the bus ride home, most likely). If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Again participation is limited to 20.
March 23, 2002
On the evening of Saturday, March 23, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting our second sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the new year, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The sake topic will be sake rice varieties, and the flavors and fragrances they impart. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 40. 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.
March 27, 2002(Japanese)
Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, March 27, from 6:30 until the last train at Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho (a ten minute walk from Akebono-bashi station on the Shinjuku Line, or two minutes walk from Ushi-gome Yanagicho station on the O-Edo line). The seminar will focus on the “Queen” of Sake Rice: Omachi. (My personal favorite rice variety.) Seminars feature a short lecture in Japanese with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at email@example.com, or Matsuzaki-sensei directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the US:
There will be a a sake seminar on 3/13/02 at The Wine House in Los Angeles.
The charge will be $45.00 a person. For more information, contact:
The Wine House, 2311 Cotner Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90064. Call 210 479 3731 or 800 626 9463 for more information.
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. (say again: A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.
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 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: firstname.lastname@example.org, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
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Copyright 2002 Sake World