Nihonshu-do and Acidity
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
April 1, 2002
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Nihonshu-do and Acidity: behind the numbers
-Current Popular Brands
-Sake events and other miscellany
Nihonshu-do and Acidity: behind the numbers
Last month we looked at two commonly-seen parameters often listed on sake bottles. These were the nihonshu-do and the acidity.
For those that missed that, the nihonshu-do (often referred to in English as the Sake Meter Value, or SMV) is a number that is theoretically open-ended but is usually between -3 and +10. In short, it indicates the sweetness or dryness of a sake; higher numbers theoretically indicate dryer sake.
The acidity is generally a number between 1.0 and 1.8, with 1.2 or so being typical. It indicates the overall acidity of the sake, as might be inferred.
Also, we discussed that the acidity and the nihonshu-do are very often used together to give a vague indication of what the sake might taste like. A higher acidity generally will increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, will help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.
However, after all of that, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is better to ignore these numbers as consumers.
Certainly, they are interesting from a technical point of view, and it is certainly better to know a bit about how sake is brewed. But the long and short of it all is that so many other factors affect the flavor profile of a sake that these two bits of data are rendered all but extraneous.
For example, consider two sake with the same nihonshu-do and acidity numbers. The hardness (or softness) of the water used in brewing, whether or not the sake was pasteurized, and whether or not it was charcoal filtered are just a few of the factors that can make these two taste like two entirely different sake, in every sense of the word.
Next, on the consumer side, consider that myriad of things that affect how a sake tastes to a given individual at a given time. The serving temperature has a huge impact on sweet, dry and the flavor profile overall. Even one or two degrees can turn a sake into something different (if just as enjoyable). What you have tasted previously will impart an effect as well. If you have just tasted a super-dry sake, a fairly dry sake tasted afterwards will taste sweet by comparison.
The food on the table as well will undoubtedly bring out different and varying aspects of a sake. Very important is the glass you are using, be it wine stemware or traditional ceramic cups; the shape and size and overall feel will affect aromatics and how the sake is distributed across your palate.
Certainly, how you feel physically and mentally and who you are with will exert a bit of leverage on perceptions as well.
In the end, if each one of these above-mentioned factors were to contribute a ten to twenty percent potential variation to the flavor and aromatic profile of a sake, cumulatively compounded error would likely totally eclipse any information that might have been gleaned from the nihonshu-do, acidity and other data rendering them, in a sense, useless.
The point here is not to bad-mouth the nihonshu-do and acidity with an overly-scientific and logical assessment; they are very important and friendly parameters in the sake world. They can tell us a lot about how a sake was brewed, and sometimes at least a little something about the flavor profile. It is still fun and useful to know what they are and how they are measured. The point really is to encourage people to trust their own palates and experiences with sake more than anything else. That’s what it’s all about.
Current Popular Brands
The information in this newsletter usually covers the gamut of sake nomenclature, types and brewing methods, as well as culture, history and the occasional oddities. But perhaps it does not adequately address the question, “So, uh, what out there is good? What should I be drinking?”
It is a hard thing for me to do, as my favorites might not be your favorites. What is good to me may not be so to you, and what you prize may bore me. Yet, since most people don’t have the time or liver to drink sake from all of Japan’s 1600 or so breweries, most of us are quite often happy with recommendations.
Also, the opinion of one person ? no matter who that might be ? is obviously limited in its usefulness. So let’s look at what sake lovers in Japan prefer to imbibe, as such information can be tremendously useful when making a decision at a restaurant or retail shop.
Dancyu, a food and entertainment magazine here in Japan, recently polled its readers on what brand names of sake they preferred. This alone should cause suspicion, since recommending only brand names and not specific grades of those sake reeks of people simply spewing out what they have heard elsewhere. But let us suspend our wariness and take a look.
The top ten (and the prefectures from which they hail) were: Hakkaizan (Niigata), Juyondai (Yamagata), Kubota (Niigata), Shimeharitsuru (Niigata), Denshu (Aomori), Dewazakura (Yamagata), Kokuryu (Fukui), Masumi (Nagano), Tengumai (Ishikawa) and Shinkame (Saitama).
All are indeed wonderful sake, but note the prevalence of Niigata sake. It’s light and dry style has been very popular in Japan for decades, and evidently still is so.
Surprisingly (to me, anyway) was the fact that Koshi no Kanbai, that hallowed and revered Niigata headline-maker, was down at number 12. Also, Isojiman (Shizuoka) was a mere sixteenth. Perhaps my own fondness for Isojiman has skewed my judgment, but sixteenth? (For the record, I am far from alone in this opinion; many, many sake lovers are quite keen on this outstanding sake.)
Another source of this kind of useful information is the sake media company Fullnet. Their most recent edition of “Jizake Ninki Ranking” (Popular Sake Rankings) for 2001 approached the issue a bit differently. For one thing, they had different lists for various grades of premium sake: honjozo, junmaishu, junmai ginjo, ginjo and daiginjo.
There were significant differences in the sake on each list. The top ten or so daiginjo were not the same as the top ten junmai ginjo, nor were these the same as the top ten junmai. Also, the surveys were distributed to sake pubs all over Japan, not to consumers, and based on what sells best by the glass.
Looking at only one of the classes, junmai ginjo, the top sake were: Shimeharitsuru, Hakkaisan, Urakasumi (Miyagi), Juyondai, Kokuryu, Isojiman, Masumi, Tateyama (Toyama), Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata) and Suigei (Kochi).
Not that it really matters, but I see this list as being a bit more useful. As mentioned above, it seems too easy when listing brand names only for people to simply spew out what they have heard elsewhere. This list, separated by grade and submitted by folks selling the stuff, seems less subject to skewing from spewing.
By the way, Fullnet has a wide range of useful and informative books on a wide range of sake-related topics, although they are all in Japanese. Check them out at www.fullnet.co.jp for more information.
A word about Juyondai: It became very popular about ten years ago, and they staunchly refused to raise prices or increase production. Good for them. The downside is that makes it hard to get. It is indeed outstanding sake in the opinion of many, many people. However, they now have a plethora of products, hoity-toity stuff and special releases. Their best products are still, however, their “Honmaru” (a product name) honjozo, and their Junmai Ginjo made from either Yamada Nishiki or Omachi rice.
A recent publication announced this as the “Post Juyondai Era”. Huh? You gotta love the mass media. The reports of the death of Juyondai have been greatly exaggerated. It’s still wildly popular, and deservedly so.
A note about Koshi no Kanbai: This sake is the granddaddy of hyper popular sake. They led the way in the “jizake boom” of the 70′s and 80′s, when sake from small rural breweries came into the spotlight. They are not small anymore, though, nor are they cheap; in fact, they both raised their prices and increased their production! Not that anything is wrong with that; good for them. And, although they do make some mediocre sake in the mix as well, their flagship and top level sakes are prized and indeed wonderful.
It is good to keep in mind the role of the media in all of this, especially today. Very often, one or two magazines will latch on to a good sake and boost it to almost sacred status.
This is both boon and bane, as it presents the brewery with a plethora of challenges to face as its popularity soars ? and very often again descends. Can they keep up with demand? Can they maintain quality and consistency (often a challenge with tiny brewers that are all of a sudden thrust into the limelight!)? Can they maintain their popularity should they choose to ramp up production? Indeed, instant recognition in the mass media of just how wonderful a brewer’s sake is brings with it trials and tribulations.
As but two examples of this, Juyondai reacted in one way (by staying small), and Koshi no Kanbai reacted in another (by growing). Both have their resultant challenges, and their according successes.
So in the end, there are countless wonderful sake in Japan, and they rise and fall in notoriety and popularity, with a myriad of factors affecting all of that.
While nothing can replace tasting enough to know your preferences for styles as well as specific sake, trying what the tippling throngs say is good can be informative. Very often they are right. If they are not, you will know why.
Let the above stand in replacement for this month’s “Sake to look for” section, since all of the above are definitely sake to look for.
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 30 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
April 6, 2002
On the evening of Saturday, April 6, 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.
April 27, 2002(Japanese)
Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, April 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). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or Matsuzaki-sensei directly at email@example.com.
Thursday, April 18, 2002
Ginjo-shu Kyoukai Spring Tasting
The Ginjo-shu Kyokai will hold their semiannual sake tasting on Wednesday October 24, from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. Here, you can taste upwards of 400 wonderful sake for but 4000 yen, and you get a bottle as a gift to take home. The spring event features more freshly pressed, nama-zake, as well as sake earmarked for submission to the national tasting competition in May. You can just show up on that day, but you can also call (03) 3378-1231 (in Japanese) for more information. Not to be missed.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
In the US:
On Saturday, May 4, 2002, the first annual Sake Summit will be held at the Rihga Royal Hotel in New York City. Hosted by the International Sake Institute, the Summit will give event goers a rare opportunity to taste dozens of top-tier sakes under one roof. Consumer judging will take place from 12pm to 5pm. Educational seminars will be offered throughout the day, including “Sake in Japan” by John Gauntner, “Sake 101″ (in Japanese) by Haruo Matsuzaki, “Sake 101″ (in English) by Grif Frost, “Sake Food Pairing” by Randy Caparoso, and “Sake Home Brewing” by Fred Eckhardt. Home brewers will be submitting their home-brewed sake for judging in a special contest as well. A limited number of 400 tickets go on sale March 28. Tickets are $50 each and are available through the ISI at www.sakes.com.
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 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: email@example.com, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
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Copyright 2002 Sake World