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Omachi Rice; Yamagata Sake

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #34
August 1, 2002

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In this issue:
-Announcement: The Sake Professional Course
-The sake of Yamagata Prefecture
-Omachi, the “Queen of Sake Rice”
-Good sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

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Readers and kindly asked to handle subscribing and unsubscribing themselves. To unsubscribe or change your subscription address, please see Subscribe/unsubscribe information
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Sake Professional Course to be held in January, 2003

Announcing the first Sake Professional Course, to be held in Japan in January of 2003.

Sake is poised to take its rightful place amongst premium alcoholic beverages, but there is a dearth of proper education and training related to sake. Wine professionals and others with a deep interest need a source of accurate, thorough and useful information, plus an opportunity to leisurely and thoroughly taste the wide range of sake available. This course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. The one week course will consist of daily lectures with tastings, several sakagura (sake brewery) visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food.

Participants will stay together at a hotel in Osaka. Lectures will take place nearby, with a dedicated tour bus providing transportation to kura (breweries) and other related sites. Evening meals will be off-site at various sake-related establishments (sake pubs of all shapes, sizes and environments). A one-day guided tour to the historic city of Kyoto is included, as is one night at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn).

This course is geared toward wine professionals and other industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake,  but anyone is welcome to participate. It will certainly be fun!  The course lectures and tastings will begin with the basics and will thoroughly cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake both in class sessions and with evening meals.

More information, including a detailed schedule, syllabus, and pricing, can be found at http://www.sake-world.com. Just click on the Professional Course link found on the main page.

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The Sake of Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata prefecture lies packaged at a somewhat awkward angle in the lower left-hand corner of the Tohoku region. Surrounded by mountains but with a stretch open to the Japan Sea, it looks like it was designed specifically to absorb the cold and snow.

This relative isolation  has allowed Yamagata sake to keep out of the limelight, for the most part. It has neither the port of Nada nor the centrality of Kyoto, so until recently distribution was not exactly its forte. But the proof is in the puddin’, and Yamagata sake has it: settled confidence, character and uniqueness. Although they may be quiet about it, it’s not quite a secret: the Oyama region of Yamagata has been called the “Nada of Tohoku.”

There are at present about 55 sakagura brewing in Yamagata. The oldest of these dates back to the Japanese “Warring States” era of long civil war, while the youngest can trace their roots to the beginning of the Edo period. Even the new kid in town is an old and dignified character.

Most of these are smallish, traditional kura. Automation and computers, for all their cons, pros, advocates and foes in the brewing world, are certainly not unheard of up here, but they seem to be the exception and not the rule.

Those mountains and that big pond seem to have kept things all in the family for a good number of centuries. More than ninety percent of the sake consumed in Yamagata is made there, and less than a third of what is brewed there leaves the prefecture, oh pity of pities.

To the southwest lies Niigata in all its brewing glory, and not too far to the northeast sits Iwate. Both prefectures are the home of a “toji ryuha,” or school of head brewers, known as Echigo and Nanbu respectively. Despite this proximity to easily accessible experience, Yamagata has long handled things by themselves. In an interesting contrast to the sake-brewing sphere of most prefectures, ninety percent of the “kurabito” (brewery workers) are local Yamagata boys (and presumably girls). This spares them the long winters far from home so common among kurabito.

Only about thirty percent of the toji (master brewers) are from outside the prefecture, most of them  Nanbu toji coming down from Iwate. Long ago, there was a small group of toji centered in the city of Sakata. Today, however, most of the toji are local people, with a great number of kura not even adhering to the semi-feudal toji system. “Just brew it” is the guiding concept, I guess.

The climate is ideal (read: cold, cold, cold) for brewing. Sake-slaying bacteria don’t exactly thrive at these temperatures. What does thrive, however, is Miyama Nishiki, a wonderful sake rice that almost seems to challenge and sneer at the harshly cold weather. Much of the sake brewed here is made with this locally grown fine specimen. Yamagata is also the original home of Kame no O rice, and a large number of brewers use this rice, and use it well.

The type of sake found here is in general relatively full in body, but clean, often (but not always) with a good sturdy acid presence. But perhaps more than any other prefecture, much of the sake here seems to have an abundance of personal character and individuality. There seems to be plenty of uniquely distinct yet almost magically balanced sake.

On the whole, the prefecture is active in continuing to improve their skills and the quality of their product. At least two yeast strains for use with ginjo-shu have been developed at the industrial technology center (Kogyo Gijutsu Center) over the last 20 years: YK-0107 and YK-2911 (YK meaning Yamagata Kobo, or Yamagata yeast. No clue about the numbers.).

Beyond this, the prefectural agricultural research center (Nogyo Shikenjo) spent 11 years developing a new strain of sake rice dubbed “Dewa Sansan”. Most of the kura in the prefecture have come together to each produce a junmai ginjo sake using this rice and Yamagata yeast, as well as a special strain of koji developed in Yamagata.

Pushing the pun, they call this brew Dewa 33 (read Dewa san-san). Most of them are soft and full, but naturally distinctive differences remain.

The Dewa 33 series is available (particularly in the fall, before it sells out) at various places around town, including Seibu in Shibuya. These and other Yamagata sake stand out from the crowd, almost going against the grain in their determined individuality of flavor. All hyperbole aside,  good Yamagata sake is some of the most memorable sake in the country.

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Omachi Rice

Romancing the rice is something that sooner or later must happen for sake, if it is indeed going to take its well-deserved place among the most vaunted beverages in the world. With wine, it’s all about the grapes, and this leads to boundless potential for conversation and enjoyment above and beyond flavors and aromas.

The same potential exists for sake and sake rice. In sake, however, the rice alone does not all things determine; the skill and methods of the brewers are still half the battle. But nevertheless, the choice of rice will lead to – in general – a discernibly unique flavor profile.

Many readers are certainly aware that sake rice is different from table rice. Sake rice has more starches, and less proteins and fats than table rice. Also, these starches are concentrated in the center of the grains, allowing the non-desirables to be easily milled away.

But  not all sake rice is created equal. Although there are dozens and dozens of varieties, there are but about ten or so that are important. The most ubiquitous of these is the hallowed Yamada Nishiki, oft-seen in top-grade sake. But if Yamada is the king of sake rice, Omachi is certainly the queen.

Ah, Omachi. My personal favorite sake rice.

Omachi was originally discovered in 1859, in a village of the same name in the western part of Okayama Prefecture, where almost all Omachi is grown. It is, for what it is worth, the oldest pure rice variety  in Japan, and was one of the three most widely grown varieties in Japan during the Meiji period. (Back then it was popular as a table rice.)

However, it’s very long stalks made it hard to grow and harvest by machine, and so farmers stopped growing it.  It wasn’t until the mid ’80s that anyone really began to grow it again – a side effect of what was known as the ginjo-boom. It has become so popular that now it is the seventh most widely grown sake rice in Japan.

In fact, once upon a time, it was almost common sense that Omachi should be used when brewing top grade sake for contests and such. This was before the days of Yamada Nishiki, and other crossbreeds, of course.

As mentioned, Omachi is a pure rice strain, unlike most sake rice varieties. Nearly all sake rice varieties, including Yamada Nishiki, are the result of cross breeding several other rice varieties.  Omachi, interestingly, somehow is a bit of loner genetically. It does not crossbreed well; for some reason it does not make a good partner. As such, it is not seen that often in the “family trees” of most sake rice (yes, these things do exist!).

However, there are three well-known and very important sake rice varieties that are descendants of Omachi. These are Gohyakumangoku (much  great Niigata sake is made from this rice), Tamazakae (another rice used quite a bit in Kansai), and Aiyama (made famous by Kenbishi, and now used by Juyondai).

Today, there are about 300 breweries are using Omachi. That isn’t really much, considering that there are more than 1500 breweries in Japan. Most of these are, not surprisingly, located in western Japan.

One reason for the relative paucity of breweries using Omachi is simply experience. It had been out of circulation for so long (from the 20s until the 80s), that many brewers have forgotten the subtle points of brewing with this rice.

So, what does same made from Omachi taste like? In short, it is much more earthy and herbal than fruity and flowery. The individual flavor components compete against each other in a healthy way, as opposed to blending harmoniously, as they might with Yamada Nishiki.

Romancing the rice is just as feasible as glorifying the grape. Omachi and its story (the above is just the tip of the iceberg!) are proof of that.
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Good Sake to Look For

As this month we looked at the history and culture of the sake of Yamagata Prefecture, it is most appropriate to focus this month on the sake of that prefecture. This is easy, as it is one of my three favorite prefectures for sake. In fact, it will be hard for me to stop when it comes to making recommendations for Yamagata sake.

Oyama
Most easily available is their junmai-shu, one of the first sake I ever had that truly impressed me. Full, balanced, sturdy, clean, and with a beautiful acidity that distributes the flavors well. A totally classic junmai-shu styel.

Eiko Fuji
A kura I cannot say enough good things about. Overall, Eiko Fuji sake is crisp, clear, layered and deep. Their “Shonai Homare” ginjo-shu and “Ki-ippon” junmai-shu  are great values, their “Yuki no Furu Machi wo” (In the village of the falling snow) junmai ginjo is solid and well-constructed. My personal favorite is a nama junmai-shu with an old fashioned label design, referred to (albeit unofficially) as their “retro-label” junmai.

Kudoki Jozu
With a name that *could be* translated as “pickup artist,” how could it not sell? Although the producers insist there is a more benign, historical meaning, who really knows. More importantly, the sake is fascinatingly elegant yet solid. Crisp, fruity, yet solidly grounded, much of their sake is apple-laced and fresh. Another Yamagata sake one can never go wrong with.

Dewazakura
A top-class kura that, while well-known, can’t even *spell* the word compromise. The effort they put in to procuring great rice, and the pains they take to ensure that that rice is handled with the utmost care are truly impressive. They make quite a bit of unpasteurized sake here. It is hard to say what is most recommendable here, as it is another kura about which I can not say enough good things. Their “Hon-nama” junmai ginjo and their “Ichiro” (nothing to do with the baseball player; the characters are totally different, and in fact, this sake was here first) are eminently recommendable, but their daiginjo is absolutely superb, if just a tad expensive.

Yonetsuru
This kura is a historically and culturally important one, as they have been producing great ginjo since the late 1960s, and were one of the first Yamagata kura to do so. Their sake in general is graceful and focused, and they seem to be confidently working with a wide variety of yeasts, leading to a wide range of flavors.

Anything made by Yonetsuru is thoroughly recommendable, but perhaps the most easy to find sake is their F1 daiginjo, named after the race car, perhaps to indicate how much ahead of the curve they were in brewing sake like this fragrant, gorgeously layered daiginjo. It is unique and character laden, but so are most of the sake produced here.

Suifuyo
A tiny producer that also makes the very local brand “Yamagata Masamune.” The story goes that a monk that lived in a local mountain temple came down for supplies and whatnot, and tasted the local sake. After his long trek, it tasted so good that he proclaimed “this is the best sake in Yamagata,” which led to the prominent name Yamagata Masamune.

For a very small kura, they have a wide range of products, and most impressive are the premium sake products sold under the product name  “Suifuyo,” which refers to a flower that blooms white in the morning, but turns pink by the same evening.

They do things in a very labor intensive way here, and all the sake is pressed in the old, traditional way, with no pumps, only cotton bags and  wooden boxes. And yes, it does make a difference.

Perhaps the sake of theirs I like the best is their junmai ginjo made using Omachi rice (see next month’s newsletter). While clean and solid and concentrated, when I tasted it, it was a bit young, but with massive promise of flavor in the fall.

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I fear my passion has gotten the better of me here. Such lavish praise should probably be dispensed with a bit more discretion. But indeed, Yamagata is one of my favorite sake places in all of Japan, and the above is but a small sample of the great sake from that region.

However, having said that, I realize there are more Yamagata sake I *simply must* introduce, so look for them in the October 1 issue.

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Sake events and other miscellany…

Sake World Website Updated
The Sake World website at www.sake-world.com (don’t forget that hyphen!) has been updated. Updates include the uploading of the newsletter archives in a new form, an archive of my Japan Times articles, information on sake and temperature, sake cocktails, and the Sake Professional Course.

UPCOMING SAKE EVENTS
August is, again, one of the quietest months of the year in the sake brewing calendar year.  As such, there is a dearth of sake events during this time. But there are these coming up soon:

On Friday, August 27, 2002, John Gauntner will give a presentation followed by a tasting at the Japan/America Society of Kentucky, in Lexington Kentucky. For more information, Julie Quinn Blyth, Executive Director, Japan/America Society of Kentucky at (859)-231-7533, or by email at info@jask.org.

On Saturday, September 13, 2002, John Gauntner will give a presentation followed by a tasting at the Japan America Society of Northern Ohio. For more information, contact John at sakeguy@gol.com.

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On Tuesday, September 10, from 4:00 to 7:00, at the Tokyo Forum complex
in Yurakucho, the well-known sake distributor Ota Shoten will be
sponsoring “Jizake Haku 2002,” a tasting of the various sakes from over
100 sakagura for a mere \1000.

Reservations can be made – and more information can be found – at
http://www.cht.co.jp/ota/. Alternatively, you can call (in Japanese)
03-3959-7755, or fax at 03-3959-7754.

Also:
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.

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Sake books:

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.

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Home-Brewing Sake

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 jliddil@vms.arizona.edu. 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: visau@iname.com, 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 sake-request@hbd.org . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to sake-request@hbd.org. For a list of other useful commands, send the word “help”, less the quotes, to sake-request@hbd.org. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to sake-owner@hbd.org
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Publication Information
Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to www.sake-world.com, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, sakeguy@gol.com
Copyright 2002 Sake World

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