Sparkling Sake; Organic Sake
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
September 1, 2002
In this issue:
-Announcement: The Sake Professional Course
-True Organic Sake
-Good sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
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.
Sparkling nihonshu? Indeed it does exist. Although sparkling sake has only been available commercially a few years, the little bit of it that is out there can be quite enjoyable.
Sparkling sake is made the same way that regular sake is – up to a point. Fermentation is stopped a bit early, when the alcohol is only about five to ten percent, as opposed to the normal 18 to 20 percent achieved in normal sake. At this time, there is still plenty of sugar in the mash. It is pressed to a degree, and bottled. There, in the bottle, a secondary fermentation takes place that yields carbonation.
The end product is naturally a bit different from regular sake. The alcohol, while varying from producer to producer, is much lower. It is closer to beer at this level. Also, sparkling sake is much sweeter than normal sake. The flavor is pleasant, but a bit more like cream soda than daiginjo. Sometimes a slight koji aroma remains.
Also, sparkling sake is almost always a bit cloudy. (You can let this sediment sit and remain in the bottle if you let the bottle sit, and then pour carefully.) In order to create the secondary fermentation a significant amount of sugar and yeast needed to get through the pressing step. So, while not nigori-zake, most sparkling sake has a bit of murk to it.
The amount of sugar that goes into the bottle can be seen by noting the nihonshu-do. This measure of residual sugar at bottling time is usually between -3 and +10, with the former being quite sweet for a normal sake. Sparkling sake can have a nihonshu-do of -25 to -90. Yikes. But keep in mind this is measured at bottling time, and much of this sugar will have been consumed by the yeast in that secondary fermentation, so the end product is not as sweet as those numbers would indicate.
Should you want to try some, the Suzune product described below is fairly easy to find. Also look for Oku no Matsu FN from Fukushima. FN stands for Formula Nippon, as in the F1 automobile races. Why celebrate the victory with champagne, thought the creative people at Oku no Matsu, when we can celebrate with sake? They created a very fizzy and tasty premium sake that foams all over everything when shaken and opened in the winner’s circle. (You can see the foam in action, read more and buy it (within Japan) here: www.rakuten.co.jp/kametsuru/397006/397010/421536/)
Shinkame of Saitama makes a straight nigori sake that is quite carbonated, and while it is not marketed as a sparking sake, it functions like one. Caution, though, this sake is very unique in its strong, tart and earthy flavors. It is not for everyone (although I dig it to no end).
Other producers of sparkling sake products include Ume no Yado of Nara, with a nice, thirst quenching product called Tsuki Usagi, Rokkasen of Yamagata with a sake called Hito-toki, and lovely Seikyo of Hiroshima with their Tenshi no O-sake.
There are others, and most larger sake shops and department stores will carry one of them. Another good source – as always for sake – is the internet. A quick search will turn up numerous sources for these products.
Note there is no official term or designation for sparkling sake. It is usually just called sparkling in katakana (phonetic Japanese) or sometimes bihappou-seishu or bihassei-seishu. But this is not standardized and does vary from brewer to brewer. In fact, the original designations remain: Oku no Matsu is a junmai daiginjo (made with Yamada Nishiki for heaven’s sake), and Suzune is a junmai-shu.
While sparkling sake is softer and sweeter than champagne, in all frankness, it really cannot compare to fine champagne on most levels. However, it can be thirst quenching and very enjoyable, and is definitely worth trying. It may even become a favorite.
True Organic Sake
In recent years, there has been increased interest in organic sake. To actually legally specify something as organic or organically produced is difficult, at least in countries that have begun enforcing the standards that are needed to ensure the safety and quality of the product, as well as the protection of the environment implied by the term.
Until very recently, there was no legal standards or definitions for organic sake. As such, “yuki saibai no okome” or “yukimai” (organic rice) was commonly seen on sake bottles. But the sake itself was not certifiable as organic. Until now.
Organic rice is certified by the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) board, under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Such rice is defined as having been grown in a paddy where no agricultural chemicals have been used for at least three years, a point that must be certified by a third party.
Now, organic nihonshu is defined by the Ministry of Taxation as sake in which 95% or more of the rice used in brewing qualifies as JAS-certified organically grown rice.
While there are several sake made with organic rice, there is as of this year only one truly certified organic sake product in Japan: a junmai ginjo brewed by Saiya Shuzoten of Akita Prefecture, brewers of the eminently quaffable Yuki no Bosha and Yuri Masamune brands. This brewery is the very first sake brewery in Japan to be certified as an organic foodstuff processing factory. This Yuki no Bosha organic junmai ginjo has been officially certified by the ASAC (Association for Sustainable Agricultural Certification).
This product has been brewed with organic Akita Komachi rice. While strictly speaking, Akita Komachi is not a sake rice, but rather a table rice, they have still done a fine job of making a thoroughly enjoyable sake from it. I recently had a chance to taste it; see my tasting notes in the recommended sake section below.
Note that very often the term “munouyaku” (no agricultural chemicals) is seen on sake bottles. Some may ask what the difference is between no agricultural chemicals and organic. While it may at first seem a trivial distinction, it is all related to one of several things.
One, true organic certification is very stringent and specific. The rice may have been grown with something the brewer (and farmer presumably) do not consider chemical, but which is just not an approved method or substance. Something like this may have been simply unavoidable considering the region, rice strain and other factors, despite the best intentions of all involved.
Also, the rice field itself might not be officially certified as organic, as three years of no chemical use must first pass.
Finally, and most interestingly, the Japanese landscape and traditional irrigation methodology can be a hindrance to certification. Why? Because the whole point is to ensure that no barred chemicals were used as fertilizers in growing the rice. In Japan’s landscape, very often rice paddies are irrigated by water that flows down from other paddies belonging to other farmers.
If a producer cannot absolutely guarantee that that water has not been contaminated by chemicals somewhere down the line, it cannot be certified as organic. This is one more reason sake is sometimes labeled as “munouyaku” and not “organic.”
Keep in mind the use of organic or even munouyaku rice does not say anything about the quality of the sake. In fact, to my palate, the munouyaku sake I have tasted so far seems to be a tiny bit more wild and less refined, albeit earthy and solid – until this one, which I find surprisingly tight, clean and balanced. But as no truly great sake rice has been organically produced on a large scale as of yet, no true conclusion can be drawn.
As sake brewing is a traditional craft that has always been very closely tied to nature, it is more than appropriate for sake brewing today to care and maintenance of natural resources. Munoyaku sake, and even more so fully qualified organic sake, are good steps in that direction.
Good Sake to Look For
This month, let us look at the organic sake, and a couple more made by the same brewery.
That brewery is, as mentioned above, is called Saiya Shuzoten, and is known for two well-established, solid brands: Yuri Masamune, and Yuki no Bosha. Overall their sake is elegant, with a mild fragrance that has amazing consistency across their whole range of products. Their futsuu-shu (table sake) right up to their ginjo all share a similar fragrance and well-wrought elegance.
Yuki no Bosha (Akita Prefecture) Junmai Ginjo Organic Sake
Even and balanced, yet with an underlying fullness and intensity to the flavor. They have done a superb job of bringing out the flavors in a well-distributed, deliberate way, and leaving any off-flavors out of the equation. The fragrance is decidedly but subtly melon laced, and the rice-like and herbal-laced flavor is perfectly concentrated. and I was suitably impressed. The brewer explained that he believes this lack of off-flavors was indeed a positive result of the organic methods.
Sake events and other miscellany…
UPCOMING SAKE EVENTS
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.
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.
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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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.
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Copyright 2002 Sake World