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Better Rice Milling

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #50
December 1, 2003


In this issue:
-Better Rice Milling: Chohenpei Seimai
-Sake Worth Seeking
-Sake events/Announcements:
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

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- Better Rice Milling: Chohenpei Seimai

Daishichi, or “Big Seven,” is the name of a wonderful sake brewed in Fukushima Prefecture. I recently visited them, a story in itself, and while there took the opportunity to finally come to a complete understanding of the special rice milling method they employ there.

As many readers are surely well aware, the rice used in brewing sake is milled to a high degree, i.e. a large portion of the outside of each grain must first be ground away. Be it sake or sushi, all rice but “brown rice,” called “genmai” in Japanese, has had at least the very outermost part milled away. For food, while brown rice may be healthier with its added fiber and nutrients, those that have been raised on white rice often find brown rice to be too rough and heavy in flavor and texture. And so, usually, the outer 10% to 12% is milled away from the start, leaving 88% to 90% of the original size of the grains remaining.

With rice used for sake brewing, much more of the outside is first milled away. For cheaper sake, perhaps 20% is milled away, leaving the inner 80% of each grain. For the best sake, as much as 65% is milled away, leaving but the inner 35% of the original size of the grains! (There are in fact a few even more extreme cases.)

Why in the world do they do this? Because fats, proteins and other substances that can lead to off flavors in the final product are found mostly in the outer layers of the rice grains. And, at least in good and proper sake rice, the starches that will ferment are found mostly in the center of the grains. So, the more you mill, the more you remove what you don’t want, leaving only what is desirable behind. Is it worth it? Yes. In general, sake made with more highly milled rice is more elegant, lighter, cleaner and more refined.

In fact, how much the rice has been milled before brewing is so important it is the main defining parameter of the legal grade of the sake. Yet, having said that, personal preferences and a plethora of other factors may make a less expensive, fuller sake what you need and want. But in general,  more milling is usually better.

How is rice milled? Modern milling machines are a technological wonder, both accurate and minutely controllable. The rice falls from a certain height (three meters or so) onto a spinning grinding stone, getting a small bit nicked off the outside as it strikes the side of the cylindrical stone. It then falls below, is carried up again to the top by conveyor belt, and goes through this over and over, with just a tad being nicked off each time. After hours and hours of this, a measurable percentage of the outside will have been ground away. The volume of rice falling, the speed of the grinding stone, and in some instances the height from which it falls are all adjustable. The idea is to be gentle to the rice, to avoid cracking, breakage and excessive friction, while milling.

In fact, sake really took off in quality about 50 years ago due in very large part to the development of modern, vertically aligned milling machines. This may be the single most important change in sake brewing over the last half a millenium.

Getting back to the special method Daishichi and a few other breweries employ, about seven or eight years ago, Daishichi began to incorporate a slightly modified method of rice milling that, in short, got rid of more fat with less milling. Known as “Chohenpei Seimai,” or “Super-flat Rice Polishing,” it all has to do with the shape and geometry of rice grains.

Rice grains are basically oblong in shape, and somewhat flat along the shorter axis, kind of like a hard-boiled egg being squished gently between your palms, so that it flattens a bit. Or perhaps like a rugby ball being sat upon. Whatever; you get the idea. The shinpaku, the visibly white packet of starch in the center, retains more or less this flat, oblong shape, with an even layer of fat and protein surrounding it everywhere.

In normal sake rice milling, the grains are essentially shaved evenly all over, yielding a spherical shape in the end. With a little visualization, you can easily see how less fat and protein are ground away around the short axis, and more near the two ends of the long axis.

However, in Super-flat Rice Milling, the rice is milled in a different way, one that maintains the “sat-upon rugby ball / slightly squished hard-boiled egg” shape. When performed correctly, the fat and protein are removed evenly from around the starch center. What this means in the end is more effective milling, i.e. more fat and protein removal with less actual grinding.

How much more effective? As one example, Yamada Nishiki rice milled down to 35%, i.e. having the outer 65% ground away, can typically have a remaining protein content of 51%. However, the same rice milled only to 50% using the Chohenpei Seimai method will typically have as low as 44% remaining protein content. This is quite amazing, actually.

What is the catch? Only that it takes longer, like three times as long – which can be an appreciable difference. It can take six days to mill rice down to 50% using the super flat method, as opposed to about three days to mill down to 35% using normal methods.

According to Mr. Hideharu Ota, president of Daishichi, it does not call for special equipment. “Only very minimal modifications were necessary,” he comments. “More than that, it is all in the way you tweak it as you go along.” The key, he explains, is allowing much less rice to drop down on the grinding stone, so that with the reduced pressure it has time to hover and spin along its long axis as it moves down the side of the spinning stone. That, and significantly lowering the RPMs. “But you have to adjust things as you go along, each batch of rice and each day are different. That is why it is as much art as skill, and that is why our miller won such a prestigious award,” adds Mr. Ota.  (That award is described below.)

Interestingly enough, older milling machines work better for this as you can tinker and adjust more, Mr. Ota explains. This is in stark contrast to what I previously preached and thought, which is that when it comes to milling machines, modern technology is best.

Although the text is in Japanese, a drawing illustrating this point can be found at http://www.daishichi.co.jp/park/henpei/h_5.html for those that are interested.

While Daishichi is not the only kura in the country to employ thus technology, they surely lead the industry. In fact, Daishichi Brewery has even received an award from the Director General of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Not only that, the chief miller was named as a Master Craftsman of Fukushima; this was a first. Usually toji (master brewers) win these awards, not millers. A miller winning such an award is like an offensive guard winning the Heisman Trophy in US College Football; not impossible, but hardly common.

Sake Worth Seeking…

Daishichi Brewery
While this issue was never meant to be a plug for Daishichi, it would be unnatural to talk about their unique methods above, and not talk about their sake. They are a fairly small but very popular brewery that employs very traditional brewing methods. Almost all of their sake is made using the kimoto method,  a traditional method of creating the yeast starter that takes more time and effort, but yields a stronger, more robust yeast starter and fuller, more complex, richer sake. Not only that, but owing to the massively advanced efficiency of their Super Flat Milling Technology, even their best sake is made with rice milled to no more than 50%, compared to 35% for almost all other breweries. Their sake has a wonderful thread of consistency running through the various grades, with all of it immediately recognizable as Daishichi. Here are a few of their main sake.

Daishichi “Minawamon” (Fukushima Prefecture)
Junmai Daiginjo
Extremely clean, yet with plenty of flavor; perhaps “focused” is the best word to describe this sake. A moderately prominent herbal-toned aroma; rich overall, but lively, even and balanced, with very deep and complex flavors in the recesses.

Daishichi “Kaiden” (Fukushima Prefecture)
Junmai Ginjo
Compared to the above sake, this junmai ginjo is more autumnal and nut-laced in flavor, yet it maintains a richness of maturity that reassures.

Daishichi “Classic” (Fukushima Prefecture)
Much fuller, with a significantly more prominent acidity, and yet a focused if full flavor. As the name implies, this is a classic kimoto style. Bits of well-placed earthiness manifested as bitter or acidic points brilliantly accent the full, chewy flavor. A wonderful sake at room temperature, or even gently warmed.

All three of the above Daishichi products are available in the US and Europe.

Daishichi “Houreki” (Fukushima Prefecture)
Junmai Daiginjo
This is a contest sake, and the first kimoto junmai daiginjo to win one, and then two, gold medals in the National New Sake Tasting Competitions. (Rarely do junmai types win; very rarely are kimoto types even entered.) Very little is made, but this exquisite sake is close to flawless, despite its focus and clean flavor. Mild autumnal, crisp fruit in the aroma and a full but diversified and very deep flavor profile.

Lest this come off as a Dashichi promo, which it is not, here are a few other sake to look for.

Koshi no Setsugetsuka (Niigata)
Junmai Ginjo
While the name is a mouthful (it means something like “snow moon flower of Niigata”), this sake has been slowly but surely getting better and better and better, and has recently become available in the US, at least in New York. A mild, subdued elegance decorates the slightly fruity and rice-like aromas and flavors. More complexity becomes apparent as it warms up a bit and closes in on room temperature. Truly interesting and worth seeking.

Suishin (Hiroshima)
This is one of those sake that has been fairly famous for so long it ends up being overlooked, which is a shame. A classic Hiroshima style, soft and gently sweet, but a bit more bolstering acidity than most sake of this region. While simple and straightforward, it is incredibly versatile, and is enjoyable either chilled, at room temperature, and even very gently warmed.

Kokken (Fukushima)
I don’t know where these folks have been hiding, but sake from this small brewery is rapidly becoming one of my new favorites. Tiny, hard to find, and available only in Japan, Kokken sake, and this ginjo in particular, are not necessarily huge attention getting sake; no ostentatious aromas or wild flavors. Rather than that, they are elegant, subtle, and so well put together that it is unforgettable. Simple but with just enough liveliness to enjoy for a long time. Very classic yeast number nine style: mild melons and similar tones in the aroma with similar notes in the flavor. Perhaps firmer or even tighter than most sake of this genre, but then again  that northern Japan (Tohoku region) quality makes Kokken what it is. It’s one of those sake whose greatness hits you intuitively, about three seconds after you put the glass down, just as you prepare to launch back into the conversation.

Sake Events and Announcements

In the US:
Friday, December 5
Japan America Society of Northern Ohio
On the evening of Friday, December 5, there will be a presentation entitled “Sake versus Wine” at the Japan America Society of Northern Ohio, in Cleveland, Ohio. The presentation will be followed by a tasting of several sake. As the venue is small, participation will be limited. If interested, please email me at sakeguy@gol.com, or call at 440-250-0383.

In Japan:
On the evening of Saturday, January 10, 2004, I will hold a basic sake seminar at the sake pub Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The topics will be the basics of sake, with a focus on “Shinshu,” or “new sake.” Those that often attend my seminars will find some material repeated. While the seminar is geared toward those new to sake, all are welcome, and the sake served will all be unique in that it will all be “shinshu.”

The cost for the evening – half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and
printed material – will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot
by emailing me at sakeguy@gol.com. No deposit is required.

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.


Sake books:

THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.

THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and 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 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).

This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner’s point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.

Also worth searching for:
-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 in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


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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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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Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, sakeguy@gol.com
Copyright 2003 Sake World