Shimane Sake, Ginjo Buzzword
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
April 1, 2003
In this issue:
-The Sake of Shimane Prefecture
-The Ginjo Buzzword
-Good sake to look for
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APOLOGIES to readers for being late with this newsletter. I was traveling, promoting sake, and try though I did, it just did not get written from the road.
The Sake of Shimane Prefecture
While it may not put out the volume of places like Hyogo, Kyoto, or Niigata, Shimane Prefecture is easily one of the most significant sake-producing regions in Japan, both historically and currently. Long a land of myth and legend, the sake stories and sake-associated shrines, lore and people abound in Shimane.
Sake’s tight tie to Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto, is felt strongly here in Shimane, perhaps most famously at a Shinto shrine called Matsuo Jinja. Matsuo Jinja enshrines a god known as Matsuo-sama, who is the main patron god of sake brewing. (Jinja means shrine.) It is here that the famous guild of toji (sake master brewers) known as the Izumo Toji guild occasionally gather for prayers and more, especially just before setting off for their various regional breweries where they will work through the winter. The Izumo Toji guild takes its name, as many of the toji guilds do, from the pre-Meiji (pre-1868 or so) name for the region: Shimane Prefecture was formerly known as Izumo.
Another famous shrine in the city of Hirata that houses a local manifestation of Matsuo-sama is Saka Jinja, which *may* be so named as it is sake related. Saka is an alternative reading of the character for sake; however, the characters used for “Saka” in Saka Jinja are different, kind of a hieroglyphic pun, so to speak. In any event, a big festival is held each October 13 at which “doburoku,” a kind of nigori sake used in Shinto ceremonies, is offered – and consumed in copious amounts.
A particularly interesting part of the sake-related history of Shimane is the Japanese mythology story of the Yamata-no-Orochi. The Yamata-no-Orochi was a dragon with eight heads and eight tails, large enough to cover eight valleys and eight mountains. Each year, out of boredom perhaps, this dragon would come and eat one of the eight daughters of a particularly unfortunate old couple in the land of Izumo, present-day Shimane.
It was seven daughters down and one to go when down from heaven comes one Susanou, the younger brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. Apparently Susanou was sent out of heaven for causing too much unruly ruckus of some sort (details are unclear). Upon hearing the story, he volunteers to rid Izumo of the menace dragon in exchange, of course, for the hand in marriage of the last daughter. To accomplish this, he has eight very large vats filled with sake (one per head), and placed in front of the house, while he hides in the woods (with the last daughter, transformed by him into a comb, tucked safely into his hair).
After the Yamata-no-Orochi drinks most the vats of sake and is good and drunk, Susanou appears and begins to chop off the heads and tails of the enormous monster. Despite the dragon’s buzz, and Susanou’s godly status, this takes hours and is a tough battle, but in the end the dragon is killed. While cutting the last of the beast’s tails, his sword catches on something a bit tougher than your average dragon sinew or bone. It ends up being an ornate sword, which he then donates to his sister the sun goddess. This sword, called Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, survives today and is a National Treasure of Japan.
You can see two stylized drawings of Yamata-no-Orochi at:
Dragons and swords aside, currently, Shimane is number ten in Japan in terms of the number of breweries, despite its rather comparatively sparse population. Most of these are rather small, however, and so the actual amount of sake brewed does not reflect the number of breweries.
Yet Shimane makes its presence known. Not only are there a decent number of well known and easily recognizable sake, the prefecture as a whole usually has a very good showing at the New Sake Tasting sponsored each spring. This is a factor of several commitments to excellence.
One of these is the presence of a Prefectural Industrial Research Center that puts a significant amount of effort into improving sake quality. Over the past decade, Shimane has created several yeast strains and rice types well suited to their style of sake brewing. Most recently examples are Kan no Mai, (a cross between Miyama Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku) and Saka Nishiki. Beyond these two, more commonly seen rice strains grown in Shimane include Gohyakumangoku, Omachi, Yamada Nishiki and Kame no O.
Even more commendable is that 60% of all rice used in sake brewing in Shimane is proper sake rice. As 80% of all sake brewed in Japan is “table sake,” most of this does not use premium sake rice, but rather run-of-the-mill stuff. The fact that Shimane is way above that average is encouraging.
The above-mentioned research center is also responsible for the initial design of many of the automated koji making machines, both small scale and large scale, found all over Japan. While many of these are used for cheap sake and large-scale production, some fine ginjo is being produced with automated or semi-automated koji machines, with the best of those being developed in Shimane.
And most importantly, what’s it taste like? Indeed, Shimane sake has one of the most easily identifiable, describable, and likeable flavor and aromatic profiles in the country. In short, Shimane sake is comparatively dense in flavor, yet fine-grained and clean. There is usually a higher amino acid content, giving Shimane sake plenty of “umami.” More concretely, much sake from this region has a nutty touch with a subdued sweetness in the background, full flavor, and a brilliant acidity that both spreads the flavors and provides some backbone. Aromatically, flowers, melon-like fruit, and touches of autumnal things like pumpkins are common in Shimane sake.
This month’s “good sake to look for” section focuses on Shimane sake, with both well-known and lesser-known but superb sake introduced.
With an ancient history tied to swords, dragons and myth, a brilliant toji guild, superior rice, and a thread of identity running through the region’s sake, it is a wonder to me that Shimane sake is not even more popular. It is most surely a region worthy of the attention of all sake fans. Be sure to look both within Japan and without for sake from Shimane sometime soon.
The Ginjo-shu Buzzword
As mentioned in the apologetic excuse for the lateness of this month’s newsletter, I have just returned from a couple of weeks on the road promoting sake. I was again profoundly impressed by the ability of the concept of ginjo-shu, especially when juxtaposed with the concept of regular sake, to open doors and minds to premium sake.
When beginning to explain premium sake to people, often there is a bit of a mental block. Many people are sure all sake is served hot, and many are sure it is bland, searing in its strength, distilled, and a whole range of other misperceptions. This makes it difficult for some to even conceive of the concept of sake being a premium beverage that can be as fine as the finest of wines.
And when approaching some people about premium sake, in particular retailers and service industry people that are confident about their knowledge of wine, once in a while one encounters a psychological brick wall, impervious and thick, with regards to sake. “Sorry, I don’t do sake” they will say with a decisive tone and a dismissing glance to another part of the room, often not without the arrogance so often borne of ignorance.
“Ah, but have you had ginjo sake before?” I ask. When greeted with the usual furrowed brow of confusion, I quickly explain that ginjo-shu is sake above and beyond the average; it is fruity, aromatic, served slightly chilled, made with special rice and methods, and certainly not what most people know as sake. If this is worded right, I usually get another five seconds, during which I explain that ginjo is to regular sake what single malt scotch is to the lake of regular scotch, or what 100% agave tequila is to regular tequila.
And then it happens. Over and over and over I have seen it: the brick wall collapses. There is a flicker of understanding in their eyes, and the inevitable nod of recognition. A latch in their mind clicks, a gate opens, and they are at least willing to listen and taste. From there, good sake speaks for itself.
Why is this so effective? A few reason. First and foremost, it’s the absolute truth. Ginjo sake is true to that description. Only about eight to nine percent of all sake brewed is ginjo-shu, which means anything with the ginjo word on the label is better than more than 90% of everything out there. And anyone that knows their beverages can very, very easily relate to the scotch and tequila examples.
As most readers surely know, there are legal regulations dictating how ginjo is made, with the main one being that the rice has to be milled to a certain degree, to remove at least the outer 40% of the rice grains, sending into exile the fermentation-inhibiting fats and proteins that reside in the outer part of the rice grains, and thereby sparing the sake from roughness and off-flavors. But there is a bit more to it as well. Ginjo is made in labor-intensive, stress-inducing, hand-crafted ways, fermented slowly and at lower temperatures, and handled with a lot of tender-loving-care at every stage of the process.
It is all this that gives ginjo its complexity, depth, range of interesting and diverse aromas and flavors, and above all, its balance and distinctive clean and refined flavor. Which is why it is best enjoyed very slightly chilled; warming it or overchilling it bludgeons away just what the brewers wanted you to enjoy.
(And, as most readers surely know, ginjo, ginjo sake and ginjo-shu are all synonymous. The “-shu” suffix merely means sake.)
As mentioned, one big advantage to promoting ginjo as a style is that this is to a degree how things are viewed in Japan. The concept of ginjo as premium is authentic and credible. Sure, many people enjoy sake that is not ginjo-shu. But ginjo as an overall division is easily recognized as something different, something above and beyond the rest in Japan as well.
However, there are a few drawbacks to all of this. One, there are a few grades of sake that are just below ginjo class, but still full-fledged premium sake grades, that get lopped off and grouped with average table sake. Namely, honjozo, junmaishu, tokubetsu honjozo and tokubetsu junmaishu are not considered ginjo, but are very much premium. This is indeed an unfortunate side-effect of referring to ginjo as the type of sake to be enjoying.
Two, the various subclasses of ginjo are not conveyed and can get overlooked. While this is less damaging, the differences between the subclasses of ginjo known as junmai ginjo, regular ginjo, junmai daiginjo and regular daiginjo are not conveyed. This means that those with the requisite interest must study this elsewhere.
But the compromise is worth it. Creating the interest in premium sake will certainly promote further study, and a more complete understanding of all things sake will surely follow.
Sake classifications can be a bit daunting at first, just like those of wine. But, just like wine, in the end, if you like it, that is all that matters. And the good news about using ginjo as a buzzword for good sake is that ginjo is certainly likeable to all. So *at first*, it is all you need to remember, and all you need to convey to bring others into the fold.
For a thorough yet easy to understand explanation and visual representation of all sake grades, including the various subclasses of ginjo-shu, see http://sake-world.com/html/types-of-sake.html.
Good sake to look for
This month, it is most appropriate to focus on Shimane Prefecture sake.
Toyo no Aki
The name means “autumn of abundance,” and most of their ginjo here is elegant, classily understated, and balanced.
-Toyo no Aki Tokubetsu Junmai: plenty of soft flavor, a bit nutty and sweet in the mid-palate, and lighter around the edges. Changes nicely with temperature, very enjoyable about room temperature or just a tad cooler.
-Toyo no Aki Ginjo-shu: Frustratingly hard to describe, but can be summed up in the word excellent. Balanced, creamy, classy, sweet a bit at first, but cleaned up by a pursuing acidity.
-Toyo no Aki Daiginjo-shu: Quite understated, very balanced, a perfect umami, and a few spicy notes in the recesses.
The name means “Moon and Mountain,” and while being classically Shimane, this is surely one of the most precisely crafted sakes around. Unwavering consistency of product from year to year.
-Gassan, Junmai Ginjo-shu: A lightly fruity and lightly sweet persona underlined by a good acidity. Strikes the palate in a lively, zesty way with a candy-tinted, nutty, full flavor in the center. Persimmon and peach pervade. The slightly heavy richness is typical of sake from the Shimane area. A nice, long but balanced finish keeps pulling you along.
-Gassan “Tougetsusho” Junmai Daiginjo-shu: Slightly sweet and fruity with a flavor-disseminating acidity, with a mild, restrained, controlled flavor. Beautifully crafted.
-Gassan Tokubetsu Junmai-shu: Settled and rich with a pleasing umami and earthy feel, and a lovely rising set of aromas from the mid-palate.
Named after the highly respected poet-philosopher of 8th Century China, better known in English and Chinese as Li Po. Rihaku is another must-know name in the sake appreciation world, reliable, enjoyable, and accessible.
-Rihaku Junmai Ginjo: A nice, nutty touch with a very slight fruity center, all well-propelled by a good acidity. Mildly fragrant; solidly built overall.
-Rihaku Tokubetsu Junmai-shu: Full and rice-laden, yet subtly nutty and fruity, all evened out by a backbone-providing acidity.
-Rihaku Junmai Daiginjo: Decidedly pumpkin-tinged aromas melt evenly into a elegant, refined flavor still tinged with the nuts and subdued sweet tones of Shimane sake. Mellow enough to drink easily and quickly.
A very tiny brewery, a personal favorite of mine, characterized by solid construction of flavor combined with elegance. The toji is well-decorated with almost yearly medals in various tasting competitions.
-Asahi Tenyu Junmai Ginjo: Unique and memorable. Overall soft and clean but with a rising richness reminiscent of ripe berries in the center. Very distinctive in that sense. Fragrance is slightly rice-like with a tad of yeast and berries in it as well. Very, very nice when slightly warmed as well.
Other Shimane sake to look for, a bit harder to find though they may be, include:
-Nanakanba and Higami Masamune (same producer): Elegant, crisp, and characterized by interesting flavor elements.
-Kaishun: Smooth, textured, complex.
-Kan-nihonkai: Fruity, full and flavorful.
-Sekai no Hana: Well-rounded and soft overall, even and balanced.
-Fusoutzuru: Recently quite popular, brewed by one of the last toji of the Ishimi Toji guild, the other traditional toji guild of this region. Flavorful, soft and sweeter than most Shimane sake.
Also, be sure to check out the Sake Tasting Notes section of the web site at www.sake-world.com.
Sake Events and Announcements
Ginjoshu Kyoukai Tasting, April 17, 2003
On the evening of Thursday, April 17, from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai will hold its semi-annual sake tasting event. Over 300 sake from amongst more than 80 brewers; all of it knock-down sterling sake. This spring event features much nama-zake, recently brewed unpasteurized sake. Admission is only 4400 yen, (4000 yen if you pay in advance) and you get a bottle of sake to take home as a gift, so that the whole thing is rendered basically free. You can pay at the door, with no reservations, but paying through the post office in advance saves you a bit. Note, NO food is available. Call 03-3378-1231 (in Japanese) for info, or contact me by email if need be.
Sake World Website Overhauled
Please take a moment to check out the newly created and totally overhauled site at www.sake-world.com. Navigation and content have been revamped and improved. Thanks to Mark Schumacher and Onmark Productions for the masterful navigation and layout design. Note, Mr. Schumacher is available for website design, in English, Japanese, and bilingual designs. Go to www.onmarkproductions.com for more information.
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 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).
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 (Sato no Homare in Ibaraki) 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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