Bad Rice Year, All Things Yeast #9
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
September 1, 2003
In this issue:
-A Less-than-sterling Year for Rice
-All Things Number Nine
-Sake Professional Course
-Sake Worth Seeking
-Sake events/Announcements: True Sake opens
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A Less-than-sterling Year for Rice
Sake is, as we all know, brewed from rice. Rice, in turn, is a very focused expression of soil, climate, and each year’s weather conditions such as rain and typhoons. Every growing season is different, and there are good years for sake rice and bad years for sake rice. While this is surely no surprise, this season’s harvest is looking like it will be one of the worst in about ten years.
Summer in Japan this year barely existed. The rainy season was long, lasting almost to the end of July. Nor was it mild. Along with the drenching downpours, temperatures were quite cool everywhere in Japan. While this was pleasant for we humans, a welcome respite from Japan’s notoriously humid summers, which can be oppressive, it was not so good for rice growing, especially for sake rice.
What does this mean in more concrete terms? How will the rice of a less-than-sterling year be different? There are several ways. One, the rice will have much more protein than normal. This can potentially lead to rougher sake and more off-flavors. The rice will also have much less potassium then usual, which is a vital factor in maintaining vigorous fermentation.
Yet a third way this year’s sake rice (in particular) will be adversely affected is in the creation of “shinpaku,” that white, opaque center to the rice grains wherein much of the starch is concentrated. Remember that a good shinpaku is one of the most important defining factors of good sake rice. Why? Because when the starches are concentrated in the center like that, it becomes possible to more effectively eliminate protein and fat (while keeping the starch intact) by grinding away the outside of the grains.
Proper weather conditions are an important factor in creating this good shinpaku. In particular, when the days are hot and sunny but the nights are cold, the starches tend to accumulate in the center of the grain better. It is almost as if they try to get there as a self-preservation technique. However, this year’s summer was rather cool, so that this all-important difference between the day and night temperatures was not as great as usual. Accordingly, this year’s rice will not have as much of a well developed shinpaku as other years. It will then be more difficult to mill the rice to remove fat and protein efficiently.
There are of course many more weather-related aspects of growing sake than these. Rice growing is a hugely important topic, and one that deserves much more attention. I will be returning to this topic in more detail coming issues of this newsletter in the very near future.
However, after all this whining, fear not! All is not lost! Sake is not as much at the mercy of the weather as wine seems to be. While this explanation does justice to neither wine making nor sake making, in short, so much is involved in the complex sake-brewing process that a skillful brewer can often make up for a bad rice crop with effort, experience and intuition. In fact, what brewers strive for year after year is consistency in their main products out on the market. Naturally, there are inevitable changes each year, but a truly skillful toji will minimize these. What will most noticeably suffer are the highest grades of sake, contest sake especially.
For most of us, what we will be drinking will be as good as it usually is; but we should not forget that added burden that will be on rice farmers and brewers to make it that way. Sake, like wine, remains an integral expression of nature.
All Things Number Nine
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of perhaps the most important sake-brewing yeast strain of all, the Kumamoto yeast, also known as Yeast Number Nine.
While the yeast itself, its qualities, and its various aliases are worth knowing about, the history and culture surrounding all this is interesting as well. It all took place down south in Kumamoto Prefecture, thanks to the efforts of a man named Professor Kin’ichi Nojiro.
Back in the Edo period, when samurai clans still ruled the various provinces, before the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when power was returned to the Emperor and modern government was installed, there was no sake as we know it in Kumamoto. Instead, the ruling clan had dictated that a red type of sake, known as “akazake,” was the only type of sake to be brewed. It was likely an economical decision, an effort to make Kumamoto the capital of this curious brew. (The color comes from an ash put in the sake to preserve it. It is still available today; it all comes from Kumamoto and is used more than anything else in cooking.)
While that worked for a while, it put Kumamoto a bit behind the rest of the country in real sake brewing technology. In order to address this, Kumamoto Prefecture put a lot of research effort into brewing good sake, forming a company that functioned as a brewery and research center. It is still around today, and the wonderful sake brewed there is called Koro. One of the main forces in the research center devoted to that effort was Professor Nojiro.
Among other advances in brewing techniques, he discovered a yeast strain in 1953 that soon propelled Kumamoto sake to the top of the sake-brewing world. Initially, it was known as the Kumamoto Kobo (yeast). Soon, a very similar yeast was isolated, and thereafter the two came to be known as KA-1 and KA-4.
Eventually, an organization called the Nihon Jozo Kyoukai, or Japan Brewers’ Association, began to propagate and sell this yeast to brewers around the country. Henceforth, when supplied by this organization, it came to be known as Association Yeast Number Nine.
It is very difficult to keep yeast strains like this pure over the generations and generations of reproduction required to use them in large quantities year after year. Those doing that work must test carefully to be sure that the qualities of the yeast do not change. The folks at the Kumamoto research center work hard to create consistent KA-1 and KA-4 each year, and the Japan Brewers’ Association gets fresh stuff from Kumamoto each year, ensuring their strains are pure as well.
This family of yeast is very suited to making aromatic yet clean ginjo-shu. And today, more of that kind of fine sake is being produced then ever before. This leads to great demand for the Kumamoto Kobo / #9 strains. So what some prefectures do (most notably Yamagata, but other places as well) to make it more accessible is to buy some Kumamoto Kobo from the source, then propagate it at home, and distribute it amongst those that want it in that prefecture. This is significant only because amongst Yamagata sake, one can find a yeast called Yamagata KA, which is Yamagata home-grown Kumamoto Kobo.
So at the end of the day, KA-1 and KA-4, Kumamoto Kobo, #9, and Yamagata KA are more or less the same yeast. Consider it “family number nine” or maybe “Kumamoto lineage.” Naturally, there are those who insist the original pure strains from Kumamoto are better. But what is important to remember is that this line of yeasts is the most widely used yeast in ginjo sake brewing, and has stood the test of 50 years’ time without being dethroned, and without significantly mutating.
So what is so special about it? In brewing, it ferments thoroughly and slowly at low temperatures, allowing brewers to control the fermentation closely. This all leads to wonderfully smooth and fine-grained flavors, good aromatic acid content, and lovely fruity aromas reminiscent of delicious apples and perhaps melon. Clean and bright sake with wonderful balance is the trademark of this line of yeasts. Indeed, there is nothing quite like classic #9 flavors and aromas in a sake.
Indeed, these days especially, there are many other great yeasts. Whether or not they will still be great in 50 years is yet to be seen. And it is certainly possible to enjoy your sake without giving a hoot about the yeast used. But often, the more one tastes, the more one wants to know why certain sake have the aromas and flavors they do, to know what makes a sake the way it is. Should your interest get to that level, remember ole’ Number Nine.
Information like this is not something brewers are required to put on the label, although many do so. But generally, it is readily available for most sake on the market if you poke around.
And Happy 50th, Number Nine.
Announcing the Second Annual Sake Professional Course
From Sunday night, January 11, 2004 to the morning of Saturday, January 17, 2004, I will hold the second annual Sake Professional Course here in Japan. Open to anyone with an interest in sake, this course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. It will consist of daily classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions, and will include 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 inside a sake brewery, and evening meals will be off-site at various sake-related establishments (sake pubs of all shapes, sizes and environments). The optional final night will be spent at “onsen ryokan” (a traditional Japanese inn at a hot spring resort).
The 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 utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and 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.
The dates (Sunday night, January 11, 2004 to the morning of Saturday, January 17, 2004) allow participants (from the US at least) to leave on a Saturday and arrive home the following Sunday. (A second weeklong course period is being considered for February.)
The weeklong course, with all instruction, materials, sake, accommodations, and evening meals with sake is JPY350,000 (at 120 yen to the dollar: US $2999). Participation is limited to ten (10) individuals.
For a more detailed description of the course, its content, pricing, and a testimonial reference, please go to www.sake-world.com.
Sake Worth Seeking…
All of the sake here, with the exception of the last one, are available in the US. (Apologies to readers not in the US or Japan!)
Kikuzakari (Ibaraki Prefecture)
Kikuzakari has three products from their kura available in the US: Gekkakow (junmai daiginjo), Kurakagami (daiginjo), and Kurahibiki (daiginjo). Gekkakow is the top of the line product, lush, fruity, silky and soft. Next is Kurakagami, again fruity, soft and melting. Kurahibiki is crisper and more focused in its flavors and aromatics. All three are proving quite popular and are very enjoyable sake.
Kamotsuru (Hiroshima Prefecture)
Kamotsuru is a fairly large brewer that maintains wonderful distinction and quality. Their junmaishu is just slightly soft in texture, with settled flavor that widens and fills out as you sip, and a well-crafted acidity behind it all.
Wakaebisu (Mie Prefecture)
A great kura overall, with one of their most recommendable products being a yamahai junmai ginjo called Maho. But what is most widely available outside of Japan is a reasonably priced junmaishu with the curious product name “Ninja.” Sturdy, autumnal, and settled, it is wonderful at room temperature (or even very gently warmed) as well as cool – always a sign of a great sake.
Kakunko (Ibaraki Prefecture)
Top of the line sake from Sato no Homare, the oldest kura in Japan. Incredibly fragrant, light and delicate. This may be the most aromatically lively sake in Japan, with strawberry, anise, bananas, and more. While not cheap, should this be the kind of sake you like, it is indeed a special product.
Umenishiki (Ehime Prefecture)
A classic kura that is one of the more famous breweries in Japan, once small but now fairly large, with a very wide range of flavor profiles in their products. The daiginjo distributed to the US is elegant, clean, and soft, but with a permeating cleansing acidity. They also have a junmai-shu that is a bit sturdier and full. Another name you can trust.
Kubota (Niigata Prefecture)
One of the most famous kura in Japan over the last 20 years or so. Clean, crisp, classic Niigata. They have a range of products, codenamed Hyakuju, Senju, Hekiju, Manju, Beniju and more. They do not list the grades of their sake on the bottles, so until you remember the order you figure it out by price – which can be appreciable. Perhaps the flagship of this well-loved style and brand is the Kubota Manju product. It is one of two readily available overseas, and while a tad pricey, is quite exquisite.
Takatenjin (Shizuoka Prefecture)
From the makers of Kaiun, which enjoys almost cult-level appreciation amongst sake fans in Japan. Incredible sake; light, fresh, low acidity, aromatic. Wonderful on its own, or with just a few nibbles to accompany it. It is way too easy to drink way too much of this sake way too fast… with no regrets whatsoever.
Higan (Niigata Prefecture)
A hard-to-find product I had taken for granted until recently. Made by Taiyozakari, a reputable Niigata brewery, this sake manages the difficult task of nestling a peach and pear-like essence of flavor and aroma inside a clean, light package of a sake. Another immensely enjoyable sake, and one whose subtle layered richness allows it to work well with grilled fish and perhaps chicken.
Sake Events and Announcements
ANNOUNCING THE OPENING OF TRUE SAKE
On August 7, the first sake-only retail store in the United States opened in San Francisco. True Sake, owned and operated by Mr. Beau Timken, began selling sake – and nothing else – in his small but slick shop in the Hayes Valley section of town.
Currently, True Sake stocks 90 different brands of sake, covering a wide range of flavor profiles, regions and prices. Mr. Timken (a graduate of my Sake Professional Course last season) is making great efforts to educate all of his customers along the way, and the shop is chock-full of sake education material as well.
This effort certainly needs to be encouraged and supported. Be sure to stop by, buy a bottle or two, and say hello to Beau at True Sake should you live in or pass through the Bay Area.
560 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA
415 987 0053
Sake and Pottery
On the evening of Saturday, September 13, from 6:00 to about 9:00, Japanese pottery expert/guru Rob Yellin I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The sake topic will be the historically and culturally important brewing guilds, or toji-ryuha. Rob will cover a focused aspect of the pottery world as well. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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).
NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO HANASHI, published by Shogakkan
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.
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 email@example.com. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
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