End of the Season Festivities
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
May 1, 2005
IN THIS ISSUE:
– End of 2004-2005 Brewing Season: Kaizo and Koshiki-taoshi
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events/Announcements
– In the Archives
End of 2004-2005 Brewing Season: Kaizo and Koshiki-taoshi
It was well into the evening when the phone rang, but my caller i.d. told me the call was from the cell phone of Kakizaki-san, owner and presidente-for life of the kura that brews Amanoto in Akita Prefecture. Since he fits into both the friend and business associate categories, I picked it up.
“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty ha-a-a-a-mmered.” Not your typical call from the owner of a prestigious sake brewery, to say the least.
And to what do I owe this honor? Surely there must be a reason you have called at this hour and in this, er, state?
“Indeed, indeed. Today was ‘kaizo.’ It’s over. We are done for the season. That’s it. Kaput! All we have to do is clean up and we are outta here until the fall.” He seemed to momentarily forget he lived in the old house attached to the kura. “And, thanks to your support,” he continued with typical Japanese uber-humility, “we managed to finish the brewing season this year without any major difficulties.” I was fairly sure I had nothing to do with that, and of course politely deferred.
“Wow,” I responded. “That’s great. Congratulations. Another season down! I am sure you are relieved, and I am just as sure your sake will be kick-ass again this year.”
“Hold on. There is someone here that wants to talk to you.” The cell phone got dropped at least twice and bashed into something made of glass on its way to whomever it was destined. Things like that happen in a room full of happy, buzzed sake brewers. Actually, I knew who it was going to be before I even heard the familiar voice.
“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty hammered too-hu-hu-hu.” It was Moriya-san, the relatively young toji (master brewer) at Amanoto. “We made it through yet another season. And thanks to your support, we finished without a hitch.” Yeah, yeah.
The true reason behind their call, driven though it was by the unbridled exuberance of the “kaizou” party, was to thank me for a positive assessment of a new sake they came out with that I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste several days earlier. (More on this special sake and the new-ish trend it represents next month.) I had coincidentally ran into the two of them, armed with a bottle, at a sake pub the night before a big Tokyo tasting. Regardless, it was great fun to hear from them, and congratulate them on completing the season.
* * *
As many readers certainly recall, sake brewing runs roughly from the fall until the spring. Just when a kura begins to brew sake and when they finish for the year depends on a number of factors, including of course how much they brew. On top of this, dynamics including the number of brewers, number of tanks, size of the batches, how old or new their equipment is, and how often they fire up a new batch will all combine to determine just when they start and end. But typically it runs from mid-October to mid-April.
As the season draws to a close, there are two significant days that the people in the brewery owners and brewers together will celebrate. One is called “koshiki-taoshi,” the other is “kaizou.”
“Koshiki-taoshi” means “overturning the rice steaming vat.” A koshiki is the large vat in which rice is steamed every morning or so. Traditionally these were wooden, but rarely does one see that anymore. Most are steel these days, and in fact, many are fully automatic. Long ago, when the last vat of rice had been steamed, the koshiki would be turned over, cleaned thoroughly, and left to dry and be put into storage until next season.
When the last batch of rice has been steamed for the year, the brewers can see the light at the end of the brewing-season’s tunnel. Hence the term koshiki-taoshi, and hence the celebratory nature of the day. Of course, that last day’s vat of rice will then be put into the last tank still fermenting, and after that there is still three weeks or more of waiting for that tank, and others still bubbling along, to finish fermenting, and then be pressed and sent to mature for a while. So their work is far from done. Still, they know they are getting close to the end of six months or more of long, hard days.
“Kaizo” is written with characters that mean “all (has been) made,” and naturally enough indicates the day on which the last tank has been pressed, and therefore all the sake for the year has been brewed. All there is left to do is to sweep up, tidy up, and pack up.
After one or the other – or perhaps even both – of these significant days, the brewers and other employees of a sake brewery will often have a little bash in the kura. A nice dinner, warm toasts to each other, and plenty of sake. While, from what I have heard, it is more common to have this little party after koshiki-taoshi, obviously the folks at some places (like Amanoto) wait until kaizo, when presumably they can sleep late the next day.
Back in the 1960s when several of the larger kura rode continued growth to mammoth-hood, they began to brew all year round, in what is called “shiki-jozo,” or “four-season brewing.” However, as sake consumption has dropped off, especially that of cheap sake, the need for year-round brewing has dropped off, and none of the big brewers are doing this any longer.
However, in an interesting twist of logic, at least one very tiny brewer in Yamaguchi, Asahi Shuzo, does brew all year round. They make a sake called Dassai, and indeed it is one interesting kura. Sakurai-san, the owner, presidente-for-life AND the toji, almost threw in the towel several years ago, but managed to save the company and come back like a phoenix rising out of the ashes.
At Sakurai-san’s place, they began their recovery at that time with a skeleton crew, and as the company became healthier and healthier the amount they brewed increased. Keeping the staff and the brewing pace unchanged, Sakurai-san very slowly expanded the season, starting a bit earlier and finishing a bit later – year after year. Eventually, they found themselves brewing all year round.
Two issues commonly perceived as problems with brewing year round are fresh rice and ambient temperature. The first problem – securing a supply of fresh rice – was solved by refrigerating rice from the previous fall.
“Milling it *before* you store it is the key to keeping it fresh,” comments Sakurai-san. “As long as you do that, you take the starches and fats that would spoil out of the equation from the start.” Next was keeping ambient temperatures low enough for the sake to ferment properly. This problem was solved by thickly insulating the walls of the room in which the fermentation tanks sit. “We then chill it down to about 15C, but in the end, all that cold fermenting mash in there to helps keep the temperature just right. So, looking back over history, I think the real reason sake was only brewed in the winter was the personnel; being farmers they just weren’t available in the summer.”
Whatever the reason, at almost everywhere but where they make Dassai, brewing is all but wrapped up for this season. The brewers at many places are now free to go back to other back-breaking manual labor like farming.
Oh, joy. Let us hope they have experienced a smooth season, and the koshiki-taoshi and kaizou celebrations as well. And let us all enjoy their sake.
Although all that you will ever need to know about a sake is contained in one, intention-laden sip, sometimes the technical mumbo jumbo can be fun to study as well. And regardless of how useful this information is, consumers seem to show more and more of an interest in things like the seimai-buai (degree of rice milling), the nihonshu-do (see last issue), and the acidity. In response to this, the industry always seems to offer one more piece of information every few years, be it the amino acid level, the number of days the tank fermented, or even the highest temperature reached during fermentation. It is not as if we lay folk could process this information, or draw a clear relationship between this data and our preferences. Fuhgedaboudit. Still, some of this information is available to us, and one such example is the “kasu-buai.”
Rice, rice milling and yeast are not the only things that make each sake different. Some tanks of sake are allowed to continue fermenting to (literally) the bitter end, so that every last drop can be pulled out of the fermenting rice mixture. While this will of course increase yields, it will naturally take its toll on quality. Many rough, superfluous flavors will result from this over-fermenting. Finer sake, however, is pressed earlier, so that not all the rice has completely dissolved. This results in more refined, elegant flavor profiles.
After three or four weeks, the moromi (fermenting mash), is pressed through a mesh to separate the clear sake from the lees, or unfermented rice solids. The white stuff left behind is called sake “kasu.” Naturally, the further the moromi has been allowed to ferment, the less remains at pressing time.
Another related factor is how hard the kasu has been squeezed to get out the sake. If they take the fermenting mash, put it into the pressing machine, and squeeze the bejeezus out of it in an effort to get every last drop, sure, they end up with more sake. But they will also pull out some rougher, less appealing aspects as well that will detract from the overall quality of the sake.
So these two factors – how far the mash was permitted to ferment and how hard they squeezed it to get out the sake – combine to give a certain amount of kasu at the end of the process. The “kasu-buai,” or “degree of kasu,” is the ratio of the weight of leftover kasu to the weight of the original rice and is expressed as a percentage. So if you began with a ton of white rice and after pressing there is 200 kg of kasu left, the kasu-buai would be 200/1,000, or 20 percent.
The lower this number, the more the brewer attempted to get every last drop out of the rice. The higher the number, the more they were willing to sacrifice potential yield for quality.
Most inexpensive sake in Japan has a kasu-buai of about 20 percent. The next grade up, honjozo and junmai-shu to lower-grade ginjo-shu, have kasu-buai of about 30 to 40 percent. Fine daiginjo will often have a kasu-buai of 40 percent or even more. Naturally, these numbers will vary from product to product and from brewer to brewer. But in short, for kasu-buai, higher is better.
One brewer shared with me a couple of rules of thumb on this point. “Our former toji used to say ‘leave ten percent of the sake in the kasu.’ In other words, based on data and experience, you might be able to get a kiloliter out of it, but heck, just squeeze it hard and long enough to get out 900 liters. Leave the last ten percent in there. That way, you don’t pull out some of the nasties, like a bitter touch or the taste of the kasu itself.”
Long-time readers will surely recall the seimai-buai and its significance. The seimai-buai, being an indication of how much the rice was milled before brewing, is also expressed as a percentage: it indicates how much of the rice was left over after milling. So, a semai-buai of 70% means that 30% was ground away, a 35% seimaibuai means a whopping 65% was ground away. Since more grinding removes protein and fat, in short, a *lower* seimai-buai means better sake. Or so reads the conventional logic.
In any event, for seimai-buai, *lower* is better. For kasu-buai, *higher* is better.
The above brewer continued on about his former toji’s methodology. “The old guy also used to say that the seimai-buai and kasu-buai should add up to be 100. So, if you were making ginjo with rice milled to 60%, your kasu buai should be 40%; but if you are making cheap drivel with rice milled only to 80% of its original size, you can squeeze the bejeezus outta the kasu and leave but 20% behind.”
However, practically speaking, this is not realistically attainable. The highest kasu-buai I have seen is 60%. There are tons of daignjo at 35%, even one at 23%, and a couple beyond that. There is no way they are leaving 65%, much less 77%, behind. Fuhgedaboudit. So the model has its limitations, but hey, it sounds cool and the principle it espouses is easy to understand.
Finally, I reiterate that this number is only rarely found listed on the bottle. It is more interesting than it is important, but should you come across it, well, now you know.
Good Sake to Look For
Let us look at the sake brewed by the folks mentioned in the two stories above.
Amanoto (Akita Prefecture). “Umashine” Tokubetsu Junmai-shu.
When Toshihide Kakizaki was in grade schoool, he never thought he would take over the sake brewery owned by his uncle. But a series of events eventually found him doing just that. And, he surely never suspected that a classmate of his, Yasuichi Moriya, would be his toji. Moriya-san himself, the son of a rice farmer, had no intention to go into sake brewing back then. But fate had other plans for him. And perhaps one of the coolest things they do as a sake-brewing team is to keep it local: in terms of the rice, that is. Amanoto is a rare brewery in that they use ONLY local (in this case, Akita) rice, even if “better” rice might be available. And they make brilliant, flavorful, character-laden sake in spite of this self-imposed “limitation.” The Umashine label for the domestic bottle shows a group picture of all the farmers that grew the rice that went into the sake in the bottle. Umashine is textured, grainy, earthy and dry, yet laced with richer autumnal fruit notes from the initial aroma to the finish. A distinct yet subdued mineral touch pervades the flavor, enhancing the feel of a sake with uniqueness, identity, and ties to the earth. They make many other wonderful sake, although at present they all stay in Japan.
Dassai (Yamaguchi Prefecture). “Niwari-sanbu” Junmai Daiginjo
Asashi Shuzo, the kura brewing Dassai, is unique in many ways. They are tiny but brew 12 months a year, they meld cutting edge technology (like a machine that separates sake and kasu using centrifugal force) with ancient hand-crafting techniques, and they had for several years what was the highest seimaibuai of any sake in the country: 23 percent. They have since been one-upped and out-milled by at least two places, but Dassai “Niwari-sanbu” is as delicate and gossamer a sake as there is. Needless to say it is light, but a very elegant if subtle strawberry-melon-green-apple laced presence suffuses the aromas and flavors. “That sake is the defining theme of our kura now,” explains Sakurai-san (the above mentioned owner-presidente-for-life-toji). “We take all the technique we learn and the experience we earn from brewing that product and apply it to all our other sake. It raises the level for everything we make.” Niwari-sanbu means twenty three percent, and while it is available in the US and other countries, it is not the cheapest sake in the world. Nor is it Dassai’s only sake exported. They also export a junmai ginjo at 50% that shares delicate touches with this product, albeit fuller overall.
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara, June 4, 2005
On the evening of Saturday, June 4, Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. 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 sending me an email. No deposit is required. Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.
In the Archives
At the risk of shameless self promotion, I want to encourage readers to scour the archives of this newsletter at http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-archives.html for a wide range of topics that have been covered over the past five years in this newsletter.
The archives go back to August 1999. Within them are covered just about anything related to sake, from what it actually is (8/99, 6/03) to how it is made (9/99, 4/00, 7/04) to what makes for good ingredients (water: 2/01, 6/03, rice: 11/02, 3/03, and yeast: 10/99, 12/02). The topic of sake and region is covered, with articles on the sake of Niigata, Shimane, Fukui, Yamagata, Nara, Fukuoka, Ishikawa and Hyogo Prefectures. There are many more regions to be covered, but these are certainly worth knowing.
More focused, less general topics like un-pasteurized sake (11/99, 5/00, 7/03 and 12/04) and nigori-zake (10/03) are there, as are culturally supplanting topics like history (11/00, 7/02) and official government sponsored tasting contests (June or July of each year). Detailed (overly so?) discussions of processes like the yeast starter (8/00, 10/00) and its more interesting manifestations like yamahai (3/04) and kimoto (12/04) and pressing sake from the dregs after fermentation (4/01) along with discussions on aging sake (8/03) and warming sake (11/99, 10/03). And much more.
And while shameless self promotion is not usually my bag, being useful and informative is. I simply want readers to know the information is out there. Please check it all out at your leisure.
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at the email address above.
All material Copyright 2005, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
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