Milling Madness and Going Against the Grain
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
June 1, 2005
INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
– Milling Madness & Going Against the Grain
– Part I: More is Less
– Part II: Less is More
– This Year’s New Sake Tasting Competition
– Sake Events/Announcements
– In the Archives…
Milling Madness and Going Against the Grain
Part I: More is Less
Those that have been enjoying sake for a while, while also taking a moment to remember a technical point or two along the way, will certainly be comfortable with this admittedly massive generalization: the more the rice is milled before brewing, the better the sake will be.
This, of course, is because proper sake rice has the starches that will eventually be converted to sugar and then ferment physically located in the center of the grain, with fats and proteins that would lead to off flavors (another generalization) closer to the surface of the grain. More milling strips away the bad, leaving only the good behind. (Have I mentioned yet that this is all a generalization?)
And, of course, this is why the only clear legal stipulation listed in the definitions of the grades of sake is precisely that: the minimum amount the rice was milled before brewing. And so, in the three levels and six types of premium sake grades, as we go up from the junmai-shu/honjozo level into the junmai ginjo/ginjo level and finally into the lofty junmai daiginjo/daiginjo level, all we really need to bear in mind is this: the more you mill the rice, the better.
A graphical representation of all this can be found at:
One important point to remember, though, is that these milling percentages for each grade are minimums; it is very, very common (if not almost the rule) to mill the rice for a given sake well beyond the required minimum. As an example, let us look at the daiginjo level. In order to call a sake a daiginjo, the rice used in brewing must have been milled enough that only 50 percent or less of the original size of the grains remains. And very, very commonly we can see daiginjo made with rice milled until only 40 percent of the original size of the grains remains. In fact, the “standard maximum” degree of milling is 35 percent. In other words, while there are many top-class daiginjo that have been made with rice milled so that only 35 percent of the original size of the grains remains, rarely does one see anything beyond that. Until recently, that is.
With starches in the middle and fat and protein in the outer parts, it would stand to reason that eventually you will have milled away all your fat and protein, and begin to dig into the starches. This would lead to the result that after a certain amount of milling, you are starting to throw away starch as well, and in essence throwing out the baby with the bath water. Right?
Right, say some. One reputable brewing expert (a university professor, not a brewer, so a teacher, not a doer, for what that is worth) has said “milling beyond 50 percent makes no sense.” But it is surely not that simple.
Everything in the sake world is gray and vague. Nothing is clear-cut; there are almost no single-word, unqualified answers to any issue or question. Everything must be prefaced or suffixed with “but there are exceptions,” or “but it depends on many things,” and sake rice itself is no exception.
While it is true that in proper sake rice the starches are more or less in the center with the fat and protein more or less outside of these (whereas in table rice these are all mixed up and evenly distributed throughout), it is not a clear-cut division. There are surely a few starchy molecules in the outer part as well as fat and protein in the middle. So, to a certain degree, milling to seemingly ridiculous levels will in fact lead to a purer starch source. Still, until recently, the generally perceived practical limit was 35 percent (remaining after milling). There are of course other related problems, like the more you mill the softer the rice is, meaning it cracks more easily (bad!), or dissolves too quickly (worse!).
Enter the drive to be number one, the desire for bragging rights, the wish to push the envelope. This has led to several sake products on the market made with rice milled to outlandish degrees. Arguably, it could be said to have begun with Dassai from Yamaguchi Prefecture a few years ago. Mr. Sakurai, the owner-toji, got bitten by this bug in his efforts to differentiate his already fine products. He made a decision to mill beyond that standard maximum of 35 percent in a bid to have the sake made with the most highly milled rice in the world. Then he heard it through the rice-stalk that Sawanotsuru, a large reputable brewer, was making a sake with rice milled to but 25 percent. Sakurai-san’s solution? Simple: out-mill’em.
Hence was born Dassai “Niwari-sanbu,” junmai daiginjo, with a milling degree down to 23 percent. Yep. That’s twenty-three.
Dassai ruled for a while, but not to be outdone, a brewer in Hyogo making a sake called Shirasagi no Shiro (Castle of the White Heron) came out recently with a daiginjo made with rice milled to but 17 percent. Still, the ultimate one-upmanship award in the extravagant milling department goes to a sake called Born (pronounced “bone”) of Fukui, made with Yamada Nishiki milled so much that but 15 percent of the original size remains.
It has gotten ridiculous. While these products are definitely very refined, light, and delicate, they are definitely not superior in any unequivocal sense. End of story. Period. Full stop.
While the conventional logic reads that the more the rice is milled the better, as in all of life, one can have too much of a good thing. Over-milling is, in a certain but very real sense, going *against* the grain. Heh, heh. By going ape-shit on the milling like that, it becomes too easy to strip away flavor, character, and especially uniqueness.
Are the above sake tasty? Certainly. Delicate? Absolutely. Enjoyable? Undoubtedly. But they represent only one extreme, and are in that sense limited, methinks.
Part II: Less is More
Then, there are those that have unexpectedly but very refreshingly taken things in the exact opposite direction: milling the rice less, and in some case, very little.
At the beginning of 1994, a couple of changes in sake grade definitions came into effect. One of these was the elimination of the minimum 70 percent degree-of-milling for junmai-shu. In truth, the driving force behind this particular change was some of the larger brewers who wanted to call their product junmai-shu, imparting a sense of quality, but did not want to spend the money to mill that much.
As one of those side notes I am so fond of, this has led to a flood into the market of very inexpensive sake that has not been cut with any alcohol (as most cheap sake here has), but rather made with rice alone, and legally being sold as junmai-shu. So when one looks at production statistics, one sees an increase in junmai-shu sales. In truth, these numbers have been a bit inflated with these junmai-shu wannabe products.
In any event, a few craft brewers have also become inspired to make junmai-shu with rice that has been milled just a little bit, perhaps down to as much as 80 or even 90 percent of its original size. This would have been anathema until recently in this world where ginjo rules, but the results are indeed quite nice, and more interestingly, surprising to even the brewers themselves.
One such sake is a junmai-shu from Ama no To in Akita. The rice has only been milled to 80 percent of its original size. As you might imagine, the flavor is full and chewy, rich and textured. Yet it also presents a honey-laced sweet touch and bubbles with green apple and concord grape tones as well. Most surprising to me was how clean it was overall; there was a notable absence of any off-flavors at all.
Then there is Tentaka from Tochigi as well. They have a junmai-shu only milled to 90 percent! Talk about bucking the trend, this is barely milling the rice at all. This product has not been released on the market, yet, but from what I heard from Mr. Ozaki the owner, it is way beyond expectations.
“It is quite smooth and clean, and of course full of rice-like flavor. I thought we were going to have to lay this down a while, but it is just fine already,” comments Mr. Ozaki. It just goes to show, a good master brewer can do just about anything.
Mr. Ozaki himself seemed more surprised than anyone. “It makes me wonder why the heck we have been milling so much for so long!” he comments, shaking his head slowly in mild bewilderment.
Indeed, sake like this may be going against the grain of what everyone else is doing is, in a certain but very real sense, working *with* the grain of rice. Heh, heh. In sake like this, less (milling) is more (flavor).
There are more examples than the two above, notably Tsuki no Katsura of Kyoto with a junmai-shu at 80% made with local organically grown Iwai rice, and Okuharima of Hyogo. The producers’ tasting notes all share one point in common, that being just how surprisingly refined these products are – albeit with plenty of flavor – despite the low degree of milling.
As mentioned above, these products have yet to hit the market on anything remotely resembling a full scale, so the jury of consumers’ reactions is still out. But certainly, expectations are high for these refreshing departures from the trend of milling madness.
This Year’s New Sake Tasting Competition
Each year in late May, the government here sponsors a large scale blind tasting competition of newly-brewed sake from all over the country. Currently, about 1000 of the remaining 1500 breweries in Japan participate. I am personally very interested in these competitions, and their technical, historical and cultural significance, and have written about them several times in the past. More comprehensive articles on various aspects of this “National New Sake Tasting Competition” or “Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyokai,” can be read by clicking on the links at the end of this article.
One aspect of rice production and sake brewing that is exacerbated in importance at these contests is the quality of the rice from year to year. In other words, just like wine, sake is made from an agricultural product that is at the mercy of the environment, and subject to swings in quality from year to year due to the weather conditions of any given year.
However, in sake brewing, even after the raw materials have been harvested and brought into the kura (brewery), there is so much manhandling of the rice that there is much that can be done to make up for a less-than-optimal rice harvest. Rice is washed, soaked, steamed, some has mold grown upon it, and it is all sent through a very controlled ferment. There are things that brewers can do at each step in the direction of aidin’ and abatin’ a batch of rice that needs it. In fact, the goal of a brewer for any given product they brew is consistency from year to year. Good rice, bad rice; cold winter, warm winter: no matter what conditions befall a kura and a brewing season, they try to make each of their distinct products maintain consistency from year to year. “It is one of the most difficult things a brewer must do,” lamented one brewer in a recent discussion on the topic.
However, it is precisely in these contests where the reality of good years and bad years in rice is most evident. Great years in rice lead to sharp, clean, fine-lined aromas and flavors, whereas sub-par harvests result in lackadaisical, flaccid, loose contest sake. It is of course all very subtle, but if you taste a wide range of these contest sake year after year, it definitely becomes quite evident.
So how was this year? Well, the summer started out hot and sunny, and things were looking good. But then Japan got hit with a series of devastating typhoons, spoiling the party. Autumn typhoons will knock down en masse sake rice stalks in the fields, standing as they do over a meter tall, and lay them flat to the ground, broken stems whimpering against the wet earth. Once the stalks have been laid down like that, they must be harvested almost immediately, whether they are peaking in their suitableness for sake brewing or not. This is what happened last year, and the results were evident in the contest sakes.
Specifically, a mild sweetness pervaded much of the contest submissions. While this is not intrinsically a bad thing, it was obviously a bit out of place, and noticeable across a very wide range of the offerings. However, other than that things were quite tight, and overall the brewers did a wonderful job this year of working with what they had.
When I asked Haruo Matsuzaki, a famed sake consultant, critic and journalist, about a bit of the technical details, he explained that much of the rice “dissolved a bit too quickly in the fermentation tank.” Usually when rice is easily broken down and fermented, this is a good and controllable thing, but in Mr. Matsuzaki’s words, “well, it was a bit too fast and easy, resulting in a bunch of the quirky off-flavors you might have sensed.”
Another things evident to me was the differences from region to region. The judges at these contests taste with sake from all regions mixed together, since regional distinction should not affect sake like this. But when we the public have a go at them later, they are separated by prefecture. And, as one tasted from region to region, the differences were very, very clear, with some being dense, others light, and so on. The reason behind these clear delineations is of course that the various prefectures in general will get their sake rice from the sake places. They would have all therefore been subject to the same environmental conditions, which will naturally be different from that of other regions.
Those interested in more detail and depth on the National New Sake Tasting Competition will find the below articles from past issues of this newsletter interesting.
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar at Takara, July 2, 2005.
On the evening of Saturday, July 2, I will hold the next sake 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.
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.
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.