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Special Junmai, Charcoal Filtration

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #71
September 1, 2005

IN THIS ISSUE:
– Tokubetsu Junmai & Other Obfuscations
– Charcoal Filtration in Sake
– Good Sake To Look For
– Sake Events/Announcements

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Tokubetsu Junmai and Other Obfuscations
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Most of us by now have certainly learned the legal definitions of the various grades of premium sake. F’r instance, daiginjo is made with rice milled to at least 50% of it’s original size, ginjo to at least 60%, junmai-shu was 70% but now can be anything provided they list it on the label, yada yada yada. For those that may have not yet committed this to memory, a succinct and graphical explanation that should prove useful can be found at:

www.sake-world.com/html/types-of-sake.html .

However, with more and more information being provided to us on labels et al, many people have from time to time come across sake that could be classified as a higher grade than it is, based at least on how much the rice was milled. For example, we may see a ginjo-shu made with rice milled to 48%, or a junmai-shu made with rice to 59%… why in the world would a brewer *not* call a sake by its higher grade if they have the right to do so?

First of all, remember that the numbers listed for milling for the various grades are minimums. While the rice only needs to be milled down to 60% of its original size for regular ginjo, it can be taken much further, and it often is. The greatest example of this is king-of-the-hill daiginjo, which only *needs* to be milled down to 50%, but is often milled down to a whopping 35% of its original size; i.e. grinding into oblivion-powder the outer 65% of the original raw materials. (A couple of more extreme examples exist, mind you.) But still, why in the world would a brewer *not* call a sake by the highest grade for which the sake would qualify?

The answer lies in the fact that premium sake classifications like ginjo and daiginjo are as much (if not more) about a feeling as they are about rules. They are more about the spirit of things than the letter. So, a kura will put out a product about which they can feel comfortable saying “This is our ginjo,” or “This is our daiginjo.” These standards will vary from brewer to brewer, based on their objectives, market, and style of sake. But in the end, what each brewer is saying is, “This is the sake that represents what we feel our ginjo should taste like.” The numbers are secondary.

I recall visiting the kura brewing Rihaku in Shimane prefecture a few years ago. He had been asked by a large department store chain to brew a daiginjo from rice milled to 50% of its original size, presumably with a price point in mind. Now this fully – if barely – qualifies as a daiginjo. Mr. Tanaka, the owner shook his head slowly as he gazed out the kura window, explaining it all to me. “I did it, but I dunno, a daiginjo at 50%… I’m not all that comfortable with that.”

So, to get a ginjo to where it feels like what their ginjo should feel like, one brewer may just need to mill the rice to 60%, especially if it is a fuller sake, or (quite frankly) if their target market and price point needs dictate as such. Another may need to mill the rice much further, way into legal daiginjo range, to feel the same level of warmth and fuzziness about their product.

This is why you might see from time to time a ginjo that is more expensive than a daiginjo on the same shelf. The producer of the former, for a myriad of potential reasons, preferred to call his product a ginjo, whereas the maker of the latter was firmly ensconced in the comfort zone with selling his as a daiginjo. No statement of judgment here, no verdict or conclusion, just an observation of a tale of two sakes.

And, in truth, this is all a bit of an oversimplification. There are many other reasons, some technical, some business-related, why a product might not be sold in the highest classification legally possible. But in short, just remember that classifications like junmai, ginjo and daiginjo are more about a feeling and a representation than they are about rules and stipulations.

And all this leads nicely into a discussion of the nebulously defined classifications of tokubetsu junmai-shu and tokubetsu honjozo. “Tokubetsu” means special, so these classifications therefore mean “special junmai-shu,” and “special honjozo.” But this begs the question, what’s so tokubetsu about them?

Well, the rules on this one read that tokubetsu junmai and honjozo need to be made with rice milled to ginjo levels, or “have something else special about them,” be it ingredients or methods. Included in this is the use of, say, 100% premium sake rice. The vague rules further state that whatever is so special about the product needs to be written on the label. Ah, if only this happened on a regular basis. Alas, it does not. So, we are left wondering with many a tokubetsu junmai or tokubetsu honjozo just what it is that is so damn tokubetsu about it. But again, looking back at the principle espoused above, these classifications are more about a feeling on the part of the brewer toward the sake in question. Most often, the brewery is not quite willing for one good reason or another to promote the sake as a ginjo, yet it is a healthy cut above their regular junmai-shu or honjozo. They may have, for example, a flagship junmai-shu and a representative ginjo-shu, and this product falls right in between.

So they call it “special.”

And, in fact, to me personally, this tenuously defined class if very often to me some of the most enjoyable sake out there. I have found on many occasion that I much prefer the tokubetsu junmai or even tokubetsu honjozo products of a brewer to be eminently more drinkable over the long term than their ginjo or daiginjo. Not always, mind you, but from time to time. This is because this vague class exudes the classiness of ginjo but the fuller arrays of richer flavors possible with less highly milled rice. It can be an exquisite balance.

So in the end, remember sake grades are more about feeling and principle than bragging rights and rules. And in any event, we should be drinking the sake, never the label.

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Charcoal Filtration in Sake
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As we sample more and more sake over time, surely it becomes noticeable that some sake have more of a color to them than others. While sake is generally close to clear (with the obvious exception of nigori-zake), some of it has a light amber or goldenrod touch to it, while other sake is totally transparent. Why is this, and is it an indication of quality?

First of all, assuming the sake is fresh and not either deliberately or inadvertently aged, color is mutually independent of quality (provided of course it has a healthy luster). Sake darkens with aging, and this will go hand in hand with significant changes in flavor and aroma, desired or not, enjoyable or not, enhancing or not. But within the realm of young and fresh sake served young as it should be, the degree of color is not directly related to quality. A number of things affect color, such as rice milling, fermentation conditions, and more. And, on top of all this, there is the art and science of filtering with activated carbon, which is essentially powdered charcoal.

This filtering is a curious process in which the recently-completed sake is dosed with black, powdered activated carbon so that the concoction resembles ink more than sake. It is then sent through a filter consisting of a series of dozens of white paper-like meshes like large circular coffee filters that catch the carbon bits, and the nasties that have become attached or absorbed by them. As vulgar as it sounds, it is in reality a very precise process that borders more on an art than a science.

Brewers can filter for color, to remove off-flavors, to remove odd aromas, either as singular objectives or in any permutation of these three. What changes is a range of factors, including the grain size of the carbon, the original raw materials used to make it, the exposure time, and of course the volume. It is an amazingly precise practice.

Still, some sake is not filtered in this way at all. Based on the way a brewer makes sake, the water they start with, and the flavor profile they are seeking, it might not be necessary. Sake from such kura is just as they want it to be, with no filtering necessary. Conversely, some consumers have come to seek rough-and-tumble sake, feeling (mistakenly, in my humble opinion anyway) that these “closer to their original form” sake are in some way superior. As such, there was a boom a couple of years ago for “muroka” sake, i.e. not charcoal filtered, but more significantly with an intentionally rougher texture to them so that they “felt” unfiltered. So bear in mind that all this is another one of those things that is neither better, nor worse, just different. It’s a sake thing; you know.

In reading up on this, some interesting things came to light. This practice of using charcoal filtering only came into use fairly recently in sake history, between 1911 and 1923. It was originally used to “clean up” sake to be submitted to contests. It later spread in use to regular market sake, to lighten the color, as someone got the whacky idea that sake with any color was less than desirable, a notion that most brewers themselves dispel with a mighty vengeance today. But it stuck. And it surely serves its purpose these days in stripping inexpensive table sake of its blemishes and rough spots.

Also, in a very interesting tie to regional flavor profiles, it appears that on the average less activated carbon is used in the eastern half of Japan, and more out west. This to me was particularly curious since in a general way flavors are fuller and richer in the western part of Japan. This would lead one to think the opposite about how much carbon is used. That’s what I get for trying to apply logic to the sake world.

How much is used? Well, this depends in a gargantuan way on the grade of sake and the brewer’s methods, but anywhere from 50 grams to 200 grams per kiloliter of sake.

Also, some kura use solid filters into which sake is pumped, with holes only a few microns wide through which the sake is passed. When they finish filtering a batch, pure water is sent in backwards, washing out all the nasties until next time. While these units offer less flexibility, they are surely easier to use and more practical if you will be filtering a lot of sake in exactly the same way.

Finally, bear in mind that while charcoal filtering is not always necessary but that it is easy to under-do it, it is also quite easy to overdo it as well.

Sake filtered in a haphazard way with too much activated carbon will be devoid of character, flavors, aromas and just about anything else. (Very often, poorly made daiginjo will suffer this doom in an ill-fated attempt to save it.) And in extreme cases, it is even possible to taste or smell the carbon itself.

Whether or not this kind of filtering is done, just like the question of whether or not a sake has an amber tinge, is moot when it comes to assessing quality per se. Both points are relevant when considering other information related to the sake, but still, not as isolated information.

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Good Sake to Look For
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All the sake selections below are exported to at least the US, and certainly other countries as well.

– Takatenjin, Junmai Ginjo (Shizuoka)
This product is made by the well-known brewer of another sake, Kaiun. And, this particular product is a great example of a junmai ginjo that is more expensive than many a daiginjo on the market. Some might think it overpriced as it is not technically top grade sake. But knowing the brewer, one knows that for them, this is what they would like to call a ginjo, not a daiginjo. Interestingly enough, it is rather light for them, as much of what they make is chewy if balanced. But this dancing, lively, fruity sake is balanced, elegant and subtle at the same time. There are few sake I find as hard to resist as this puppy when it sits on a table in front of me. And it’s “only a ginjo.” Hmph.

– Nanbu Bijin, Junmai Daiginjo (Iwate)
Another well known name in the industry with several products being actively exported, none of their premium products are subject to any charcoal filtering at all. Their water source is superior, their brewing prowess is formidable, and their sake is just as clean as it can be, and just how they want us to taste it, without so much as a micron-sized grain of active carbon being involved. This daiginjo starts with a lovely viscosity, one that serves as a canvas upon which a typical of fruity, ever-so-slightly sweet aromas and flavors dance, with the range running from apple to cinnamon to pear. And to boot, everything this brewery makes is seemingly underpriced.

– Bizen no Sake Hitosuji “Akaiwa Omachi,” Junmai Daiginjo (Okayama)
Made with a local version of the wonderful Omachi rice, but this “version” of that rice is more likely the original real McCoy as this is the heartland of production for Omachi. True to form, the grassy, slightly astringent, and herbal flavors and aromas are much, much more evident at temperatures closer to ambient than to chilled. While this temperature range is possibly warmer than one at which you would expect a daiginjo to shine, chilling this sake is keeping its beauty under wraps.

– Bizen no Sake Hitosuji, Junmai Ginjo (Okayama)
The “Bizen” in the name of this product refers to the region in Okayama prefecture, from which a style of pottery also takes its name. The earth here and the potters who have long used usually give a rough-hewn, deliberately unrefined style that is the favorite of many collectors, and sake drinkers alike. This junmai ginjo is also made with the Omachi rice grown in that Bizen region that its more expensive brother above uses, but is less ostentatious, more endearing, layered and deep. Richer, earthy flavors with mushroom and nutlike tones suffuse the herbal richness. Also enjoyable not only at room temperature, but also exquisite when gently warmed.

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Sake Events and Announcements
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– Sake Fridge for Sale!
For those living in Japan, an industrial-use sake refrigerator has become available. It is an attractive, glass-walled unit about 50cm square and about 145cm tall. It can be used to store two levels of 1.8 liter bottles, or three levels of smaller bottles. What it lacks in energy efficiency it more than makes up for in style, as your guests can see all that you have in your collection. So will you, which might prove to be an endless temptation. If interested, please send me an email.

– Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara, September 24, 2005.
On the evening of Saturday, September 24, I will hold the next sake seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. I will be joined by pottery mogul Rob Yellin in another “Sake and Pottery Evening.” 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.

– The Joy of Sake Events:
September 9 (Honolulu), September 15 (San Francisco), and September 27 (New York City)
Join visiting brewers from Japan and sake enthusiasts from the US and Japan to sample this year’s newly released fall sakes. Over 200 sakes, including gold and silver award winners from this year’s U.S. National Sake Appraisal will be featured. The Joy of Sake is the largest sake tasting held outside of Japan, and a rare opportunity to experience great sakes in peak condition. Good food and fine sake are made to be enjoyed together. A splendid array of sake appetizers prepared by outstanding restaurants in each city provides an ideal accompaniment to the many fine daiginjo, ginjo and junmai sakes available for sampling. For participating restaurants go to:

www.joyofsake.com.

– Also. 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.