Sake Brewing in Shrines & Temples
Genshu; + Good Sake to Look For
INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
– Sake Brewing in Shrines and Temples
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events & Announcements
– New Sake Book
Sincere apologies to all readers for the glaring lack of a January issue. I became quite busy with several urgent projects, and by the time I resurfaced it was already so late in the month that it made more sense to wait until February. It shan’t happen again.
Sake Brewing in Shrines and Temples
When looking at the history of sake, both culturally and from the point of technical developments, there is a period in the “dark ages” where sake brewing was done mainly in shrines and temples in Japan. Interestingly, this was a period of huge strides in brewing methods and technology. But unfortunately, this period of sake history tends to get conveyed in a very abbreviated and minimalist form. It tends to take a back seat to issues such as “just what is this stuff,” or “how does one get this array of fruit and flora from rice f”gad’s sake?,” and “how does ginjo differ from regular hot schlock sake?” While admittedly such questions do deserve priority over the stories of the days of olde, sake’s foray into and back out of the religious ranks world is an interesting one, well worth knowing about.
To follow and understand it all, however, one first needs a perfunctory knowledge of Japan’s history. Until the 8th Century or so Japan was ruled fairly well by an extended imperial court, replete with emperor and other royals. During this time, most sake was brewed by this court (they had their own brewery on the premises of the palace in Nara) for their own jolly consumption, though much of this was for festivals and ceremonies rather than frivolity.
But slowly, aristocratic warrior classes took over the de-facto ruling of the country, although the imperial court continued to rule in name only. Seeing the inherent opportunity, the military government allowed production to extend into the private sector, with sake taxes first being applied in A.D. 878.
But sake also – not surprisingly – has religious applications as well, at least in the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto. (Shinto is characterized by the veneration of spirits in nature and nature’s manifestations, as well as ancestors, and is refreshingly free of anything remotely resembling a formal dogma. Very Japanese, in that sense.) There is a Shinto ceremony called O-miki performed with a Shinto priest in a shrine, and using unique white porcelain flasks (called miki-dokkuri) and cups that can be seen on the altars of shrines everywhere. In this ceremony, a small amount of sake is drunk in a prayerful act of symbolic unification with the gods.
So, even the military ruling elite gave the gods a tax break, and tax-free sake began to proliferate in Shinto shrines, ostensibly for religious purposes only. But Buddhism was also gaining ground in Japan, and as a result of some unique blend of vagary and tolerance, very often Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples lovingly shared the same grounds. While the two religions have very different tenets, they coexisted very peacefully. “Hey, it’s all good, man” is what the clergy of old likely muttered about. This continued until the Meiji era, when Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were forcibly separated by decree of the new “modern” government.
And so, while alcohol is not a part of Buddhist worship, since they shared ground, they shared sake, and they shared the brewing workload. And while officially no drinking of da goods was permitted outside of the Shinto ceremonies, no doubt they were nipping at the product here and there. In fact, they even had a nickname for it to obfuscate the truth from outsiders. Sake drunk by the clergy in temples and shrines was known as “Hanyutou,” which (very) loosely translates into “the warm water of wisdom and truth.” How true; how true.
So, the point is, that for a few hundred years – beginning in the 10th or 11th century and continuing to some degree into the 15th – much sake brewing was centered in temples and shrines. And it was here that brewing methods were developed that led to much better sake, a definition that includes (as well it should) significantly higher alcohol levels. Most significantly, it was about this time when the rice, koji (enzyme-rich moldy rice) and water were added to the fermenting mash in two separate doses to help keep the yeast population at levels high enough to defeat bacterial intruders through sheer numbers. (This later evolved into three additions, as it is today.) A form of yeast starter known as “bodai-moto” was also developed by these clever clerics, and this is considered to be the roots of the “kimoto” yeast starter method, widely recognized as the original yeast starter method of modern sake brewing.
In 1420, the military rulers made it illegal for Zen (Buddhist) monks to drink, or for sake to be brought into Shinto shrines. (What is the sound of one now-empty sake glass clapping?) While it is unclear how this was enforced, sake brewing began to move more actively into the then-equivalent of the private sector.
Still, these medieval entrepreneurs took the clerically developed technical advances and ran with them, slowly but surely improving both quality and economies of scale. Soon enough, places like Itami and then Nada rose as very prominent regions of sake production. But they had to attribute much of their success to the monks and priests of the temples and shrines.
Today, there are about ten Shinto shrines that still make a form of sake for religious purposes. But it is hardly the kind of sake we consumers normally enjoy. It is more like a wildly fizzy rice-dosed thick, thick nigori-zake (cloudy sake). Kind of like nigori on steroids, you might say.
Although all of this is a far cry from most of the ginjo and other premium sake we all enjoy today, in a sense we owe a debt and at least an acknowledging thought of gratitude to the Buddhist and Shinto priests of old.
Studying and learning about sake can sometimes feel like peeling an onion. Each time you peel a layer off, sure you got a grip on it now, you come across another layer. There is always something you didn’t know; some term new to you, some unexpected contradiction, or some modern development. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this trend continues for at least almost 20 years. But hey, that ensures we never get bored with sake.
Genshu seems to be one of those layers. It might not be something you come across when first studying and tasting premium sake, but after a bit of meandering through the sake world, you will stumble upon it. What is genshu, and what is its significance?
In a word, genshu is undiluted sake. When the 20 to 40 day fermentation period is complete, the fermenting mash is run through a mesh to keep back the rice solids and let the just-brewed sake through. At this point, sake can have an alcohol content of as high as 20 percent. It might not be that high, though, depending on many factors. Most sake is then cut with pure water to bring the alcohol content down to about 16 percent. This is done simply because the flavors and aromas of fine sake are much more easily discernible and enjoyable at this slightly lower level of alcohol. But regardless of the alcohol content, sake just out of the presses – before being cut with water – is known as genshu.
Note that the term genshu is independent of any other information pertaining to a sake. The grade of a sake, be it ginjo or junmai-shu or table sake, and whether or not it has been pasteurized or is nama (un-pasteurized) sake is mutually exclusive of whether or not it is genshu.
In my experience, what sake labeled genshu *usually* refers to is less-than-premium souvenir sake, often found in sake shops close to a brewery. The word genshu is on the label to inform (read: warn) you that it is somewhat high-octane, and by extension the flavors and aromas need not be that subtle or clean. But there are exceptions.
One such exception is the emergence over the last decade of “muroka nama genshu,” (“MNG” in my own personal lexicon) or “un-pasteurized, un-charcoal-filtered, undiluted” sake, i.e. “stuff that has not been messed with since it was created.” Personally, most sake like this is way too big in presence, body and flavor for me, but the point is that rather than simply an indication of higher alcohol, in MNG the intended genshu nuance is “as close to the original natural state as possible.”
Also, genshu does not have to be at 20 percent alcohol, or anywhere near that. A brewer can control parameters so that a sake tapers off at a level that is lower than that. For example, I know of one sake that is a genshu but has only 13.5 percent alcohol, yet the balance of flavors, balance and umami-like richness is perfect. (Shishi no Sato “Shun” from Ishikawa Prefecture). Also, there are a some products out there, high falutin’ stuff like the daiginjo of a couple of kura, that were brewed so carefully as to end up perfectly at 16 or 17 percent alcohol, and neither need nor would tolerate any dilution. This, too, is of course genshu, but that fact is actually somewhat superfluous to other information about the sake, and you likely would not even be told on the label.
I was with some visitors to a brewery here a few years ago, (and if they are reading this, they will know I am referring to them), and I translated for a brewer that their junmai daiginjo that these visitors had been importing into the US was actually shipped as genshu. They looked at me incredulously, as if I had committed some hugely egregious crime. “Why didn’t you tell us before it was genshu, John?” Cuz it doesn’t really matter all that much, that’s why.
The fact that it is genshu in sake like this (i.e. when the alcohol is not at 20 percent, but down around 16 or so) gives you no indication of how a sake will taste, nor is there anything in the flavor or aroma that would indicate it is genshu. The most one can derive from this is that the brewer is skilled enough to have kept everything controlled enough so as to not need any final tweaking.
One toji (master brewer), at the kura making Yuki no Bosha from Akita, is so skilled that every drop of their special designation sake (i.e. honjozo, junmai-shu and ginjo-shu) is genshu at 16 percent alcohol. On top of this, amazingly, they never do any mixing up of the mash in their tanks. “Once fermentation starts, we really shouldn’t be messing with it,” he says. “It’ll brew itself if we set it all up properly.”
In other words, he gets each batch up and running so perfectly that it all tapers to 16 percent alcohol bearing the perfect balance of aromas and flavors. Every time. In every tank. This, to me, is simply wild. Yet, this too is part of what genshu is all about.
So in the end, just remember that genshu is undiluted sake, which *usually* means it is a bit stronger at perhaps 20 percent alcohol. And if the word genshu is on the label, this *usually* means the brewer wants you to know it is slightly high-octane. But peel away that layer of the onion and, dammit, there lies another, in which a sake might be genshu and you might not even know it. And if you do, that fact usually serves as evidence of the brewer’s skill more than the nature of that sake itself. And rest assured there’s another layer beneath that one as well.
Good Sake to Look For
Amanozake “Kishou” (Osaka), Ginjo-shu. In 1972, this brewery revived the name Amanozake, which originally belonged to one of the above-mentioned Shinto shrines brewing sake, where major leaps and bounds in brewing methodology occurred. While this sake is a modern sake, not much like what was brewed at the Shrine 700 years ago, it nonetheless enjoys huge popularity in western Japan (and in my home). The aromas are tinged with light berries, yet are grounded with smokier tones that tie into a rich, broad, smoky, earthy yet slightly sweet and rich flavor.
Shishi no Sato “Shun” (Ishikawa Prefecture), Junmai-shu. Shishi no Sato, or “Village of the Lion,” is a very tiny brewery with a rather light and delicate style of sake sitting in the middle of a region known for its somewhat sturdy, even perhaps heavier flavors, Ishikawa Prefecture. This genshu, at 13.8 percent, is remarkably balanced, with a very slightly elevated sweetness and acidity, yet countered by a nut-tinged umami that ties it all in together. Designed as – and ideal as – a sake to be enjoyed with a wide range of food.
Aramasa (Akita Prefecture), Junmai-shu. Brewed using yeast Association No. 6, which by now is fairly old. Clean yet sharp and dry, the nature of this old style sake makes it a wonderful, wonderful choice as a simple yet effective complement to oily fish, tempura, or similar food.
Hana no Mai (Shizuoka Prefecture), Junmai-shu. A flavorful, clean-yet-textured sake that packs a lot of complexity and diversity into one little junmai-shu package. Fruit and spice duke it out for attention, with aromas that tie into corresponding flavors with remarkable clarity. Tasty and interesting, if perhaps a bit busy for those that enjoy simple, pristine sake.
Of the above four, the top two sake are not available outside of Japan, whereas the others are exported to the US and other countries.
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar, February 11, at Takara. On the evening of Saturday, February 11, from six pm until about nine pm, I will host the first sake seminar of the year at Takara. As is customary for the series, this seminar will focus on the fundamentals of sake: all you need to know to get out there and enjoy sake. The cost for the evening – half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material – is 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.
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Sake and Noh: Do you “Noh” your sake? On the afternoon of Sunday, February 12, from 1pm until 5:30 pm, there will be a “Nihonshu and Noh-raku Collaboration” event held at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya. After watching a bit of Noh and Kyogen, participants, sake brewers and Noh actors will all rub shoulders in the restaurant within the National Noh Theatre. The cost for the event is \10,000, and about 25 seats remain open. The schedule is as follows:
1:00 Doors Open. Free sake tasting in restaurant before performance.
2:00 Noh Performance (geared toward non-Japanese guests)
4:00-5:30 Sake Party (pre-event registration required, attendance limited to 100)
The event is sponsored by the Sake Culture Research Center. For more information in Japanese, please see the link below.
Those interested should contact Mr. Yamada at yamadaXXXsakebunka.co.jp. Please replace the XXX with the “at” mark. I do this to stop the automated spam spiders from harvesting his email address from this web site..
For those that want to see the Noh performance but are not interested in sake (perish the thought!), please see the link below.
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“An Evening With Nihonshu, Part II.” On the evening of Wednesday, February 15, from 7:00 PM, the well-known distributor of fine sake, Nishuuhan, will hold “An Evening with Nihonshu, Part II,” at the Fuji Room on the 42nd floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. Tickets are \5000, and participation is limited to 80. In the event there are more than 80 applicants, there will be a lottery. The food is going to be “taken up a notch” and is expected to have a value of twice the entrance fee. More information, including a list of the food and sake from the 35 brewers that will be present, can be found at:
Last time it was for ladies only; this time it is open to all. Those interested should apply through the site above. Payment will be made through bank transfer.
New Sake Book
New!! “NIHONSHU NO UMAI OTONA NO IZAKAYA” (Sake Pubs with Good Sake for Grown-ups). Written by myself (the English bits) and Akihiro Yorimitsu (the Japanese parts), the book introduces in depth 40 sake pubs all over Tokyo. All 40 pubs were selected by me based on various parameters, including food, reasonable prices, the sake list (of course), and that all-important ambience. Convenience of access was also taken into consideration. The selection runs the gamut from old and traditional to modern and funky, but with a bit of a lean toward the former. If you visit Tokyo even once in a while and enjoy sake, this little handbook will prove indispensable. Most of the text is in Japanese, as the book is geared toward Japanese people wanting to take overseas customers and guests out drinking sake. However, there is enough English in it to ensure those that do not read Japanese can find and enjoy all 40 pubs. The book is chock-full of revealing photos that speak a thousand words each, showing the nature and feel of each place introduced. It also includes an English chapter on what is what in Japanese sake pubs, in terms of both food and sake. Currently, distribution is limited to bookstores in Japan, but it is also listed on Amazon-dot-com. I am not sure just how soon or easily it will be available through Amazon in the US, but the ISBN number is 4-900901-61-X. The book costs 1600 yen in Japan, so will likely be about $20 in the US, I would imagine. If you simply must have this book (and I think you do) and cannot get to it through Amazon, send me an email, and I will see what I can do.
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.