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Sake of Fukushima Prefecture;

Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part I)

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #76
March 1, 2006

INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
– The Sake of Fukushima Prefecture
– Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part I)
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events & Announcements

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The Sake of Fukushima Prefecture
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Fukushima Prefecture got shafted in “the last war.” Up there, “the last war” refers to Japan’s final civil conflict back in 1868, when the shogun-run government was finally overthrown, and a western-style government put into place.

Many members of the Fukushima-based Aizu clan were holed up with the last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, in Osaka castle as enemy (to them, anyway) forces closed in on them. And what does the shogun do? In one of the more inexplicable mysteries of Japanese history, he splits in the middle of the night with a minimal entourage, telling no one, and leaving the Aizu clan to take the full brunt of an impossible battle. They were slaughtered. Sometimes the Aizu have it, but that time, the Aizu got it.

After a few more spats, the shogun abdicated, the Emperor was restored to power, and the samurai class distinction was eliminated. They were now just ordinary folks. The Aizu clan had been respected for their military strength, valor and commitment to the shogun and continued unification under him. But now, back in Fukushima, they all had to get real jobs.

For a myriad of reasons, many of them got into the sake business. Fukushima has all the requisites for brewing good sake: plenty of rice, great water, and butt-cold winters. It was the path of least resistance in the new environment of the times. Still, they had pride, and were not exactly thrilled about their fall from feudal glory. And this led to an interesting architectural development.

In many Fukushima sake breweries, at least amongst those that remain as they were 150 years ago, the window from which customers would pay for and receive sake is low, at perhaps stomach height. In other words, the buyer cannot see the face of the person who is on the other side, selling the sake. Which provided just what the deposed samurai wanted: anonymity.

One reason sake brewing was a business of choice was because the Aizu clan itself had long ran a flourishing sake business. Brewing in Fukushima goes back to 1558, which is even before the present san-dan shikomi (adding koji and rice to the mash in three steps) method was adopted. The sake back then was certainly different from what we have today.

But it was in the late 1800s that sake brewing took off in Fukushima. Today, they are the sixth largest brewing prefecture in Japan, just a drop ahead behind Hiroshima. At last count there were about 80 active kura (breweries) in Fukushima, a number that ranks tops in the northern part of Japan.

There are breweries spread all over this prefecture, but 70 percent of them are concentrated in the Aizu-Wakamatsu and Kitakata areas. An added attraction of the former town, in particular, is the attractive architectural style of kura buildings and old storehouses. Old, solid, white-plastered buildings are everywhere, but fading fast as neither the materials nor the craftsmen exist to build them any longer. And Kitakata is famous for their ramen.

Fukushima sake has a recognizable style, provided you have an open mind. Which is to say, I personally think there is a thread of consistency running through much of the sake from that region, but not everyone agrees with that. As I see it, Fukushima sake hovers gingerly between sweet and dry, being excessive in neither direction. It is generally soft with fairly fruity aromas that are a barely reigned in. But more than anything else, I find this billowing mouth feel – kind of like a big, soft cloud of flavors being tossed about in the wind – to be the one factor running through a large number of sake from Fukushima.

Interestingly enough, they were slow to jump on the ginjo bandwagon. They didn’t begin producing ginjo on a large-scale basis as early as most prefectures. Nor were they particularly well known for winning many awards in tax department-sponsored tastings. aking the situation to heart, representatives from about half of the kura got together to remedy the situation. They split up into four groups and worked separately toward improving the quality of the prefecture’s ginjo.

And they caught up with a vengeance. One result was the development of their own yeast that came to be adopted by almost all breweries there, and that lead to a string of lighter, crisper ginjo sakes.

Amongst the 80-odd breweries there, there are some that produce less than 50 kiloliters a year. That’s tiny; it’s a wonder they can survive. At the other end of the spectrum are huge brewers making perhaps 100 times that. Yet quality standards are relatively high, as is consistency.

Most of the toji (masterbrewers) come from the Nanbu group, from further up north in Iwate prefecture. The most common sake rice grown in the region is Gohyakumangoku, just as in Niigata next door. These factors, of course, contribute to the general regional style distinctions described above.

So, in another sense, the Aizu *still* have it.

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Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part I)
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The choice of vessel obviously has a huge effect on the enjoyment of the sake at hand. While many of the reasons for this are both tangible and obvious, countless others are actually much less so.

First of all, it should come as no surprise that the shape, size and dimensions of a vessel – not to mention texture – would affect how you taste it. The most commonly touted and most easily understood reason for this is that the human tongue senses different flavors in different regions. Sweetness, for example, is sensed on the tip of the tongue, with acidity and tartness on the sides. Imagine a lemon wedge between your fingers. Now imagine biting into it. What part of your tongue felt that? There ya go.

So, a glass with a narrow diameter opening will focus more of the sake on the tip of your tongue, intensifying what sweetness there is. Similarly, a wide-mouthed glass will spread the sake out so that more of it hits the sides, potentially exacerbating its acidic qualities.

Clearly, there is more to this. Bigger glasses allow more aromatics to hover above the liquid, but more alcohol fumes as well. These have different relative weights and will settle into layers in time, so which size is best depends greatly on the character of the beverage. Thickness of rim, surface area exposed, and of course the presence or lack of a tapering shape to the glass are all very real factors with very real effects.

So, with all the theory out of the way, let’s dive into some practice. What should we be using when drinking sake? Let me start out by saying that regular ole・wine glasses work just great. They are simple, they are elegant, and they are everywhere. They hold a decent amount and they accentuate lively aromatic profiles wonderfully. If you have wine glasses around you need not agonize about what to use for your sake.

Having said that, you never see them used for sake in Japan. And it is not as if no one drinks wine in Japan; on the contrary, tons is consumed here. So there certainly is no dearth of stemware. But they simply aren’t used for sake, despite being quite adequate. One person, both an accomplished wine sommelier and one who knows his sake well, told me that the main reason was that long-stemmed wine glasses just don’t jibe well with Japanese table settings. That makes sense.

He then pushed the envelope of his explanation by saying, “traditional clothing has big, droopy sleeves, you see. And, often people eat from small dishes, taking food from larger communal bowls and plates. So if everyone is reaching across the table with long droopy sleeves to get their food, they will be knocking over things like tall wine glasses all the time.” Hmm. A tad tenuous of an explanation in these modern times, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

What, then, are people using to drink their sake here? Well, first although not foremost are those ubiquitous little cups poured from narrow-topped flasks. Known as o-chokko and tokkuri respectively, surely these are most common implement seen for drinking cheap, hot sake. And their form follows function. A very real and pleasant custom in Japan — and one of the few “rules” surrounding sake — is that one does not pour for yourself, but rather for others, and is then poured for in return. It is a show of everything good from respect to friendship. And tiny little cups further the cause by calling for frequent refilling. Still, as real and as culturally important as they might be, these little cups might not be the best choice for premium sake.

How could they be, really? They’re hard to get your schnoz into, and the amount of aromatic material rising is fairly small. This is not to say they do not have their appeal, time and place; certainly they do. But for serious tasting, little o-chokko might not be the best choice.

And so not surprisingly, in Japan too, proper sake at proper sake bars is most often served in larger tumbler-size glasses. These will come in various shapes and are usually clear cut glass. But another very common implement used to enjoy fine sake are official kiki-chokko, or slightly smaller facsimiles of these. White porcelain, round tumblers with a bold, blue concentric circle bull’s eye pattern embossed on the bottom, these make excellent choices for tasting sake. At least the official versions do.

Next month, this article will continue with a description of other vessels used in Japan ・like wooden boxes, lacquered boxes, amber glasses, and specially designed glasses, as well as discuss their historical, cultural, and practical significances. More on the official tasting glasses, and something called “the pour of generosity” will also be included.

But let us wrap up this month’s diatribe with it’s most useful point: wine glasses work very well in presenting the best aspects of a sake, even if they are not the only game in town.

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Good Sake to Look For…
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This month’s recommended sake selections will be a cross-section of representative Fukushima sake. Instead of recommending specific products, let us look at the overall nature of the company, and of course, that of their sake.

OKUNOMATSU. Currently in their 19th generation of brewing, this is a well-established old company that incorporates healthy dollops of modern ingenuity. Their contest sake wins top awards with great regularity, and their regular stuff is popular as well. They try new things as well with great success, including a sparkling sake and something they call Zenmai Ginjo, in which the alcohol added to their (non junmai) ginjo is made by distilling their own junmai-shu. An industry first, and an enjoyable sake to boot. They have a range of products imported into the US, including their tokubetsu junmai-shu, the above-mentioned sparkling sake (Okunomatsu FN Junmai Daiginjo), and their top grade junmai daiginjo.

DAISHICHI. In short, Daishichi rocks. There are a couple of things that make this brewery unique. One is that almost all of their sake is made using the kimoto method, giving it a richer, gamier, but more fine-grained nature. Another is that they mill rice in a special, labor intensive way that maintains the oblong shape of the rice, which in turn allows more of the “bad stuff” to go away while leaving the “good stuff” behind. Look for their Kinowamon junmai daiginjo on the pricey end, but anything with the Daishichi name on it is worth tasting.

SUEHIRO. One of the largest producers in Fukushima, and also one of the most prestigious. Most of their sake has a soft, delicate touch, but some of their daiginjo, including Ken and Gensai, are decidedly sharp-lined and powerful. Ken and a honjozo called Kira are going to the US, as is a low alcohol sparkling sake called Poochi-poochi. And for what it is worth, they were the first brewer to experiment with yamahai sake, under the direction of that style’s inventor Kinichiro Kagi, back in 1911.

EISEN. Another large but stable brewer with a line of very drinkable, enjoyable sake that in my mind typifies Fukushima sake. Billowing, full mouth feel with rice-laden flavors and aromas. Strangely, it does not seem to be going to the US, but is worth remembering nonetheless.

YAMATOGAWA. Another wonderfully innovative brewer. Yamatogawa makes a wide range of sake styles, including some older revived regional styles, but their standard sake is light-ish, mellow-ish and clean. At least two products from this dependable brewer are being exported around the world.

HIROKI. A massively popular sake in Japan, and deservedly so. Very small production, so the owner does most of the brewing himself, and his sake is understated in its greatness, just as he is humble and quiet. It has been said that the personality of the brewer is reflected and expressed in the nature of the sake, and this is one wonderfully pleasant sake in which that principle is evident. Overall all the style is balanced, and just a very tiny bit fruity and aromatic, but more defining is its depth and cleanliness. While there is barely enough to go around here in Japan, rumor is that a bit of Hiroki will soon be available in the US. Hopefully for those living there, this is true.

AIZU MUSUME. Yet another tiny, tiny brewer with a wonderfully defining quality. Soft and demure, much of their sake seems to lean very gently to the thick-ish and sweet-ish side, but again with depth and grace in spades. You will likely need to be in Japan to drink this puppy.

KOKKEN. One more fantastic sake from Fukushima, albeit one less heralded and less indicative of Fukushima sake. Kokken actually is more reminiscent of sake farther up north, with its tight-grained, power-tinged, impeccably balanced flavors and aromas. Winners of accolades year in and year out, and popular with those that both know their sake and drink their share, Kokken is a name to remember – no matter how long it takes until you actually get to taste some!

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Sake Events and Announcements
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Sake Seminar, April 1, at Takara.
Sake that is out of this world! On the evening of Saturday, April 1, from six pm until about nine pm, I will host the second sake seminar of the year. The topic for the evening will be sake yeasts, and as a special attraction, one of the sake will be a brew made with a yeast that spent some time in space on the Russian spaced Station Soyuz. At least in once sense, this sake will literally be out of this world.

The space-yeast project is the brain-(?)-child of Kochi prefecture, and the results will be tasted publicly on April Fools Day, er, April 1, the same day as this seminar. Which means attendees will be tasting this sake on the same day as the rest of the world. The cost for the evening, including ample food, a lecture, printed material and out-of-this-world sake is 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email (http://www.sake-world.com/html/email.html).

No deposit is required. Yeppir, you too can drink sake made with yeast that had been in outer space on the Soyuz space station!

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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All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003