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Foamless Yeasts; +
Creative Uses for Sake; Plum Wine

Sake World e-Newsletter
Issue #81
August 1, 2006

IN THIS ISSUE:
– Foamless Yeasts
– Creative Uses for Sake
– “Umeshu,” or Plum Sake
– Sake Events/Announcements

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Foamless Yeasts
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Admittedly, the subject of yeast types begins to push the envelope of geekdom, ever-so-slightly encroaching into the realm where most folks’ interest in sake begins to wane. While some want to know both in theory and practice the difference between a Number 9 and a Number 10, and perhaps even between a CEL-24 and EK-1, most of us are content to sip and smile. Even so, there are some interesting historical, cultural and technical anecdotes surrounding even things as dryly scientific as yeast, making it well worth a look-see for those that like sake. The lore – dare I say subculture? – surrounding foamless yeasts, or “awanashi kobo,” is one such example.

First of all, just what is foamless yeast? Usually, when sake undergoes its 20- to 40-day fermentation, the foam rises in great swaths and falls again, especially over the first third or so of this period. In fact, brewers of olde would judge the stage, progress and condition of a given batch by the appearance (and smell, and taste, and even sound) of this foam topping. Also, there are ten times more yeast cells in the foam than the mash itself, so very often yeast for subsequent batches is removed from the foam of healthy, vibrantly fermenting tanks. For a more detailed description of the timing, appearance, and significance of the foam at different stage of fermentation, please check out:

http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2002_4.html

So foamless yeasts, obviously, are strains of yeast that do not give off much if any foam as they convert sugars to alcohol, carbon dioxide, and more. The question is, why would anyone want to use them? There are, actually, a number of very good reasons. Most of these are centered around efficiency, sanitation, labor-savings, and even safety.

For instance, since the foam rises so high during fermentation, brewers cannot fill a tank to the brim with rice, koji and water since it would soon overflow with foam, leading to hygienic nightmare. Rather, they can only fill the tank initially about 3/4 of the way to leave room for the foam to rise and fall. Naturally, this puts a damper on one’s yields and efficiency. With foamless yeasts, however, this concern is all but a non-issue, and a brewery can get the higher yields out of each batch and tank.

Also, when foam does rise and fall, the remains that cling to the side of the tank are a veritable hotbed of bacterial activity, an orgy of undesirable microorganisms just hankerin’ to drop back in and do damage to the unsuspecting ambrosia-in-waiting below. So this must be assiduously cleaned off by the brewers. Not only is this hard and time consuming work, it is also quite dangerous, since it generally requires leaning into the tank. Falls into tanks are almost always fatal since there is no oxygen and the huge amount of carbon dioxide billowing up from the mash is harshly engulfing. So by eliminating the foamy remains, time, labor, and risk are spared. Finally, without all that gunk in the way, the hard-working yeast cells move and work a bit more freely, so that fermentation proceeds a smidgeon faster and can finish a day or two earlier.

Why are they foamless? What happens, it seems, is that most yeast cells will cling to bubbles of carbon dioxide that are created and then rise to the surface. Foamless yeast cells, on the other hand, for whatever reason do not cling to these bubbles and so are not carried up, up, and away. Since the bubbles are unencumbered, they pop, and there is no foam rising high above the mash.

The foamless yeasts that are commonly encountered out there today are non-foaming versions of the “usual suspects,” rather than being new, unknown, or total mutant life-forms. Most (if not close to all) of those I have encountered are simply foamless versions of the main Brewing Society of Japan yeasts, i.e. Numbers 6, 7, 9, 10 and 16. While I am not sure why there are not other sources making foamless yeast, I suspect that only the BSJ has the requisite customer base, willingness and resources to do it.

Actually, these puppies, too, are naturally occurring. About one in every several hundred million yeast cells of a given type are foamless, but obviously, if just one in several hundred million is non-foaming, no one will notice. It just takes patience to isolate some and cultivate a pure culture of them.

Also, they have been around a long time, it seems, but proper records go back until only about 1916, when several breweries reported experiences with them. Apparently, until then, the brewers that encountered these thought, “Whoa. *This* can¨t be right. Let’s just quietly throw this mutant away before anyone finds out about it. It could be bad for our rep and all.”

But then in 1931, the Sake Research Center in Niigata successfully brewed a proper batch with foamless yeast. In 1963, based on some foamless yeast isolated at a brewery in Shimane making a sake called Hikami Masamune, researchers began to study it properly, and with the help of a local-to-Shimane famous sake professor named Yuichi Akiyama (still active and famous), in 1971 the foamless version of Number 7 became available to brewers around the country.

However, the first commercial use of a foamless yeast was actually in Hawaii, believe it or not. In 1960 or 1961, a full ten years before it was used on anything remotely resembling a large scale in Japan, Mr. Takao Nihei of the Honolulu Sake Brewery. Dispatched by the brewing research organization within the government of Japan, he was the first to take what information there was on these yeasts (and a sample, of course) and run with it. His focus was saving labor and producing great sake with great efficiency, and this he did with great success. .

Are these foamless yeasts *really* the same as their bubbling counterparts, except for the foam? I mean, c’mon; really? Just between us sake pals? Well, I always take the opportunity to ask a toji this question, being sure to pretend it is the first time I have ever done so. Most of the time they would answer, “Yes, the results are essentially same, and the practical advantages make it a clear choice for us.” However, there are a still a few hardcore toji who insist that the foamless manifestations are *not* quite as good as the foaming yeasts. Naturally, the ability to gather information from the appearance of the foam is eliminated. Still, most brewers feel that with foamless yeasts they get the same quality of sake, with less mess.

A final techie note for those that like these details: foamless yeasts, at least those distributed by the Brewing Society of Japan, are designated by a -01 after the normal nomenclature. So a foamless Number 7 is known as 701, foamless Number 9 as 901, and so on. Those you are likely to come across are 601, 701, 901, 10-01 and 1601. Now you know. For more information on the characteristics of those strains, check out http://www.sake-world.com/html/yeast.html. Also, there are several articles on the individual characteristics of the various yeast strains in the newsletter archives on that site as well.

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Creative Uses for Sake
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Will wonders never cease? In a not-so-recent issue of Consumer Reports magazine, it was reported that the JVC EX-A1 JVC EX-A1 Compact DVD Audio/Video System with Wood Cone Speakers micro system, retailing for $500 or so, provides “high sound propagation and high internal loss that result in improved frequency response that is remarkable for its natural sound across the sonic spectrum.” The secret behind it is that, according to JVC, the speaker cones are made of birch that has been saturated with sake, which allows the wood to be shaped without cracking or breaking. The article headline indicated that the speakers delivered “intoxicating sound.” Ah-hah. I wonder what else sake can do for us.

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Umeshu — Plum Sake
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Recently, plum sake has become fairly popular in Japan, and while I do not think it is a trend that will last much, the stuff is tasty enough to know a little bit about. First and foremost, though, umeshu, literally “plum sake,” was traditionally made using shochu, Japan’s indigenous distilled beverage. Using a multiply distilled, white liquor manifestation of shochu, plums are soaked from several weeks to several years, often with a form of sugar added to the concoction. While intense, it can be tasty.

Recently, a few sake breweries have begun to make umeshu using nihonshu, or sake as we know it. Lighter in presence, and lower in alcohol than shochu, this nihonshu-based umeshu is a bit more demure and alluring, if less impacting. At least one such product is exported around the world, including into the US, if not more. While these are indeed plum-like and refreshing, and admittedly tasty, they will not exhibit the subtleties that most ginjo and other fine sake will present for our enjoyment. Yet they are surely worth seeking and tasting.

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Sake Events and Announcements
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The Joy of Sake Event Series
Tickets for the following two events can be purchased at www.joyofsake.com.
Sponsored by: The International Sake Association, and Japan Airlines

1. San Franciso, August 31, 2006 – 6PM – 8:30PM
Moscone West
Fourth and Howard Streets
$70 per person

Join visiting brewers from Japan and sake enthusiasts from San Francisco and Japan to sample this year’s newly released fall sakes. Over 250 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 15 outstanding restaurants provides an ideal accompaniment to the many fine daiginjo, ginjo and junmai sakes available for sampling. This year’s list of participating restaurants includes: Betelnut, Hog Island Oyster, Hana, Memphis Minnie’s, Kiku of Toyko, Kirala, Ozumo, Roy’s, Sakae Sushi Bar & Grill, Sanraku, and Sushi Ran-with more to come.

2. New York: September 28, 2006 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM
The Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street
$75 per person

Join visiting brewers from Japan and sake enthusiasts from New York and Japan to sample this year’s newly released fall sakes. Over 250 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 15 outstanding restaurants provides an ideal accompaniment to the many fine daiginjo, ginjo and junmai sakes available for sampling. This year’s list of participating restaurants includes: Artisinal, BAO III, Bond Street, Geisha, Hasaki, Kai, Oms/b, Ono, Sumile, Riingo, Sakagura, Sushi Samba and TocquevilleБwith more to come.

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Sake Seminar at Takara, Sept., 2006
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My next sake seminar in the Takara series is scheduled for September 9, 2006. Details and topic have yet to be determined, but those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email. Just visit my homepage at sake-world.com and click the email link.