Cosmic Sake, Osaka Sake
Sake World e-Newsletter
September 1, 2006
-Kochi Uchu Sake: Cosmic Sake
-New Sake Books
-The Sake of Osaka
-Good Sake to Look For
-Sake Events/Announcements: Joy of Sake and more in NY and Boston
-In the archives…
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Kochi Uchu Sake: Cosmic Sake
Regionality in sake – creating a thread of similarity running through the sake of a given region, often making them recognizable as such (as sake from that region) – is starting to make a bit of a comeback in importance. While it has always been there, it has lost ground to a certain homogenization of styles over the past couple of decades. But now many prefectures are trying – and some trying very hard – to bring back aspects that make the sake of their region stand out a bit, to provide product differentiation to their local brands.
Kochi Prefecture has long had some of the most identifiable and character laden sake in the country, being very dry yet with a solid structure, making it very easy to drink in quantities, as the local Kochi folks have been wont to do over the centuries. But the sake of Kochi has boldly gone where no sake has gone before to define their locality: outer space.
Yeppir. On Sake Day (October 1), 2005, six types of yeast in both dry and wet form were sent up to the Russian Soyuz space station. It took three days to get up there (I guess they took the scenic route), and the yeast spent eight days orbiting the earth. It all came back on the 11th of October. After (hopefully) a quarantine period, the yeast was distributed to the 17 participating brewers, who had at it, and the resulting sake was released to the public on April 1 of this year.
The project was three years in the active planning stage, but about another decade in the gestation phase. It was supported by the “Uchu Riyo Suishin Kenkyuukai,” or “The Research Group for the Promotion of Utilizing the Cosmos.” Apparently, they initially wanted to use the US Space Shuttle, but that program’s priorities did not allow it. Shame, that.
The line of products is known as “Uchu-sake,” or “Space Sake” or perhaps “Cosmos Sake.” This was all the brainchild of the owner of Arimitsu Brewery (brewers of sake called Tamagawa and Akano), Mr. Nao Arimitsu, and the toji of the well-known Tsukasa Botan, Mr. Tetsu Asano. Something tells me a good amount of sake was involved the night of the project’s conception.
Driving the success of this project was Professor Haruhiko Uehigashi, yeast developer extraordinaire. Not only did he handle and prepare all the yeast samples for this project, but it was Uehigashi Sensei that was behind the development of the Kochi-centric CEL yeast strains, in all their pungent glory. While the CEL yeasts, like CEL-19 and CEL-24 are often too funky to be used on their own, when blended with more orthodox, blue-chip yeasts like KA (a purer form of Number 9, only obtainable directly from the kura that discovered that), it makes for lovely, complex sake indeed. The above yeasts were all part of the entourage sent up, and in fact, all of the sake products in this project were made using more than one yeast, blended at some stage.
Apparently, only the dry yeasts were used this year. “We needed to quarantine the wet yeast a bit longer to ensure safety,” he explained. “We didn’t want people to drink our sake and have an arm grow out of their head or something, you know…”
The officially published costs for this were 20 million yen, or about $167,000, but rumors have wafted by hinting it was actually a bit more.
Now, to qualify for this space sake series, it took a bit more than just the yeast. The brewers had to use one of two Kochi rice types, grown only in that prefecture, and milled down to at least 55 percent, qualifying all as ginjo sake. In fact, the 18th company in the region, Suigei, did not participate last year because they could not procure the rice they needed in time. They plan to participate this coming season.
Those two rice types are called Kaze-Naruko and Gin-no-Yume. Above and beyond this, the sake all had to also pass a blind tasting to ensure a certain level of quality.
When I visited Kochi this year just before the official release, a hugely famous tasting “sensei” pulled me aside, and commented that it was actually a very interesting project. “Now if the truth be told, the fact that this stuff was in space doesn’t really make a hoot of difference, but you know, it is interesting, and the sake is all quite good!”
The question begging to be asked is, “why?” And, in all honesty, I never did get a really good answer to that one, the closest to satisfactory being the most honest, namely, “it was just something different from what has been done before.” Hey, that’s cool.
One brewer then further explained that it was a way for Kochi sake to define their regionality, something to put a thread of consistency through them, and differentiate them from the sake of other regions. So yes, they are in a sense defining their terroir with outer space. “Our local-ness is the universe.” It is either the ultimate oxymoron, or so metaphysically zen that it ends up making sense. You make the call. And in truth, they are all using local rice, local water and local methods, so there is still plenty of leeway for specifying these products as laden with the terroir of Kochi Prefecture.
But in the end – and this is all that is really important – the bottom line is that the entire line of sake is very good. So good, in fact, that it all sold out quite quickly. (As it is gone, none has been sent to overseas markets this year, but I can see some of the more rabid sake retailers in the US bending over backwards to get some next year.) The balances of aromas and flavors are both lively and finely-wrought, and while of course there are differences between them all (thankfully!), the level of quality is very high. In this sense, the plan is a success, as it is sure to boost the image of Kochi sake, while bringing it plenty of attention too.
If you are interested in this, and why wouldn’t you be, you can view their website at http://ww8.tiki.ne.jp/~akano/utyu/utyu-f.html. The site is in Japanese, but click around and you will find enough pictures to make the visit to the site interesting.
Sake regionality and terroir is topic that warrants plenty of attention, both in how it has been in the past, how it is now, and how it might be in the future. I have covered this several times before, (most notably here: http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2004_4.html, and over the next few months intend to look at how other prefectures are creating anew a sense of regional distinction to their sake.
New Sake Books
There are two new books on the market to add to your sake library. Both are well-written, good reads that make a worthwhile addition to any sake library.
“Sake, A Modern Guide,” written by Beau Timken, and published by Chronicle Books, is a decidedly fresh, modern approach to all things sake that takes some distinctly new angles on the topic. Mr. Timken is the owner/operator of the first (and as of this writing, the only) sake-only retailer in the US, True Sake, in San Francisco. He makes sake very approachable, running the gamut of topics from history, rituals, production and vessels to introducing fifty well-selected brands.
His system of making a given sake instantly graspable without opening the bottle is interesting and potentially useful. He assigns one word describing the nature of the sake, and also mentions a food pairing. On top of that, based upon the thinking that “if you like *this* kind of wine, or *that* kind of beer, you are likely to be predisposed to this sake,” he lists a wine style and a beer style with similarities “to help you zero in on the sakes that speak to you.” Beyond all this there is a section of recipes designed to go well with sake, and of course a couple of specifically recommended sake. A section on sake cocktails rounds it all out, making it quite a comprehensive book on sake enjoyment. Sake, A Modern Guide retails for $18.95 in the US.
“The Book of Sake,” written by the inimitable Philip Harper, is the second book penned by the only non-Japanese to become a toji (master brewer) of sake. Published (as was the first one) by Kodansha International, this is a large-ish format, attractive book that puts enjoyment of sake first, and technical stuff later. Mr. Harper dives into enjoying sake in all its myriad possibilities, including various temperatures, stages of maturation, and with food (although this part is more theoretical and does not present recipes). He also covers sake types and grades, but with a thoroughness that is reassuring, going as he does way beyond the “rules” defining each grade. Also, just about every buzzword you will ever come across is covered as well, “minor genres,” subclasses, and more.
Also, Mr. Harper puts a lot of good, comprehensive attention into regional styles, and finishes off with a fairly technical explanation of the whole process, so much so that I almost thought I could brew my own just after reading that. So I sat there and kept reading his book and sipping sake until that feeling passed.
The Book of Sake retails for 2800 yen in Japan, $25.00 in the US, and $16.50 on Amazon.com.
The Sake of Osaka
Osaka has long been a great center of commerce and activity, but likely doesn’t stand out as a major brewing center in the minds of most people. True, it has never been nearly as significant as its Kansai cousins – Kyoto, Hyogo and Nara – but the sake brewing culture was, and still is, strong there.
Osaka has historically been blessed with clean water and good rice. Things today are certainly not what they were hundreds of years ago, for either water or rice. Not by a long shot, actually. It’s far too industrial for that now. But long ago water in Osaka was good all around, and tiny breweries existed (either officially or otherwise) in abundance, especially in two places, Ikeda and Izumi. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the second of Japan’s three great unifiers) built Osaka Castle, Osaka consumerism boomed as it grew into a true castle town. Naturally enough, so did the demand for sake. Sake production in those areas took off. At one point there were 38 sakagura (breweries) in Ikeda alone.
Hideyoshi was known to be fond of a sake called Amano-zake, brewed in a temple named Kangoji on Mount Amano. It was (and still is, albeit by a proper company, not a temple) brewed using koji that is much further along in its starch-to-sugar converting than koji used in most sake. Amanozake is darker, mustier, sweeter and more tart than modern sake. One Osaka sake, which uses the brand name Amanozake, re-creates the original style in a sake they call their Amanozake Boso-shu.
Later, in the Edo Period, came companies that did nothing but ship goods up to Edo by boat. Some of these began to also brew sake in Osaka, specifically to be shipped up to Edo. Clever.
However, when modern industrialism took over, the sakagura rapidly disappeared from Osaka. At present, there are 19 left in all of Osaka. In fact, in the once-hallowed brewing center of Ikeda, there is but one of the 38 mentioned that remains: Goshun, an old, established favorite of mine. On their label, Goshun proudly advertises itself as “Ikeda-shu,” the sake of Ikeda, although few would understand the historical significance of the statement.
Then there is Osaka sake rice. Until 10 or 20 years ago, both Omachi and Yamada Nishiki, two of the best (if not the two best) sake rice strains were grown in Osaka, but economics forced them out, since what little land was available would be put to more profitable use growing table rice. There are several breweries, however, that are growing local sake rice within Osaka, making use of what resources are left.
Most of the toji (head brewers) come from Tanba, one of the top three areas for toji in the country, but a few make the trek down from the Nanbu region in Iwate. This, by the way, is a trend that has certainly increased over the years, since the Nanbu toji group is the only toji group whose numbers have not dropped off significantly, due to diligent training of younger personnel and an organized labor union-type group.
Osaka sake even has a fairly easily identifiable character. It is generally neutral on the sweet-dry scale, but smooth and not at all cloying. Much of it seems to be broad, full and with great mouth feel, but not heavy in character. The daiginjo of the area is often moderately fragrant, unlike neighbors Kyoto and Hyogo.
One more interesting point is that most of the sake brewed in Osaka gets consumed there. It is not so simple to find it in Tokyo (which doesn’t seem to concern the Osaka brewers at all). But, without a doubt, it is worth the search.
Good Sake to Look For…
This month, let us look at a few sake from Osaka.
Amanozake “Kishou” (Osaka)
In 1972, this brewery revived the name Amanozake, which originally belonged to one of the above-mentioned Buddhist temples 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 temple 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.
Mukune is brewed by Daimon Brewery, who also brew a sake called Rikyubai, and have been producing sake there for 173 years. During the Heian Period (over 1,000 years ago), the aristocracy of western Japan often went to Katano as a vacation spot, enjoying the scenery and hunting. Although a good deal of sake was produced in Katano in the Edo Period, now only Daimon Shuzo and one other brewery remain. This brewery is also where Philip Harper, mentioned above, is the toji (master brewer).
Widely available in the US, Mukune presents a broad package tinged with a sweet touch around the edges, and with embedded nuts, grain and rice. To me, it hovers elegantly between sweet and dry, and its weight on the palate and its texture are outstanding. Very food friendly for those reasons.
“Tokugin” Daiginjo (probably…)
Now these guys are a trip. Talk about secretive and stubborn! Yet they are one of my original favorites. The sole remaining brewery in what was once a sake brewing town, Goshun still carries a reputation of mellow, staunchly unchanging, well-brewed sake. When the “special class, first class, second class” system ended in 1989. Goshun simply changed the names of their three products to something remotely resembling those three classifications. That is all they make. They have never diversified. They make only 1.8 liter bottles; no 720ml or 300ml versions. They do not accept visitors. They do not give out much information about their sake. (Hence the question mark after daiginjo above; it would seem to be that class of product based on the rice milling, but they do not tell us for sure.)
But it all matters not, as their sake is wonderful. Hardly ostentatious, it is subtle, mellow, clear, and rings more of balance and harmony than it does of individual, concrete flavors.
Suffice it to say, here they cannot even *spell* the word export. But who knows; that may change.
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar at Takara, September 9
The next sake seminar in the Takara series is scheduled for September 9, 2006.
This month’s topic will focus on seasonal sake, and the various manifestations of nama-(unpasteurized) sake versus pasteurized sake.
Just what is nama, and how are the following manifestations different:
hon-nama, nama-nama, nama-chozo, nama-tsume, and hiya-oroshi? How do
they pasteurize sake? What of seasonal sake, like hot and cold, freshly
pressed, nigori and more? All of this and more will be covered, with plenty of sake tasting to back it up. While the event is but a few days away, there is still room to participate, and those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email.
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For the Love of Sake: David Bouley’s Passion
Japan Society of New York, Saturday, September 30
3:30 pm; Japan Society members only
6:30 pm; open to the public
Order tickets online below or call the Box Office at (212) 715-1258.
Great chefs constantly seek to create dishes that complement an accompanying wine. Thanks to the recent Japanese food boom, sake has become very popular and is often included on wine lists at some of the most famous restaurants in New York. Naturally, Japanese food goes well with sake, but forward-looking chefs are finding the Western cuisines that go well with it. David Bouley, chef and owner of Bouley, Test Kitchen and Bouley Bakery, speaks about his passion for Japan and its food, as well as dishes he serves with the finest sakes. The presentation will be followed by a sake tasting.
Tickets: $35/$30 Japan Society members.
Both sessions have identical lecture and tasting content. Due to the popularity of our annual sake programs, we request that you attend only one session. Limited to 2 tickets per order. Members may attend either session. Participants must be 21 years of age.
Everyone attending the 3:30 pm session will receive a gift certificate for a free glass of selected sake at Sakagura restaurant on 43rd Street between 2nd and 3rd Ave.
See the below link for more information.
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The Joy of Sake Event in New York
September 28, 2006 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM
The Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street
$75 per person
Tickets available online at www.joyofsake.com
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 16 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 Tocqueville, with more to come.
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 seven 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.
THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
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.
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.
Also worth searching for:
-SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a Daimon Shuzo, a sake brewery in Osaka. He is the only non-Japanese certified master brewer in the history of the world. How’s that for qualifications?
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.
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