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Leveraging the Post-Brewing Process

#96

Nov. 2007
– The Leverage of Post-Brewing Processing
– The History of Warmed Sake
– Announcing the Sake Pro Course in Japan 2008

The Leverage of Post-Brewing Processing
The sake brewing process is a fairly intricate, convoluted affair that sounds complicated at first listen, and only gets more so as one gets deeper into it. If one were to streamline the explanation so as to convey it in just a few sentences, it might sound like this: “To make sake, a yeast starter that has a very high concentration of yeast must first be created so as to allow the subsequent fermentation to continue unfazed by all the stray micro-organisms dropping in for a visit. But to get sugar to feed that yeast, some of the rice must be inoculated with a mold, koji mold, that breaks down starch molecules to glucose and more. After the yeast starter is adequately prepared, the size of the batch is essentially doubled three times over four days by adding more rice, moldy rice, and water – the purpose of dividing it up into three separate additions being to keep the yeast population high and vigorously active. After the 20- to 30-day fermentation period, unfermented rice solids are filtered out through a press to yield clear sake.”

There you have it, in all of its tradition-insulting oversimplifying glory. What we have at this point is undeniably sake. But even if this were drawn out over several pages, it would likely be then suffixed by something akin to, “oh, then, you pasteurize it, store it, cut it with water, pasteurize it again, bottle it, and ship it.” This makes it sound as if once fermentation is completed and you have “sake”, the rest is a simple matter of course, and not much to be concerned about. Yeah, well, forget about *that* nonsense.

Giving in to the urge to simplify yet again, the “after it’s sake” processing has just as much to do with the good-ness of the final product as does the brewing before it. A completed sake can take any one of a million paths, depending on the methodology, forcefulness, order and especially the timing of these “post-completion” processes.

Perhaps the easiest thing to look at as an example would be pasteurization. When a sake is pasteurized by essentially warming it up for a short spell, various things happen, most notably bacteria are killed, and enzymes are deactivated. This provides great stability to the product. But the timing of this step (usually done twice, by the way) is a huge factor in how a sake matures.

Consider a freshly pressed tank of sake. It has residual enzymes, a bit of sugar and starch and a few stray yeast cells still hanging around and looking for some action. Like all late-night partiers, these folks will interact a bit and their presence will be felt. But once the police-sweep of pasteurization clears out the ‘hood, these colorful characters are gone, as is the potential effect of them having been there.

Waxing technical again, sake matures much more quickly when it is stored unpasteurized, and *much* more slowly after it has been pasteurized. So the longer a brewer waits to put the heat on, the fuller, richer, meatier, more pronounced-in-flavor the sake has a tendency to be.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple. It *will* mature after pasteurization, just not as vividly. The point being, there are no hard and fast rules for the brewers to follow. What kind of sake is the brewer aiming for? How close or far from that is this particular batch? How slowly or quickly will that puppy in particular mature? When can it be expected to be shipped? How much time is there to play with, both before and after pasteurization? Can it be stored cold or must it be at room temperature, and what are the effects of that environment on what it is and what it will be? It is as frustratingly difficult as any other step in the brewing process, and exerts as much leverage as well.

Traditionally, sake was pasteurized once very soon after brewing, then stored in a storage tank, and pasteurized again on its way to the bottle to ward off the effects of any bacteria it may have encountered on the way from said tank to said bottle. Today, however, there are countless variations of this once-standard way of processing.

Another not-so-simple issue is bottling. From long ago, sake was matured for six months or so in large tanks, then bottled later. But lately there has been a bit of a movement toward storing in bottles, not tanks, which calls for a much larger amount of warehouse storage space.

Huge. Still, many brewers find this yields a more fine-grained sake. Sake handled this way if often pasteurized just once, and more mildly as well.

The duration of maturation and dilution with water are similar in the myriad of affects that will result from different choices. Put them all together, and you can begin to see that the permutations are endless. Also, keep in mind there is no right way to do anything. It is all a function, obviously, of what style of sake the brewer intends to make.

Fine-grained, or big-boned? Light and dancing or settled and earthy? A one-glasser or a session sake? All have their place and fans, and all call for different after-care.

At a recent tasting of Shizuoka Prefecture sake, I made my way to the Kikuyoi booth. Shizuoka sits about an hour south of Tokyo, and is the home of half of Mt. Fuji, as well as Japan’s best green tea and best wasabi. It has been a haven of good sake for only about 25 years, but it is making up for the 500 before that with a mighty vengeance.

Kikuyoi is brewed by owner-to-be and toji Takashi Aoshima. For now, let us just say there are great stories behind this brilliant guy, having looked askance at his calling initially, then later returned to it with an unrivaled passion. His sake is settled and simple, delicately rich, and decidedly not ostentatious. I make a point of tasting it a lot, and as I worked across his table I noticed that the degree of maturity was exquisitely precise. The flavors stood out from their mellow background just perfectly.

Catching Takashi for a moment after my run-through, I told him as much. “Your sake seems to be matured almost perfectly,” I offered.

“So! That’s right!” he blurted enthusiastically. “I agree wholeheartedly. I finally got the knack of it; it’s all in the timing of the pasteurization,” he explained.

“So, like, what are the specifics of that?” I inquired innocently.

“Well, I could tell ya, but then I’d have to kill ya,” he replied. Aoshima-san is a madman, and when he is not brewing in the winter, he is actively growing rice locally, and organically. (He didn’t really say that, for the record.)

“So now,” he continued, “I have, like, zero time. I am basically brewing in the winter, growing rice in the summer, and fiddlin’ with pasteurizing my sake and stuff like that in the gaps between.” The fact that he was beaming happily about his fate made it hard to feel sorry for him.

*  *  *

So as complex as the sake brewing process is rumored to be, bear in mind that the post “it’s sake now” processing – which includes the above-discussed factors as well as how long it is matured, in what medium and at what temperature, and how much if any water is added – will all take the sake down a separate path in its evolution, never to return.

The History of Warmed Sake
These days, it is true that *most* premium sake is best enjoyed slightly chilled. Why? Simply because the aromas and flavors of most modern ginjo et al is most enjoyably evident at such temperatures, and rather masked when heated. But, as usual in the sake world, exceptions abound, and there are many wonderful premium sake that truly come into their own when gently warmed.

Since ginjo is relatively new (relative, that is, to a millennium old tradition), it is not incorrect to say that before ginjo hit the market in the late 70s or so, more sake on the market was more suited to warming. So it is, in truth, a more traditional way to enjoy sake. How far back does this go? Has it always been this way? And why was it like that?

Well, the why is the hardest part to nail down, but it seems to have been an influence from China, where putting warm things into one’s body is generally considered better than putting cold things into it, one’s alcoholic beverages included. But in terms of how long it has been this way, records show that warming sake goes back over 1000 years.

Heian-era (794 – 1192) records show that customs dictated that folks enjoy their sake warmed between the ninth day of the ninth month, through the cold season, until the third day of the third month. Conversely, it was drunk chilled the other half of the year, between March 3rd and September 9th.

However, upon entering the Edo era (1604 – 1868), it became almost universal to enjoy sake warmed. All of it, all the time. And for the most part, it stayed that way until well into the 20th Century.

There was an interesting historical anecdote relating to warmed sake that took place in the Kamakura era (1192 – 1333). A couple of Imperial servants fresh in from the boonies decided it would be a good idea to use some leaves to make themselves a li’l fire to warm up their sake. Trouble is, it being fall, they used some of the colorful, red and brown turned-leaf foliage that blanketed an Imperial garden.

Such season-specific natural beauty was – and is – prized in Japan. Upon seeing this, an erudite and enraged servant manager hauled them before the Emperor for punishment.

Upon hearing the explanation, the Emperor was reminded of a Chinese poem that lauded the practice of doing just that: warming sake with fire made from fallen autumnal foliage. “My, what cultured servants!” he exclaimed, excusing them from all wrongdoing.

*  * *

A bit more has been written about warming sake in past editions of this newsletter, archived at www.sake-world.com. And trust that much more will be written in the future. While it is true that most premium sake is likely better off at white wine temperatures, those exceptions in which premium sake can be deliciously warmed are little time bombs of immense enjoy-ability and untellable charm, and beg to be explored by all serious sake fans in their own time.

Sake Events and Announcements
Announcing the Fifth Annual Sake Professional Course
January 21 to 25, 2008, in Tokyo, with a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area.
The Sake Professional Course is a five-day intensive immersion into sake and the sake world, replete with plenty of classroom instruction followed by relevant tasting, and four sakagura (brewery) visits. Naturally, the evenings will be filled with more merry tasting along with great local cuisine. While the course is focused on those that plan to use the information professionally, anyone is of course welcome to attend. My objective is that, after completing the course and taking the time to absorb the material, no one out there will be able to tell you anything about sake that you do not already know. In this, I have great confidence. It will be thorough. The tasting sessions that follow each classroom session ensure that participants will understand the material on a deeper and more permanent level than would be the case from book-study alone. For more details, and some testimonials, click here.

Sake and Pottery Seminar, Saturday, November 17
On the evening of Saturday, November 17, from 6:00 pm, pottery expert Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. The topic for the sake part of the evening will be toji, their role, their history, the culture that suffuses them, and of course, the sake they brew.  The cost for the evening – a half dozen sake, ample scrumptious food, two lectures 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 International Forum, the convention center just outside JR Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will be included in the confirmation-of-attendance email that is sent out a few days before the event.

Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More info on the below topics can be found at this Sake-World Web Page.

  • Sake Homebrewing
  • Books on Sake
  • Information on the archives of this newsletter
  • Genereal information related to this publication

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner.