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Now Ya’s Can’t Leave

#97

Dec. 2007
– Now Ya’ Can’t Leave
– “Flat” Rice Polishing – Tricks of the Trade
– Sake Educational Products
– 2008 Sake Professional Course

NOW YA’S CAN’T LEAVE
In the movie (and play), “A Bronx Tale,” the members of a particular fraternal organization centered around their ethnicity ran a bar into which a group of members of another fraternal organization, this one centered on their preference for two-wheeled vehicles, attempted to enter.

“It’s a private club,” they were told. “You have to leave, you have to leave.”

“But we want nothing more than to have a drink in your fine establishment, sir. We mean to cause no trouble,” came the response.

“Fine,” they were told by the semi-philosophical owner. “You are free to have a drink.”

Well, not five seconds after getting beer in hand, the bar exploded into pandemonium, with the bikers shaking and shooting their beer and creating every kind of ruckus imaginable. At which point the head wise guy shuts the door ominously, looks around the room, and says, “Now ya’s can’t leave.”

Immediately, dozens of club-wielding affiliate members poured out of the back room and exacted justice.

“Now ya’s can’t leave.” The movie, as good as it was, has been relegated to the attics of my mind, save for that one line. “Now ya’s can’t leave.” And so it is with some of my sake.

Backing gingerly back into the realm of sake-talk, we are often told “the rules” of sake care and such, but it is very important to remember that in the world of sake there are countless exceptions to every rule. One of those is the rule of drinking your sake young. Sure, it is true that sake is meant to be consumed young, and that traditionally and historically it has always been done so (again, with those dang exceptions notwithstanding). But several issues back, I wrote about “the date on the bottle,” and what to watch for related to age when buying a sake, and in that article (archived at here) I also pointed out how at least a gazillion things can affect how much a sake will mature, and therefore when to begin to worry about age. In actuality, it is not an easy answer, which is why following the “younger is better, don’t mess with aging” philosophy is best at first. But the ultimate truth is a bit higher than that.

The fact is that well matured sake can be very interesting, if you are into it, if you are open minded about what constitutes good, and if you have a sense of humor (for those inevitable misjudgements).

There are several vaults for sake in my office, some cold, some not. Over the course of time, the nature of my work dictates that many a bottle finds it way to me. Try as I might (and oh, I do try), I cannot drink them all in a timely manner. So I often find myself peering into a three-level storage bin six bottles deep and as many wide, pondering what has to go next. And inevitably, I will find one or two that I feel should be tasted soon or they could potentially begin that long, slow, downhill slide. But one of the great joys of this process is to find one or two that definitely should have been consumed a couple of months earlier. And if I think they can stand up to it, I look at ‘em and say with a forced sinister smile, “OK, now ya’s can’t leave!” And I deliberately lay them down for months or more, knowing full well the risk I am taking in doing so. Sometimes I am pleased with the results; other times I just fake that I am.

My point is decidedly not to suggest you lay down or age your sake. Rather, it is to suggest that there are exceptions to everything we think we know about sake, and that there are no hard and fast rules. So never give up hope, and never accept anything as a given.

Another example that shocked me arose a few weeks ago. Together with Beau Timken of True Sake of San Francisco, I visited a very prominent, ambitious, yet light-hearted uber-distributor in Yokohama, Kimijima-san. He has lately been doing his utmost to help sake reach critical mass in the UK and France. His knowledge of sake may only be surpassed by his knowledge of wine; but that’s OK, nobody’s perfect. During this visit he pulled out a handful of sake for us to taste, partly to convey his philosophy of how things should be in the world of sake.

“I believe that to make good sake, the size of the batch should not exceed about 600 kg of rice,” he began, and when on to demonstrate his point. Along the way, we tasted one, Yamagata Masamune, made with Omachi rice, nama (un-pasteurized), a junmai ginjo as I recall. It was wonderful: spicy-herbal as Omachi should be, full, and with a bolstering acidity running the length of the entire profile.

Kimijima-san explained, “one benefit of doing the small batches is you can better control things, like that acidity in there. And not just the amount of it, the type of acid is what is important. That’s what ties this whole thing together, and keeps it rock-stable. I mean, this puppy’s been open since March mind you; and I just keep tasting it from time to time to see how it’s changing.”

A 1.8 liter bottle that now had it’s share of air in it, and it’d been open since March. This was October. It was nama. It had been kept cool, but had not been refrigerated. But it tasted great. This should be impossible; it goes in the face of every rule by which consumers should abide. It should have been drunk soon after opening and kept in the fridge, as all un-pasteurized sake should. But here before us was another exception to “the rules.”

Again, my intention is not to suggest you risk the health of your fine sake by leaving half-consumed bottles around for months, or leaving nama-zake out of the refrigerator. I am merely trying to point out the idiosyncrasies of the sometimes frustrating, often-times interesting, always one-step-ahead-of-human-intellect world of sake.

And what happens, after a certain period of time, is we become so interested in sake’s intricacies that even if we wanted to stop studying it, we find we cannot. This is the point in time when sake itself looks us all in the eye and says, “Now ya’s can’t leave!”

“Flat” Rice Polishing – Tricks of the Trade
This column on several occasions has touched upon rice milling and its importance in making good sake. It is the first thing that happens to rice after it reaches the brewery, and the efficiency and delicateness with which this step is performed will impart an effect on everything on down the line. While in all other steps of the brewing process, almost always the old, labor-intensive hand-crafted ways are better, rice milling is the one area in which modern technology kicks butt. In fact, modern rice milling machines are the first thing to have made ginjo sake what it is.

The whole objective, as you surely recall, of milling rice to a high degree is to grind away the fat and protein that hover near the outside of the grain in proper sake rice and leaving only the starch in the center behind. This leads to cleaner, more refined, often more aromatic sake.

One challenging aspect of all this is that rice grains are shaped like footballs, or rugby balls if you will, and the starch in the center shares that general alignment and form. But most milling machines as they are used grind the grains into little spheres, not little rugby balls. What this means is that they are taking as much away from the ends along the long axis, i.e. at the tips of the rugby ball, as they are near the middle of it. But by turning the rugby ball into a sphere they reach the maximum degree of possible milling (before they strike centered starch, that is) while there is still tons of fat and protein surrounding the short axis, or width of the grains. It is kind of like a portly human going on a diet but only losing fat from on top of the head and the bottom of the feet, while that pesky midsection remains for the most part unchanged. Pretty soon the limit of that nonsense is reached, and said human loo ks none the better for it, with plenty of fat still remaining.

Enter henpei seimai, or “flat milling.” Developed by a university professor a decade or more ago, experimentally embraced then successfully applied by Daishichi of Fukushima, then adopted by a handful of other brewers not afraid of a hassle, henpei seimai is a more efficient way to mill. In short, it mills away more fat and protein from the middle of the rice than it does the ends, so that the final milled grains are oblong, true to their original form, rather than spherical. This ensures more fat (and protein) came off of where it was more plentiful. What this really means is that brewers get better rice, i.e. more fat and protein removed, with less actual milling.

At a recent tasting, Yuichi Hashiba, owner-inherit of Izumi Bashi Brewery in Kanagawa, pulled out a chart for me showing how much fat and protein versus starch remained after milling for both regular milling and flat milling. It was, to say the least, significant. Using flat milling, less milling leads to significantly better milling results, which means tastier sake for you and I.

I inquired as to how it was done. “Do you need special machines?” I asked. While I have had this same conversation with the folks at Daishichi, one rarely gets the same answer twice in the sake world, and I sought to learn something new.

“Nah, it’s not that,” Yuichi explained. “You just gotta make some minor adjustments.”

“Like what,” I pressed. Enquiring minds want to know. He looked at me a full five seconds, presumably deciding whether or not I could understand the answer. In the end, he must have decided I could, and he continued.

“You need to adjust the speed of the grinding stone, the volume of the rice falling, and … the pressure.” He needed to explain that last one, and my baffled look silently urged him on. “You adjust the gap at the bottom where the rice comes out after hitting the grinding stone, where it leads to the conveyor belt back up top.

“What all this leads to is all the grains of rice kinda lining up like commuters on a packed train, so that all their long axes are pointing in the same direction, which is vertical. So then, when they strike the grinding stone, most of the time, there are hitting with their sides, so that is where the most will be ground off. And that is where the fat and protein are.”

It was actually a very easy-to-follow explanation. He continued to explain that henpei seimai is not commonly done because of the hassles involved. It takes twice as long, lots of attention, and there is no choice but to do it oneself. Much rice is outsourced for milling, and a brewer will have a hard time getting professional rice milling operations to mess with those things.

While henpei seimai is not that common you will come across it from time to time, most notably if you drink Daishichi, which uses the term “cho-henpei seimai,” cho- meaning super. Be it this brewery, Izumi Bashi, or another, the above is more or less how they achieve those results. While it ain’t rocket science, a brewer’s hassle threshold needs to be significantly higher than average to reap the benefits of henpei seimai.

A bit more on this process can be read here:
http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2003_11.html

New: Sake Educational Products
from Sake-World.com

I am quite pleased to announce the opening of the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. See www.sake-world.com/html/educational-products.html Currently, we have three products, and the store is up and running in time for the holidays.

First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake l earning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count ‘em!) sake brands to look for and try.

Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on www.sake-world.com known as “The Goodstuff” a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John’s personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.

Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to “The Goodstuff” comes with this product as well.

Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have – or give – both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.

Surely these are the perfect holiday gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.

Note, we do plan to add more products early next year, most importantly a home-study version of The Sake Professional Course, with a special text book, audio guidance, and more. Stay tuned to the newly designed and just-released www.sake-world.com, and this newsletter as well.

The 2008 Sake Professional Course
January 21 to 25, Japan

I am pleased to be able to announce the Fifth Annual Sake Professional Course, to be held January 21 to 25, 2008, in Tokyo, with a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area.  This will be the final announcement for the course. There are but a few vacancies remaining. 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 confidenc e. 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, see: www.sake-world.com/html/consulting-pro-course.html.

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.