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Naturally Occuring Yeast – or the lack thereof

#103

July 2008

INSIDE THIS ISSUE

  • Naturally Occurring Yeast
  • Don’t Diss the Big Boys
  • Kokodake-ya (Japan only)
  • 2008 Sake Pro Course
  • Educational Products from Sake-World.com
  • Odds-n-Ends

Naturally-Occurring Yeast
…..Or the Lack Thereof

The yeast used in sake brewing is, with but a mere handful of exceptions, not naturally occurring yeast, but rather cultured stuff added at the yeast starter stage. Sure, it might be cultured at home, in other words, proprietary stuff kept and reproduced in house, but with just a very few exceptions it comes from an ampule, or a slant in a test tube, or some other pure preserved form. What it does not do is fall into the tank naturally, from the ambient environment, at least not in the last century or so.

The misconception that sake is brewed using the yeast that is clinging to the ceiling in the kura (brewery) is perhaps most prevalent amongst yamahai and kimoto styles, partly because these are the yeast starter methods used when natural yeast were the driving force behind sake, well over a hundred years ago.

But such is not the case now. However, as with everything in the damn sake world, there are exceptions. I thought there were none; in fact, I was sure of it. But then ran into Furosen of Shiga Prefecture and found out there were indeed using only naturally occurring yeasts.

Soon thereafter, the energy or vibes of this must have traversed the ethereal web that connects all sake brewers, because I have run into it no less than four more times since then. The first of these was Kariho of Akita Prefecture. The owner-inherit, Yohei Ito, caught the bug from his friend at Furosen, and wanted to give it a try. “Yamete kure,” (please, give up the idea) came the reply from the toji. “It’s too risky.”

Ito-san would have none of it, and made a couple of tanks of yamahai and added no yeasts. The moto naturally bubbled up at the prescribed time, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. When they had the foam analyzed, they found there were two dominant yeasts: No. 10 and AK-1, both strains that are very, very commonly used in that kura.

Which is the point. It is a lot less random than you might think, since in a sake brewery the yeast hanging around in the air and (ostensibly) on the rafters is for the most part the stuff that has been being burped off of the yeast starters and fermenting mashes of the countless tanks made in that environment.

In fact, Kenbishi, one of the most storied breweries in the country and about the 15th to 20th largest maker uses a bit of cultured yeast at the beginning of a season, but then that’s it: the rest of the year they depend on the environment they have created and maintain, as all the yeast from then on out comes from the ambient environment. I had long ago heard it but chalked it up to urban myth of the sake world, until it was verified recently.

Then, there is Philip Harper, the lone non-Japanese toji in the history of the craft. At his new place of brewing employment, Tamagawa in Kyoto, he made a tank of natural yeast kimoto. The first year he was there! Talk about guts and confidence! It was intended to be a one-time deal, but it sold out while still way young, necessitating a second batch be brewed. I suppose that tells us something.

Lastly, or most recently anyway, was Sugii-san of Suginishiki in Shizuoka, who lately has been into yamahai and kimoto style brewing to augment his already sharp, tangy style. His, too, was successful. But interestingly, he had different theories on where the yeast came from.

“Rafters, schmafters,” he began. “It sticks to the tools; to the poles you mix with, and to the dakidaru you use to adjust temperature.” Dakidaru are aluminum or traditionally wooden cans holding maybe ten liters (two gallons) of either ice or hot water put into moto (yeast starters) and mixed around to make the day-to-day single-digit temperature adjustments called for in some moto.

“No matter how well you wash ‘em,” he continued, “you have some yeast clinging to those tools. And as you put them in and out of the various moto, the yeast gets transferred. You only need a bit, and the conditions of the moto take over from there.”

Rafters, shmafters, or tools, shmools, one place the yeast is not coming from on his batches is little ampules or test tubes.

So how were these sake? I have had Kenbishi countless times, Furosen often, and the naturally occuring yeast versions of Tamagawa (Philip Harper’s sake) and Suginishiki but once as well. All are deep, fairly indicative of the yamahai or kimoto styles — gaminess and breadth, but surprisingly not nearly as idiosyncratic as one might expect. All are fairly true to style but nothing about having used drop-in yeast made them lean too weird in any one way. I was a tad surprised, but impressed as well.

Why do many feel these methods are risky? Because in truth there is no guarantee that the winning yeast will be what you want it to be, nor any that there is enough of that in the environment (or on the shmools) to make it all work. Or it might take its jolly old time, and not function on a predictable schedule (nature is like that), screwing up everything else on down the line. Nor can one ensure as much precise control over the style of the sake, left up to the whims of the cosmos as it is. It is much easier to get aimed-for or desired aromas, acidities, or flavors if you specifically choose your yeast and create environs within which the chosen ones flourish.

And this is why so few do it, and with the exception of Kenbishi, for just a tank or two. Surely there are more out there, but it is hardly widespread. And four small and one large brewer does not a critical mass make, so I do not expect things to change too drastically on this yeastern front. Beyond the aforementioned risks et al, using naturally occurring yeast is more hassle-laden and less precise, adversely affecting control over consistency.

As such, the main point here is, actually, that ALMOST ALL sake, including almost all yamahai and kimoto sake, uses cultured yeast. It may be proprietary, but it is cultured and added. There are only a couple of rough riders making sake using naturally occurring yeast.

Don’t Diss The Big Boys
At Least Not Off the Bat

I have long been a proponent of drinking sake, not the label on the bottle. And very often what this means is not holding a bias against large brewers, and tasting their sake with an open mind and an open palate.

Often people assume the largest brewers make only slop, and only sake from boutique artisan brewers is worth consideration. But it just isn’t true.

What is true is that, sure, most of what the largest brewers make is inexpensive low-grade sake. But in truth, with very few exceptions, most smaller brewers make that too. And much of this — from a lot of brewers — is perfectly enjoyable. But what is also true is that these larger brewers can do anything they want. If they want to make gold medal sake, they can. And, in fact, they do. If they want to make great ginjo, they can. They have the wherewithal and technology to do whatever they want.

And so, it is important to always taste a sake with no bias toward scale or size. While I could drone on longer with anecdotes and reasons, I will wrap this up here by saying please remember this point. And then I will note two things.

Gekkeikan, long the industry leader but now the number two volume producer in Japan, recently saw an increase in its production. Not massive, less than one percent in fact; but there nonetheless. Why is this significant? Because sake is still in decline, and the ones suffering the most are the biggest brewing companies, as less expensive sake is taking the hardest hit. And amidst that environment, Gekkeikan saw growth. It speaks volumes for the big G and a bit for the industry as a whole too.

Next is the above mentioned Kenbishi. They are a quiet, efficient, secretive company whose sake has been selling on its well-deserved reputation for literally centuries. Their products are few, and not all that diversified. It is just the way they choose to quietly, calmly go about their business.

I recently saw that they came out with the first new product in 21 years. Twenty-years years! In an industry where people are trying new rice and yeast types, styles, bottles, and methods all the time in attempt (read: scramble) to win over women, youth, hipsters and traditionalists, this company stoically serves up their first new product since 1987.

What is it? It’s called “Zuiho Kuromatsu Kenbishi” and is a yamahai junmai-shu made using Yamada Nishiki rice and Aiyama (lit. “love mountain”) rice, a variety that Kenbishi had cornered for decades but is now more commonly found. Also, it is being released in Japan and the US simultaneously. It retails for 1575 yen (720 ml) in Japan, so expect that to almost double in the US.

For Japan-based readers:
Kokodakeya
You Can Only Get it Here!

We’re all looking for that special something, that sake that smacks of rarity and specialness, that you can’t get just anywhere; stuff with a story behind it. But where to look for that kind of sake? Even if you find a good retailer, rarely do you find things sold only at that one shop.

But that kind of thing is all they carry at Kokodakeya. In fact, the name itself, koko dake ya, implies “you can only buy it here.” Run and owned partly by Haruo Matsuzaki, perhaps the most respected sake writer and critic in Japan and my own most significant teacher.

Kokodakeya (www.kokodakeya.co.jp) opened a couple of months ago for shipment of sake and other goodies within Japan.

For sale at Kokodakeya you have of course sake, but also shochu (don’t even think about it), seasonal sake dispensers like those glass ditties with a separate pocket for ice so it chills without thinning, traditional sweets and more. The sake is all rare or unusuals stuff and runs the gammut from aged sake to fruit flavored and infused sake-based drinks to good orthodox sake from little-known brewers in the boonies of Japan.

Other liquors, beers, whiskey, and more are also available. Note, the site is only in Japanese, but still give it a click-through and perusal.

NOTE: Kokodakeya only ships within Japan.

2008 Stateside Sake Professional Course
San Francisco, August 10 – 12, Sold Out

Sold Out. The 2008 Stateside Sake Professional Course will be held in San Francisco on August 10, 11 and 12. The course will be held at The Firehouse in the Fort Mason Center, located in the historic piers and buildings of Lower Fort Mason, which is itself located between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco Bay. Attendees will be afforded spectacular and stunning views during breaks.

The course will run for three full days, after which participants will have an opportunity to take an exam for Level I Sake Specialist certification. The cost fo r the course is $750, which includes three full days of instruction, materials, all sake for tasting, and one shot at the exam. Meals, lodging an the like are not included in the tuition.

The 2008 Stateside Sake Course is sold out. The next course will be held in Japan in January 2008. More information about content et al is available on the Sake World site at www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html.

Educational Products from Sake-World.com
The Sake-World e-store currently offers three educational products that can be immediately downloaded following your purchase. See Educational Products at Sake-world.com.

Odds-n-Ends:
Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More information on the following topics can be found at
http://www.sake-world.com/html/nl_related.html

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

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html