Kame no O Rice
INSIDE THIS ISSUE
Sake Educational Products from Sake-World.com
Odds and Ends
Autumn Hodgepodge, Kame-no-O Rice
Mid-Autumn greetings to all. Everything seems to taste better in the fall, especially sake. Tis the season of tastings, tastings, and yet more tastings, of new releases, and of impending starts to new brewing seasons.
And, alas, along with the waning heat comes the waning possibility that I will be able to catch up and publish 12 full newsletters this year. I think it was just not meant to be. So let this be the official statement that I am throwing in the oshibori on successfully playing catch-up this year. Readers’ understanding is greatly appreciated.
As many of you likely know, October 1 was Nihonshu no Hi, or Sake Day. I have written about the reasons and significance of that in other newsletters, so let me keep it simple and wish you all a somewhat belated Happy Sake Day. Enjoy the newsletter and be well. John.
October 1 was “Nihonshu ni Hi,” or Sake Day. Lately, awareness of October 1 as Sake Day seems to be coming close to reaching critical mass. But why October 1? Here is some background.
Hiyaoroshi and Akiagari
These are two styles of seasonal sake that are traditionally encountered in the fall. For a bit more about what each is, and how they are different, check this out.
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The feud, the ploughed, the maligned
Over the next few months this newsletter will focus a bit more on rice. It is, after all, the stuff of which sake is made. And it would border on incomprehensible to have a wine newsletter that does not delve deeply into grapes. While it is important and worthwhile to remember the grape-wine connection and the rice-sake connection are not identical, it is still of massive value and interest to study rice and all that surrounds it if you are interested in sake.
So over the next few months we will delve into rice production, grades, and more. But let me begin with the story behind (including a bit of dirty laundry) one variety that is both up-and-coming and very old at the same time: Kame-no-O.
Kame-no-O (“The Tail of the Turtle”) is a rice variety that was discovered in the mid-1800s in Yamagata by one Kameji Abe. Legend says he saw a few stalks poking up out of the snow at one odd spot, and thought to himself, “that must be one strong strain,” so he took them and cultivated them. He later lent the first half of his first name to the variety. It was, back then, used both for sake and for eating. But, alas, like other tall varieties, soon after the war, growers moved away from it in favor of shorter, easier to grow, more profitable varieties.
However, Japan maintains at least one seed bank, and there were enshrined a handful of seeds of Kame-no-O. These were obtained by the current president of Kusumi Shuzo, Mr. Norimichi Kusumi, the brewery in Niigata brewing a sake called Kiyoizumi. He then revived the rice, growing enough volume to brew sake with it after three years or so. His efforts are presented in a semi-fictionalized manga (comic book) series called “Natsuko no Sake,” by the illustrator Akira Oze.
Kusumi-san’s efforts sparked further interest in the rice and a revival of sorts began. Currently, about 50 to 60 breweries use Kame-no-O to make sake around Japan. But this is where things get, um, fuzzy.
Why? Because they are not using the same rice. There is another brewery in Yamagata called Koi-kawa (“Carp River.” Trust me, that name has more appealing nuances in its native Japanese) that claims to have the original Kame-no-O seeds as well. And he distributed them and promoted increased production of the rice. It lent itself unusually well to growing in the western part of Japan as well, like Shiga Prefecture, and not only the north like Yamagata or Niigata. In fact, these efforts gathered so much critical mass that the 50 or 60 kura doing it began to have a yearly event called the Kame-no-O Summit. However, there was a noticeable absence: that of the gent that revived the rice, Mr. Kusumi of the aforementioned Kiyoizumi in Niigata. And, as I mentioned, there was that pesky technicality, that being that the rices were obviously visually different.
How so? Well, there are these things called “noge” (pronounced “no geh,” hard g and short e) on rice plants; some of them, anyway. They are pointy parts of the plant that stick up above the “ine,” (pronounced “ee-neh”) or seed-laden parts of the rice plant that eventually droop heavily (and beautifully) just before harvest. Some rice varieties have them; others do not. Basically, I am told, these “noge” keep the birds away from the rice grains. I’m not sure what hard-ass crows would turn their tails and flee in the face of a pointy leaf, yet that is what I am told. It seems they’re a bit like widow’s peaks or cowlicks. Some of us have ‘em, some of us don’t, but in the end, it’s not a big deal.
And the Kame-no-O seeds from the seed bank yielded rice plants that did not have them, whereas the ones from the Yamagata brewery gave rice plants that did. Remarkably, though, other than that, the rices are very similar. The way it handles during fermentation and the sake it yields are very, very close. In fact, any differences can be chalked up to brewery idiosyncrasies and differing methods.
The two strains also share another problem: both are so old that their roots are hard to prove. Why is this significant? Cuz if you can’t prove the roots you cannot register it with the federal government. And if you cannot do that, you cannot have it officially inspected. And if you cannot have it inspected, you cannot use it to make Special Designation Sake, i.e. junmai-shu, honjozo-shu or ginjo-shu – premium sake.
Heading off on a tangent for just a moment here, if that is the case, how do they make proper premium sake from this rice? The answer lies in the fact that several prefectures (about the size of a county) recognize the rice as valid and inspect it, so that even if the federales do not, they can make premium sake out of it. (As a tangent off of a tangent, though, it still cannot be officially designated a “shuzo kouteki mai,” i.e. a sake rice!)
So, back to the feud, inasmuch as it exists, there are these summits and 60 breweries using the rice, but Kusumi-san is nowhere to be seen. I mean, you’d think the guy that revived the rice would be included, right? Noge or no noge. In all fairness, he did the hard work, at least at the beginning. But for whatever reason, a chasm exists.
So why don’t they settle it once and for all? I mean, where is their American spirit? Take ‘em to court! Show once and for all that their Kame-no-O is the real McCoy and the other one is an imposter, noge or no noge.
Ah, but one reason this does not happen lies in the long history of the rice strain and the lack of records. I recently asked another illustrator (yes, the sake world is blessed enough to have two comic book authors professionally devoted to it, and both are way, way into Kame-no-O, as well as junmai-shu. But I digress), Hiroshi Takase, about the truth behind this. And the hushed-voiced sake-pub rumor from my illustrator friend source was as follows.
“You see,” he began, “the rice is very old. Records are scarce. It is hard to prove the roots of this rice. But if push were to come to shove and research ran deep, one or the other would necessarily have to be eliminated. Neither party wants that to happen; neither wants to take the risk of being proven wrong for once and for all, so the issue is not pushed.” So, like so many other issues here, they just kind of deal with it and more or less peacefully coexist.
He went on to explain that the strain from Koi-kawa had a greater chance of becoming official as “Kame-no-O Number 4,” but did not speculate on how likely that was to happen.
What of the rice itself? A few, but not too many, are exported. Is it worth seeking? Sure it is. But it is not likely to blow you away. To me, sake made from Kame-no-O is fairly broad and deep, which I like, and rich as well, but aromatics are often overly subdued, and there seems to be a mild lactic character to many of them. Very interesting overall, and worth seeking, but maybe more romance than substance. But then again, that’s just me.
By all means, seek out the Tail of the Turtle and decide for yourself.
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Sake Events for Japan-based readers
The Saijo Sake Festival
Should you be in Japan on October 10 and/or 11 and anywhere near the western city of Hiroshima, you’ll surely want to get to the Saijo Sake Matsuri. More information can be found here, although it is in Japanese. Should you want to go, though, and need more information but cannot decipher it, feel free to drop me an email. If you live in western Japan, going there is a no-brainer. If you live in the Tokyo area, it’s still worth considering. See ya there.
Sake and Pottery Seminar, October 25, at Takara
On the evening of October 25 from 6pm to 9pm, Rob Yellin and I will host another Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara in Yurakucho. Those interested in attending can make a reservation by sending me an email.
2009 Sake Pro Course in Japan
It is that time again: I am officially announcing the 2009 Sake Professional Course to be held in Tokyo (with a trip to Osaka, Kyoto, & Kobe) January 26 to 30, 2009. This is simply the most thorough and finest sake educational program on the planet. For more information, please go here (or to www.sake-world.com if that link fails). Attendance is limited to 20 and it is already half full. (Still half-empty?)
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Kuramoto: The People, Philosophies
and Culture Behind the Sake
A forthcoming ebook. I am thrilled to announce the impending release later this fall of my new (OK,my first) e-book, to be entitled “Kuramoto: The People, Philosophies and Culture Behind the Sake.” The book will tell the stories of a handful of sake brewers, dropping bits of technical expertise and culture along the way. It begins with a general treatise on all things sake, and this is followed by an in-depth introduction of the breweries, as well as the personalities behind them. Each of the eight kura highlighted has a story that fills in all the gaps of our understanding about sake, and takes it away from the “this is ginjo, this is junmai” world and into the human side of it all.
It’s not too short, nor too long, and will be downloadable from this site for a mere $10. Look for it late next month.