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Rice Growing Part III

#108  Jan. 2009

Sake World Email NewsletterJanuary, 2009

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In This Issue The Kome Khronicles: Growing Rice Part III
Sake Events
-Support Your Local Kura
-Educational Products
-Odds-n-Ends
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Happy New Year to all.

First and foremost, may 2009 be peaceful, prosperous, health-filled and happy for all.

Amidst the mix of both challenges and potential around the world today, we are “enjoying” the closest thing to a real winter in years, at least here in Japan, or at least where I am. And this, of course, bodes very well for sake brewers, as it makes temperature control easier, and helps stave off ruffian micro-organisms. And again this month, let us study a bit more about riceproduction. As I said last month, it is hard to do this topic justice in this humble newsletter, but we of the sake-loving world muststart somewhere in learning more about what makes sake what it is.
Renewed wishes for a great 2009 to all readers,
With warm regards,
John

The Kome Khronicles
Rice Growing, Part III

Welcome to the third installment of the Kome Khronicles. (pronounced koh-meh, and it means rice, as you likely recall). Last month we diverged a bit into the use of fertilizers, chemicals, or the lack thereof, and the attendant difficulties. Let us pick up this month with harvesting, “after care” of the rice, and a word about “post paddy processing.” with of course a couple of tangents thrown in for good measure.

When last we left our beloved Yamada Nishiki rice it was mid-summer, having been planted in June. In Japan, rice can be planted from April to June, and harvested anywhere between August and October. Just when the seedlings are planted and when the rice is harvested depends on the strain or variety. (With a couple of regions excepted, there is only one growing season here in Japan.) Sake rice varieties are by and large planted later and harvested later.

There are, I am told, two types of rice, each with a different “internal clock” related to maturation and harvesting. One type, which includes Yamada Nishiki and other sake rice types, is readywhen the number of daylight hours dwindle to a certain point. Another type relies on the total number of daylight hours logged from the time it was planted. However, I am admittedly venturing out of my realm of firm knowledge here, the above being hearsay (albeit from rice growers), so you may want refrain from quoting me. ;-)

As readers surely recall, we are speaking here of wet rice cultivation, in other words, the rice is grown in a field in which several inches of water are maintained, the purpose being to minimize weeds. In preparing to harvest the rice, the water is let out of the field and it is permitted to dry out about ten days in advance. By that time, the tall and grain-laden stalks have a huge head start and what few weeds might appear. More significantly, though, it is hard to walk around amongst the neatly arranged stalks when one is sinking eight inches in mud, and even harder to drive a several-ton combine through that muck. Letting the water out, then, greatly facilitates the harvesting work.

As alluded to above, with the exception of the edges and hardto access corners et al, combines are used to save untold amounts of labor by driving along at a turtle’s clip and cutting the rice stalks at the base, aligning them and conveying them between to belts, then stripping the rice grains from the ears on top. The seeds go into one hopper, the stripped stalks to another. While some do this by hand, machines are almost always preferred.

After this the rice must be dried fairly soon or it will begin to rot. So more machines are used to first strip the husks from the l’il puppies, and then it is gently warmed while being kept in motion for a short while do dry it down to about 15 percent moisture. Once this is done it can sit for months with no detrimental changes.

There is a more natural ways of cutting down and drying outthe rice. Known as “haze-boshi,” the stalks are cut by hand and hung upside down for a couple of weeks to naturally dry out. And, most agree this way leads to better – at least tastier – rice. But the hassle factor is huge.

“That’s where I draw the line; I just say ‘no’ to haze-boshi” stated Niichiro Marumoto, the sake brewer / rice farmer from whom I learned. “The minor increase in quality is not worth the monumental increase in time, effort and aggravation.” For someone whose attention to detail knows no bounds, this is quite a statement.

Next, the rice is separated by size. Anything broken into shards or fragments, and grains that did not fully develop and are exceedingly small, are discarded. The remaining rice is further separated into groups of one of several sizes. Why? The answer to that is quite interesting.

That answer lies in the fact that rice is then inspected and graded. Not just sake rice, but all rice. Originally there were three grades, Ittoh, Nittoh and Santoh, i.e. Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 3, with 1 being the best. But sake rice is grown with such care that there was general clamoring that even the Grade 3 stuff was superior to run of the mill rice, and since the grades were relative and not absolute assessments of quality, something had to be done.

The government listened and capitulated, (how’s that for a concept!) and added two grades on top of Grade 1, Toku-toh (Special Grade) and, on top of that, Toku-joh (I dunno uh Higher Special Grade). Rules stipulate that “special designation sake” (premium sake) must be brewed with rice passing inspection for one of these five grades.

So back to our rice grain separator. One of the things inspected is size. The bigger, the better, at least as far as the grading is concerned. So the biggest stuff has the chance to be top-grade Toku-joh rice. Interestingly, to me anyway, is that within one harvested field you will have rice ending up in all five categories. So the field and its terroir are important, but even within that confine there are greater and lesser grains.

And thus, in preparation for said inspection, the rice will be separated into size-based peer groups in different hoppers Also, another interesting point is that before the rice can be sold the moisture content must be brought to between 14 and 15 percent. Why? Because rice is sold by weight, and if the moisture content is higher than that, producers end up selling water rather than rice. It makes sense when you think about it.

(More on the grades of rice can be read here.)

Back to the field. After the rice is cut away, we have a field fullof little stumps, so to speak. These are handled in one of several ways: burning, turning, churning or yearning.

Some growers will burn them out, others will turn them over roots and all. Others churn the earth thoroughly, and some yearn for machines, but having none, will just let the stumps sit there and let nature do her thing to them, Each method has its strength and weaknesses, pros and cons, applicable and inapplicable situations as well.

Readers may recall I grew six sets of several stalks each of Yamda Nishiki at home, having received them after helping plant ‘em in June. I grew and subsequently harvested them myself. Of these, one was transplanted into its own space, where it flourished, but the others languished in the crowded space left to them. So in the end, just one group of stalks made the cut (no pun intended).

I am fairly certain the terroir of my home in Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo) is not optimum for growing Yamada Nishiki, but I followed through anyway. And I dried it out by the haze-boshi method in my office. I ended up with exactly 426 grains with which to begin next year. Something tells me it ain’t Toku-joh, but it will serve my educational needs.

Next month we will talk about the birthplace of Yamada Nishiki, some amazing facts about that venerable strain of grain, a bit of dirty laundry, and more. Until then, enjoy your sake, regardless of which rice was used in its crafting.

For Japan-based readers:
Sake Events
The 2009 Sake Professional Course in Japan No More Available Seats
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). All seats for this seminar are taken; however, those interested in future courses can send me an email to ensure timely notification..

For Japan-based Readers
Support your local sakagura.

There is still some time to participate in this offer for those that are interested…
Should you live anywhere in Japan and be interested in hard-to-get sake, consider this special offer from Tensei in Kanagawa.

Tensei is a small kura with a great story behind them. In short, the current president was hitchhiking around the US about 15 years ago when he called home to say hi. “We’re throwing in the towel,” he was told. “Sake is not selling so we’re going to shut the place down.”

“Wait,” he responded. “I’ll come back; I’ll take over.”

“Be our guest!” came his family’s response. “Knock yerself out.”

Which he did. He made massive changes, including drastically cutting their production, streamlining the brewery itself, putting in several restaurants, a micro-brewed beer operation, and a bread shop. He then renamed the sake, from Shokou to Tensei. And, he hired a young, smart, able toji named Igarashi.

They then began a club in which for 10,000 yen you could be a part of a group that would have made for them a tank of the best that toji could do. Yamada Nishiki rice at 35%, excellent water from the Tanzawa range, and shizuku (drip pressed) to ensure the best quality possible. That brought you three bottles you could enjoy over the course of the year. The club has long enjoyed great popularity, and a few loonies have even saved a bottle from each and every year.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the club’s efforts, and the first time ever that they have raised the price. So, for a mere 11550 yen you get three 720ml bottles of Tensei Junmai Daiginjo made to the aforementioned spec, and this year, as a bonus, one is nama (unpasteurized). As another li’l bonus, you will receive a bag of sake kasu (lees) from the production as well. (Just don’t put it in your rice field.)

The sake will be delivered to you in May of 2009, and participation is limited to 500 sets, and to domestic addresses. Those interested can email me for how to participate, or contact Yamadaya Honten in Japanese at 0467.22.0338. Every year I have tasted this sake, and every year it has been outstanding.

For the record, I am not at all involved in this effort, but I do feel an affinity of proximity for this brewery, as they are the closest to me. (So maybe the subtitle above should read “Support my local sakagura.”) While indeed good and indeed hard to get, there are many breweries around Japan doing special things like this, not just Tensei. So poke around your local sake world as well, should that interest you.
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at the email address above.

All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.