Sake Yeast Shake-out

taka awaSake yeast choices are an interesting – if frustrating – topic of study. I have covered them many times in the past in this newsletter, should you be interested in perusing the archives and even older back issues.

In short, yeast converts sugar to alcohol, and the choice of yeast leads to varying aromas – among other things, most notably acidity. There are many other things behind the choice of yeast, including robustness of fermentation, tolerance to alcohol, preferred temperature range and more.

Studying yeast types is interesting since they do have tendencies that we can learn to pick out. It is frustrating because there are many types, with countless variations and mutations, and they are blended all the time too. It all gets hard to follow! But if we can maintain our sense of humor, it continues to be worth it and fun.

These days there are many sources for yeast, but the classic source for the classic yeasts is the Nihon Jouzou Kyoukai, or the Brewing Society of Japan, a research organization that makes great yeast in pure form available to brewers.

yeastcellsBack about 80 years ago when this organization was put together, they started to reproduce yeast that was known to be strong and predictable, and make it available to any brewer in the industry in little ampules. This helped ensure good sake, which led to good tax revenue. ;-)

They started, naturally enough, with what they called Yeast Number 1. Next came Yeast Number 2, and so on. These days, they are up to Number 19, although there are a handful that do not follow this simple numbering convention. The yeasts distributed by this organization are collectively referred to as “Kyoukai Kobo,” or “Association Yeasts.”

But the first five fell out of comparative disuse, as did many of the more recently developed strains. In fact, there seems to have been shake-out amongst these yeasts, to the point that the only ones we see on a large scale are #6, #7, #9, #14, and #18-01. (Number 19-01 is only recently developed and has not had a chance to make its presence felt in the industry.) The others have all but disappeared. Not totally, mind you, but they are much less commonly seen.

Number 6 was developed at Aramasa in Akita, a brewery that is now making the most of that yeast and is massively popular, and deservedly so. Number 7 was developed at Masumi in Nagano, where it is also used with great success. However, ole’ 7 was erstwhile the most commonly used yeast for regular sake in the country. It still may be!

Number 9 was developed at Koro in Kumamoto, and while more ginjo-esque than its Koro - source of Yeast #9predecessors, it now may be giving Number 7 a run for the money in how commonly it is used.

Number 14 is more recently developed, in the last twenty years, and while popular in some regions – in particular those in the center of the country, close to Kanazawa in Ishikawa were it was developed – is not all that widely used. And newcomer (comparatively) Number 18-01 is growing in popularity for daiginjo sake, much as Number 9 did twenty or so years ago. (Note, the -01 just means it is a non-foaming version of the regular yeast. So Number 18-01 is really Number 18 that does not foam up so much. But this is a topic for another time!)

So, what’s the difference? What might you need to remember? In its simplest essence, bear this in mind: the higher the number, the fruiter the aromas, and the lower the acidity. So, Number 6 has a solid acidity and not much fruit. Number 1801 is much softer due to lower acidity, but much fruitier as well.

Is it really that simple? Of course not. Nothing is, especially in the sake world. But that general rule of thumb will serve you well, and you can stick it in your back pocket when you go out drinking sake.

Also, while not mentioned above, Yeast Number 10 is an interesting topic. It is basically a descendent of a family of yeast strains known as Meiri, developed by a company, Meiri Shurui, brewers of a sake called Fuku Shobun, in Ibaraki Prefecture. The straight Meiri yeasts are massively aromatic and popular, and as such, the ancestors, relatives and descendants (remember, yeast generations are very short!) of this yeast are much, much more common than the actual Number 10 itself. In fact, it is hard to define what a Number 10 tastes and smells like, in my experience anyway, since it so hard to come upon one that is pure anymore.

Of course, there is much tinkering going on. Many brewers had what was once a Number 9, as just one example, but now has mutated and changed to be something else. But they still might call it Number 9. Which is fine!

Also, there are countless other yeasts, developed by various research centers or naturally occurring in breweries. Tons of ‘em. Oodles and oodles of ‘em. And they are blended in myriad ways on top of all of that.

Hence aforementioned frustration, and aforementioned fun.

But when it comes to the Association Yeasts, the classics, which still arguably are used in most of the sake in the industry, we’re down to Numbers 6, 7, 9, 14 and 1801 as the main ones, i.e. “the usual suspects.” And remember the higher number, the more the fuit, and the lower the acidity. It’s a great rule of thumb that will only add to your enjoyment of sake.

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Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, available now at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the other usual suspects. Please check out the customer reviews on Amazon:

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.VDI391DO.dpuf

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Just What is a “Nishiki” Anyway?

…and why is it in so many sake rice names?

Different Sake Rice typesThere are, at present, perhaps 100 varieties of sake rice out there. A few new ones are born (crossbred) each year, and a few fall out of production, and therefore out of official existence. And of those 100, a disproportionately high number have the character for “nishiki” (pronounced closer to neeshki) in the name.

There is of course the most famous, Yamada Nishiki. But also there are Miyama Nishiki, Hattan Nishiki, Oyama Nishiki, Kinmon Nishiki, Saka Nishiki, Toyo Nishiki and even Hakutsuru Nishiki. Then there is Misato Nishiki, Kita Nishiki, Senbon Nishiki, Tosa Nishiki, Yume Nishiki, and yet a few more nishikis out there as well. You probably get the point by now. Interestingly, this character does not make an appearance in eating rice, just in sake rice. At least, as far as I can ascertain things.

So, just what is a nishiki anyway, and what is it doing in our sake rice?

The most commonly found translation in Japanese-to-English dictionaries
is “brocade.” Okay. Fine. But that doesn’t really help much either. I mean, what, really, is a brocade? A similarly typical dictionary check resulted in this: “A class of richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics, often made in colored silks and with or without gold and silver threads.” Oh; okay. That helped.

Ready for harvest! To me, a brocade is a beautiful cloth or tapestry hung on the wall, usually with some meaning involved in it – like, it represents something or has a story behind it. Kind of like a tapestry but richer in appearance. I learned a lot more about brocades in researching this, but never found out why they might be in so many sake rice names. But then I met a farmer who is also sake brewer.

Yuichi Hashiba is his name, and his brewery is Izumibashi Shuzo of Kanagawa, brewing a sake called Izumibashi. And he explained it.

Rice is planted sometime between April and June, and harvested sometime between August and October. Most sake rice is planted later and harvested later than most eating rice. Most, that is. But when harvest time comes around, be that August, September or October, one can stand on the edge of expansive rice fields and look out on the golden ears of rice that hang over in their ripeness, awaiting the sickle. Or a combine, which is more often the case these days.

When I visited Hashiba-san last fall, we strolled out on narrow lanes separating fields of Omachi, Yamada Nishiki, and Kame-no-o.

“Look out at all that,” he began. “See that beautiful golden expanse of sake rice? Look at all those hanging ears! Duddn’it all just tell a story? Duddn’it look like something you could hang on a wall as a show of glory and success?” You could see by the passion in his eyes that he indeed meant it.

Rice as it is now, in June - just planted!And as we gazed out upon these acres of golden ears of rice bending in anticipation, the wind blew, causing the whole scene to move in undulating, golden waves. It looked like… well, like a brocade of rice surging and swelling in gentle waves. It looked like a nishiki, actually.

All it took was one explanation with a rice farmer / sake brewer as we stood at the edge of his fields on an October evening as the wind gently blew. It was clear why so many sake rice types have the character for brocade in their names.

Being early July, it is still a couple-few months before we can see this again. But it is a beautiful scene, and one that will remind us when we see it that the next sake-brewing season is, again, just around the corner.

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Farewell to an old, chilled friend – my sake fridge!

Sake FridgeBack in 1991 I traded an answering machine that had a miniature cassette tape in it (remember those?) for a refrigerator. It was made by Sanyo, later absorbed by Panasonic. It was made for medicine. My friend found it left on the street in Tokyo, and it had been left there in such a way that someone who could use it would take it; the manual and key to the door were neatly left with the unit.

He no longer needed it, and I did. Conversely, I did not need the answering machine, but he did. We were both happy with the swap.

The unit was already at least a decade old, making it mid-Showa era. The Showa era seems so long ago; just the sound of the word feels nostalgic. Showa.

But I digress. I needed it for my stock of sake, which was currently taking up too much space in my normal refrigerator, which was empty of food due to the lack of space. At least I had my priorities straight!

It was perfect. It could fit dozens of bottles, if I crammed them in there right – and oh did I do that. Both big one (1.8 liters) and small ones (720ml) could get crammed in just fine.

And it was such a trooper. It stayed with me for 23 years, across five residences. It never stopped working! Sure, it got old and worn a bit – the double-paned glass doors did not fit or slide right and called for the omnipotent duct tape to keep sealed. But it kept my sake cold and in good condition. On top of the 20-plus sake in there earmarked for the short-term, I also had half a dozen or so sake aging away in there – the only part of my life in which I can exercise anything remotely resembling patience.

But finally, I had to let it go. It was so old that it used a ridiculous amount of electricity – something akin to $60 to $80 a month all by itself! And the aforementioned unrepairable gaps made that worse. So we decided to get rid of it and replace it, in time, with a new, modern sleek unit made for sake.

On yet another tangent, sake has been called “Hyaku yaku no chou,” or “The best of 100 medicines,” so in fact, this new machine too is made for medicine. But I digress. Again.

The new unit, as of yet not purchased although it has been identified, will fit many more bottles in a more functional space, and uses but $50 a YEAR in electricity. That is like 1/15th what my old friend used.

Also, it was a challenge to throw it away. It was so old that no one wanted to touch it, as things like that must be disposed of properly. And also, being originally for industrial medicine use, there was no rule in place for taking it from a normal consumer. Huh?

Farewell, old friend!

Finally, we worked through that red tape, and paid a 10,000 yen ($100) fee for the privilege of having my old friend hauled away. So, the change had to come. But I was surprised how attached I was to the old fellah. I will  miss it, for sure. In fact, I already do.

 

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Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, available now at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the other usual suspects. Please check out the customer reviews on Amazon:

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf

 

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Terroir in Sake – Does it exist?

I have trouble finding one definition of terroir that more than a couple of people agree with.Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery) After scouring the bodies of wine knowledge out there (read: I poked around the internet for an hour) the ones that rang the most true were along the lines of “characteristics that are region or even parcel-of-land specific” or even more simply a “sense of somewhere,” or something that ties a wine to a very specific place. In other words, for any one or more of a myriad of reasons, the wine could not be exactly reproduced anywhere else.

The question of whether or not sake has terroir comes up with increasing frequency, with the main – and very valid – argument that it might not have true terroir stemming from the fact that the rice used in brewing can be brought in from regions far from the kura (brewery) itself. Heck, brewers from around the country brag about using Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo, even when they are half a country away from Hyogo. That’s a huge chink in the armor of any terroir or regionality argument.

There are those that say it is in the water. The argument goes that since the water cannot be moved, and since the water is tied to a parcel of land, then it is the water itself that defines the terroir of sake. And since sake is like 80 percent water in the end, the leverage is huge.

But, in fact, water can indeed be brought in from a distance, and while not commonly done, it does happen. Furthermore, any parcel of land can have half a dozen water sources and types, depending on where and how deep the well is dug. Also, the water in any one place is really sourced in mountains far away, and it drifts underground for leagues upon leagues before arriving at one spot, and as such there are many places along the way with very similar sources of water. So while the water-is-sake’s-terroir argument is not totally unfounded, I cannot buy into it fully myself.

So, then, does sake have that sense of can-only-be-done-here and cannot-be-reproduced-anywhere known as terroir? And if so, from whence does it hail?

I espouse that it does, and that said terroir is found in none other than the kura itself.

Yes, the kura is but a brewery building. At least on the surface. But integrated into that are the design elements of the toji, or the kuramoto (the brewery owner or business decision maker), and perhaps not even that of the present generation. But the layout/design they have, be it new or 400 years old, is what it is, and is unique in countless ways.

We need to expound on that a bit further, but also bear in mind that in my larger definition of kura here, I include the intention and personality of the toji and his or her supporting cast. Just how that crew works within the physical environment that constitutes the kura will be unique to that time and place, and be impossible to reproduce anywhere else.

We also need to include the nature of the kuramoto as well. Is the owner one who is willing to buy the best rice, in advance, and pay top yen to secure it, or instead string out the toji by pulling strings in the background to get decent rice at better prices. Both are valid approaches! And both will contribute to aspects of a kura that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, especially after having been factored into the overall permutation of things happening at a particular kura.

Also, when the kuramoto and the toji are the same person, or at least the same family, then one dynamic is eliminated. Or another becomes evident – depending on your viewpoint. (Half-full or half-empty?) As this is now the case for about a fourth of the industry, it is indeed a significant aspect of any conversation on sake terroir.

But back to the physical structure of the kura itself. To me, this is where a mark of indelible character is impressed upon what is brewed here. There are countless little things, the aggregate of which makes a given sake simply impossible to recreate anywhere else.

The task of trying to convey this is so daunting I shudder at the thought of where to begin. Let us start with size.

How big is the kura; what is its capacity? How many tanks? How big are the batches? Are they same size for cheap sake as they are for daiginjo? Do they have enough to start a tank a day, or just three a week, or perhaps only one a week? Do they have enough people to watch all of that closely or do they automate? What about temperature control? Is the kura in a cold or warm region? How thick are the walls?

Do they mill in house? How do they wash and soak their rice? How big is the koji room, f’gad’s sake? This is huge. Just how much they can make at one time, and what the attention to detail can be are massively leveraging.

Even little things like how far the koji room is from where they steam their rice is an issue. What about the foyer outside the koji room where they cool it down before adding it to a batch? How does that affect cooling and drying out the koji? Big, big, big in terms of effects on the sake!

What about the yeast starter room? Big or small, refrigerated or not, tightly sealed off orModern Tanks more open? And what of the layout of the fermentation tanks? How do they press the sake? Do they have more than one apparatus that lets the sake tell them when to press it, or do they need to coax the sake to be ready so as to keep on a schedule? How do they do that pressing – with a new machine or an older, traditional one?

Note, none of these factors is unequivocally better than another. All are just different. All contribute to the final terroir of the sake made there.

How do they pasteurize as a rule? How do they store? Distance, pipes, pumps, filters – all of these things have their say in the end.

Then there is the unexplainable. Some yeasts work better in some kura than others. No one knows why. It just is that way. One tank might make consistently better sake than another, by virtue of what no one really knows.

It’s in the kura

Remember that all this is before we even throw in the sake-making techniques themselves, or the skill and intention of the toji (brew master). What rice do they use, what yeast, how far do they mill, how good is their sanitation? What technical methods do they use for the yeast starter – normal, yamahai, kimoto or some variation unique to them?

This list could go on, and for a long time. But where it all leads is to the fact that in any one given kura, there will be a unique set of countless conditions that ensure that the sake made there cannot be reproduced anywhere else.
And therein lies the terroir of sake.

So yes, sake does indeed have terroir – a sense of place, a set of circumstances that ties a given sake to a single place, and it essentially cannot be reproduced anywhere else. And it’s in the kura.

Check out my latest book Sake Confidential: http://www.cbsdsmarttools.com/sites/m98110/index.html

 

 

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The 102nd Japan Sake Awards

Late last month, the 102nd running of what is officially known in English as “The Annual Gold medal  sakeJapan Sake Awards” was held. While I feel that the “National New Sake Tasting Competition” is much more accurately descriptive, nobody asked me. But I digress.

As most readers surely know, it is a national blind tasting of sake from most of the breweries in the country. It is prestigious if limited in its applicability to daily tippling. But it is fascinating and revealing of trends, technology, and individual skills. I have written about it almost every year, and so feel free to read about past contests, and different aspects of the completion, in the June issues of this newsletter over the past decade or so, all of which can be found in the archives.

This time, let us just take a perfunctory look at the contest this year. Although this was the 102nd running, the rules have changed from time to time, and apparently there are but 55 appraisals for which clear records exist, at least for contests run reasonably similar to the way they are today.

As a background, let us first look at the state of the sake brewing industry, in just as perfunctorily a way. There are 1818 brands of sake these days, made by 1563 sake breweries with licenses to brew, but of those only 1251 breweries are actively doing business (and less are actually brewing, but I digress again; let us save that for next time).

From amongst these, there were 845 entries this year. Each brewery is allowed one submission per brewing license (and a few do have more than one license). So, in the end, almost all will at least submit an entry. It’s has to be newly-brewed (not matured) sake, and it will almost always be a daiginjo.

So, 845 entries. Of those, there were 233 gold medals awarded for excellence. So, about a fourth. This is typical, I think.

The brewery that has won the most golds over the years is 34 for Saura Co., making the sake Urakasumi of Miyagi Prefecture. Next is 33 for Miyasaka Jozo, making the sake Masumi, from Nagano Prefecture.

The longest streak of golds is held by Saito Shuzo, brewers of Eikun sake, at 14 gold medals in a row. The current active streak is a tie, shared by

Takashimizu of Akita and Koganezawa of Miyagi. Both extended that streak to 11 this year.

All are wonderful accomplishments and a part of the long and rich history of this contest, and its significance to the sake industry.

 

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Sandan-shikomi: What’s the Point?

The sake-brewing process is fairly idiosyncratic. No other alcoholic beverage in the world isYeast Starter Fermenting Away brewed quite like sake is. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the ingredients are added in stages. The first two to four weeks see the creation of a yeast starter, to secure a high population of yeast cells, and after that, the rest of the ingredients are added, again, in stages.

How many stages? Three. Hence the term sandan-shikomi, or “adding ingredients in three stages.”

Once the yeast starter is ready, more rice, water and koji (the moldy rice within which enzymes develop that chop the starch in the rice into sugar for the yeast) are added to that small tank, which was itself created with the same three ingredients.

But it is not all added at once. After the starter has been prepared, enough rice, water andModern Tanks koji are added to roughly double the size of the batch. After letting that sit two days, the size of the batch is again doubled. And, one day later, more ingredients are added to again double the existing size of the batch. So in the end, the yeast starter is about an eighth or so of the final size of the batch. (This will of course vary a bit from place to place.)

What’s the point? Why not just dump it in there all at once, and be done with it? It comes down to strength and vulnerability of the yeast.

Bear in mind that there are only so many yeast cells in the yeast starter. Sure, it is like 200 million per cc of liquid, but apparently that is not enough. If that mixture is thinned out too much, then the yeast becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, from wild yeasts in the environment that will not lead to tasty sake, to other micro-organisms that can adversely affect or stop fermentation of the mash.

So one reason to add the rice, water and koji more slowly is to let the yeast catch up. It will reproduce at its own pace and thereby keep its strength in numbers and its ability to fend off less desirable micro-organisms. It helps reduce the vulnerability of the yeast.

Another way to look at it is in terms of strength. If all the rice, water and koji were add at once the yeast would either be overwhelmed by the sugar and eventually peter out before completing its job. Slowly adding it all lets the yeast handle it better. It is a bit like starting a fire: if you take a match and try to start a big log, your chances of success are not nearly as high as if you use some proper kindling, like leaves and small sticks.

Of course, these days, we can indeed light a big log on fire; all we need is something like a blowtorch or a good dose of chemicals. And, the equivalent of a yeast blowtorch exists in the sake world as well! It’s called kobo-jikomi, or yeast infusion (translation mine).

A freshly started "moto" yeast starterAnd it is what it sounds like: no yeast starter is used; instead, a comparatively huge amount of pure yeast is added to the batch right away, allowing it to ferment a full tank right off the bat. In truth, very little sake is made this way, and it is usually cheaper sake made in huge batches. It is a perfectly valid way to make sake, and the resulting sake is often quite good.

But it is almost never seen in smaller batches, smaller breweries, or premium sake.

So, the hassle-laden sandan-shikomi process of adding the ingredients in three stages is the traditional way to make sake, and one that is in fact unique to sake, and is done to help keep the yeast safe and active. That’s the point.

Check out my new book, Sake Confidential

http://www.cbsdsmarttools.com/sites/m98110/index.html

 

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Everything I needed to know I learned at sake tastings

Well, almost…

Every spring – and again every fall – it is tasting season here in Japan. What that means is Tasting, tasting, tasting...that those in the industry get to go out to three to five tastings a week of literally hundreds of sake. It is, without a doubt, way too much of a good thing. It’s really about as much fun as an icepick in the forehead. But it is for sure invaluable experience.

However, the countless sake available to taste and re-taste and take notes on are not the primary appeal.

What is far more important is what can be learned by talking to the brewers in attendance.

Sure, the brewers in attendance are the same ones as always. At this tasting, you will see so-and-so and whatsisface, but at that tasting you will see whodoyacallit and that other guy. Sometimes so-and-so will be at both tasting A and B, so I will strategically plan the order of tasting so as to maximize efficiency.

Of course it is fun to greet everyone; for some of the brewers from the boonies, it is the only time I see them. But what is more important and valuable is the information I can gather. Now that is where the real education is to be had!

For example, some of the problems plaguing the industry now include rice shortages and proper labeling. The very first booth at which I stopped is a kura with a famous female toji and that is not a million miles away from Iwate. Her labels all said “Domestic rice,” but nothing more about the variety. So naturally, I had to ask her: are you hiding the rice type?

“Nah, of course not. We’re not hiding it. It’s…” and told me a bit about the rice. So, I pressed onward, why don’t you list the rice on the label, then?

Tasting, tasting, tasting...“Because,” she continued in a matter-of-fact manner, “with all these rice shortages these days, if we cannot get all of what we ordered, we would be forced to use another rice to finish it off. That would mean we would have to reprint all of our labels to show that. We, as a small company, cannot absorb that hassle, so we avoid it altogether by just writing “domestic” on the label. But we are not hiding it! Just saving ourselves some trouble.”

Her decision – and that of others kura doing similar things – has been affected by a handful of mislabeling cases over the last two years. A couple of unscrupulous brewers have gotten busted labeling lower grades of sake as ginjo, or added-alcohol sake as junmai-shu. Some said it was an accident; at least one admitted to the wrongdoing.

In truth, it is but a few bad eggs doing that. But the potential loss of trust of an already-hurting industry, not to mention the potential loss of reputation for a good brewery, have made many companies extremely careful about anything that goes on the label. Not impossible to understand, actually.

Another brewer I know well was all smiles. “This year, we got all the rice we ordered, and Sake Competition 2012it dissolved properly for us. All is well in my sake-world this year! Rice shortages are passed on to brewers by the distributors providing less than what was fully ordered ten months previous to harvest. It is the only fair way to handle it – decrease all orders across the board, evenly distributing the pain. But this year, this kura at least got it all.

When the weather is too hot, the rice is too hard and will not dissolve in the tank, which means tight and restrained flavors. But this year, it behaved for him, and the sake flavors were full and expressive.

Yet another brewer that is geographically close to the one above was less ebullient. In fact, we was all gripes.

“Yeah, what we got fermented OK, but we did not get all we ordered. And this rice shortage is not about to end. We have the land, and the government regulations have changed to let us grow more, but we do not have enough seeds, and those farmers that grow it are graying fast – no young people want to get into rice farming now.”

Because the seeds must remain pure and can easily be affected by the rice growing nearby, or by what was growing in the same field the previous year, the seeds must come from the agricultural co-op if they are to be inspected. And if the rice is not inspected, rice cannot be labeled as premium. A racket? Sure, to some degree. But not one without its merits or its logic.

He also explained (but asked me to keep it quiet, which is why I am not mentioning the prefecture name) that the whole prefecture lost ten percent of their sake rice since some dork farmer accidentally mixed two rice types before inspection. That means the brewers cannot legally put the name of the rice on the bottle, and if they have two types mixed up in there, it will not likely behave in any way they have yet experienced. So for all intents and purposes, it was lost, further affecting their shortages.

I also found out, much to my surprise, that the powers that be can in fact analyze the DNA of a rice, to be sure that it is what a brewer says it is.

There were lots of other interesting things as well, beyond rice woes.

I continued to run into new rice types, like Tomo no Kaori from Toyama, and new yeasts such as Yuko no Omoi from Iwate that seemed fairly subdued, rather than bold, which was a very refreshing change (the concept, not the sake; although that was refreshing too). I found many more breweries using kensanmai, or rice sourced within the prefecture. While this is likely a result of attempts to ensure supply, it is also a great thing for many other reasons, and seems to be a fairly positive nascent trend.

Then there were a couple of technical things as well. One brewer, Gassan, had a whole new lineup in terms of flavors and style. The reason, interestingly, was that they changed their water source. The water from their own well is extremely soft water, and does not ferment very vigorously. So for decades they have been blending that with hard water brought in from a nearby source. And their sake has long been very enjoyable.

But they decided to bring it all back home, and from this season all of their sake is made with their own water, and in such a way that makes the most of the soft water. So, yeah, the entire lineup is new. It has led to a fascinating change.

There was much more, a lot of it fairly technical and isolated to the respective breweries.

Glasses like this will be used in hatsunomikiri

Kikizake-joko – Official Tasting Glasses

And I tasted some good sake too! But walking around and chatting as we tasted was, as usual, even more interesting than the actual sake itself. And I can’t wait until the fall, where there will more of what is already too much of a good thing.

Check out my new book, Sake Confidential!

http://www.cbsdsmarttools.com/sites/m98110/index.html

 

 

 

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Announcing the Sake Professional Course in Chicago, August 12 – 14, 2014

Sake Professional Course
To be held at Sunda Restaurant in Chicago Illinois, August 12 – 14, 2014

From Tuesday, August 12 through Thursday, August 14, 2014, I will hold the 15th JG_SPC-3stateside version of the Sake Professional Course at Sunda restaurant in downtown Chicago. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries. The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.

JG_SPC-11The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore be somewhat technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. It is likely more than the average consumer needs! But the course is open to anyone with an interest and sake and will certainly be enjoyable. The course lectures and tasting will begin with the utter basics, and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days. Each of the three days will provide the environment for a focused, intense and concerted training period.

SPC JGThe goal of this course is that “no sake stone remains left unturned,” and my motto is “exceed expectations for the course.” Every conceivable sake-related topic will be covered, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting session. Participants will not simply hear about differences based on rice types or yeast types, they will taste and smell them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and regionality, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well. Participants will taste over 80 sake within five focused tasting exercises across the three days.

Wooden Koshiki on its sideLike its counterpart held in Japan each winter, it will be quite simply the most thorough and comprehensive English-language sake education in existence. Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

Also, as mentioned above, an exam is given at the end of the course for those that choose to seek certification. Those that pass receive a   “Level I Sake Specialist” certification from the non-profit organization The Sake Education Council.

Sugidama - half brownThe cost for the three-day class, including all materials and sake for tasting, is US$850. Participation is limited and reservations can be made now to secure a seat, with payment due by July 15, 2014. You can read Testimonials from past participants here. (Should that link not work, which is a possibility for technical reasons, I can send you the same by email.) For reservations or further inquiries, please send an email to sakeguy@gol.com. 

 “No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”

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Syllabus and Daily Schedule

Day I
9:00 – 12:30 Welcome, Orientation, Sake Basics, Sake Types, Terms found on Sake Labels
Tasting I: typical representatives of various grades, milling rates
1:00 – 3:00 Sake Production
3:00 – 4:30  Rice Types, Yeast Types, Water, Koji
Tasting II: Rice types, Yeast types

JG_SPC-23Day II
9:00 to 12:00 Sake Chemistry: nihonshu-do, acidity, amino acidity.
Yamahai and Kimoto
Tasting III: Yamahai and Kimoto.
12:00 to 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 5:00 All things nama-zake. Pressing methods. Aging and maturity. Non-standard sake types like nigori, low alcohol sake, sparkling sake, red sake, taruzake etc. Sake competitions. Vessels, temperature, toji guilds.
Tasting IV: Nama-zake, aged sake, various non-standard sake. The same sake in various vessels. Sake suited for warming. Competition sake.

Day III 
9:00 – 12:00 Sake regionality, sake and food, sake competitions, history, the state of the industry.
Tasting V: Sake Regionality
12:00- 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 Break
3:00 – 4:30 Exam

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Koshiki-taoshi and Kaizo – the light at the end of the sake-brewing tunnel

It was well into the evening when the phone rang, but my caller i.d. told me the call was Mixing Moromi - soon to be done for the yearfrom a brewer in Akita Prefecture. Since he fits into both the friend and business associate categories, I picked it up.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty ha-a-a-a-mmered.” Not your typical call from the owner of a prestigious sake brewery, to say the least.

And to what do I owe this honor? Surely there must be a reason you have called at this hour and in this, er, state?

Indeed, indeed. Today was ‘kaizo.’ It’s over. We are done for the season.

That’s it. Kaput! All we have to do is clean up and we are outta here until the fall.” He seemed to momentarily forget he lived in the old house attached to the kura. “And, thanks to your support,” he continued with typical Japanese uber-humility, “we managed to finish the brewing season this year without any major difficulties.” I was fairly sure I myself had nothing to do with that, and of course politely deferred.

“Wow,” I responded. “That’s great. Congratulations. Another season down! I am sure you are relieved, and I am just as sure your sake will be kick-ass again this year.”

Pasteurizer - soon this is all that will remain to be doneThe true reason behind their call, driven though it was by the unbridled exuberance of the “kaizou” party, was to thank me for a positive assessment of a new sake they came out with that I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste several days earlier. I had recently ran into the two of them by coincidence, armed with a bottle, at a sake pub the night before a big Tokyo tasting. Regardless, it was great fun to hear from them, and congratulate them on completing the season.

“Hold on. There is someone here that wants to talk to you.” The cell phone got dropped at least twice and bashed into something made of glass on its way to whomever it was destined. Things like that happen in a room full of happy, buzzed sake brewers. Actually, I knew who it was going to be before I even heard the familiar voice.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty hammered too-hu-hu-hu.” It was the relatively young toji (master brewer) at that kura. “We made it through yet another season. And thanks to your support, we finished without a hitch…”

It was fun to hear from them, late though it might have been, and they certainly deserved to celebrate.

As many readers certainly recall, sake brewing runs roughly from the fall until the spring. Just when a kura begins to brew sake and when they finish for the year depends on a number of factors, including of course how much they brew. On top of this, dynamics including the number of brewers, number of tanks, size of the batches, how old or new their equipment is, and how often they fire up a new batch will all combine to determine just when they start and end. But typically it runs from mid-October to mid-April.

As the season draws to a close, there are two significant days that the people in the brewery owners and brewers together will celebrate. One is called “koshiki-taoshi,” the other is “kaizou.”

“Koshiki-taoshi” means “overturning the rice steaming vat.” A koshiki is the large vat in which rice is steamed every morning or so. In days of olde, the koshiki was made of wood (sugi, i.e. cryptomeria) and sat on top of a large iron cauldron of water (called a wagama) that tapers at the top.

Today only a handful of kura use wooden koshiki anymore. The craftsmen to make them are also all but gone. Most are steel these days, and in fact, many are fully automatic. Long ago, when the last vat of rice had been steamed, the koshiki would be turned over onto its side, cleaned thoroughly, and left to dry and be put into storage until next season. This is the term to which koshiki-taoshi refers.

When the last batch of rice has been steamed for the year, the brewers can see the light at the end of the brewing-season’s tunnel, hence the celebratory nature of the day.

Of course, that last day’s vat of rice will then be added to the last tank still fermenting, and after that there is still three weeks or more of waiting for those last few batches to finish fermenting, and then be pressed and sent to mature for a while. So their work is far from done. Koshiki-taoshi means only that there is no more rice to be steamed. Within two days, there will be no more koji to be made, and soon after that it is simply a matter of waiting. They know they are getting close to the end of six months or more of long, hard days.

Often in these modern times, automated koshiki are equipped in such a way that they can Wooden Koshiki on its sidebe turned sideways to make it easier to scoop out the rice. Kinda makes knocking them over a bit anticlimactic. Also, large brewers have continuous rice steamers, large contraptions that steam rice as it moves along on a mesh conveyor belt over steam, and constantly crank it out. So at such places there is no koshiki to knock over. But nonetheless, a ceremony and small party are held to acknowledge the significance of the last steaming of the season.

The next milestone is “kaizo.” “Kaizo” is written with characters that mean “all (has been) made,” and naturally enough indicates the day on which the last tank has been pressed, and therefore all the sake for the year has been brewed. All there is left to do is to sweep up, tidy up, and pack up.

After one or the other – or perhaps even both – of these significant days, the brewers and other employees of a sake brewery will often have a little bash in the kura. The kuramoto (brewery owner) will prepare a nice dinner, there will be warm toasts to each other, and there will be plenty of sake consumed. Also, newly made sake is offered to the gods in thanks for the blessings of the brewing season.

While, from what I have heard, it is more common to have this little party after koshiki-taoshi, obviously the folks at some places (like my friend in the intro) wait until kaizo, when presumably they can sleep late the next day.

Back in the 1960s when several of the larger kura rode continued growth to mammoth-hood, they began to brew all year round, in what is called “shiki-jozo,” or “four-season brewing.” However, as sake consumption has dropped off, especially that of cheap sake, the need for year-round brewing has dropped off, and none of the big brewers are doing this any longer.

But interestingly, there are a handful of smaller brewers that brew basically all Koji-making year, freezing the rice for use in the summer, and brewing at a more manageable, mellow pace. This pace might be starting a batch once or twice a week rather than everey day. Just when these places celebrate koshiki-taoshi is not clear. But I am sure they work it in somewhere!

 

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Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, due out in June. You can reserve your copy now at Amazon!

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf

 

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Sake Confidential – my new book, out in June!

Sake Confidential: A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment

by John Gauntner, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley CA

Today’s sake drinkers are increasingly informed and educated. Most people that enjoy Sake Confidential - due out in Junesake know the basics of what sake is, how it is made, and what the grades are. So now is the time for a more in-depth look at the various aspects of sake and the sake world that make it the most interesting beverage on the planet.

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “the truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

The book is laid out in such a way that readers can jump around to topics that hold appeal, or read it from beginning to end. The very first chapter is a minimalist version of all things sake, after which each topic is covered in scrutinizing detail.

Sake Confidential will be available in bookstores in June; you can pre-order your copy at Amazon here:  http://www.amazon.com/Sake-Confidential-Beyond-Basics-Understanding/dp/1611720141

 

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