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What’s my name?

While I have no particular desire to be controversial or confrontational, a recurring topic regarding sake’s foray into foreign markets has got me somewhat perplexed. As you may well already know (if you’ve found this site you probably do) sake exports are booming. While sales of sake in Japan are relatively sluggish, breweries have discovered the prosperous markets of Asia, USA, Europe and Oceania as being a new avenue to keeping their business alive. Of all sake produced, the lion’s share is still by far consumed domestically, however the lure of the foreign market has proven undeniable to many and is seen as one of the pillars of strength for the future of sake. So along with this movement comes the obvious question of how to approach the market and promote sake to a foreign audience. And this is where it gets murky.

For many (including Japanese native speakers), the first hurdle to understanding sake is the vocabulary. Indeed, there are seemingly an endless amount of words one must learn in order to understand and appreciate sake.
Except there isn’t.
A bit of a caveat; yes, I can speak and read Japanese quite well and have some seventeen years of experience with the culture and language so I may have a head start on most but I still believe anyone can learn sake jargon if they have a few minutes to spare and the motivation. I’m so lazy I’m not even going to count them, but I’m going to throw it out there and say there are about twenty (at the most!) new words you will need to learn in order to understand the basics of nihonshu. This doesn’t include the names of brands nor the myriad of rice varieties. Aren’t there more than twenty? Of course there are but I’m talking about the basics of understanding what’s in the bottle and on the label. Twenty words really isn’t a lot. Sit down for a weekend and read a book on sake or by all means take a browse of the sake basics link on this site. That is really all the average drinker needs to know to order a glass of sake with some relative confidence in a restaurant. If you want to be an expert it will of course take a little more than that but for the 99% of folks who have a passing interest or just want to expand their drinking repertoire beyond wine and spirits this is plenty of information. I can say from experience that if you were to try and get your head around old world wines from France, Italy, Spain or Germany by comparison sake jargon and labeling is quite easy to understand and pretty straight forward.

Which brings us to the next hurdle of understanding sake, the names. This is an interesting phenomena where for some reason there is this faction of consumers, retailers, sommeliers and producers themselves who believe that the names of sake makers need to be translated into English in order for foreigners to appreciate the sake in the bottle. I have written before on the common kanji used in sake brands and their meaning and am guilty of occasionally direct translating names when the translation is simple enough. It can be fun and definitely interesting but by no means do I believe it is necessary. A non-Japanese speaking American recently remarked to me that the names of sake brands have no meaning or resonance with him. In reply I say, walk into your local liquor shop and have a look around. Do you know what Stolichnaya means? Krug? Bourgogne aligoté Bouzeron? Tanqueray? Laphraoig?  No?
Or perhaps some Australian winery names will make more sense, Wirra Wirra? Torbreck? Toolangi?
Still nothing? I am being a little facetious but my point is these names despite being made up of the English alphabet have no meaning whatsoever in and of themselves to most people outside of being the name on a label of booze. Therefore why is it that a Japanese label such as Rihaku seemingly requires a translation in order to connect with its market? Is it really any harder to pronounce than any of the other names listed above? Is it merely a refelction of current society’s short attention span that if the product is not instantly recognizable it will be forgotten? Some may argue that it is merely smart business strategy on the part of the brewery in taking a short-cut into the consumers’ consciousness by giving them an English name to grasp onto as in the above case, marketing Rihaku as “Wandering Poet”. Not a direct translation as such by the way; Rihaku doesn’t actually mean wandering poet, it is the name of the poet referenced in the English label.  However by promoting sake under these pseudonyms it further perpetuates the idea that sake is something that cannot be easily understood by westerners, that it’s something that requires translation on every level. This is simply untrue and honestly, a lazy excuse to not explain the sake and its provenance. Bear in mind I am not referring to the romanized English labels. Of course non-Japanese (and many Japanese themselves) cannot read the characters/kanji on the sake labels so to write them in roman English for the foreign market is common sense but it’s the sometimes nonsensical translations and in some cases the complete re-labeling for the foreign market which I struggle to comprehend.

The side-effect of this movement toward English translated labels is the creation of a split market. To approach the domestic and foreign markets as completely separate from each other may not be a terrible idea however it falters in the inability to cross-over. A drinker who has paid their dues educating their palate with such sake as Black Dragon, Roots of Innocence, Dragon Shaped Plum Trees or Otter Festival may be surprised to find these sake seemingly unavailable in Japan by those names. Likewise, I have been in the reverse situation and been unable to make head or tail of a sake list in a restaurant back home in Australia because the list consisted of forced English translations when the Japanese name would’ve often been shorter and simpler to remember. As I said before the story behind the name of a sake can be interesting and it can be fun to translate the names into English when a direct translation is possible but it shouldn’t be considered something necessary in order to break into the English speaking market.

Finally the other reason the forced translated names irks me is simple; it’s lazy. Even in 2017 there is still an underlying feeling in Japanese society that local customs and culture are impossible for a foreigner to grasp or understand. Make no mistake, some things in Japan are downright weird but food and drink is a fairly universal concept and clearly something that people are interested in. However some producers and exporters/importers can’t be bothered explaining to the customer what their product is and what it’s about so they opt for re-labeling their sake with an awkward translation that ends up sounding like a bad Bruce Lee film title in hope customers will pick up their sake based on familiarity. Furthermore, given the high quality of sake being exported these days it’s not unfair to expect sommeliers, bartenders, retailers and importers to dedicate a decent amount of time to learning about sake as well….including the names.

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New Kid on the block

“What’s your favourite sake?” is a question I get asked all too often. While I’ll usually deflect it with, “it depends on the food, mood and season”,  some folks can be particularly persistent. Recently, while having this well worn conversation with a fellow  sake enthusiast the question was put to me in a different way. “Well, which breweries’ sake do you buy or drink the most often?” he enquired.  That actually got  me thinking and I realized I could answer that one quite easily. Kid.

Surrounded by mountains in Kainan City, Wakayama prefecture Heiwa Shuzo have only been brewing Kido (also known simply as Kid) for a few years. The brewery itself has been around for much longer and was in fact originally a temple but underwent a couple of rebirths, the first being in 1952 when they renamed to Heiwa Shuzo as a nod to the end of World War Two (Heiwa meaning “peace”). The second came about ten years ago when fourth generation Norimasa Yamamoto returned to the family brewery with a passion and a vision for bringing sake into the new world. Being aware of his position as a the likely successor to the family brewery Yamamoto-san graduated from Kyoto University with a degree in economics. After dabbling in a human resources venture, Yamamoto-san returned to the family brewery. At the time Heiwa Shuzo’s sake production consisted almost entirely of carton sake, the cheap stuff, mostly brewing for other breweries. Having developed a palate for nihonshu in his time away from home, Yamamoto-san was disappointed to find that the family sake wasn’t particularly tasty. After some investigation, he found the cause of the off flavors stemmed from the mold-ridden walls and ceiling of the brewery, a by product of the high humidity of the area. If the family brewery was to make a comeback the only way was to repaint the entire brewery interior with an anti-bacterial coating (kakishibu). This dedication to cleanliness and sanitation is still a high priority with thorough cleaning a big part of the day to day at Heiwa Shuzo. Upon visiting the brewery my first impression immediately was that of the cleanest brewery I had ever seen. No tools lying around, no clutter, all business. The birth of the Kido name comes from combing the Kishu 紀州 name of the area with fudo 風土(environment or topography) into Kido 紀土 which also provides the wordplay “Kid” identifying the brand and brewery as young up and comers.
126Yamamoto-san is one of those inspiring people that makes you feel terribly lazy. In fact the first time I met him was at a sake event in Osaka that he appeared at after running the Tokyo marathon that morning, catching the 2 hour shinkansen to Osaka and then driving home a couple of hours to Wakayama after the event! Amidst his busy schedule at the brewery and relentless promoting on the road in the off-season he even managed to write a book on the current possibilities in the nihonshu production industry and has also seen the brewery expand into the ever growing craft beer market with great results. This guy has energy to burn! Yamamoto-san’s MO is all about bringing young people back to nihonshu and his approach and presence in the industry has shown he means business. He has been instrumental in the highly popular Dawn of the Young Brewers (Wakate no Yoake) sake event which has been held in Tokyo for the last couple of years and is starting to branch out into other areas and is also a leader in giving sake a strong social media platform. But of all course all of this means nothing if the sake aint good right? Well, rest assured, it’s brilliant. Like I said I probably drink Kid more than anything else.

Yamamoto-san by the rice steamer

Yamamoto-san by the rice steamer

Around the time Yamamoto-san returned to the family business and started shaking things up he lost some employees. In an all too familiar tale, some old hands struggle to get behind new visions so it was around this time brewery worker Shibata-san stepped up to become Toji. Another interesting approach Yamamoto-san took was to delegate certain tasks to each kurabito. Instead of having the toji running around micro-managing every step of the brewing process he figured it would inspire initiative and a sense of responsibility to charge each brewery worker with a specific task that they see over and are held accountable for. These days the eight kurabito (brewery workers) at Heiwa Shuzo are relatively young with most (besides Shibata-san and Yamamoto-san) if not all under 35 years old. With Shibata-san at the helm and Yamamoto-san in a “producer” type role, Heiwa Shuzo has been tremendously successful in realizing Yamamto-san’s goal of showcasing the soft, clean water of Wakayama in a vibrant, attractive nihonshu package. To further strengthen the Wakayama character of their sake Heiwa Shuzo also uses a large amount of Yamadanishiki rice that they harvest themselves. This is showcased most readily in their Agara no Ta de Sodateta (grown in our own field) seasonal offering made with wholly with their own grown Yamadanishiki milled to just 80%.
072The common thread throughout the Kid range is a tasteful balance of fruity esters leading to a soft and clean mouth feel with refreshing acid and character all tailed off with a remarkable moreish quality that constantly draws you back for sip after sip without being cloying or remotely boring. Across the whole range from their humble but outstanding value for money junmai to their gorgeously fragrant and clean daiginjo, Kid is the kind of sake you can drink everyday without tiring. Heiwa Shuzo is one of the most exciting breweries around at the moment and Kid is certainly one of the names to look out for in the new breed of sake brewers for the new world and with their sake finding its way overseas I’m sure they’ll find a market equally as welcoming as their following in Japan.

 

Where to next for Dassai?

For a while now Yamaguchi brewery Asahi Shuzo, makers of Dassai, have been the sake industry’s favourite underdog story. Since Hiroshi Sakurai took over the reigns of the family business in 1984 Asahi Shuzo has risen from a very modest output of 700 koku to the current 12,000 koku. All production being made up of junmai daiginjo exclusively. Put simply, in an industry where breweries are closing every year this kind of growth is unheard of.
Early on Sakurai-san realized the potential for the overseas market and pushed hard to get Dassai into fine dining restaurants in Paris, London and New York with great success. Recently used in a toast at a White House dinner with President Obama and Prime Minister Abe added some serious clout to an already strong image. Closer to home Dassai has succeeded in gaining a place on many Michelin-stared restaurant lists in Tokyo and recently further promoted their high-end image with a Dassai dedicated bar opening in the uber-chic area of Ginza in Tokyo. The portfolio has also seen the introduction of one of the pinnacles of sake decadence with the release of Dassai Beyond. A sake whose production methods are shrouded in secrecy but still commands the daunting price tag of 30,000 yen plus locally or upwards of $500 in overseas markets. So the obvious question is: what’s next for Dassai? Well, for starters construction on a new brewery means an increase in output. When I visited the brewery in Yamaguchi a short while ago the undergoing construction work was nothing short of staggering.

At first glance you'd think they're building an apartment complex

At first glance you’d think they’re building an apartment complex

Indeed Sakurai-san is looking to increase production five-fold to 50,000 koku in the coming years. For a brewery that produces only junmai daiginjo that’s a huge undertaking. But are Dassai putting all their eggs in one basket? Do they risk becoming a one-trick pony? Some would argue they already are. While a few years ago Dassai were seen as the darling of sake connoisseurs, these days there are many consumers who feel Dassai has little more to offer.
When the trend for low seimaibuai (rice milling) and wild yeasts and throwbacks to old production styles such as yamahai, kimoto and bodaimoto is becoming increasingly popular, where does that leave Dassai and their sixteen(!) rice milling machines? As more breweries become more environmentally aware entering into organics and environmentally friendly practices, how does that reflect on Dassai’s rather extravagant use of new (non-recycled) bottles only? When the trend for unfiltered sake is making a strong comeback where does that leave Dassai and their state-of-the-art centrifugal filtering system? They’re questions worth asking because as the audience for sake grows wider overseas as well as domestically there will be those that will start to look for something more than just junmai daiginjo. Sure Dassai have their sparkling, an aged sake, limited unpasteurized releases and a version of their 50 designed to be drunk warmed but it’s still a somewhat limited portfolio. But then it could be further genius on the part of Sakurai-san as they become viewed as more of a Champagne house that specializes in a specific style, one that demands a little pizzazz and a touch of extravagance. But still if that’s the case the other niggling factor will be quality. On my visit to the Dassai brewery I was fortunate enough to try a glass of Dassai Beyond as well as their Tameshi (test) sake.

Candied floral notes and a slick salinity drive the low-alcohol Tameshi

Candied floral notes and a slick salinity drive the low-alcohol Tameshi

Again, the production involved in the creation of the Tameshi was vague but it was interesting to see that there are new things on the horizon. However, to be honest while both were fine sake in the Dassai mold neither the Beyond nor the Tameshi filled me with excitement of a future of new things from Dassai. The Beyond, while a smart and classy sake is clearly priced according to the production costs rather than a reflection of the taste. Made with the best rice money can buy and brewed under the computerized (and human) eye of bank-breaking technology, what clearly lacked was a sense of character or place. While an approach similar to Champagne houses may seem like a good idea in theory the other thing not to forget is Dassai are not the only brewery making junmai daiginjo using yamada-nishiki rice. Far from it, just about every brewery has a shot at it. And while most don’t go as far as Dassai when it comes to milling rice to extreme levels, many come just as close and then some, in terms of quality – often at a fraction of the cost. With a target of increasing production to 50,000 koku it would be understandable if Dassai were to dispose of their “junmai daiginjo only” policy and head into the cost-effective arena of regular junmai, ginjo or table sake. Already there are farmers  struggling to keep up with Dassai’s rice quota. A Dassai sake with a seimaibuai of 80% for example would be a very interesting counterpoint to the rest of their portfolio but alas I fear such sake is not on the agenda. Besides the Tameshi, a couple of other notable releases have been their Togai (made with rice that hasn’t undergone the required quality inspections that qualify a sake to be labelled as special designation tokuteimeishoshu, in this case junmai daiginjo) however although the shirking of the special designation labeling is new ground for Dassai the production policies ie. using rice milled to daiginjo levels in a junmai process remain intact.

Wine and beer markets have always been subject to change in trends. Heavily oaked, malolactic rich chardonnays of the eighties have been shunned for lean styles with malo and oak used sparingly and rosé wine is no longer considered a girl’s drink. The big beer breweries have finally cottoned on to the craft beer juggernaut (which undergoes all sorts of trends within itself, see the rise and fall of heavily hopped IPAs as a case in point) and are adjusting their beers and marketing accordingly. In the sake world ginjo only became a thing some thirty years ago. Yamahai styles, low milling styles, natural brewing methods are making comebacks and breweries are adapting. At some point Dassai is going to have to as well. Junmai daiginjo will always have a place, but whether it’s a place that can sustain or warrant a five-fold increase in production is yet to be seen. But no doubt it’ll be a challenge Sakurai-san and his team will tackle with the optimism and tenacity that have brought Dassai this far.

Hanatomoe. Young gun of the old school

The sake industry is at something of a crossroads. Although there has never been a better time to drink sake, the industry is still struggling. While there is an increase in the consumption of tokutei meishoshu (higher grade sake) the downturn in lower grades drags down the overall national consumption. Nihonshu is still losing out to shochu and consumption of wine and craft beer is increasing in leaps and bounds. But all is not lost. Far from it. The new guard of sake brewers are doing some amazing work in bringing sake into its new era. An era where old school brewing methods and throwbacks to sake styles that fell by the wayside after the “ginjo boom” of the eighties are seeing are resurgence as the makers themselves reach for a new audience that will hopefully keep the industry alive and see it thrive into the future.

The Yoshino river

The Yoshino river

Among this new guard of sake brewers is Hashimoto-san of Miyoshino Shuzo, brewer of Hanatomoe. Located by the Yoshino river in the ancient capital of Nara, Miyoshino Shuzo is surrounded by timber yards trading in the local Yoshino cedar for which the area is renowned.  For a brewery that only produces around 200 koku per year (36,000 litres) the building itself is surprisingly large. However up until only a few years ago Miyoshino Shuzo was producing up to 1800 koku (324,000 litres). The sake being produced though was sold off under the now all but defunct oke-uri (tank selling) system where small breweries produced sake to set specifications to be sold off to the big boy breweries where the sake was labelled as their own. A practice that seems pointless but it guaranteed that sake produced would be sold and also sake sold this way was not taxed by the government, making it a clever business strategy for many smaller breweries. As overall consumption of sake declined though, the larger breweries no longer needed to outsource to these smaller breweries and the mutual back-scratching was over. Miyoshino had always produced Hanatomoe on the side but it was only a few years ago that Teruaki Hashimoto stepped up to take control of the family business and set them on a path that has seen the rebirth of Hanatomoe as a sake of character, body and a true sense of place.

Miyoshino Shuzo

Miyoshino Shuzo

After graduating from Tokyo Agricultural University, Hashimoto-san learned the sake brewing trade at the shrouded in mystery Kenbishi. Although Kenbishi is one of the largest breweries in the country they are known as much for their secretive brewing methods as they are for their bold, full bodied sake. All their sake is made in the yamahai method of slow fermentation and they also use in-house yeast. “In-house yeast” as in natural airborne as opposed to cultivated yeasts used by most breweries. This style of production appealed to Hashimoto-san and these two production principles are the foundation for the Hanatomoe character. When Hashimoto-san returned to the family business he convinced his father to do away with the Hanatomoe of old. The brewing team had always been a team of hired guns that came only during the winter brewing season and as the oke-uri system was no longer particularly profitable the decision was made to scrap it all together and let Hashimoto-san start again from scratch. By himself.
In his first year Hashimoto-san produced only 80 koku. A size-able decrease from the 1800 koku produced 10 years earlier. Still, 80 koku is a lot for one person. Increasing year by year now to 200 koku, Hashimoto-san is aiming for 500-600 koku. At a time where many brewers lament that they’re maxed out and couldn’t brew any more if they wanted to, 36 year old Hashimoto-san’s youthful optimism and drive is inspiring.  Equally impressive is his ability to embrace old-school brewing methods without being chained by tradition. Hashimoto-san’s determination to make the sake he wants to make ie. sake to be drunk with food, with character and acid is proving to be the type of sake many modern drinkers are looking for.

One of the first things I noticed about the brewery is the size. It’s definitely set up to brew much more sake than is being currently produced. The surplus of tanks however, works in the brewery’s favour as it means there is no rush to free up tank space in order to brew the next batch. In a brewery where the time consuming yamahai method is king, this is indeed a bonus. Also, Hashimoto-san likes to have the brewery ready to brew the 600 koku he is aiming to reach in the next five or six years. Although yamahai sake does involve the use of natural airborne bacteria to create the lactic acid that is required for a sanitary fermentation, most breweries use yeast that is cultivated or even “store bought”. Hashimoto-san reasons that sake of old was produced using airborne yeasts and that seemed to work out alright for everyone then so why not  bring it back? Many brewers would claim the inconsistency and the potential for unwanted bacteria to throw of the sake be a fair enough reason but Hashimoto-san is not swayed. Even if there is something of a variance in his sake from year to year it’s still his sake. He compares it to someone who maybe loses or gains weight from year to year. “They might have a different body but they’ve still got the same face, it’s still the same person” he reasons. His acceptance of possible variance is also apparent in that he keeps up to five or six starter mash tanks altogether in the same room right next to each other. This leaves the potential for some of those natural yeasts to jump from one tank to the next which may contain a cultivated yeast and vice versa. A practice Hashimoto-san acknowledges some toji would deem unthinkable. “If it happens, I work with it and that becomes the character of that sake”. Hashimoto-san is nothing if not adaptable! “It all happens in here so it’s all an indigenous reflection of our brewery,” he calmly explains. Rather than the character of the water used, or the origin of the rice this is indeed a true expression of irreplicable terroir. The character of the brewery rather than the region itself is what many consider the answer to the question of whether sake has terroir. There is also a reflection of the brewery location in Hanatomoe sake. Much of the rice used is contract grown, local rice, and some of that rice is also organic. The organic rice is grown in the simple way of introducing wing-clipped aigamo (a breed of duck) into the rice fields. The ducks live there for the harvest season eating all the bugs and pests keeping the rice clean and pesticides unnecessary. The other hint to Hanatomoe’s locale is the use of the Bodai-moto (also known as Mizu-moto) method.

The shubo tank room

The shubo tank room

The Bodai-moto method has its roots in the Kamakura Period, around 1200AD. At this time Nara was one of the leading areas of sake production. Brewing was largely conducted by monks in temples as sake was still more of a ceremonial than social drink. Many of the basic sake production methods still used today were founded by these monks and one discovery, by the monks of the Bodaisen mountains, was the Bodai-moto method. To simplify, this method involved starting with raw rice and water which when left would produce a lactic acid thanks to naturally occurring bacteria. In the traditional Bodai style, steamed rice would usually then be added to the mix but Hashimoto-san skips the steamed rice an leaves the mix for a week producing a highly pungent acidic starter. Then, the raw rice is removed and steamed before being returned to the lactic acid-rich water (soyashi mizu) where koji is also added. Again here, Hashimoto-san relies on naturally occurring yeast to get things started in what is a fairly time consuming process taking up to 40 days or so before being ready. This method of creating the starter mash is rarely used anywhere other than Nara, in fact Nara is home to the Bodai Moto Resarch Centre which works to keep the method alive. When I visited the brewery I was fortunate enough to see a tank of Bodai-moto (a wooden tank incidentally) bubbling away. In comparison to the often sweet, banana aromas of regular starter batches, the Bodai was noticeably pungent and rich with a funky edge to it. Very enticing!

A bubbling batch of Bodai-moto

A bubbling batch of Bodai-moto

But not everything at Miyoshino Shuzo is old school. For example, among all these old school methods it was very surprising to see that unlike just about every brewery I’ve ever seen, koji mold is not propagated onto the rice by hand. It’s not uncommon to find photos of brewers ever so carefully sprinkling their magic koji powder with a mesh covered cup-like tool onto steamed rice in the koji room. Every brewer having their own particular style of applying the mold. But always by hand. Like most breweries, after the rice is steamed it passes along a conveyor belt where it is then taken to the koji room or to the tanks as the case may be. At Miyoshino-Shuzo there is a koji applicator machine at the end of the conveyor belt that the rice passes through, receiving a dose of koji powder as it does. This machine provides a thorough and even application that works well with the Hanatomoe style of koji-heavy body, so Hashimoto-san sees no reason not to employ such technology. Again on the flip-side, whereas many breweries use all sorts of machines, gauges and gadgets to determine when a sake or a yeast starter is ready Hashimoto-san relies on his senses. In fact the whole brewery has a noticeable lack of data, graphs and figures often spotted at other breweries. Again, as Hashimoto-san works almost entirely by himself he explains that as long as he knows what’s going on there’s not much need for data to be pasted all over the walls.

Hanatomoe sake can basically be divided into two categories, the kanji label 花巴 and the hiragana label はなともえ. All sake produced under the kanji label, regardless of grade is made with natural occurring yeasts in either yamahai or bodai style. All sake under the hiragana label is made with cultivated yeast, predominantly the fragrant ginjo-esque no.9 yeast. Simplistically speaking the hiragana label sake tends to be fruitier and lighter. Most of this sake is somewhat fresh, vibrant and juicy. The sake under the kanji label is arguably the real Hanatomoe. Full bodied, rich koji-rice driven aromatics, broad sweetness with a tangy acidic mouth-feel and grit that belies the natural soft Yuzuriha water used in the brewing process.

A sample of the Hanatomoe range

A sample of the Hanatomoe range

On top of these standard staples of the Hanatomoe line-up I was intrigued by some of the cellar door offerings available. Hashimoto-san is a keen experimenter and one of his pet projects is his 100 Year Cedar (hyakunen sugi) barrel production sake. Being surrounded by timber yards in the middle of the Yoshino cedar timber industry, using the local cedar barrels to ferment sake seemed the next logical step in demonstrating the terroir of the area. Most sake these days is produced in enamel coated tanks which offer a far more sanitary environment as opposed to wood which fungus and bacteria tend to linger in regardless of cleaning. Again, Hashimoto-san sees this as just another character trait to the Hanatomoe sake personality. The sake is also aged on site in the bottle so various vintages are available if purchased direct from the brewery. The 2011 was my pick of the bunch. A tangy aroma of mandarin rind leading to a tight, acidic, slightly sweet and lighter than expected body. Peppery hints of cedar influence are present but far from dominating.

Hyakunen Sugi 2011

Hyakunen Sugi 2011

Another treat only available direct from the brewery is their 100% Organic Nansen Aged sake. Made using rice from the aforementioned aigamo fields in the yamahai style with natural occurring yeast, this is totally hands-off sake brewing. Subtle honey notes lead softer hints of rice and an astringent but sweet, viscous body. An after-dinner sake of depth that would be fantastic with some dried fruits and soft cheese.

Organic Nansen Aged Yamahai

Organic Nansen Aged Yamahai

So, as the sake industry sits at this crossroads where some breweries are struggling to find an audience in this new world environment, it’s exciting to see breweries like Hanatomoe. With a clear vision of what he wants to achieve Hashimoto-san is setting the bar high in terms of producing new world sake that respects the traditions of brewing with just the right amount of rule bending and experimentation. This could be just the right combination that sees sake reach that new audience it needs and drags it back into center stage where we all know it belongs. Exciting times!

 

 

Sake for the winter months

I always find winter to be an interesting time on the sake calendar. As it begins to get uncomfortably cool, the craving for some gently warmed sake starts to set in. But although winter is obviously the best time of the year for warm sake, it’s also ironically possibly the best time for chilled sake.

As we’re now into the thick of the sake brewing season which started around October for most breweries, we are now starting to see the fruits of their labor as the first pressings of the season hit the bars and stores. Usually unpasteurized, the fresh pressings (shiboritate, hatsu shibori) and shinshu (new sake) are bright, fresh, brash and zippy. Obviously as these sake have been produced in the last couple of months there has been minimal maturation time if any, which means the settled depth seen in Hiyaoroshi sake or sake released later in the year is mostly absent. Of course it’s not in the rule book that you can’t warm these types of sake up, however they are arguably best enjoyed chilled. Which leaves one with something of conundrum. Do I take advantage of the season and indulge in the bright new shiboritate offerings or go with the what the weather suggests and opt for a settled earthy style to warm my bones?

The answer is “yes” to both. Who says you have to choose? This interesting juxtaposition actually provides us with a best of both worlds scenario. From what I’ve seen and heard, this year is shaping up as a pretty good year for sake. The rice quality was decent and most breweries I’ve spoken to got the amount and quality of rice they ordered (doesn’t always happen). If the quality of the fresh pressings is anything to go by, from the balanced and bright offering from Shichihonyari 七本槍 (Saga), to the impeccably sleek and steely usunigori from Iwaki Kotobuki 磐城寿(Yamagata) to the rich, chunky soup-like plump of Michisakura’s 三千桜 nigori junmai (Gifu), there’s been a lot to be happy about. While it’s easy at this time of year to throw a rock and hit some good quality fresh sake, the old chestnut of what sake should be drunk warm is a little trickier. But it doesn’t need to be.

I’ve been guilty of perpetuating the myth myself but this time I’m not even going to entertain the theory that only bad sake is warmed to cover the flaws etc. It’s old, basically untrue and honestly not relevant anymore to anyone who is drinking the right sake in the right places. These days, especially in Japan in restaurants and bars that have taken the time to select their sake this theory has no place. On the other hand there is no ultimate answer as to what kind of sake should be drunk warmed or chilled. At the risk of being vague, it’s up to the drinker and their palate. However I still stick to my ways, and it’s pretty simple:
Sake with overt fruity or floral aromatics will usually wind up in the fridge. Sake with little or almost no aroma or dominant aromas of rice or mushroom-like earthiness will find themselves up for consideration for warming. There are always exceptions but this basic rule has served me well. Other specs that may suggest warming are lower milling rates (seimaibuai), old school brewing methods such as yamahai and kimoto and aged sake. Sake with low milling rates especially under 70% tend to be fuller, a little higher in acidity and obviously have more rice character. Again yamahai and kimoto also tend to have some of that acidity that lends itself to warming as well as earthier aromas sometimes bordering on downright funky.

Tenzan Shuzo in Saga prefecture on the island of Kyushu have made a popular name for themselves thanks to their Shichida 七田 range named after the brewing family. In particular, one of their standout sake for me has always been their Junmai 75. Made with Yamadanishiki rice milled to 75% and of course using their highly regarded medium-hard water sourced from the Gion River, this sake was the brainchild of current Kuramoto Kensuke Shichida after he found that earning a gold medal at the National New Sake Awards (Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai), essentially a daiginjo competition, wasn’t enough to pick up sales of the family brew. He reasoned that if the quality of rice was good enough, even with a lower milling rate good sake could be produced without off-flavors or harshness often associated with such practices, and as a bonus would be a more cost effective way of brewing. After less than successful initial trials Shichida-san hit on the idea of maturing the sake for an extended period of two years before pasteurizing and found that time smoothed out the edges revealing a rounder, umami laden profile. Although this sake works fine chilled and at room temperature it comes alive warmed. Aromas of caramel, creamed banana and a hint of mushroom lead into a full, robust mouth-feel with a pleasant acidic tang.

Shichida Junmai 75 24BY

Shichida Junmai 75 24BY

Another (among many) standout sake for the season has been the ever reliable Shichifukujin 七福神 from Kiku no Tsukasa Shuzo. A quiet little brewery in Iwate, their junmai milled to 65% is the type of sake that begs to be warmed. A koji-rich aroma leads secondary notes of chestnut, cooked rice and the slightest hint of baked ham. Interestingly, to try this sake chilled it feels awkward and chewy but it all falls into place at about 45°. The koji driven banana and chestnut flavors come forward more pronounced while the mild acidity supports an almost creamy texture.

Shichifukujin Junmai

Shichifukujin Junmai

It’s hard to go wrong with sake at this time of the year, so as 2014 comes to a close I hope you’ll bring in the new year with a glass of your favorite sake whether it’s chilled or warm. Looking forward to seeing what the rest of the brewing year brings….
All the best! Happy New Year!

Decant sake? Time to clear the air

The ubiquitous sight of sake served in ceramic or glass flasks along with matching o-choko cups is something that, regardless of modern sake styles and how westernized sake presentation becomes is something that is unlikely to disappear soon. The Japanese love tradition and part of sake’s appeal internationally seems to be the culture and tradition that goes with it. However it is important not to misinterpret the meaning or sometimes lack thereof behind these traditions. Recently I read an article which claimed the way a sake tastes can vary according to the way it is poured into the glass. Not the type of serving glass but the physical style of pouring….I’ll resist ranting on the nonsense behind this theory but what surprised me were the amount of online comments following the article where people figured this idea made sense as it was the same as “aerating” or “decanting” as is done with wine and therefore a sound theory. This surprised me for two reasons; firstly it is not at all the same as aerating or decanting. And secondly even if it was the same, why do so many believe that such practices would benefit sake?

Decanting in the wine world is done for two possible purposes. One is where the wine is gently poured into a secondary vessel to remove the wine from any sedimentary deposits that may be in the bottle. These deposits can impart astringent or bitter flavours to the wine so removing them is ideal – often required for unfiltered and/or particularly old wine. The other reason is pretty much the same as aerating. This is where the wine is transferred to a secondary vessel with a larger surface area exposing the wine to oxygen. The wine reacts to the air contact and is essentially oxidising (accelerating ageing) the wine. Wine is a fruit based liquid and if you recall basic science you’ll remember fruit reacts to oxygen (think of how an apple browns after it has been cut). This is effective when opening full bodied wines that are perhaps young or particularly concentrated in profile. The oxygen contact allows some of the robust aromas and flavours to settle. Also as most wine contains sulfites decanting can help some possible off-notes from the sulfur or even hints of cork smell evaporate. Of course as wine is fruit based, excessive oxygen contact will eventually turn the wine leaving an undesirable vinegary, dull taste. Hence an open bottle of wine is usually best consumed within three days, old wine much sooner whereas sake generally tends to last a few weeks, some will say even longer.
So now we have established the benefits of decanting/aerating wine, how could they benefit sake? Well, generally the only type of sake with sediment is nigorizake and that sediment is there for a reason. It adds texture, flavour and umami. If we wanted it out the brewer would have taken it out. So there’s no need to decant nigorizake. Other sake is mostly pressed clean. Nigorizake and slightly cloudy (usunigori) could technically be decanted clean but as the cloudiness doesn’t harm the flavour why would anyone bother? As for aerating, pouring sake into a glass and giving it a swirl will surely release more aromas and allow you to appreciate the bouquet of the sake but pouring it into a decanter similar to a wine decanter will do precious little for your sake. From experience, if anything the excessive air exposure will merely speed up the oxidisation of the sake resulting in dull aromas. As cork is not used as a closure and sulfites are not used in sake production there is again no concern for possible off aromas from these outside influences. An excessive ethanol alcohol aroma is possible but in many cases would easily be resolved from the aforementioned swirling in the glass. How about koshu or aged sake? Same issue as wine, as the closures are not 100% hermetically sealed, oxygen does find its way into the bottle slowly over time so exposing it to any more oxygen when opening it by decanting can be a gamble if left too long. Koshu that is aged in tanks also means ample air contact has already taken place.  True, decanting old wine may brush off some off the dusty aromas but in the case of sake not so much. Again, a swirl in the glass is all you need. Also take into account if you’re not going to finish the whole bottle in one sitting decanting the whole bottle is all the more pointless. Some may argue that young, brash shiboritate nama genshu with it’s high alcohol and concentrated flavours could benefit from aeration but robust concentrated flavours is what that style is all about so again why would you bother? The lack of fruit to react with the oxygen negates any real positive effect from deliberately exposing sake to air. In fact it’s this lack of fruit that prevents oxidisation from occurring too quickly. Once a bottle is opened sake will however eventually oxidise and turn. When this happens is open to debate. It depends on the sake and the drinker. If it is kept refrigerated some believe months after a bottle is opened it will still taste good if not quite different from when it was first opened. Others believe once those initial fresh flavours are gone so is the sake and a week or so is the most they would recommend. Personally, as a general rule I stick with around three weeks max. A bottle rarely lasts that long in my house anyway.

So back to those ceramic flasks (tokkuri). While I have actually heard them described as decanters whose function is the same as that of a wine decanter this is completely untrue. The tokkuri are used solely as a serving vessel to encourage drinkers to pour for each other as per Japanese drinking tradition. Although there are exceptions, tokkuri are usually quite narrow at the top which actually minimizes air contact making them quite useless as decanters.

Sake is a confusing beast to many consumers and introducing redundant serving and presentation practices helps no one. Let’s not over complicate it. Pour it in a glass, have a sniff, drink. Repeat.

Hiyaoroshi is here again!

The sake calendar is a seasonal one. In Spring we see the release of the “new” sake, fresh off the press, straight to the bottle, summer is marked by the obvious summer sake releases but autumn is the business end of the sake calendar. Hiyaoroshi sees the best sides of sake: a combination of fresh youth and settled maturity.

Hiyaoroshi specifically refers to sake that is stored for a period (usually around six months or so) to be released in Autumn without undergoing the usual second pasteurization procedure. As you may or not know, sake is usually pasteurized twice; once before storage and then a second time after maturation when the sake is bottled and shipped. In days gone by it would have been inconceivable to release unpasteurized sake any earlier than autumn as the summer heat could (and did) cause sleeping enzymes and bacteria in the sake to become active, throwing off the flavour profile of the sake. So after undertaking only the first pasteurization the sake was kept in cool storage in tanks (wooden in the old days) till release. Autumn was considered to be cool enough to take the chance of releasing the sake minus the second pasteurization without disturbing any sleeping enzymes, giving folks that zippy freshness of a namazake with the balance of a matured sake. Which makes sense except for the fact that these days refrigeration in breweries, restaurants, retailers and even delivery trucks pretty much means there is no reason why namazake can’t be released whenever a brewery likes. Which is what happens. However, I like to think of hiyaoroshi sake as the more balanced (due to the maturation) style of nama. Incidentally, the word Hiyaoroshi comes from the middle Edo period (1600’s to 1800’s). Hiya- as in chilled (cold storage) and Oroshi-unload/release.
As in most years, bars and restaurants menus are loaded with hiyaoroshi releases, leaving livers wrecked and wallets lightened. But no complaints, it’s arguably the best time of year, the Christmas of the sake year?
Alongside the hiyaoroshi labels Aki-Agari (autumn release) is a term often spotted. Essentially referring to the traditional release period for most sake breweries. Technically these once pasteurized sake can be released anytime of the year although the autumn image is strong for most consumers thus the lions share of these sake are released around this time. One such release that piqued my interest was an aki agari daiginjo from Shosetsu by Kanzawagawa Shuzo in Shizuoka. A highly perfumed aroma with candied hints of musk and passionfruit precede an impossibly soft, watery mouth feel with a steely palate of stone fruits.  Quite an opulent sake for this time of year.

Shosetsu Aki Agari Daiginjo

Shosetsu Aki Agari Daiginjo

Another curious little gem was from the comeback kids of Yamaguchi, Toyobijin. Made in collaboration with Imanaka Sake Shop in Osaka their junmai ginjo hiyaoroshi release is quite showy; candied floral notes and somewhat pretty in profile. Unabashed brightness and hints of sweetness but with a tight dry finish and low acidity presents as an easy guzzler for autumn.

Toyobijin Hiyaoroshi Junmai Ginjo

Toyobijin Hiyaoroshi Junmai Ginjo

If there were a textbook style of hiyaoroshi sake I’d say Jozan from Fukui pretty much nailed it. Their tokubetsu junmai is a lively little number that beautifully balances all that is good about hiyaoroshi. The vibrant hit on the palate with the first sip is gently restrained into a focused balance of strawberry and melon fruit flavors finished short, dry and crisp.

Jozan Hiyaoroshi Tokubetsu Junmai

Jozan Hiyaoroshi Tokubetsu Junmai

While there is always too much sake to try and too many sake events to get to this time of year, it’s hardly a chore. And as it all winds down the brewing season kicks in, the weather becomes positively chilly and yet another season rolls around and the anticipation of warmed winter sake becomes ever so irrepressible. Can’t wait!

The science, sense and passion of Miinokotobuki

When it comes to major sake brewing regions, there are a few that come to mind quicker than others. Nada in Hyogo and Kyoto are obvious for their production of most of the sake in the country. Other areas such as Niigata, Akita, Hiroshima among others are know for their strong sake culture and abundance of breweries. But head south to the island of Kyushu and most will comment that sake’s distilled cousin shochu is king with nihonshu nought but an afterthought. But it just aint so. At the northern tip of Kyushu, Fukuoka is home to some 80 breweries placing it as the fifth largest home to sake breweries in the country. While shochu may reign supreme in Kagoshima (home to one lonely producer of nihonshu) the rest of the island is most definitely on board the sake train.

Among many favorites in the south,  Miinokotobuki in Fukuoka are a brewery turning some heads all around town. Arguably most famous as one of the pioneers of the wine yeast trend there is actually much more to this fascinating brewery. These days run by the brothers Inoue, Miinokotobuki have taken the family brewery and pushed themselves into the consciousness of the sake industry with their complex sake and simple strategies. Production sees them producing 800 koku per year yet they have no website nor sales team on the road. Inoue-san sticks to his father’s mantra that “if the sake is good, that’s your salesman”. And it’s working well.

Miinokotobuki Toji Tadatsugu Inoue-san

Miinokotobuki Toji Tadatsugu Inoue-san

The brothers took over brewing from their previous toji around 13 years ago. The original toji had retired due to a stroke and a new well-established toji was brought in to take over. However while Miinokotobuki was known for light easy drinking sake, the change in toji saw the sake also change into a hard, broader style. Sales dropped and so did morale. Wajoryoshu 和醸良酒is an expression used roughly meaning a harmonious environment will produce good sake. With a new team of kurabito, a new toji and lagging sales something needed to be done. Elder brother Tadatsugu began visiting his friends’ breweries, picking up as many tips as he could on brewing before having a stab himself at brewing the type of sake Miinokotobuki were originally known for. The result was undeniably successful leading to an awkward but amicable split with the toji at the time.
Interestingly, these days the brothers divide responsibilities with Tadatsugu-san in charge of koji and the moromi and yeast cultivation and younger brother Kojiro-san in charge of rice prep (washing, steaming etc) and the moto (including their yamahai production). They each work to their strengths acknowledging that neither is as good as the other at their respective roles. Inoue-san describes his sake as national as opposed to regional. With their immaculate soft water sourced from the three wells in town (after which the brewery is named) and Inoue-san’s passionate approach to yeast cultivation they have definitely found something their own. After experimenting with different yeasts Inoue-san realized the exciting possibilities that exist in blending yeasts. It was this discovery that lead him down the path to producing their own original yeast with which most of their sake is produced. Named MI3 (there was a M1 and M2) after the Mission Impossible movies, the yeast provides a very pretty floral nose with hints of apple and stone fruits. However unlike some other breweries that also use the same yeast for all their sake, the yeast aromas don’t become an ad nauseum common denominator in their range. It was also this experimentation with yeasts that brought about their successful experiment with wine yeast. Inoue-san reasoned that it was the acid in wine that lent itself so well to food matches therefore a wine yeast with a higher acidity could produce a similar profile in sake. The result was a wildly popular junmai ginjo with white wine-like sharp phenolics that would undoubtedly confuse many in a blind tasting however the mouth feel, despite the acidity is all sake.  In the often hit and miss world of sake made with wine yeast, Miinokotobuki have nailed it.
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It was at a recent lunch at the lovely Rakuen in Tenma where I was fortunate enough to be taken through a selection of some of Miinokotobuki’s finer brews and plenty of anecdotes from Inoue-san, a most affable host. While I’m not usually swayed by awards or medals, the opportunity to try their 13 time gold medal (at the National New Sake Appraisals held annually) grabbing daiginjo was something of a treat. Usually these daiginjo tend to be somewhat over the top and gaudy but the example shown was exquisite with delicate florals, aniseed, impeccable balance and a tight short finish. In the case of many breweries, a very small batch is brewed purely for the contest and when a medal is achieved the brewery continues selling their regular daiginjo advertising their gold medal achievement at the New Sake Appraisals, neglecting to mention that it wasn’t actually the daiginjo you’re looking at that won the medal. A practice I’m not a fan of  at all. However the daiginjo you buy from Miinokotobuki is in fact the same sake that has earned them their medals. True, the sake submitted is from the middle part of the pressing (nakadori) but at least it’s still the same batch.

Miinokotobuki Junmai Daiginjo

Miinokotobuki Junmai Daiginjo

The junmai ginjo was gorgeous and plush and ever so slightly sweet with very low acid allowing it to melt on the palate. Fleshy and moreish and made with a little known rice called sakemirai, a sake rice created by blending tatsu no otoshiko rice with ushuhomare. A cross-breed originally  discovered by none other than Takagi Shuzo, makers of Juyondai in Yamagata. Inoue-san decided to try and use the rice at the urging of his friend Takagi-san and results are inspired!
Of course being smack bang in the middle of hiyaoroshi season it was a given that their autumn release would get a showing. Miinokotobuki’s Porcini Hiyaoroshi has been a highlight in previous years and this year is no different. Fresh, savoury with a satisfying umam-laden hit and some citrus hints. However a revisit after it had been warmed to around 40 degrees was a revelation. The umami rose even further and the aromas morphed into chestnut wafts. Yet again, the widely followed idea that hiyaoroshi is a style of sake to be drunk chilled shot down in flames.

Miinokotobuki Hiyaoroshi Porcini

Miinokotobuki Hiyaoroshi Porcini

Inoue-san says the key to making good sake is science, sense and passion. Science to understand why and how things happen in the brewing process, sense to know when to ignore the science and go with what works and the passion to make sake that isn’t just good but outstanding. I’d say he’s spot on in every way. Kanpai indeed…

The pride of Osaka, Akishika

To say Osakans are a proud bunch would be quite the understatement. Osaka is Japan’s second largest city and is home to Japan’s best comedians, loudest people, most obsessive baseball fans and many would say best food. If Tokyo is the face of Japan, Kyoto is the soul and Osaka is the heart. Although in many areas Osaka doesn’t really compare to its larger more cosmopolitan sibling, it has an undeniable charm and bravado that wins the hearts of many visitors to Japan and is often the envy of other Japanese cities.  Having lived in Osaka on and off for fifteen years I can testify that it is indeed this charm that has kept me from straying to other areas of Japan.

When it comes to sake too, Osakans are fiercely loyal. Ask anyone in Osaka about local sake and you’ll usually get one of two replies: Goshun or Akishika. Goshun is the stalwart found in almost every tachinomi, izakaya and bar around town. Working man’s sake made old school for the old school. But Akishika is the young up and comer (with 130 years experience) gracing the bars of any self respecting sake dedicated venue in town, and their popularity stretches well beyond Osaka and Kansai. Located in Osaka in the Nose (no-seh) area of Northern Osaka only just inside the prefectural borders, Akishika have built themselves something of a reputation for doing things their own way. They grow a lot of their own rice organically (including the only Omachi fields in Osaka, a notoriously difficult rice usually found mostly in Okayama), steer clear of fine filtering and are one of only a handful of breweries to produce only junmai sake.

President/toji Oku-san sees Akishika as more than a sake producer, for him being a rice grower and a sake brewery are one in the same with one no more or less important than the other. In fact originally known as Okushika the Oku family were rice farmers who made a bit of sake on the side with their product. This would help to explain Oku-san’s approach of not interfering with the rice and keeping human intervention to a minimum throughout the whole “grain to bottle” process by not doing anything unnecessary  While most breweries strive for consistency in flavor profile year in and out Oku-san appreciates that every year’s rice harvest is different and they aren’t afraid to tweak their production methods to work in harmony with the condition of the rice rather than fight and manipulate it to maintain the same character as previous years. While they haven’t exactly embraced the idea of vintages as used in the wine world they are comfortable with the concept of variance in their sake from year to year. Having said that there are definite consistent traits seen in Akishika sake regardless of the rice harvest. Known and loved for their low-aromatics, high acid, punchy sake,  Akishika is what would normally be described as food friendly sake. Cheese and other fermented, umami-rich foods like natto and miso laden foods work particularly well. Despite their popularity with the sake geek crowd however they are still quite a small brewery producing just under 1000 koku (180,000 litres) leaving precious little to get beyond the borders of Kansai.
Fortunately for the locals  a bit of Akishika is never hard to come by so I recently enjoyed a selected line up at a local soba restaurant where Kotaro Oku-san (the president/toji’s son) was kind enough to give a guided tour of Akishika’s flavours and range.

The two year aged junmai daiginjo (less than 400 bottles produced) in their now obsolete retro labeling was an interesting representation of the mellowing aging effects on  a more delicate sake. Although it retained the light body and had arguably developed some interesting complexity in the honeyed aromas and nutty profile I couldn’t help but wish I could have tried it fresher.

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The current release Hiyaoroshi was a textbook example of Akishika acidity backed with peppery finishing notes and lead with a mild aroma of melon and herbs.
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Likewise the 80% milled junmai was a fantastic showing of their home-grown organic yamadanishiki. Showing almost no aromas the palate was rich, full and broad and worked wonderfully slightly warmed above room temperature revealing the chewy rice flavours. The kimoto junmai made again with their own omachi rice was bursting with koji aromas of chestnut, no real fruity aromas and the trademark zippy acidity and a slight sweetness. One of their more visible brews, their junmai ginjo genshu with its distinctive cartoon label is again a classic example of what the Akishika fans want. Grainy rice mouth feel balanced with an assertive, lip-smacking acid profile. Clean aromas but not overtly ginjo-esque. Incidentally, the cartoon label also appears on other Akishika labels as an ink stamp indicating  the sake was made using their own-grown rice.
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An exciting brewery finely balancing the line of keeping up with a modern market while maintaining an old-school approach and work ethic. Worth keeping an eye out for them in anywhere around Kansai or waving the Osakan flag anywhere serious sake is found.

Delighful hand-made soba from Soba Mise no Ami

Delighful hand-made soba from Soba Mise no Ami


 

How pure is your Junmai?

We all know what junmai means right? “Pure rice” sake. Sake made with rice, water and koji and no added alcohol or any other additions. “Sake in its purest form” was another definition on a supplier site. Sounds about right? Well, I got to thinking after having a slightly heated disagreement with a fellow drinker who insisted on trashing any sake that wasn’t junmai. First of all I want to go on the record that I love junmai sake as much as anyone else and the vast majority of sake I drink is in fact junmai. What I struggle with is the uninformed derision cast against aruten sake. To recap, aruten is short for arukooru (alcohol) tenka (addition), sake where alcohol is added before the pressing stage to dissolve some of the left over fermentables and draw out a more aromatic, lighter sake (and in the case of cheap pack sake and some futsu-shu added in larger quantities to increase yields). Futsu-shu, honjozo and tokubetsu honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo fall into this category. The reason I bring this topic up is because as sake reaches a larger audience I am seeing more and more articles, interviews with wine sommeliers, restaurateurs and suppliers spouting that junmai is the pinnacle of sake because it is the “pure” sake, giving the impression that aruten has been tarnished with its alcohol addition. But something tells me junmai has a skeleton lurking in its closet.

Purely for the sake of argument let’s look at the brewing method for most sake, junmai and otherwise.
After rice is milled, washed, soaked, steamed and koji has been made, rice is added to a small tank along with the koji, water and lactic acid to get the fermentation party started.
Wait. Go back. Lactic acid is added?
Unless it’s a yamahai or kimoto, yes.
Why? Well because without lactic acid to speed up the process of killing off bacteria and unwanted nitric acids and wild airborne yeasts you would more or less end up with a yamahai sake or possibly a contaminated sake. The lactic acid addition (known as the sokujo method) also helps things move quicker, cutting the fermentation time in half to around two weeks instead of a month.
Well, that seems fair enough then. So lactic acid is added in most junmai (and non-junmai) to achieve a particular cleaner flavor profile desired by the brewer. Similarly a brewer may add a little distilled alcohol to a sake before pressing to draw out aromas and achieve a desired aromatic flavor profile. “No!” cried my fellow drinker, “it’s not the same. They have to add the lactic acid! It’s not a financially motivated process”.

Firstly, no they don’t. Brewers choose to add the lactic acid. All brewers are more than welcome to make yamahai and kimoto style sake with no lactic acid addition or cultured yeast for that matter if they choose. Many do. It comes down to what the brewer is aiming for. If the brewer doesn’t want the sweetness, funky aromas and acid of a kimoto style sake he/she adds lactic acid to the moto. Secondly, considering the lactic acid addition speeds up the whole process thus freeing up tank space to produce more sake it could be argued that making sake in this method is in fact financially wise and good business practice.
Of course I’m playing devil’s advocate here. The sokujo method is in the rules and is a totally valid method of sake production. In fact it’s standard. Similarly, adding small amounts of distilled alcohol to a sake to draw out aromas or lighten body is in the rules as an accepted and recognized method available to brewers if they choose. Can you taste the lactic acid? Of course not. But you can taste the difference in what was achieved by adding the lactic acid as opposed to not adding it. The same way you cannot taste the added alcohol in a tokubetsu honjozo but you can taste (or smell) the result achieved by adding the alcohol. If someone prefers the taste of junmai sake over honjozo varieties of course that’s fine I don’t believe everybody has to drink honjozo. However I do believe little is achieved by bad-mouthing a perfectly valid, recognized technique for brewing, a technique for that matter that essentially keeps the entire industry afloat as well as produces some particularly fine sake.

So by my understanding, if you really want to talk about natural, unadulterated sake in its purest form with no additions or ingredients other than koji, rice and water, the sake by definition should be a kimoto or yamahai made with natural occurring airborne yeast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this style of sake is the best, merely that it fits the true description of what many people describe junmai sake as being. Which brings us to the amazing Maibijin 舞美人 from Fukui and their junmai yamahai unfiltered, undiluted unpasteurized made with wild yeast and their own grown gohyakumangoku rice. About as hands off as you get when it comes to sake making! While this is the first time Maibijin have attempted this sake they hit the mark beautifully. An impossibly complex brew with a powerful punch of basil, licorice and banana that smells much better than that sounds! Rich chestnut-like koji aromas lead into a slightly puckering acidic palate. Funky and sweaty and rice driven, it finishes dry and somewhat cleaner than expected. A truly impressive and memorable sake.

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