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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love hearing the success stories of breweries that re-invented themselves to take on the new world. Many of the sake brands you see on the shelves and on menus were not around 10, 20 years ago. The breweries were, but the label may not have been. A lot of breweries put aside their old monikers and rebranded at the same time they decided to change strategy, in terms of marketing as well as production. One story that stands out is the success of Tochigi brewery Senkin.
Established in 1806, Senkin are actually the oldest brewers in Tochigi. However, it was the forward thinking of the 11th generation Usui brothers that saw them shift into a the cult brewery they are today. Around 11 years ago Kazuki Usui decided that if Senkin were to survive into the new era they needed to change tact in a drastic way. And change they did. With something of a re-launch in 2008 Senkin hit the market with their unique, stand-alone sake of full-bodied sweetness and high acidity marketed to match well with cuisines other than Japanese. To further distinguish themselves from other sake they decided to completely shun the ubiquitous sake rice king Yamada Nishiki, instead opting for the more peculiar Kame no O, Omachi and Aiyama, now even going so far as cultivating a lot of the rice themselves. They are also one of only a handful of breweries that doesn’t dilute their sake with water (genshu). Usually that would be a warming bell of a high-octane alcohol bomb but in the case of Senkin it is about tapering off the brewing process at just the right moment to achieve the desired alcohol content which also provides the natural sought after sweetness of Senkin’s style. If that wasn’t enough, as of 2011 Senkin decided to do away with Tokuteimeishoshu (special designation) labelling. According to the brothers, the labelling of Ginjo, Junmai, Tokubetsu, Daiginjo etc. succeeded in nothing more than confusing the consumer. If a sake is made with rice milled to 50%, in theory, it could be Daiginjo or Tokubetsu or even Junmai. They figured they’d just tell people what’s in the bottle, how they made it and forget about grades. A very interesting and refreshing approach. Personally, I think they could be onto something…
Naturally, when sake with high acidity is the goal, Yamahai and Kimoto style sake feature quite prominently in the Senkin line-up. The prevalence of naturally occurring bacteria in the brewing process of these styles are known for resulting in tangy, acidic flavour profiles. Also all brewing is conducted using wooden tanks as opposed to the common use of enamel tanks to give something of an “old-world” feel that paradoxically sets them apart as new age “slow” brewers.
A great place to start with Senkin is their “Classic” series. A selection of sake of various seimaibuai, rice varieties and style with the purpose of showcasing the rice variety and or the style eg. kimoto/yamahai.
仙禽 山廃クラシック Senkin Classic Yamahai
Rice: Kame no OThe Classic Yamahai brewed with Kame no O rice at a rugged 80% seimaibuai is simply one of my favourite sake. Best at either room temperature or slightly warmed, the classic yamahai shows voluptuous aromas of caramel, black cherry, and marron. On the palate it delivers a chewy, umami-rich, rice sweetness balanced with that trademark Senkin tang. I’ve made no secret of my love for Kame no O rice and this is the perfect kind of vehicle to show the depth of character this rice can show.
The balance of traditional methods with practical approach and the unwillingness to compromise has placed Senkin on stage as one of the true rock stars of the sake world. An act worth following.