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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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