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Sake World Newsletter #2
The Sake-Brewing Process

The many steps of the sake brewing process are so inter-related, yet with each one constituting a universe unto itself, that it is close to futile to try to put it into a few words. But we must try and the simplest of overviews would look something like this. Steamed rice and koji (which is rice cultivated with koji mold, technically known as aspergillus oryzae) are first mixed with yeast to make a yeast starter, in which there is a very high concentration of yeast cells. After that, more rice, koji, and water are added in three batches over four days. This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended. This would be enough to get you through most conversations.

But a bit more detail on each step of the process - even a small amount - makes it all infinitely more interesting. Looking at the process a bit more closely, here are the main steps and processes.

Rice Milling

After proper sake rice (in the case of premium sake, anyway) has been secured, it is milled, or polished, to prepare it for brewing good sake. This is not as simple as it might sound, since it must be done gently so as to not generate too much heat (which adversely affects water absorption) or not crack the rice kernels (which is not good for the fermentation process).

Washing and Soaking

Next, the white powder (called nuka) left on the rice after polishing is washed away, as this makes a significant difference in the final quality of the steamed rice. (It also affects the flavor of table rice; try washing your rice very thoroughly and notice the difference in consistency and flavor.) Following that, it is soaked to attain a certain water content deemed optimum for steaming that particular rice. The degree to which the rice has been milled in the previous step determines what its pre-steaming water content should be. The more a rice has been polished, the faster it absorbs water and the shorter the soaking time. Often it is done for as little as a stopwatch-measured minute, sometimes it is done overnight.

Steaming

Next the rice is steamed. Note this is different from the way table rice is prepared. It is not mixed with water and brought to a boil; rather, steam is brought up through the bottom of the steaming vat (traditionally called a koshiki) to work its way through the rice. This gives a firmer consistency and slightly harder outside surface and softer center. Generally, a batch of steamed rice is divided up, with some going to have koji mold sprinkled over it, and some going directly to the fermentation vat. Next the rice is steamed. Note this is different from the way table rice is prepared. It is not mixed with water and brought to a boil; rather, steam is brought up through the bottom of the steaming vat (traditionally called a koshiki) to work its way through the rice. This gives a firmer consistency and slightly harder outside surface and softer center. Generally, a batch of steamed rice is divided up, with some going to have koji mold sprinkled over it, and some going directly to the fermentation vat.

Koji making (seigiku)

This is the heart of the entire brewing process, really, and could have several chapters, if not books, written about it. Summarizing, koji mold in the form of a dark, fine powder is sprinkled on steamed rice that has been cooled. It is then taken to a special room within which a higher than average humidity and temperature are maintained. Over the next 36 to 45 hours, the developing koji is checked, mixed and re-arranged constantly. The final product looks like rice grains with a slight frosting on them, and smells faintly of sweet chestnuts.

Koji is used at least four times throughout the process, and is always made fresh and used immediately. Therefore, any one batch goes through the "heart of the process" at least four times.

The yeast starter (shubo or moto)

A yeast starter, or seed mash of sorts, is first created. This is done by mixing finished koji and plain steamed white rice from the above two steps, water and a concentration of pure yeast cells. Over the next two weeks, (typically) a concentration of yeast cells that can reach 100 million cells in one teaspoon is developed.

The mash (moromi)

After being moved to a larger tank, more rice, more koji and more water are added in three successive stages over four days, roughly doubling the size of the batch each time. This is the main mash, and as it ferments over the next 18 - 32 days, its temperature and other factors are measured and adjusted to create precisely the flavor profile being sought.

Pressing (joso)

When everything is just right (no easy decision!), the sake is pressed. Through one of several methods, the white lees (called kasu) and unfermented solids are pressed away, and the clear sake runs off. This is most often done by machine, although the older methods involving putting the moromi in canvas bags and squeezing the fresh sake out, or letting the sake drip out of the bags, are still used.

Filtration (roka)

After sitting for a few days to let more solids settle out, the sake is usually charcoal filtered to adjust flavor and color. This is done to different degrees at different breweries, and is goes a long way in dictating the style.

Pasteurization

Most sake is then pasteurized once. This is done by heating it quickly by passing it through a pipe immersed in hot water. This process kills off bacteria and deactivates enzymes that would likely adverse flavor and color later on. Sake that is not pasteurized is called namazake, and maintains a certain freshness of flavor, although it must be kept refrigerated to protect it.

Finally, most sake is left to age about six months, rounding out the flavor, before shipping. Before shipping it is mixed with a bit of pure water to bring the near 20 percent alcohol down to 16 percent or so, and blended to ensure consistency. Also, it is usually pasteurized a second time at this stage.

It is somewhat unfair to the sake-brewing craft and industry to reduce sake brewing down to the short explanation above, but excessive detail would soon go beyond the scope of this book. The basics are as explained here.

Changes Over the Years

Over the centuries, naturally there were many adjustments and changes to the sake brewing process. These arose to either make better sake, or to make sake more economically. Sometimes, advances in the economic forum also lead to improved sake quality.

One of the most important advances was the improvement in rice-polishing equipment. Originally, rice was stomped on in a vat to remove the husks. Later, water wheels and grinding stones were used. Today, there are great computer-controlled machines that will polish off the specified percentage of the outside of the grains, and do it in a specified amount of time (with longer being better). This minimized damage from friction heat and cracked grains.

Another major advance was the use of ceramic-lined or stainless steel tanks, now the standard, over cedar tanks, which were used for hundreds of years. This has drastically improved the quality and purity of sake since the beginning of this century.

Then there is the pressing stage. Until the early 1900's, all sake was pressed by pouring the moromi into canvas bags which were then put into a large wooden box called a fune. The lid was then cranked down into the box, squeezing out the sake. Now, almost all sake is pressed with a huge, accordion-like machine that squeezes the moromi between balloon-like inflating panels, making disposal of the lees (called kasu) simple.

Almost all breweries will still press some of their best sake in the old way, using a fune. It does indeed make subtly noticeably better sake. But the accordion-like machine (called an Assaku-ki) is so much more efficient, and the fune so labor intensive, that the tradeoffs are only worth it for top-grade sake.

Most controversially, however, is the koji making equipment. It is truly amazing how the slightest differences in koji can affect the flavor of the final product. Traditionally, koji is all made by hand in wood-paneled rooms kept warm and humid. As this is such a labor-intensive step, many changes have come about, and a lot of them are rejected later. (It is interesting to note that almost all super premium sake like daiginjo is made using hand-made koji.)

There are now large machines that will perform part or all of the koji making process, doing the work of several individuals. There are countless manifestations of these, all attempting to imitate the skill and intuition of the human masters. Other changes include stainless steel instead of wood walls. The risk of the development of unwanted mold is reduced, but humidity is affected.

In the end, there are countless arguments for and against these changes. Subtle changes in daily temperature and rice quality may not always be picked up by machines, but for example sanitation can be greatly improved upon. Naturally, technological progress to some degree is necessary for the industry to survive.

 

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Sake to look for

Below are listed a few sake to look for. Along with a brief description of each is given a ranking on a 100 point scale, and any known information about whether it is available in the US.

A word about the ranking system: it is something I do grudgingly. It does little more than express how I feel personally about a sake. It is really up to each individual to determine for themselves how "good" or "not good" a sake is. I have based it on a 100-pt system that is outlined on my web page, at www.sake-world.com, in the "Best Sake Lists" section. I have, for simplicity, duplicated a portion of that here:

"I am fundamentally against ranking systems. (Actually, that is a gross understatement.) Sure, there is a difference between good sake and bad sake. However, to say that one good sake is better than another good sake borders on silly, as there is so much subjectivity involved in making such an assessment. What are your personal likes? Are you tasting only one sake or several? If several, in what order? What food - if any - are you having with it? What is the atmosphere? Will you have one glass or several? What physical/emotional state are you in? There are just too many factors to make the task a meaningful exercise."

So, after all that whining, why then did I go ahead and do it? Because consumers like it; because it helps consumers. It's a place to start. I have been tasting sake for eleven years, and have tasted thousands of sake. I suppose my palate can be trusted to at least a certain degree. Nothing can replace your own personal experience and your palate when it comes to assessing the merits or lack thereof of a sake. But an arrow at the crossroads sure comes in handy.

More on this will be explained at a later date, but for now, use the numerical rankings in whatever way you please.

1. Ama no To, "Umashine" Junmai-ginjo-shu, Akita

The name Amo no To means "Heaven's Door. "Very well constructed sake, delicately put together, and with incredible balance amongst the flavors. Overall, a young feel, which begins with mild green apples in the nose, and continues into the refreshing but settled flavor which comes knock, knock, knocking on your palate. Rating: 90

2. Amanozake, "Kichijo" Ginjo-shu, Osaka

A lively but mature nose, with lots of esters manifesting in strawberries and bananas. An even more settled and mature flavor, a bit reminiscent of aged sake in its earthy edges, with a subtle richness  umami - that something that makes you come back for more. Very quickly disappearing tail, again interesting for such a rich sake. Rating: 89

3. Chiyo no Sono, Junmai-shu, Kumamoto

A fascinating flavor profile; sweet elements and slight bitter aspects duke it out across your tongue in a flavor profile that was obviously very deliberately and artistically crafted. The nose is somewhat peppery but laced with faint melon fruits. The acid-spawned tartness lingers in the tail, holding a bitter note ever so lightly and pleasantly to finish. To be available in the US very soon. Rating: 90

4. Fuchu Homare "Wataribune" Junmai-daiginjo (Ibaragi)

Made from a sake rice, also called Wataribune, that had all but disappeared, and was revived by this kura and the rice farmers of the area. A truly outstanding daiginjo, well worth the price. Rich and full, with green apples and tangerines in the nose. The flavor unfolds wonderfully with a bit of decanting to reveal an actively dancing array of fruit and rice elements. Not much is brewed, so it may be hard to get outside of the Kanto area. Even harder (read: impossible at present) to find in the US. Rating: 93

5. Gassan, Junmai Ginjo-shu, Shimane

A lightly fruity and lightly sweet persona underlined by a good acidity. Strikes the palate in a lively, zesty way with a nutty, full flavor in the center. Persimmon and peach pervade. The slightly heavy richness is typical of sake from the Shimane area. A nice, long but balanced tail keep pulling you along. Nice ever so slightly chilled. Soon to be available in the US. Rating: 89

6. Fukunishiki, Junmaishu, Hyogo

Nose is just a tad astringent with evident acidity, not much flower or fruit (somewhat typical of Hyogo sake). Good impact on the palate, with a full richness that goes diving into nooks and crannies. Mellow rice-like flavor overall. Acidity comes roaring back pleasantly to get you near the end. Rating: 85

7. Goshun, "Ikeda-sake", Osaka

A very no-nonsense kura. They do not state the class of their sake, preferring to use the old names that were active before the "Special Class, First Class, Second Class" system ended in 1989. Although this sake is likely of honjozo class, this is not on the label. Faint fragrance; imperceptible to many. More sweet than dry compared to most sake today, but overall seems balanced and just right. Not overpowering in any one way, but rather an almost cerebrally satisfying flavor. Hard to find outside of Osaka, but well worth knowing about. Rating: 89

8. Gozenshu, "Mimisaku" Junmai-shu

Brewed in the prefecture where wonderful l Omachi sake rice grows best, by one of the few toji of the Bichu school remaining. A nice, flower and nectar nose and a wide but elegant flavor. Some vegetation and smoke in there, but an great richness that is diffused nicely by the pervading acidity. Flavor fades slowly in the tail. Rating: 87

9. Hamachidori, Junmai-ginjo-shu, Iwate

Light essence of rich fruit in the nose. Clear, crisp overall rice-like flavor. But the most characteristic quality of this sake, and all Hamachidori sake, is a wonderful mouth feel, a graininess and texture across the tongue that tickles. Not to be confused with off-flavors, of which there are pleasingly few, if any. The daiginjo version of this sake is more refined and fragrant, but still ricey and textured. Rating: 90

10. Yorokobi no Izumi, "Kyokuchi" Daiginjo, Okayama

The "Kyokuchi" sake comes in two varieties; one made with Yamada Nishiki rice, and one made with Omachi rice. They are different enough to be considered two entirely different sake. The one referred to here is the Yamada Nishika version. Floral and honey facets to the settled but omni-present nose. Overall, light in flavor, but with an astoundingly well-structured flavor beneath that; solid, clean and subtly rich. Rating: 91

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Where to Drink Good Sake

Below is an article that originally appeared in a similar form in the Japan Times Nihonshu column. Sasagin is an outstanding sake pub in Tokyo. It is easily accessible from all locations within Tokyo. It is wonderful for both Japan residents, and those who come in to Japan even for just a day or two. The sake and the food are both wonderful, at reasonable (for Japan) prices. Although I briefly mentioned it in the last newsletter, it deserves a more detailed intro; if you can only get to one place in your short stay in Tokyo, this is it.

Although it would be best to go with a Japanese-speaking accomplice, if you go alone, you can manage as Narita-san (the owner-operator) speaks enough English to get you by, despite his best efforts of humility-inspired denial of that fact. Reservations are indeed recommended. It is still a small, neighborhood joint, and fills up regularly.

With no further ado:

The elegance strikes you even before you open the door. Well manicured black pebbles surround the stepping stones, simple straw-yellow walls exude the quiet confidence of traditional Japanese architecture. A sakabayashi, the tightly bound balls of cedar traditionally denoting where nihonshu can be found, hangs at eye level just to the right of the sliding wooden doors. Welcome to Sasagin.

The low lighting seeping through the bamboo-grille ceiling complements the interior. Half a dozen small tables line the wall, and beyond those lies a small raised zashiki seating eight max. But the low, deep counter to your left is where you want to be sitting.

If you choose to start with a beer, go with the bottled Ebisu for now. But why wait? It's sake time. You have two choices: peer over the counter into the well stocked fridge for a familiar label that beckons you, or move more deliberately through the well-organized menu. There's more than 60 selections fighting for your attention, and none will steer you wrong.

Buyu from Ibaraki, Suigei from Kochi, Tengumai and Kikuhime from Ishikawa are some of the wilder-flavored sake available, with Kubota from Niigata, Gikyo from Aichi and Michizakari from Gifu keeping the menu honest with dry and clean profiles. Sterling Kaiun and Isojiman from Shizuoka and Kuro-ushi from Wakayama are there in all their glory, as is Biwa no Choju from Shiga and Fukucho from Hiroshima.

The stock changes regularly, and there is a special weekly listing of recommendations as well. Even nigori-zake (cloudy sake) fans will not be left out in the cold here. It'll be difficult to settle on one. But whatever you do, make your interest in nihonshu clear when you order. This will alert Narita-san behind the counter, and you will soon come to know Sasagin's real charm. He'll put the bottle in front of you on the raised part of the counter, quietly announcing the name, in case you've forgotten. Then he turns away, as if he had something better to do. As he performs some quick menial chore, you have a moment to examine the label should you choose. The sense of anticipation is heightened.

Soon he returns and fills to overflow a tasting glass set tilted within a lacquered masu. Accept it graciously. Talk with him, ask him questions. Although soft-spoken and serene, Narita-san will respond to your interest and enthusiasm with multiples of the same energy coddled in the warmth of his personal charm. The more you ask, the more he'll talk. He's a wealth of interesting information.

Another strength is his ability to make fine recommendations. When you finish one glass, ask him what you should try next. He'll look at you like he's absorbing your aura for a couple of seconds, furrow his brow, then smile softly and nod. He'll then pull something out of the cooler that somehow is just what you were looking for. If there are two or three of you, let him go wild. Suggestions and bottles will come flying, lined up on the counter, interspersed with quiet but earnest explanations. He will definitely give your taste buds a ride.

There's a lot in the cooler that's not on the menu, brought home from road trips to kura around the country. A lot of it is quite unique. Often when something runs out, there will be no more until next year.

The food here asks no quarter of the sake. A trip to Sasagin can be justified on that alone. Creative, tasty and beautifully presented, it's mostly Japanese fare of the upper-echelon type.

The sashimi is most highly recommended. Don't miss the crispy and flavorful karei no kara-age. Uni-dofu is gentle but surprisingly tasty. Jigamo tsukune, "duck yakitori" if you will, and buta no kakuni, a tiny but elegant pork stew, are some of the more gamy selections. There's a good amount of tempura as well.

If you like to close the meal with rice, be sure to request the white wasabi pickles along with it. (Caution: taste it a little at a time, or it'll sandblast your nose off of your face. In a good way.)

One more suggestion. Provided you still fall within the definition of moderate consumption (good luck), finish the night's drinking with a draft Edel-Pils beer. The ultra-hoppy nose and bitter, clean flavor provide a wonderful seal on the culinary experience of the evening.

All the food and drink here is very reasonably priced. Most of the sake is in the 500-600 yen range, and quite a steal at that. The quality, presentation and personal attention make it even a better yang for your yen.

Sasagin rides a rhythm made of personable service, ambiance and satisfying food and drink. That refined and classy touch that greeted you at the door permeates every aspect of the shop. Although fairly new, it's not a secret. If you want to sit at the counter (and you do), it's best to come on a weeknight and/or make reservations.

To get to Sasagin, take a right out of the South Exit 1 of Yoyogi Uehara station on the Chiyoda line or the Odakyu line. Sasagin is less than a minute's walk on the left. Shibuya-ku Uehara 1-32-15. (03) 5454-3715

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Where to buy good sake in... NYC

A reader has recommended the following wine shop for their sake:

Ambassador Liquors
1020 2nd Avenue (54th St.)
New York, NY
212 421-5078
Contact: Leonard Phillips

Although I have been there, it has been a while, and it is good to hear that things are continuing to go well there. Most of what they stock is limited to one importer, SSI, last I heard. Not that this is a problem; SSI imports only good sake. Personally, I think SSI has not approached marketing in the US in the best way. They, in my opinion, have made things too confusing with special names for their sake and special "type" classifications, a four-type system that is totally arbitrary and not an industry standard. But their sake is good, no doubt about that.

And Lenny is enthusiastic. Not only that, he is serious. All of their sake is kept refrigerated. This is wonderful; we need more people like him. They carry dozens of sake, and the turnover is fast.

Readers are highly encouraged to send recommendations of favorite places to buy and drink good sake outside of Japan.

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Sake Events

On the evening of Wednesday, October 27th, at the Japan Society in New York City, there will be a presentation on sake, followed by a sake tasting.

John Gauntner will speak on sake-brewing as a craft and art, and in particular about the toji head brewers, the craftsmen who direct the brewing of sake at kura (breweries) in Japan: their lives, their skills, and the culture that suffuses them. Call the Japan Society at 212-832-1155.

Then, on the afternoon of Thursday, October 28th, there will be an invitation-only sake tasting at Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. Fifteen premium sake will be featured. Interested individuals should contact John Gauntner at sakeguy@gol.com. It is meant to be for the service sector and press, but if you are interested and available, Sake World readers can receive a special invitation.

Following that, on the evening of Thursday, October 28th, and again on Friday, October 29th, there will be sampling of the sake premium sake during the dinner hours at Oyster Bar. Sake will be available for purchase with meals as well. Not to be missed. For more information as the days draw near, contact the Oyster Bar at 212-490-6650.

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Reader Feedback

... is encouraged. All questions, comments and criticisms will be accepted and considered.

To submit a question or comment for the reader feedback section, send an email with "Reader Feedback" in the subject line to sakeguy@gol.com. Be sure to include whether or not you want your name and/or email address to appear in the newsletter.

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In the Next Issue: (Scheduled for October 15, 1999)

  • More sake reviews
  • Yeast strains: what effect do they have? Where do they come from? (Note, this was originally scheduled for this issue, but more "research" was called for.)
  • Reader feedback, Q&A
  • More on North American laws and regulations regarding sake
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    Sake Newsletter copyright (c) John Gauntner.

    Sake Newsletter is published by Sake World. For more sake information, visit their website .

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