About a year ago I posted about a change in direction as a result of moving back to Japan which kind of changed the original idea of Sake Australia. Since then it’s proved a little more difficult than I thought to keep writing on things sake related while still under the banner of Sake Australia. Attending events that are obviously held in Japan, drinking sake that is often not available in Australia. About the only thing Australian about the whole site is well, me.
So, it’s a whole new chapter this time time as I start up Sake Advocate From this new site I will continue to write about sake, the industry, restaurants and events but from a more general perspective as opposed to an Australian-centric approach. I hope you’ll continue to visit over at www.sake-advocate.com and find something of interest as the sake journey continues.
If there’s any brewery giving modern day sake a bit of nouveau class, a bit of bling if you will, it has to be Katsuyama Shuzo. Hailing from the highly regarded rice growing region of Sendai in Miyagi, northern Japan these guys are part of a the new breed of breweries dragging nihonshu kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Although a brewery with a rich 320 year history, it was only recently in 2008 that Katsuyama cut their portfolio from 35 sake down to just four sub-categories and decided to concentrate on high-quality expressive sake that could show the true potential of nihonshu as a social dinner beverage for all cuisines while exhibiting the terroir of Sendai. It is this theory that inspires their mantra of the “Modern Shudo” (sake path).
Interestingly, despite the call for sake to be on the dinner table for all and any occasion Katsuyama sake can tend to be on the expensive side. Most of their Daiginjo are probably some of the more expensive sake around draining the wallet of upwards of 10,000 yen (around $100) for a 720ml bottle with a couple of their higher-end sake such as the Diamond Lei, made with the finest Hyogo produced Yamadanishiki money can buy hitting up to $500(!) a bottle. Having said that, the Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai “En” is one of the best bargains you could hope to find.
Like all Katsuyama sake one of the first things you notice is the strikingly sexy etched bottles used. After all, we drink with the eyes first! Made using the locally grown popular eating rice variety Hitomebore, this is a truly expressive sake that punches well above it’s weight, and manages to represent all that Katsuyama is about without requiring you to sell a kidney to buy a bottle. Using table rice to make sake isn’t necessarily all that uncommon, many breweries use it to make cheaper grades of sake as table rice generally lacks the starch content desirable for brewing and contains more unwanted fats and protein. However, in the right hands table rice can produce sake every bit as rich, expressive and tasty as that brewed with sake rice. For optimum terroir expression, along with the local rice an indigenous Miyagi yeast strain is used with soft water sourced from water flowing from popular ski-resort mountain Izumigatake for a very “Miyagi” inspired representation. In keeping with Katsuyama’s extravagant brewing methods, even this “entry-level” sake is pressed using the time-consuming shizuku drip-pressing method where the unrefined sake (lees and all) is poured into canvas sacks and hung so the sake drips under its own weight ever so slowly producing a light, delicate sake. Pasteurisation is quick to maintain freshness, the sake is then matured at minus 5 degrees to round out the flavours.
Bursting with aromas of melon, pineapple and hard candy, Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai follows on the palate with a hint of sweetness supported by a tight astringency a low acid profile and a short crisp finish. A revelation in balance of fruity sweetness and rice-driven umami. It’s not often I head back to my local sake shop to pick up the same bottle again so soon but I figured I was crazy not to grab another bottle while it was still on the shelf.
Katsuyama is being exported to selected foreign markets but even in Japan it’s not always easy to come by so wherever you are, if an opportunity to try some Katsuyama comes your way don’t let it pass.
Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai 勝山特別純米
As the Hiyaoroshi dust settles and it gets decidedly cooler here in Japan we see the sake calender flip over to the next stage of sake joy as the first sake of the 2013 season begin to appear in shops and bars. Most breweries (the ones that don’t brew year round) began brewing anywhere from early October to November and given that it takes roughly a couple of months to see the first fruits of their labours, now’s the time.
While Hiyaoroshi and Aki-agari are sake that have been laid down to mature for several months to round out before Autumn release, Shiboritate is at the other end of the spectrum as sake that has literally just been pressed and bottled with no maturation before release. Shiboritate has its fans with its brash, vibrant notes and youthful expression, often (but not always) unpasteurized this all adds up to a very lively type of sake. Along with shiboritate and shinshu (new sake of the season, not necessarily fresh off the press like shiboritate) comes the ubiquitous sugidama. Sugidamas are a decorative ball made of Japanese cedar (sugi) pins or leaves hung outside a breweries’entrance to signify that the new season sake is up and running. These days they are also fairly commonly spotted outside specialist sake pubs and stores too woo customers with promise of fresh sake.
I have to admit, while I love a bit of pomp and ceremony, I’m not usually a big fan of shiboritate. While I don’t necessarily dislike it, I rarely seek it out as I personally prefer sake a little more settled. Having said that I never actively avoid them either and this year I played my part in the shiboritate hype-up by popping in on one of my favourite breweries, Kotsuzumi.
Although Kotsuzumi are one of the aforementioned breweries that brew sake all year round, every year they release their Shoteshibori Junami Ginjo Nama 初手しぼり純米吟醸. The first sake out the gates brewed with local Gohyakumangoku rice from the 2013 harvest, fresh pressed shiboritate, unpasteurized. Here in Kansai where Kotuszumi is located it sells out fast every year with many fans making the trip out to the brewery in Tamba, Hyogo prefecture to pick up a few bottles and others pre-ordering with their trusted retailer. I jumped on board as well and picked up a bottle and was hugely impressed.
Whereas many shiboritate sake can show lively, brash characteristics that appeal to many, what they often lack is balance (although that seems to be the whole point, all flash!). Kotsuzumi’s offering however shows the brightness and youth of a shiboritate while managing to maintain some balance and finesse. Aromas are jumping out with peach and lychee along with hints of boiled lollies and a hit of alcohol heat. It’s not as sweet as the nose would lead you to believe as the acicity balances nicely to help it finish dry. Slick sweetness but not as cloying as many other shiboritate tend to be. A fresh, showy bottle of sunshine that I’m already looking forward to drinking again next year.
Kotsuzumi小鼓初手しぼり純米吟醸生 Shoteshibori Junmai Ginjo
One of the endlessly cool things about sake is the history. Like many ancient arts, sake brewing has been through countless ups and downs and inside outs which all have an impact on the sake we see today. Interestingly though for sake, despite a history of a couple of thousand years most of the serious developments that shape what’s in the bottle today occurred in the last 100 years or so. Arguably one of the most important developments was the discovery of the sokujo-moto (quick fermentation) method after years of the yama-oroshi/kimoto technique. But there was another method for getting the fermentation ball rolling that is often forgotten; the Bodai-moto.
Around the mid-700sAD Nara was the capital of Japan, knowledge of how to skilfully use koji had spread from China and the Shogunate/government at the time had begun to see sake as a serious means of taxable revenue (it had mostly been for ceremonial consumption up till that point). This meant setting up the first Imperial Sake Brewing facility. Sake was brewed by the local Nara monks in temples and it was from this period on that most of the foundations for sake brewing were discovered. Fast forward about 700 years to the Kamakura Period and many different types of sake were being developed and in particular the sake brewed by the Bodaisen monks gained a noticeably high reputation. The Bodaisen was brewed a little different in that it used a small portion of steamed rice thrown in with raw rice and water and left to the elements to create a ferment called “soyashi-mizu”, basically a lactic-acidic water. Lactic acid is desirable/essential in the early stages of brewing as lactic acid kills out other unwanted bacteria which can “turn” the sake. This lactic water was then used as the brewing water in the sake production process. This actually puts the Bodai-moto method closer to the current sokujo-moto in style as they both rely on lactic acid being present at the beginning stage of brewing whereas kimoto and yamahai allow various bacterias to propagate before being wiped out by naturally occurring lactic acid.
So if all that was as confusing for you as it was for me let’s look at it simply-
Sokujo (Quick Fermentation) Method: Lactic acid is manually added to the blend of steamed rice, koji, water and yeast to create the starter mash.
Yamahai/Kimoto Method: Lactic acid is created naturally by other bacteria in the steamed rice, yeast and water in order to create the starter mash.
Bodaimoto Method: Lactic acid is created with raw and steamed rice mixed with water. This lactic water is then mixed with koji, rice and yeast to create the starter mash.
Of course advances in brewing left this Bodai moto technique all but obsolete until a few years back when some of the breweries in Nara decided to revive the technique. Although far from common Bodai moto sake can be found if one looks hard enough. Takacho, brewed by Yucho Shuzo in Nara is probably the most prolific and is I believe also available in some foreign markets.
However another I came across recently was an offering from Gozenshu in Okayama. Okayama lays claim to fame as the home of the popular Omachi sake rice variety and none too surprisingly sees its use in this Hiyaoroshi version labelled simply Nine (after the nine members of brewery staff). Aromas are savoury and definitely rice-driven with background hints of earthiness and a niggling touch of shiitake mushroom. On the palate it’s spritely and fresh with a tangy acid profile reminiscent of a kimoto style sake. Again rice driven, this an umami rich brew that drys off slightly peppery in the finish. Balanced and sleek.
You’re not likely to come across many Bodai-moto brewed sake but if you do, they’re worth trying as a window into sake of days of old.
Gozenshu 御前酒 9 Bodai-moto Junmai Hiyaoroshi
I’ve always said it pays to keep on the good side of your local sake bar folk. I was recently lucky enough to sample a glass of a special sake from the utterly fabulous Toyobijin (Eastern Beauty) from Yamaguchi prefecture, their “Ikinonoktte kureta saketachi” (the sake that survived). In case you missed it in the news, a few months ago Japan had a little too much rain. Areas like Yamaguchi suffered some serious flooding and among the victims were local businesses including Sumikawa Shuzo, makers of Toyobijin.
Although the sake brewing season was over, the were still tanks of maturing sake in the brewery that toppled and were destroyed along with equipment and brewing records. Fans and friends from far and wide did what they could to help Sumikawa Shuzo get back on their feet especially the Fukuoka Brewers Association who helped clean up and even loaned then some equipment to filter, pasteurise, bottle and release the sake that was salvaged. Due to the lack of brewing records it’s not entirely clear what makes up the blend but they’re pretty sure it’s a blend of Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo. Despite the high pedigree of the ingredients the lack of records mean they are unable to claim Special Designation status for the label.
But obviously this sake isn’t about technical specs, it’s more of a love letter from Toyobijin to their customers and friends who chipped in to help them get back on their feet after great adversity. Fortunately it also turned out to be a gorgeous, fragrant, rich sake that I was very pleased to try. Great to have them back.
At the risk of showing bias towards a particular region, yet another sake from Kochi prefecture. Ah, who am I kidding? No apologies, I love Kochi sake!
Akitora is made by a tiny kura by the name of Yuko Shuzo in the small seaside town of Aki City (the name of the sake derives from the name of the city, the tora part means tiger) sandwiched between mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Like many parts of the Shikoku island of which Kochi is a part of, fresh seafood is the claim to fame and often cited as the influence on the Kochi style of dry, solid sake.
Yuko Shuzo make only a small amount of sake and pride themselves on their hands-on approach. This includes their policy of only pressing via “fune”. These days many if not most breweries use a large machine resembling an oversized accordion called an assakuki to press their sake. Although very efficient, breweries often opt for one or both of the two other pressing methods for their high end sake. One of these methods is the sake fune. Basically, the sake mash is poured into cotton bags and then stacked on top of each other in a box. The bags are then slowly compressed from the top in a vice-like process gradually releasing the fermented sake. In this process the highly sought first and second runs of the mash can be separated from the “dregs” and then blended (if desired) to create the perfect consistency. A somewhat time consuming process, Yuko Shuzo spend up to 4-5 days pressing their sake this way.
The Akitora Junmai Ginjo Nama (unpasteurised) is very much a classic Kochi style of sake. While the nama side of the sake shows in the vibrant aromas of strawberry and white rind cheese it hits hard on the palate with a full, bone dry attack but finishes on a more mellow note of marshmallow and coco powder. The mild acidity works nicely with some hints of creamed rice. A great sake for straight up chilled drinking or would be a very flexible food partner. Of course most Kochi folk would recommend fresh seafood and I’d be loathe to argue.
Akitora 安芸虎 Junmai Ginjo