Monthly Archives: January 2012
I’ll try not to make this too much of a technical post but we’re gonna delve into brewing techniques a bit. You see there’s more than one way to skin a cat (although I don’t know any) and there’s more than one way to brew sake.
After all the milling, washing and steaming rice preparation is done and it’s time to get down to brewing sake what’s called a moto or yeast starter is made. This is basically a small concentrated nucleus containing koji rice, steamed rice, water and yeast. This is the kick-start to making the sake. More rice, koji and water is added to this moto in larger amounts in three stages till we get to a full batch of sake. In the beginning all moto was called kimoto which was made using a method called yama-oroshi. This involved using wooden poles to mash-up the contents in to a puree like consistency believing this was necessary to get the starch to sugar fermentation process active. This was a very long and tiring process the brewers endured for hundreds of years. Then one day in 1909 a researcher from the National Institute for Brewing Studies discovered that all this puree making business wasn’t actually necessary and if left alone with a bit more water and a slight rise in temperature the koji would dissolve the rice and fermentation would take place.
I would’ve loved to have been at the team meeting when the boss walked in and told the brewery workers that all that laborious yama-oroshi wasn’t actually necessary. I’m sure there would have been some priceless looks on the faces of the brewery team.
Things were sped up even more when it was discovered that adding a bit of lactic acid at the beginning of the moto making process would cut the production time in half. You see, in the kimoto way of making sake this lactic acid came from naturally occurring bacteria that would get in to the mash and wipe out the bad bacteria. Adding the lactic acid at the beginning meant no longer waiting for nature to do its thing.
So that gives us three types of moto making:
Kimoto-the moto is mashed into a paste and naturally occurring lactic acid sanitizes the mash.
Yamahai-this is when they leave the moto to do its thing without turning it into a puree. This method also relies on naturally occurring lactic acid. (the name yamahai comes from yama-oroshi haishi suru which means to discontinue yama-oroshi)
Sokujo-this is the modern method where no mashing of the moto is done and lactic acid is added by the brewer at the beginning to speed things along.
Now it would be fair to wonder why the Yamahai and Kimoto methods are still used when the Sokujo is faster and less labour intensive. Well, it turns out that the Kimoto and Yamahai methods produce a different style of sake. Due to the wild bacteria that are present at the initial start of the moto making process this seems to produce a wilder, some say ‘gamey’ style of sake richer in acidity. Traditionally the yeast used was also wild but these days cultured yeasts are the norm. In the grand scheme of things Yamahai and Kimoto are very much minor styles of sake. Most breweries don’t bother to make them but they are out there and it seems they are quite easy to find in Australia. I believe this to be due to the competition between importers to come up with something unique.
And on that note I present Kaishun’s Kimoto Junmai Ginjo. From Shimane Prefecture this is a great example of kimoto with the added bonus of it being ginjo which is not unheard of but a little unusual for a kimoto. Because yamahai and kimoto are a little wilder they tend to not have the elegance of the ginjo grades, particularly yamahai. Also interesting is this sake has a seimaibuai (rice milling rate )of 50% meaning it could actually be classed as a Dai-ginjo but obviously the brewery has decided as far as they are concerned it sits well as a ginjo. It’s the brewer’s choice. Aromas of peach and melon with a bit rice at the back, finishes long and dry. It would probably work warmed but I didn’t try as it was good enough chilled. It doesn’t really have much of the wild gamey flavours yamahai is more known for but it does have the zippy acidity.
Here is a pretty cool video of the brewers at Uehara Brewery in Niigata making a moto in the kimoto style. Notice the singing. Traditionally this was done to kill time and also as a method of keeping rhythm during the fairly laborious task. Sadly many of these brewing songs are forgotten as they disappear with the old guard.
When it comes to sake one of the things I’m most passionate about is getting the right information out there. Sake is a mystery to many; indecipherable labels, jargon with no English translations and of course unfamiliar flavours all contribute to the obstacles folks face when getting their head around sake.
But if you think about it, twenty or thirty years ago Australians were just as stumped by wine. The average person on the street didn’t know grape varieties nor could they name any wine regions except maybe Hunter Valley and the Barossa. Misnomers were the norm; “claret”, shiraz labelled as “red burgundy”, semillon labelled as “Hunter riesling” and of course anything with bubbles was labelled “Champagne”. These days after years of consumer education the average wine drinker is far more savvy. Even those with little more than a passing interest in wine can rattle off several grape varieties and wine regions and winery tours are the de rigueur for anyone thinking of going on a sophisticated weekend trip with their partner.
Wine writers and retailers empowered consumers with knowledge, told them there was a plethora of wine out there and encouraged them to find the wine that was right for them with the tag: “trust your own palate and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”.
But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
What this produced, in many consumers, is dogged loyalty to specific grape varieties, regions and even particular labels as people sought out the wine that was right for them. Much to the frustration of retailers, sommeliers and wine makers the industry is now faced with a large consumer base that will drink nothing but Marlborough sauvignon blanc and in some cases only one or two specific brands because that’s what they like and no one can tell them otherwise. Despite that plethora of wine being out there, people found what they like and are sticking to it. After all that’s what they were told to do. There are consumers out there who will only drink cabernet sauvignon if there is no other grape variety blended with it at all, ignoring the fact that even the most seasoned tasters can’t pick exact blends or straight varietals with perfect accuracy, these consumers can’t be swayed. They were taught to trust their palate. Instead of being told to appreciate all wine for what it is and drink different wines for different occasions or foods they’ve gone out and found the wine that defines and represents them.
Sadly, I’m starting to see some of the same trends in sake promotion ie. the idea of “finding the one sake that’s right for you”. By all means there is nothing wrong with having a favourite or preferences but this early in the discovery of sake it would be detrimental to the big picture to have consumers declaring they only drink sake from Kyoto or it has to be junmai, or only sake made with gohyakumangoku rice or only namazake (unpasteurised). Like wine, there is a wide range of different sake from many different regions using different materials and methods to produce the style of sake that brewery believes in. This should be celebrated and every sake drunk and appreciated for what it is. Of course sometimes we come across something we don’t like. That’s fine, but if you try a honjozo from Shizuoka prefecture made with Yamadanishiki rice and you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you should write off Shizuoka sake or Yamadanishiki rice or honjozo as a style. Likewise if you find a sake that really speaks to you, that rocks your world, don’t stop exploring.
So forget about finding the one sake that’s right for you, enjoy the unique differences that different styles, breweries and regions produce. Choose a sake for the mood, food or the moment. There really is so much out there and mixing it up every now and then is half the fun. Cheers!