Monthly Archives: May 2012

Goshun Keeps it Old School

Nihonshu has a rich and long history. The sake we know today is not the same as the sake that would’ve been drunk hundreds of years ago nor is sake being made in the same way or even in the same places.
These days when people think of popular sake brewing regions they are likely to think of Niigata, Iwate and Yamagata; breweries from the Tohoku region to the north of the Japan’s main island. The Kansai region, in the west is often regarded as an area of volume. After all, around 1/3 of all sake comes from Nada in Hyogo and Fushimi in Kyoto. Of course, a lot of quality sake comes from these regions too, but they don’t seem to be quite as “hip” as they once were. Just outside of Hyogo in Osaka there is the small town of Ikeda, a once pumping sake town boasting 38 kura (breweries). A huge amount of breweries for such a small town. To put that in perspective, these days the whole of Osaka only has 16 breweries in total.
Sadly, as a reflection of the decline of sake’s popularity in Japan, of those 38 breweries in Ikeda only one remains: the inimitable Goshun. Named after an artist of the Edo Period, Goshun have been brewing sake since the early 1700’s and they definitely represent the “old school”. One of the first things you notice about a bottle of Goshun Daiginjo is they don’t have “daiginjo” anywhere on the label. This can be traced back to 1943 when a system known as the Nihonshu Kyubetsu Seido or Nihonshu Classification system was put in place by the government. Sake breweries would submit their sake for tasting and would be awarded a classification of Special Class (Tokkyu), First Class (Ikkyu) or Second Class (Nikyu) according to the perceived quality of the sake. Sake was then sold with prices (and taxes) to go with their given grade. However many breweries believed it to be a flawed system as these things are always subject to interpretation. As a result many breweries thumbed their noses at the government and decided not to submit their sake for the classification. This then resulted in many high quality sake sitting out on the shelves at bargain prices because they didn’t have a government awarded classification. In 1990 the laws defining tokutei meishoshu (Special Designation Sake) came in defining the categories we know today and by 1992 the Nihonshu Classification System was a thing of the past.
But the folks at Goshun aren’t too big on moving with the times. They only make three sake: a daiginjo labelled as Toku (special class), then a honjozo and a futsu-shu labelled as Ikeda-Shu. They only bottle their sake in the traditional 1800ml bottle (isshobin). They don’t have a website, e-mail and don’t even deliver. Every year when their sake is ready the shops and restaurants of Osaka fax their orders in, Goshun divies up the allocation and then the restaurants and shop owners have to come get the sake themselves –  it sells out every year without fail. Brewery tours or visits are definitely off limits. And the sake rocks!

Sticking to the Osaka motto: “just becuase it’s cheap doesn’t mean it should taste bad”, these guys make very good sake for the price. Goshun is solid, working man’s sake. It’s sake for drinking, not for pontificating. Find yourself eating out in an izakaya in downtown Osaka chowing on good, local food? Goshun is for you. Literally. Because you’ll be hard pressed to find Goshun anywhere but Osaka. They make it for the local market and the locals lap it up leaving precious little for anyone else.
I must admit I spent quite a few years living in Osaka and have some ties to Ikeda so I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Goshun and everytime I go back to Osaka I find myself drinking plenty of it –  but I aint complaining.

Goshun Toku-gin
Seimaibuai: 50 % Seki-ban Omachi Rice
Steely, minerally aromas don’t give too much away but on the palate it’s a lesson in balance. Not overly dry and not sweet, right in the middle. Sturdy yet round and plush with hints of aniseed and a tight finish. It has a fresh elegance but is not a petite, delicate style of daiginjo. Goshun works as a foil to just about any kind of food and drinks brilliantly on its own. Never pass up an opportunity to try some Goshun.

And if you ever find yourself wandering the streets of Osaka, remember the Osaka Strut-

The Cloudy World of Nigori

“Lets Clear Something Up”
“I Can See Clearly Now”
“Obscured By Clouds”

Ah, I’ve got tons of cheesy titles to head a bit on nigori-zake but sadly they mostly suck.
Okay, anyway so nigori means “cloudy” or “hazy” and in this context it refers to loosely pressed sake that has a cloudy appearance.

Note that cloudy sake is called nigori-zake in Japanese, where the “s” in “sake” becomes a “z”. This is just a pronunciation thing. Try saying “nigorisake”, easier to say”nigorizake” right? Weird huh?

As for what makes it cloudy? This where things get…cloudy. Nigori-zake is often referred to as unfiltered sake. A bit of a misnomer as the cloudiness isn’t from the filtering stage but actually the pressing stage of the sake making process.
With regular sake, after the fermentation process has been completed the mash is pressed with a machine that looks kind of like a giant accordion(called assaku-ki in Japanese). After the sake is pumped in to the machine, rubber balloon type bags are inflated which press the sake up against mesh plates, pumping the sake out and leaving behind all the undissolved rice chunks known as “kasu”. (There are other ways of pressing sake but this is the most common. I’ll leave the others for another day so as not to “cloud” the issue. Ha! Another bad pun).
What this leaves us with is a thick, milky looking sake quite different from the clean, pristine sake we know and love. Obviously, nigori-zake lacks the finesse, fine aromas and delicate mouthfeel of ginjo sake. Quite often they are on the sweet side and sometimes even spritzy or straight-up fizzy.  Of course they are also a lot thicker than refined sake to the point where some are downright chunky. As for where nigori-zake fits in to the sake world; sadly its often thought of as the”gateway” sake for westerners ie. the best way to introduce sake to the uninitiated. Reason being the novelty of the appearance and the sweet flavour profile make it more approachable than other sake. I say sadly because I often feel that thrusting nigori-zake onto the western drinker is a bit condescending as if we aren’t sophisticated enough to “get” refined sake.
You’ll find in most sake bars in Japan they may have a couple of nigori-zake at the back of the fridge but they aren’t big sellers. On the flip-side most Japanese restaurants in America and increasingly Australia, plough through the stuff.
While nigori-zake has its place,  it certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of the sake world. By all means check them out if you spot them, if nothing else they offer an interesting window into what the sake of old would have been like before the pressing techniques of today were available. They’re also probably the best foil for spicy food. Usually sake struggles against hot spicy foods but nigori-zake fares better than most.
Another version of nigori that you might spot is usunigori-zake. This is ‘thin’ nigori-zake; pressed a little more than regular nigori and thus not as thick; more hazy than cloudy.