Monthly Archives: June 2012

Shinkame-The Godfather of Junmai

So to put to rest any doubts that I am a fan of junmai despite my post singing the praises of aruten, today I’m going to talk about a brewery that’s about as junmai obsessed as you can get. The curiously named Shinkame (holy turtle) is located in Saitama just next to Tokyo, a prefecture with quite a few breweries but not exactly the place people think of as a great brewing region. However among these breweries Shinkame stands head and shoulders above the rest. These guys are known across Japan for brewing nothing but Junmai.

You’ll remember that up until WWII most sake was made in the junmai style of using rice, koji, yeast and water and nothing else. It was basic practice rather than passion for the style, in fact the term “junmai” wasn’t even used, it would have been a redundant moniker like say, “grape wine”. But rice shortages during WWII forced breweries to use alcohol and adjuncts to increase yields under laws handed down by the government. Breweries continued with the brewing practice of adding large amounts of alcohol to augment yields which didn’t do much for the general perceived quality of sake as being hot and sweet. Some believed, including Yoshimasa Oguwahara owner of Shinkame, that throwing back to sake of old and stopping the practice of adding alcohol was the future for sake.  In 1967 Shinkame received a permit from the Taxation Office to begin brewing small batches of junmai sake. By 1975 Shinkame were the first brewery to begin making moves to restructure their entire portfolio to solely junmai sake. The translated article on Shinkame’s website details his struggle to become the first all-Junmai sake brewery in Japan which he achieved in 1987.

These days Shinkame has a solid reputation for making sturdy, structured sake that lets the rice sing rather than be overcome by pretty yeast aromatics.  The Hikomago Junmai (aged 3 years) I had recently was all things Shinkame is renowned for; solid with a ricey grit and plenty of umami-rich body. Interestingly, it held up best at room temperature rather than chilled where it seemed to lose its balance. Warmed, it also gave a lovely tannic astringency lined nicely with low acidity and pleasant dryness. Shinkame is well-worth trying as a great example of the kind of sake junmai fanatics rave about. And it definitely is worth raving about.
Stats: Shinkame Hikomago Junmai, Saitama Prefecture
Seimaibuai: 55% Yamadanishiki rice.
Available online along with other Shinkame sake from Sakenet Australia

Good Vibrations at Houmei

Every brewery has it’s own superstitions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, their own way of doing things. On a trip to Japan I came across an interesting one from Houmei Shuzo. Surrounded by mountains in the cosy town of Sasayama, well-known for black soybeans and boar meat in Hyogo prefecture, Houmei are a small brewery selling most of their sake in the immediate surrounding areas. Although they have a history of making sake and shochu going back as far as 1797 under the name Nishioo they have only been known as Houmei since 1997. The original brewery is now set up as a museum/gift shop with very friendly staff happy to take guests on informative mini-tours. The main brewery is located a couple of kilometres away and it was here Houmei’s Toji (head brewer) Nakagawa-san took time out of his busy brewing day to show me what he was up to.

As we entered the main brewery one thing was obviously different from any other brewery I’d been to. Unlike Australian craft beer breweries or wineries where the workers often have music pumping away, the sake breweries I’ve been to tend to be almost morbidly quiet. However, as we approached the door of the brewery the sound of traditional Japanese Enka music blared from inside. Upon opening the door it was so loud you could barely have a conversation. “Wow, you guys really get into it don’t you?”, I remarked to Nakagawa-san. “Yeah, not quite, it’s all part of the process you see,” he replied. Apparently the President of Houmei Shuzo had the idea of adapting the concept of playing music to wine-grape vineyards to encourage growth to the fermentation process of brewing sake. Strap some speakers to the fermentation tank, crank up the volume and the vibrations stir and soothe the mash into a rhythmic ferment. Interesting, I thought. But does it work?

“Nah, it’s just a gimmick if you ask me,” replied Nakagawa-san turning down the volume, mumbling as he did. I couldn’t help but laugh as Nakagawa-san then backtracked saying “well, I’m sure it does something but that mash would ferment music or not. Good selling point though”. True, true.

The musical atmosphere of the brewery continued as Nakagawa-san insisted on singing me a couple of a capella Tanba toji songs. Back in the day the brewery workers would sing songs to pass time, keep rhythm to and also measure length of time to continue a task (let’s stir the mash for three verses etc.). Different brewing guilds would have different songs. These days the tradition is all but dead. Nakagawa-san however, has a group of old-school friends who get together and practice the songs of the Tanba Guild of brewers from the Hyogo region and even perform at the local community centre where toji assured me they are quite a hit with the ladies. Rock on! I even found a video of them on Youtube. That’s Nakagawa-san to the right of the lady busting out lead vocals. Keep watching for Nakagawa-san’s solo.

As for the sake, it’s very good indeed. Each of the sake from the Music Vibration Ferment Series is actually brewed using different songs from Mozart, Beethoven and the bottle I’ve got right now – Yume no Tobira (Door to Dreams) brewed to an old Sasayama folk song called “Dekansho Bushi”. A seimaibuai (rice milling rate) of 71% keeps this brew from the Special Designation Level of Honjozo but provides a great argument for the quality of sake that falls outside that designation. Drunk best at room temperature, light aromas of pear and apple lead into a tight crisp sake with a umami rich mouthfeel ripe for anytime drinking. Good vibes indeed.

Aruten is not a Dirty Word

A while ago I posted a bit about not getting too hung up on finding a specific type of sake that encompasses everything you want and just enjoying the different styles out there. This applies importantly to the hotly contested debate in the sake world over the merits of Junmai over Aruten.

To recap, Junmai means pure rice sake. Water, koji, yeast rice and no added alcohol. 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. The reason I bring this topic up is because as sake reaches a larger audience here in Australia 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. Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions so here’s mine:

First of all let’s get some facts straight and some myths busted.
The bad name that aruten has with some seems to come from the story of how during WWII when rice was becoming scarce strict regulations from the government made brewers add alcohol to their sake to reduce the amount of rice required. Once the war was over and rice production returned to healthy levels brewers were free to go back to making junmai styles. Thing is, they didn’t. Adding alcohol helped increase yields thus profitability. This practice continues today in the production of futsu-shu (regular sake) where alcohol additions can triple a yield. This type of sake makes up something like 80% of all sake sold. Put simply, it’s a major part of the industry just the same way cask wine is a major part of the Australian wine industry – keeping it afloat.

But this is a bit of a red herring. No one is denying that a junmai sake is going to taste arguably better than some cheap futsu-shu made with other sugar and acid additions in grossly large amounts. But when we’re talking about tokutei meishoshu (special designation sake); honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo have small amounts of alcohol added as a means of making a more aromatic sake. It does not fortify the sake. At the end of the brewing process the sake is till cut with water to reduce the alcohol level to around 15-17% as usual. And it is small amounts. The amount of alcohol added cannot exceed 25% of the total alcohol content so this is hardly going to increase yields. So in other words, take a 720ml bottle of honjozo with an alcohol content of 16% – no more than 4% of that sake can be added alcohol. Do you really think you can taste that 4%? Also worth taking into account that as we go up in grade to ginjo and daiginjo, even less alcohol is used. You may be able to taste the stylistic differences between junmai and aruten but I don’t believe you can taste the added alcohol. As for the idea that aruten is not traditional; adding alcohol to sake to bring out flavours and aroma as a technique goes back at least 400 years. So how much history does something need to be considered traditional? Incidentally after WWII it took about 15 years for anyone to start brewing junmai again. Up until that point the term “junmai” wasn’t even used!

Disagreements over junmai vs. non-junmai have been known to get out of hand on occasion

Then there is the apparent moral issue with adding alcohol as if it’s cheating or cutting corners. But if you think about all the techniques available to wine makers: using wood staves instead of barrels, tannin powder additions, acid adjustments etc. it seems a little contradictory to be so strict when it comes to sake brewing. By the way, I have no beef with the brewers who shun the aruten method. They brew the sake they want to brew using the techniques they want to use. It would be boring if everyone brewed the same and I love a junmai as much as the next guy.

All this is not to say you can’t be a junmai purist. But when someone claims to be a card-carrying junmai fanatic I like to think they’ve tried a few honjozo, non-junmai gingjo and non-junmai daiginjo before they came to their stance. It’s important to make up your own mind on the issue with your taste buds. Make sure you know what you’re missing out on before you let someone dictate to you what you should or shouldn’t be drinking based on their own beliefs.

Try enough sake and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of aruten that taste pretty damn good.