Monthly Archives: October 2013
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
I won’t lie. I drink an awful lot of sake. I don’t mean in an “intervention required” type way but in that I get to drink many different types of sake. But despite drinking sake of all kinds of rice variety, brewing method, yeast propagation and style there’s something to be said for that sake that comes along once in a while and just puts you on your arse and reminds you what simply great sake tastes like. It’s like a re-calibration of your palate that reminds you to not get blasé about sake and to keep your eyes out for those sake unicorns.
My most recent encounter with such a sake was from that wonderful sake region that’s always in the news for all the wrong reasons, Fukushima. Yes, in case you weren’t sure Fukushima sake is open for business. Not that many of them were out for long. Fukushima is still consistently producing some of the finest sake in the country despite environmental hazards which I won’t comment any further on as there are far more qualified people out there to discuss the topic than I.
So what was this amazing sake that made me sit back and take stock of my sake-soaked life? Well, in continuing on from the current trend of Hiyaoroshi (Autumn seasonal sake) this particular Junmai Ginjo is also a seasonal release, this time from Miyaizumi Shuzo. Miyaizumi actually label all their sake that is sold in other areas of Japan outside of Fukushima as Sharaku (interestingly though the sake that makes to it to the overseas market is usually labelled Miyaizumi). The Sharaku Junmai Ginjo Nagoshizake (Nagoshizake meaning rested over summer) is traditionally released as the first of their autumn range in the Hiyaoroshi season.
In Japanese the expression “nomiyasui” (easy to drink) is somewhat overused but in the case of Sharaku Junmai Ginjo it’s spot on. Aromas of bubblegum and boiled lollies backed with a hit of steely alcohol lead to a beautifully soft palate. Clean, sleek and ever so slightly sweet, the way this sake seems to melt in your mouth just keeps drawing you back for more. And for me, that’s usually the sign of a great sake; one that keeps dragging you back for that one more sip. Coincidentally, I met one of the sales managers of Miyaizumi Shuzo at a tasting recently and he inferred that there are still many people wary of sake from Fukushima. However, he explained that due to the situation in Fukushima they are conducting more thorough tests more regularly than any other part of Japan with absolutely no signs of radioactive contamination in any sake to date. Which by way of the amount and detail of testing actually makes Fukushima sake possibly the safest in Japan.
Sharaku 寫楽 Nagoshizake Junmai Ginjo
Rice: Yume no Kaori & Yamadanishiki