Waving the Sake Flag
As I’ve said all along, one of the main things required to bring sake to a wider audience is education. So many people don’t know what sake is or have skewed or misinformed views of sake that prevent them from trying it (or in some cases trying it again). And who is to provide the education? It’s worth noting that being born Japanese does in no way credit one with an instinctive knowledge of sake so forget listening to the Japanese person who says “of course I know about sake, I’m Japanese”. Nor does years of training as a wine sommelier instantly make one an expert on all alcoholic beverages so be wary of the one who “knows wine, therefore knows sake”. So who to listen to?
Well, someone who has been out in the trenches for longer than most waving the sake flag loud and proud is Toshi Maeda. After arriving in Melbourne in the mid-nineties from Kobe Japan, Toshi enjoyed a fling playing drums on the pub-music circuit before settling into hospitality. Like many young Japanese he wasn’t too enamoured with sake in his younger years, preferring beer and wine with the occasional glass of sake here and there. However, working evenings at a Japanese restaurant Toshi found himself constantly asked by Australian customers for recommendations from their vast sake menu. In an effort to better help his customers Toshi valiantly began tasting as much sake as he could and like many others headed down the sake rabbit hole never to return. Fast forward a few years to 2007 and Toshi eventually opened his own izakaya (casual, shared dining restaurant) in Richmond, Melbourne naming it appropriately enough Maedaya. With the idea of making sake the star, Toshi took a big chance by having no wine on the menu and no BYO. A brave and admirable move! Despite meeting with a little apprehension from some when first opening, customers opened their minds and gave sake a chance finding something on the menu of 115 different sake that they liked. At a recent sake tasting at Wagamama Restaurant in Brisbane I caught up with Toshi for a bit of a chat about all things sake.
When I asked how the “wineless” drinks menu was being received these days Toshi explained that with reputation firmly in place most customers know what they’re in for and among the regular customers there are those that have their favourite sake and just stick to those every time they come and those that want to try something different each time. I have to admit when I visited Maedaya last year I was so enthralled with the range of sake available I didn’t even notice the lack of wine. With that much sake, who needs it? However Toshi also notes that there are still many that come to the restaurant with the image of sake as being a high alcohol spirit to be drunk piping hot as a shot at the end of the meal. This is one of the misconceptions he is keen to erase. “I want people to actually try sake and enjoy it and want to drink it again,” he says. A very important point. Having people try sake once and walk away from it as a one-off experience will do nothing for the industry moving forward. It’s about liking it enough to come back again and again. When I asked Toshi how he convinces customers to go for sake over beer or wine he explains, “I tend to treat sake as wine. You have wine with food and sake should be drunk with food too. Whether it’s a meal or just some simple salty snacks or edamame. And sake goes with so many types of food. Especially with fresh seafood. If you drink wine or beer with some seafood it can leave a strange aftertaste. But with sake the flavours work together without clashing.” However, Toshi also acknowledges the future of sake in Australia lies in experimenting sake with different styles of cuisine besides Japanese. “Sake can be matched with French or Italian dishes very well. Also cheese works well with some ginjo or junmai sake. I wish more restaurants would have at least one or two sake on their list so customers can experience sake with other cuisine,” he says. On the upside sales are strong through his online retail service sakejapan.com.au showing more Australians are in fact drinking sake at home instead of just saving it for when they are at a Japanese restaurant.
After watching Toshi in action on Wednesday night it was clear he is passionate about helping people enjoy sake. Canapés were matched with warm sake (Kizakura Yamahai), a Yuzu infused premix, the fantastic Rihaku Blue Purity Junmai, the sweet and sour Kizakura Nigori and ume-shu (plum wine). And sure enough with a range that wide everyone seemed to find something to their taste. Indeed not all sake is for everyone but there is at least one sake for everyone.
If you’re in Melbourne by all means pop in to Maedaya and have a chat with Toshi and see if he can’t find a sake to put a smile on your face and if Melbourne is a little far sakejapan.com.au is only a click away and you can get all your sake goodness delivered to your front door. As sake’s audience grows it’s good to know there are generous, knowledgeable and approachable people like Toshi Maeda out there on the front lines busting the myths and showing people how good sake can be. Respect.
Natsuko No Sake & Kame No O
So, we know there are many different kinds of rice used in sake making called sakamai (酒米). Basically, these differ from regular table rice in that they are larger in grain and stalk size and have a higher starch content. Sake rice are all pretty much hybrids ie. varieties that have been cross-bred to create superior rice styles suitable for sake brewing-economically or practically.
But there are a few exceptions. Omachi is a fairly common rice that is a pure-bred variety. A rather distinctive rice that often has chestnut aromas and an earthy flavour. The other main pure bred rice is called Kame no O (亀の尾translates to Turtles Tail for what it’s worth. Comes from the appearance of the shoots).
Kame no O has been around for a very long time, at least since the 1800’s. It was used originally for eating as well as sake but fell out of favour to other cheaper, easier to grow economical rice. But it didn’t disappear completely. In 1980 the president of Niigata Prefecture brewery Kusumi, makers of Kiyoizumi, decided he wanted to brew a sake using the fabled Kame no O rice after hearing stories from his head brewer about how good it was ‘back in the day’. He obtained some seeds (a measly 1500 grains) from the Niigata Agricultural Research Centre and began cultivating Kame no O. What seemed liked a gamble at first, started to turn heads when in 1983 they released Kame no Okina Daiginjo. The rest of the sake world began to take notice and these days there are more than fifty breweries using Kame no O. They even had a Kame no O Summit in 2001 for all the brewers using Kame no O to get together and basically sing its praises.
Now, the Japanese love an underdog story, so in the land where there is a manga comic dedicated to just about anything and everything it probably wasn’t surprising when the Kusumi story of reviving Kame no O was adapted to a manga under the name “Natsuko No Sake” (Natsuko’s Sake). Not a particularly faithful reproduction of the story, it tells the tale of a young copy writer named Natsuko who returns to the family business of sake brewing and against all odds follows the dream of her dead brother to brew great sake using a forgotten rice strain (called tatsunishiki in the story). If that doesn’t sound corny enough, they even made it into a twelve part TV drama series. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry you didn’t miss much. Pretty much the same formula as every Japanese drama series: main character has a dream that everyone around them says is impossible, main character struggles, cries a lot and almost gives up but comes through in the end, awkwardly kisses the obligatory love interest and all the doubters admit they were wrong to ever question the human spirit-*yawn*
Of course every time someone comes up with something “original”, there’s always another who says they came up with it first. This story is no exception…..
Up in Yamagata Prefecture a brewery by the name of Koikawa claims they were growing Kame no O in 1979. Because the source for their Kame no O seedlings were also different, they of course claim their Kame no O is the true Kame no O, and of course Kusumi disagrees. Me? I dunno, as long everyone’s making good sake I don’t really care.
Unfortunately I don’t have the famous Daiginjo, but I do have a bottle of Kiyoizumi Tokubetsu Junmai made with Kame no O. Not an overly aromatic sake, it gives light aromas of white flowers and vanilla. Very low in acid and a somewhat slick mouthfeel helps it slide down a little too easy (as if there is such a thing). Delicate flavours or apple and melon on the palate, it’s a very pretty sake.
Sadly, Kiyoizumi is not available in Australia however, their arch nemesis Koikawa is available online through Sakenet . Get some!
Sake in a goon box? Say it aint so….
I hate to be a snob but, I’ve got a thing about alcoholic beverages in cartons or cardboard boxes. Yeah, it reduces costs and can be economical for both producer and consumer but it just aint cool.
Since the seventies (I think) Australia has been the land of cask wine aka “goon sacks”, originally thought to be clever but now a symbol of sub-par wine made for mass consumption most likely to be spotted at an underage teenagers party or under the bench of your local homeless dude. Harsh, but true. Oh sure, there are some people out there who do actually buy the stuff because they aren’t fussy about flavour and it is more economical but I feel they’re in the minority. Fact is goon sacks are mostly for getting smashed.
So, it took a fair bit of putting prejudices aside for me when it came to trying Hakushika Junmai Ginjo served from a 900ml carton. Japan also has a tradition of carton packaged alcohol. Wine in 1.5 litre cartons are a common sight in supermarkets and true enough, cheap futsu-shu (regular sake) has been available in similar cartons for years. But premium ginjos? Come on, lets have some class. Hakushika, along with some of the other big producers of sake have started packaging ginjo and even daiginjo in cartons. Environmentally friendly? Maybe. Appealing? Not really.
Japan’s breweries are brewing better sake than ever before, sake quality is at its peak. Why then cheapen the image and put it in an oversized milk carton? In fine dining restaurants around the world, sake is creeping on to wine lists as diners begin to appreciate and respect sake as a fine, complex beverage. This is a brew that can top some of the finest wines when food-matched appropriately. But are we ever going to see cartons of sake on a dining table? Doubt it.
Maybe I’m over-reacting (I often do), but this is a delicate time as sake emerges as a contender on the dinner table and I can’t help but feel as though sake in a box is a step backwards.
For the record, Hakushika Junmai Ginjo from a 900ml carton tasted fine. The interior of the box is aluminium lined and the flavour is unaffected. I’ll even admit that at 800 yen (around $10) it’s a goddamn bargain. But this is about more than money, this is about SAKE!
A quick post today singing the praises of one of my favourite restaurants of the moment, Cocotte.
Tucked away in the little shopping centre behind RQ’s Tavern in Robina this cosy little restaurant is starting to turn some heads. By no means a straight up Japanese restaurant, Head Chef/Owner Shunichi Tanabe has created an excellent fusion of East meets West in his menu. The cocotte name refers to a small earthenware pot used in French cooking for casserole type dishes. And naturally enough a few of these cocotte dishes feature on the menu. But the real kicker for me is the tapas menu. About fifteen well thought out dishes, very reasonably priced that showcase fresh seasonal ingredients and a creative flair. A couple of safe Japanese standards make an appearance such as yakitori, okonomiyaki and sashimi. Alongside these are some truly tasty dishes such as my favourite, spanner crab croquet. Crispy, fragrant coating with lusciously creamy, tender crab on the inside went beautifully with a nice acidic kimoto sake from Daishichi in Fukushima.
Other highlights include the slow-cooked Kurobuta pork belly with apple and fennel salad, possibly the softest pork I’ve ever had.
I’m not usually much of a dessert person but the white sesame and ginger parfait with peach compote and lime syrup was just gorgeous. I can’t wait to try the other desserts.
Atmosphere is very cosy and homely. The open kitchen and the fact that Chef Tanabe’s wife looks over the floor adds to the warm homely vibe. Having said that, the rather small-sized kitchen means it can get rather backed up. I wouldn’t recommend coming with a large group and doing the entrée followed by main style of ordering. A group of four or so and ordering a bunch of stuff to throw in the middle and share is definitely the way to go. It’s quite a nice vibe for a quiet romantic dinner too. An outside garden area offers nice alfresco ambience.
And don’t forget, it’s BYO! That’s right, you can rock up with your favourite bottle (or two) of sake and settle in. You could take wine if you want, but many of these dishes went great with sake. Whatever you take, just make sure you get down there and give it a look. You won’t be disappointed.
There’s more to life than Daiginjo
So we know all the different grades of premium (tokutei meishoushu) sake are essentially based around their seimaibuai (rice milling rate), meaning the more of the outer layers of rice that gets milled away the higher the grade of sake. Just to be sure, the grades are:
Ginjo/Junmai Ginjo: 60%
Daiginjo/ Junmai Daiginjo: 50%
A couple of things to keep in mind – Although the milling rate for honjozo is 70% it can be any rate for junmai as long as they print it on the label. And remember the figure we are looking at here is the percentage of rice remaining after polishing ie. 70% of the grain of rice is left after milling for a honjozo.
Sitting at the top of the heap is Daiginjo. The oft lauded pride and joy of any sake brewery. Daiginjo usually get the most hands on treatment out of all the sake in a breweries’ portfolio. It is the one the head brewer (toji) watches over like a concerned parent from beginning to end without relinquishing responsibility to anyone else on the brewing team. It is the grade that all the breweries send in for the annual New Sake Competition (zenkoku shinshu kanpyoukai) as the pinnacle of their skill. It’s also the grade of sake that friends always get for me as a souvenir (shouldn’t complain though). Daiginjo are usually aromatic, elegant, soft and complex. Good ones can often manage to be soft and understated while still being packed with flavour and complexity.
But there’s more to life than daiginjo. Sure they’re considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for other grades. On the contrary, lately I find myself drinking less and less daiginjo and more of the lower grades. Why? Because they’re much more approachable with everyday foods and appropriate for social drinking.
While a daiginjo can be a great match for high-grade sashimi or other light fish dishes, I don’t find myself eating that stuff very often, sadly. A meal of soul-food like yakitori, tempura or more rustic dishes calls for something with some down to earth character and this is where honjozo and junmai can fit in nicely. But lets take it up a notch.
You may or may not have seen the word Tokubetsu (特別) tagged on to a label of honjozo or junmai sake. What’s that all about? Tokubetsu means special. In the case of sake, a tokubetsu honjozo or tokubetsu junmai is a sake where they have done a little something special such as used a higher milled rice or higher grade of rice or a different yeast strain to what their usual honjozo or junmai uses. It could be anything, basically, it’s up to the Toji as to what makes it tokubetsu. Lately these are the sake that have been floatin my boat. Reason being, they are great for drinkin! They are interesting enough to pontificate over if that’s your thing but they don’t distract if you’re just sipping on some sake watching the cricket (I’m really not sure if anyone does that) nibbling on o-kaki or some tasty snacks.
The other thing they are great for is when you find yourself in a Japanese restaurant ordering a whole bunch of different dishes to share and you’re not sure what sake to go with it all. In such situations where conversation and food are the hero of the evening, a simple junmai or honjozo (tokubetsu if they have one) is a great move. So there’s no need to feel like a cheap-skate or be swayed by the know-it-all at the table declaring daiginjo is the best, honjozo and good ol’ junmai are nothing to be looked down upon.
There’s tons out there but if you’re out and about, keep an eye out for…
Kikusui Honjozo Karakuchi (dry) from Niigata (seimaibuai 70%) has a refreshingly light aromatic nose. Slightly floral with hints of melon. Soft on the palate with a definite dry finish. Nice acidity. Soft but not overly feminine. A great honjozo that works wonderfully chilled. An excellent everyday sake. Honestly can’t say I’ve seen it about in restaurants but I know some of Kikusui’s range is here.
Yukino Matsushima Tokubetsu Junmai from Miyagi (seimaibuai 60%) is a good all-rounder. Aromas of vanilla and rice blend with nutty banana. Slight and clean on the palate but with a nice peppery spice at the back. Works nicely slightly warmed too. Available in some Japanese restaurants. Went very well with tonight’s tofu croquettes.
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.
Lessons To Be Learned From The Wine World
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!
Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a sake tasting/masterclass at Sake Restaurant in Brisbane. An event organised by Sommeliers Australia, it was great to see such a strong interest in sake from folks normally nose deep in wine. One of the things I love about these kind of events is the opportunity to try different styles and grades of sake alongside each other so the differences are even more apparent. And I think some of the sommeliers in attendance were pleasantly surprised at the range and diversity sake can display. On show for the evening was sake from Nakashima Brewing’s Kozaemon.
Nakashima is located in Gifu prefecture in central Japan. A fairly sleepy kind of area probably best known for its snow fields in winter. Boasting a 300 year history of sake making, Nakashima prides itself on their commitment to maintaining close relationships with all their contacts, in particular the growers of their rice.
The evening was hosted by Sake Restaurant sommelier and resident sake expert Miriam McLachlan along with Nakashima Brewing president Kozaemon-san himself who happened to be in town. After running through some sake basics, presented in a detailed slide show and a look at some rice samples milled to different sizes it was down to the business of tasting We had seven different sakes representing a good diversity of styles from Kozaemon’s portfolio.
First up was the Honjozo Kyoukai #7 Koubo Seimaibuai 70%- The seven refers to the number yeast used (sake yeasts are rather boringly numbered rather than having any names that refer to the type of flavour or aromas of the yeast). In true honjozo style there were some lifted aromatics with floral hints and aniseed notes. Not an overpowering or attention-demanding sake, more suited to everyday drinking and probably best served chilled (as the restaurant does) rather than warming.
It was great to try the junmai next as it accurately highlighted how much honjozos and junmai can differ when done conforming to typical style profiles. The junmai was rustic, earthy with peppery grip and nice full umami richness. The fact that it had a milling rate of only 80% (as opposed to the more common 70% or thereabouts) further highlighted the ricey, chewy characteristics junmai can sometimes have.
Next up was the Junmai Ginjo Shinano Miyamanishiki Organic (seimaibuai 50%). This proved to be the favourite among most of the crowd myself included. Beautiful banana, bubblegum and soft stone fruit aromas lead to a well-balanced palate with fresh acidity and satisfying fullness. You may notice that this sake has a seimaibuai of 50% which by rights would enable the brewers to label it the higher grade of Daiginjo. However as Kozaemon-san explained, it isn’t about claiming a certain classification just because you can. This particular sake was designed as a junmai ginjo and fits that flavour profile. The brewer will label the sake as he/she sees fit. If the sake is not a daiginjo in their eyes they will not label it as such even though they could and charge a higher price accordingly.
Quite noble and honest.
Speaking of daiginjos next up was the Kozaemon Junmai Daiginjo (50%) which I believe cemented Kozaemon-san’s words about labelling sake as appropriate to style. In daiginjo fashion, the elegant, floral perfumed notes jumped out the glass. Managing to be light yet still showing some body, this is a very good daiginjo.
A 3yr old Junmai Koshu was next. Unsurprisingly many of the sommeliers in attendance were keen to know about the effects of ageing sake and whether it was possible. Golden in colour, musty, cheesy aromas mixed with notes of old wood and hints of sherry. Definitely showing the possible outcome of ageing sake it was a fairly textbook example of koshu. It certainly aroused interest.
Kozaemon Tokubetsu Jikagumi was an interesting spin on namazake (unpasteurized sake). Jikagumi means “directly pumped out” or perhaps “straight from the source” would be a better translation. Basically it is sake that is bottled straight after pressing rather than being fine filtered and pasteurized so it actually contains some of the naturally occurring CO2 from the fermentation process which gives it a very slight spritz. Essentially nama in style; it showed plenty of over the top aromas of melon, some tropical fruit and a background of strawberries and cream lollies. A fun sake.
The tasting was topped off with a look at their Yuzu infused sake. Yuzu being a tart Japanese citrus fruit. Almost like a limoncello, it makes a nice digestif.
Overall, it was a great evening. Kozaemon-san was a most affable and approachable host and Miriam is as passionate as she is knowledgable. Sake Restaurant itself is a very cool venue with a nice mix of Japanese tradition and modern class both in decor and food. Kozaemon sake is exclusive to the two Sake Restaurants (other one is in Sydney) and cannot be found in any bottle shops. So, if you’re up for some quality sake and fusion Japanese food served by knowledgable staff – you now know where to go.
P.S. Apologies for the quality of the photos, I was far too engrossed in the sake.
Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale
It’s always good to get beyond the boring old pale lagers that most folks drink and find beers that can really challenge people’s perception of what beer is. No doubt when most people think of Japanese beer they think of Asahi, Kirin and probably Sapporo. Sadly though, the versions of these beers sitting in your local bottleshop are not even made in Japan. Asahi is brewed in Thailand, Kirin is brewed by Lion Nathan and Sapporo is now brewed under license by Coopers. The exception being you can sometimes find the real versions of these on tap in some Japanese restaurants.
But come on peeps, let’s think outside the box! For something that really screams “Japan!”, you can’t go past Hitachino Nest. Hitachino Nest is the beer label for Kiuchi Sake Brewery from Ibaraki prefecture located a little south of the main areas hit by the tragic earthquake that hit March earlier this year. (There are some amazing pictures of the damage to the brewery and the neighbourhood on their website). A brewery that makes sake, shochu and beer; these guys have their hands full. Taking the wonderful approach of using local ingredients and traditional methods to create something with a true Japanese character, the Red Rice Ale is a great place to get your preconceptions of Japanese beer turned on their head.
You may or may not have seen red rice before; usually used in ceremonial dishes, it is rice fermented with a red mould giving it its colour. This rice is added to the beer mash which then spends some time in sake casks – really bringing out a flavour unlike any other beer. Oddly, one of the initial aromas that jumps out is that of black olives but it makes way for some cherry, strawberry and hints of sake phenols with very mild bitterness. And the 7% alcohol is very well hidden.
Not really a beer for sushi or fish dishes, I think you’ll find the Red Rice Ale goes quite well with pickled vegetables and tsukemono. So, next time you’re looking for some real Japanese beer remember there is more out there than just crisp dry lagers.
The Sake Cellar……worth it?
The pride of any self-respecting wine dude is the wine cellar. Even beer geeks are exploring the possibilities and potential of cellaring. Cellaring being the idea of putting aside a few bottles that will “reward with time”, ie. mature into a more complex and interesting beast. A practice most familiar to the wine world. So how does sake fare after a few years in the cellar?
Usually, not too well. Firstly, the compounds in wine that give it the ability to age are either not present at all or not present in a large enough capacity to enable effective ageing. Tannin is essential to the ageing process of red wine, coming from the grape skin, vine and the barrels used for maturation. In white wines that have the ability to age, a good acid level is required. Sake contains no tannin and has far less acidity than white wine leaving it at something of a disadvantage to start. So why do it? And does anybody drink it?
It seems the answer is “yes”. Ageing sake has been done for many years and there are quite a few breweries out there that make ko-shu 古酒 (old sake) or choki jukuseishu長期熟成酒 (long term matured sake). It is out there but it isn’t particularly common. However, a recent article on a popular Japanese news site hints at a possible renewed interest in aged sake. The article refers in particular to a bar in Osaka called Jukuseikoshu Bar Quon (try saying that after a few glasses of sake). A bar that has found its niche with a menu of around 10-20 aged sakes. Fans of the old brew refer to the soft rounded flavours and the reduced effects of hangovers(?). For now, I’ll hold off on my skepticism regarding reduced hangovers but round, smooth flavours I can understand. I should admit I haven’t had a lot of aged sake. At least not a lot of sake that was meant to be aged. Unfortunately, the sake you find on the bottleshop shelf is often koshu by default. Buying sake for consumption at home doesn’t seem to have quite taken off in Australia yet, so till then check the dates on the bottle when shopping about.
Dates? Did somebody say dates? Yes, if you check out the bottle of sake nearest you, you will find a date printed somewhere on the bottle or label that specifies the day the bottle was shipped. Most sake is stored at the brewery until they think it’s ready, so the date reflects when it left the brewery as opposed to when it was bottled.
So what can you expect from aged sake? It depends on whether it is koshu that has been designed by the brewery to be drunk as an aged product or whether it is sake that was probably intended to be drunk fresh but has been kept for a while and has become old sake. Deliberately aged koshu can often have sherry like aromas, a dessert like sweetness and woody aromas. They can be delicious and rewarding. Sake that is just plain old can be a funky, dull and show aromas and flavours more resembling cooking sake. but in my opinion, if you are looking for what makes sake great-drink it fresh. Within a year is best but given the slow turnover of sake in Australia two years sometimes has to be settled for. I guess what I’m getting at is there isn’t much point getting hung up on ageing sake. Age your wines by all means but drink your sake as quick as you can. A sake cellar sounds nice in theory but keep the turnover high. Ask a brewer and you’ll find almost all of them will recommend you drink their sake fresh. If you’re concentrating on ageing and what will cellar well, you’re missing the point.
So if you spot something labelled as koshu, by all means give it a go, but anything else I’d be drinking up as quick as you can; just how the brewer wanted you to.