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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2001

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Mature sake still worth the wait



Finally things are beginning to cool down as we segue into autumn. As well as being the time of turning leaves, cooler breezes and better food, autumn is when sake brewed the previous season traditionally goes on sale. Two types of sake you may come across in your autumnal perusing are aki-agari and hiya-oroshi.

Although most sake is not aged for long periods of time, it is, in general, a bit too young to drink when the brewing season wraps up in the spring. Both the flavors and the fragrances are brash and sharp-edged, and a bit of time sitting quietly helps round them out and deepen them.

This maturation period is known as chojuku. It was traditionally only about six months, and so the fall became the time when properly aged sake was released. Naturally, brewers often had to release some sake earlier to satisfy demand. But the connoisseurs knew that matured sake was well worth the wait. Sake released in the fall after the proper maturation period came to be known as aki-agari.

The only problem is that the term does not apply too well to modern times. Fall still remains the traditional time for releasing sake, and this is the season for industry tastings. But, in reality, maturation periods are far from uniform. Along with the advent of refrigeration came massive flexibility.

These days, some brewers still mature their sake for six months or so, but others do so for a year or longer (and many at very low temperatures), to get just the profile they are looking for. Temperature affects the speed of changes during maturation, as does the choice of aging vessel (bottles or tanks). This allows brewers to tweak their flavor profiles and maintain consistency throughout the year. But everyone does it a bit differently, and it makes the term aki-agari a tad less applicable.

Today, aki-agari refers in a broad sense to sake from the most recent batch released in the fall. You may see it at sake shops and department stores near you.

The word hiya-oroshi has its origins in the Edo Period. Back then, finished sake was stored in the large cedar tanks used for brewing. Normally, this sake had been pasteurized once (by heating it for a short time) before being put in tanks for maturation. If the brewers needed to ship some out, they would have to pasteurize the sake a second time before putting it into small casks (taru) for delivery.

This is because the outdoor temperature was still high in the summer, which would activate dormant enzymes and potentially send the sake awry. A second pasteurization permanently deactivates these enzymes, but it takes a bit of the sake's zing along with it.

Once it became cool enough in autumn, however, brewers could fill their taru from the storage tank without pasteurizing the sake and ship it without any fear of it going bad. Such sake, sold in the fall without a second pasteurization before shipping, came to be known as hiya-oroshi. Over time, hiya-oroshi has come to be used without regard to the season. These days, although it's a bit uncommon, you can find sake labeled hiya-oroshi during other times of the year besides autumn.

Waka Ebisu's "Maho" junmai ginjo from Mie Prefecture
Hiya-oroshi often has a bit more of a fresh, lively taste to it than other sake, a result of having only been heated in pasteurization a single time. But this is most often a very subtle or minor difference.

Aki-agari and hiya-oroshi are two words commonly seen in the fall that have evolved in meaning, changing and cultivating the sake world itself.

* * *
Waka Ebisu (Mie Prefecture)
"Maho" junmai ginjo

Waka Ebisu makes many fine sake, and Maho is a personal favorite. It is made with the yamahai-shikomi method, but is much more refined and elegant than the average yamahai. Although Maho is available year-round, the hiya-oroshi version of Maho is particularly tasty: a quintessential autumn sake. Don't be afraid to try this gently warmed as well.

On Nov. 17, Rob Yellin and I will host another sake and pottery seminar at Mushu. For more information and to make a reservation, please e-mail or fax (0467) 23-6895.

The Japan Times: Oct. 28, 2001
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