Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
August 21, 2001
IN THIS ISSUE:
The *moto* yeast starter, Part I
Of Rice and Region, Part III
Sake to look for
Like all fermented and distilled
beverages, sake-brewing relies on yeast to convert the sugars (created by koji breaking down the starch) into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Sake is made using a yeast *starter* of sorts, called the moto, or
alternatively, the shubo. It is to this yeast starter that rice and koji and water are added in measured amounts and with proper timing to yield a full batch of fermenting sake. In a sense, the moto is like the *seed*
of a batch of sake.
In a small, cylindrical tank (typically about a meter and a half in diameter and a meter and half high), water, freshly steamed rice and completed koji are mixed together. There are various
methods and tricks in doing this, and every brewery seems to do it just a little bit differently. What everyone is aiming for are specific and stable temperatures that are consistent throughout the tiny tank.
After the enzymes in the completed koji chop up enough starch from the rice into sugars, the yeast is added. This is all gently mixed by hand or pole, and over the next two weeks or so, the yeast cells go on a feeding
frenzy and multiplying madness. This continues, leading to an extremely high concentration of yeast in the mixture. At the end of the two weeks, there are about 100 million yeast cells in a teaspoon of the moto.
One of the reasons sake brewing developed using a yeast starter with such a high concentration of yeast is that sake fermentation is an open-tank fermentation. In the case of wine and beer, live yeast cells are
added to the base liquid, and fermentation usually takes place in a closed-off container. However, sake is brewed with the tank wide open to the universe. This leaves it open to all kinds of strange bacteria and other
nasties hell-bent on destroying a potentially great batch of sake. A large number of yeast cells, among other things, helps ensure that the yeast will win in the end.
Long ago, the yeast was allowed to come
drifting naturally into the tanks from the air. Although it was a bit hit and miss, this was the method until the early 1900s or so. Now, pure cultured yeast strains, provided in tiny glass ampules, are readily
available, as are several other forms of pure yeast cells. (Actually, there are some breweries that still use naturally-occurring yeast today.)
As the moto develops, all kinds of lovely smells arise. Indeed,
the brewer can tell a great deal about how the moto is coming along from the smells alone. These smells will vary greatly depending on that kind of sake is being brewed. For example, ginjo-shu moto will often be heavy
on the fruity essences, with lots of apple, banana and strawberry notes dancing in the fragrance.
When it is ready, the moto is usually transferred to a larger tank. There, more freshly-steamed rice, water and
yeast is added three times over the next four days. Each time, the volume of what is in the tank is just about doubled.
As mentioned earlier, another name for the moto is shubo. The characters used in writing
the word shubo are the characters for mother and sake. Befitting.
There are two interesting variations on the above method of making the moto called kimoto and yamahai-shikomi (actually, variations is a
misnomer as these two were the original methods). Next month, we will look at these two methods, and the sake they produce, in more detail.
[Of Rice and Region, Part III]
Last month, we looked at a couple of the most important sake-brewing regions in Japan, namely, the Nada section of Kobe in Hyogo, and the Fushimi section of Kyoto. Here are a few
more areas of Japan that have long brewed sake with a particular regional distinction.
Beginning in the 1970s, sake from smaller brewers in the countryside began to become popular. This may have
been in part due to the need for something different, something other than the nationally-distributed brands available everywhere. These sakes from the boonies came to be known as jizake, a term that might be loosely
rendered as *local sake.* Micro-brewed sake might be a more appropriate rendering, although that term too has its limitations.
Jizake has also become popular for its uniqueness and character. Sake from large
breweries may be quite good, and have consistency and quality, but variety and individuality could be said to be lacking.
Niigata quickly became the one most popular source for such jizake. It's cold climate
and relative isolation by mountains gave rise to a very distinctive style and type that has become prized. In the minds of many connoisseurs and consumers, the image of Niigata sake is that of the best. Many consider
this style to be what good sake is all about.
Niigata Prefecture is 3rd in terms of production, behind Hyogo and Kyoto. Production has increased significantly over the past 20 years, due to increased demand
for this type of sake. There are at present just over 100 kura in the prefecture, second only to Hyogo.
For better of for worse, Niigata sake has no doubt helped shape the modern sake market. Many people who
don't know a lot about sake will buy something famous from Niigata based on its reputation alone.
This is not an entirely unfounded opinion. Among other fine traits, Niigata sake is clean and refined. This
sense of *refined-ness* is perhaps its most respected aspect, and is often used as a yardstick for all sake, maybe a bit too often. The flavor is referred to as tanrei-karakuchi, or light and dry. A typical quality of
this type of sake is that in the tail, the flavor disappears from your palate very quickly.
For the record, this is definitely not the kind of sake that everyone prefers. To some it is too clean, too smooth,
and not nearly as interesting as sake might be. At the same time, many first-time sake tasters will pick this type of sake out of a line-up as their favorite right away.
What makes it so good in the minds of
so many? Good water flowing down from the mountains, good regional sake rice, and great technical prowess including highly polishing rice and skillful filtering. Niigata is also the home of one of the largest and most
skillful group of toji, Echigo Toji. Their fine-sake mark is left all over Japan, not only back home in Niigata.
Akita Prefecture in the northern part of Japan, a region known as Tohoku, has come to be one of the most important sake-brewing regions in Japan over the last 100 years. Although it may not enjoy
the long and esteemed history or notoriety of some other areas, Akita sake is some of the best stuff to come trickling down from the northern part of Japan.
Akita is the fourth largest producer of sake in
Japan. Blessed with nice, cold winters and fast flowing water, the quality of the prefecture痴 brew has been sterling since the beginning of this century. The self-created sound-byte is *Bishu Okoku,* or The
Empire of Beautiful Sake.
The development of the sake industry in Akita has been seemingly deliberate, as if they were trying to jump on the brewing bandwagon. In the late 1800s, when it became easy to get a
brewing license, many kura were immediately established in the region, where they found thirsty and willing customers among the coal and silver miners that populated the area. Now, there are about 50 kura left in
Akita, and their presence is always felt in the yearly new-sake sake tastings each spring.
Over the last ten years, Akita brewers have perfected the use of yeast strain isolated in the prefectural sake
research institute called AK-1 (A is for Akita, K is for kobo, or yeast). AK-1 tends to produce very fragrant sake and is very well suited to traditional Akita styles. However, it calls for fermenting at lower
temperatures for longer periods of time. Recently is has become available to brewers nationwide under a different name.
Akita sake can be typified as being rich and well-rounded, yet at the same time soft,
with a layered and detailed construction. It is generally more neutral, even leaning to the sweet side, rather than dry. Lower grade, regular sake from Akita tends to exhibit more of these qualities, while the premium
ginjo-shu is often much more fragrant and complex.
Records of sake production in Hiroshima goes way back to the Heian Era (794 to 1192). Sake has long flourished there, supported over the
years by the local feudal lords in power. Sake from Hiroshima is quite distinct; there is little danger of this style fading into a blander, more homogenous type.
More than anything else it comes from the
water, which is relatively soft. What this means chemically is that it is low in calcium and magnesium. These two minerals promote yeast activity, leading to a healthy fermentation. Originally, the low level of these
was problematic since Hiroshima brewers were using methods that worked well in places like Nada, where the water was significantly harder.
Then along came Senzaburo Miura in the late 1800s. Miura studied
brewing in Kyoto, where the water was almost as soft. He returned to Hiroshima and gathered all the brewers, passing on his findings. The heart of the necessary modifications was to create koji, the mold that converts
starches to sugars, that was in more advanced stages. This sort of makes up for the lackadaisical yeast activity.
The brewers applied the lessons well, and it paid off. In the 60s, 70s and in to the 80s,
Hiroshima sake landed more gold and silver winners than any other prefecture in the national tax department new-sake competitions.
The flavor profile of sake from Hiroshima is fairly easy to recognize. The
fragrance is generally pronounced, and the flavor spreads fully around the palate. It is softer and usually sweeter than the sake of most regions. The softer water helps it to melt into your tongue, making it easier
to discern fine distinctions and subtleties, of which there are many. It is clean with any number of undertones.
Hiroshima, on the strength of the Saijo region of Hiroshima city, is fifth or sixth in terms of
production, depending on the year, neck in neck with Fukushima Prefecture.
Fukushima is situated next to Niigata, in the northern half of Japan. Cold and snowy, the winter is perfect for sake
brewing. Taking advantage of these conditions are about 80 kura, a number which is tops among prefectures in the Tohoku region in north-eastern Japan.
There are kura of all sizes in Fukushima. There are some
producing only 50 kiloliters a year; how they survive is a mystery. There are others that brew perhaps 1,000 times that. Yet quality standards are relatively high, as is consistency. Most of the sake in Fukushima,
about 70 percent of it, comes from Aizu-Wakamatsu city and closely neighboring Kitakata city.
An added attraction for those that can visit the area is the attractive architectural style of the kura buildings
themselves. Ancient, white-plaster buildings are everywhere, but fading fast as neither the materials nor the craftsmen exist to build them any longer.
Fukushima sake has a particular style, generally slightly
on the sweet side to slightly dry, being excessive in neither direction. It is generally soft on the palate, with not much of a fragrance. It tends to be light in body, but with a hidden something that makes you want
to come back for more (a quality called 砥mami・in Japanese). It is definitely sake one can drink a lot of, by itself or with food.
Several years ago, in an attempt to produce more premium
ginjo-shu, the prefectural sake research institute in Fukushima isolated a special yeast called F1-07. It was selected from among several as one that would further the cause of improving Fukushima sake. The results
are generally a lighter and crisper sake, significantly more fragrant then most Fukushima sake, with a bit less of an acid presence. Almost every kura in the prefecture uses it to some degree.
[Sake to Look For]
>Hitakami (Miyagi Prefecture)
Brewed by a tiny kura that takes its name from an old name for the
region, meaning more or less *bathed in sunlight*. Founded in 1861, the sake from here was once known as Shinkan. They make just a few products, all of which exhibit very clean and simple flavors, but with an
underlying subtle richness and fragrance.
There is a light and faint fruitiness to the nose, mostly comprised of strawberries and bananas. The mouth feel is soft, with no one flavor overpowering, and balance
being the order of the day. Gentle flavors and fragrances continue to jump out at you in a lively way as the sake makes its way around your mouth. As nothing about this sake is overly assertive, it works well with a
wide range of food. Best slightly chilled. Not available in the US at present.
>Koshigoi (Chiba Prefecture)
Koshigoi sits nestled between mountains and the ocean, where they have
been brewing since somewhere between 1832 and 1844. Their water source is water that comes filtered down through the mountains, literally gushing out of hole in the mountain. Harnessing this, they have plenty for
brewing, washing, and anything else. Among other things, this water has helped them win ten gold prizes for their sake, and makes them easily one of the most reliable kura in the region.
The kura and adjacent
house are a truly beautiful example of old Japanese architecture, and have appeared several times as the set of television dramas of old Japan.
The sake exhibits a slightly nutty fragrance laced with a bit of
honey. The flavor in interesting: basically full and rich, but with pockets or tones of softness and delicate flavors permeating. Overall well-blended flavors combine with an effective but mild acidic touch. Koshigoi
Junmai-shu is indeed available in the US.
>Masumi (Nagano Prefecture)
San-ka Junmai Daiginjo
Certainly one of the most significant and important breweries in Japan. In 1946, they took the top 3
prizes in the government tastings called the Seishu Kanpyokai (a now defunct contest, for sake laid to mellow for six months or so), as well as the Shinshu Kanpyokai of sake (for just-brewed sake, still held each
year, although now they give golds and silvers and not first, second and third prizes). An unparalleled feat.
What was behind their success? A yeast strain, now the most commonly used yeast in sake brewing,
and now known as Association #7 Yeast. Masumi discovered/isolated it, began to use it, and later helped it become distributed across the country. That and fine water, as well as fine brewers.
Founded in 1662,
they are a large brewery, but not overly huge. In 1982, they opened a second brewery just a short drive from the first, which has the distinction of being the highest sakagura (in terms of elevation) in Japan.
Masumi's standard sake is mellow and clean, and appeals to almost everyone. Their higher grades are more fruity and fragrant, but again, almost no one dislikes them. It is all too easy to drink this sake, so be
San-ka is light and airy, with a fairly pronounced flowery fragrance with supporting fruit essences. It is a rather wine-like sake that has a wide following. Crisp and clean flavor throughout, with a
slightly long but refined and crisp tail.
Beyond this daiginjo, Masumi makes a whole line of products that are well known for their mellowness and stability. There are about ten Masumi sake presently available
in the US. San-ka and another daiginjo, Yume-dono, are the most elegant, but all of them are very, very drinkable.
>Kenbishi (Hyogo Prefecture)
One of the grand old players
of the sake brewing world. Kenbishi has been a household name, famous among sake, for hundreds of years. Kenbishi has its origins in Itami, once a famous brewing region (before Nada came along). The symbol, two black
stylized diamonds, is one of the most recognized sake marks in the country.
Today, Kenbishi maintains a minimal staff, including no salesmen whatsoever, in maintaining their position as one of the largest
twelve brewers in the country. Their brewing is spread out across several smaller breweries, and old, hand-crafting techniques are the rule.
The sake itself has a unique distinction, somewhat peculiar but
appealing at the same time. A bit rich, with a gentle tartness and even a mild suffusing sweetness in the recesses. The fragrance is fairly subdued. Kenbishi is wonderful lightly warmed as well as slightly cool.
Despite their large size, it seems as though Kenbishi is not available in the US.
>Mizubasho (Gunma Prefecture)
Founded in 1886, things took a turn for the better here at Nagai
Shuzo a few years ago, when the young president decided drastic steps were needed if they were to survive in an industry where companies are folding each year. The decision was made to invest significant funds and
obtain equipment that would allow them to make better premium sake. Some of this called for significant automation, which has its pros an cons. But they committed and are now thriving. And brew better ginjoshu.
The water they brew with comes from the nearby Oze plain, and is comparatively soft, giving their sake an overall gentleness. They have turned their old brewery building into a gorgeous, cavernous lodge, warm and
inviting; this alone is worth a visit.
Mizubasho is a light and only mildly distinctive sake with a unobtrusive flavor and fragrance. Mellow and balanced, it maintains a nice presence of flavor. There is a
slightly grainy mouth feel, yet it is clear and just a little soft on that palate, with slight tones of vegetation in the background as well. Mizubasho is available in the US.
Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery
on the evening of Saturday, September 2, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob
and I. Seating is limited and fills up fast.
To make a reservation, please email me or fax me at
There will also be a sake-only seminar on Saturday, October 21 at Mushu. The evening will begin with a
blind tasting of several sake, and progress into a meal, with a discussion to follow in relation to the evening痴 sake selections.
Sake critic extraordinaire Haruo Matsuzaki will be
holding a sake seminar on Saturday, August 26, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). Although this seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san痴 smarts and
tasting ability are amazing and entertaining. Guaranteed fun. The seminar will be repeated on Wednesday, September 6, at the tiny sake pub Kuri in Moto Azabu. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an
optional but highly recommended konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Those interested can make a reservation through me at email@example.com. Also, more information ia available at
http://www3.ocn.ne.jp/~kikisake/ in Japanese.
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