Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
March 1, 2005
IN THIS ISSUE:
-- New Labeling Rules (Sort of)
-- The Sake of Ishikawa Prefecture
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements
New Labeling Rules (Sort of)
As of January 1 of
last year, a couple of new rules for labeling sake have come into effect. While they are admittedly dubious in their usefulness, as well as their applicability, it is worth it for those of us that study sake to know of them.
One year ago, a new rule-law was enacted that stipulates the listing of the seimai-buai (degree of rice milling) be listed on the label for the junmai-shu class of sake. Previously this was 70%, which of course
means that a minimum of 30% of the outside of the grains was milled away. But as of January 2004, it is no longer necessary to mill that much away, yet, brewers are currently obligated to list how much the rice was actually
Why the rule change? Because many brewers, especially some of the gargantuan brewers, make inexpensive sake from rice only, i.e. no added alcohol. Yet, they had to call this "kome dake no sake," or
"rice only sake," as the seimai-buai was less than 70%. Now, they can call it junmai-shu. This was, I think, a good rule change for a number of reasons. For one, it opened the door for many brewers to begin to
experiment with sake made using rice that has only been milled down to 80% of its original size, or less. While certainly this is fuller and rougher, it is indicative of sake long ago, and from what I have tasted can be
tasty and chewy at the same time.
I wrote about these changes in this newsletter about a year ago. What I did not realize then was that there were a couple of ancillary rules implemented as well. The first of those
reads thusly: when a sake rice is listed on the label (note that brewers do *not* have to do this), the percentage of the total rice used in that sake that corresponds to that variety must also be provided.
Now, on the surface, this seems like a damn good rule. It prevents less than scrupulous brewers (not that any necessarily exist on this level) from taking several tons of some schlock rice, lobbing in a single grain of
Yamada, and announcing with great fanfare that their sake is made from Yamada Nishiki. Not that this is really a problem. The proof is in the final sake; discerning consumer would know. But some may have been pushing the
But the other night, as I sat sipping sake with two brewers, it was grumble-city-Idaho. It seems they felt that the Ministry of Taxation, the power behind such decisions, was a bit out of touch with reality in
making these rules, at least with the reality surrounding small breweries like these two.
"The problem arises," began the chattier (and more opinionated) of the two, "when you bear in mind that rice
is an agricultural product, a creation of nature, that does not always grow according to plan. This means that we brewers - and especially we tiny brewers - do not always receive the exact quantities of the varieties we
hope to. This, naturally, screws up our planning. So we often need to go to 'plan B,' and make adjustments on the fly."
"The problem continues,"
he proceeded, "when we are brewing in small batches, oh, let us say 600 kilograms to 1000 kilograms of rice. We run out of, say, Yamada Nishiki, and one batch has perhaps 550 kilograms of Yamada Nishiki, but we are forced to put in just a few - say 50 - kilos of another rice. Even though the huge majority of the rice was the best stuff available, that little dollop of other rice limits us."
"The problem is perpetuated," he ensued, "when you remember that usually we will blend the tanks of a given grade of sake to ensure consistency, so that anyone buying a bottle of that grade anywhere
will enjoy the same flavors and aromas. So let us say that out of 20 tanks of one product, only one had less than 100% Yamada. And that one had just that little dollop of another rice. But, strictly speaking, when we blend
them, that little portion of some-other-rice gets spread out across the whole kit-n-caboodle, and we are therefore forced to account for that in our labeling, and cannot no longer list any bottle from that 20-tank batch as
all-Yamada, even though for all intents and purposes, it is."
He softened his gripe with the admission that the problem was solvable by simply taking the trouble to list the reality on the label. For example,
"contains 99% Yamada Nishiki and 1% Whatevuh Nishiki." But that in and of itself is a hassle.
He also, in all fairness, admitted that this is rarely a problem at larger breweries, where their buying power
enables them to procure larger amounts of rice more easily. And, furthermore, there is zero obligation to list any rice at all, so a second potential solution is to simply allow consumers to assess the quality of a sake on
its flavors and aromas alone (which is what we should all be doing anyway). But as I said, this was the opinion of only one brewer, on one day, and the problem is not likely perceived in the same light by all.
second rule added last year was that when the seimai-buai is given, the number listed refers to the least-milled rice in the batch. So, if most of the rice was milled down to 40% of its original size, but a little bit was
only milled to, say, 65%, then the seimai buai must be listed as 65%.
This, again, looks like what appears to be a good rule. It prevents a brewer from saying "made with la-de-dah rice milled down to 35%,"
when in fact most of it was only milled down to 60%, with just a grain or two milled down to the 35% level. Again, not that this would ever happen; this is just an exaggeration to make it all clear. What does often happen
in brewing is that the rice earmarked for koji production, the heart of the process, will be
milled more than that rice added to the tank as a straight starch source. So you can have rice milled to two different
levels in the same tank.
A logical progression of the above rant would indicate that the same perceivable downside exists for small brewers as the choice-of-rice issue. If most of the rice was milled to, say, 35%,
but just a tad was unavoidably left at 60%, the whole batch would get dinged as 60%. And, arguably, the same workable and fair solutions exist, i.e. telling the whole story on the label, or telling none at all. But one
added twist is that many brewers mill their own rice, in-house. So this rule only adversely affects those that outsource their milling, and for reasons beyond their control cannot get rice milled to the degree they specify.
In truth, rarely would the stars align to create a situation like this. But again, the point here is to convey an understanding of the rules, and the reality that surrounds them, and sake brewing in general.
reiterate that there is no obligation for brewers to list either the rice or the seimai-buai (milling rate). But especially for good sake, many brewers prefer to give that information. So *if* they list the rice, they need
to say what percent of the total it is, and *if* they list the seimai-buai, they need to state the least-milled level. And, while I very strongly believe in drinking the sake and not the label, I am also in favor of more
information for consumers. Be sure to pay more attention to labels when next you indulge in good sake.
The Sake of Ishikawa Prefecture
Interspersed between long-famous sake-brewing regions, such as Fushimi, Nada and Niigata that produce lakes of the stuff, are locales that have
well-established sake traditions all their own. Places such as Yamagata, Shizuoka, Shimane and Kochi - among many others - have well-defined styles and histories that are unique and interesting. Although far from huge in
production terms, some of the finest sake in the land comes from these places. Ishikawa Prefecture sits firmly ensconced on that list.
Located on the Sea of Japan, Ishikawa is nice and cold - perfect for sake
brewing. There are basically three regions in Ishikawa within which the sakagura are concentrated. Noto, on the peninsula of the same name, is home to perhaps half the kura, with almost as many in Kaga at the other end. The
remaining few (five to be exact) are close to Kanazawa in the center.
The flavor profile of Ishikawa sake has done an about-face over the last few decades. In the mid-1970s, it was fairly heavy and sweet sake, full
and complex, with a good dose of umami, the hard-to-describe goodness that is almost intuitively sensed. But since then, it has shifted greatly toward the drier side of things.
Of course, all sake in Japan has
become much more dry throughout the years, although that swingin' pendulum of consumer tastes is moving assuredly if slowly in the other direction now. However, Ishikawa sake is far from excessively dry. Perhaps the
(admittedly) gossamer thread of consistency running through most Ishikawa sake is a combination of dense, compact set of flavors, pleasantly low acidity, yet a smart overall footprint, especially in the ginjo-shu realms. In
other words, it is full and complex, yet without the breadth that such sake usually displays.
This may have been due to the efforts of the late Ikemi Motohiro, who was a tasting official and general sake sensei. In
the '70s, he diligently went around teaching the techniques of proper ginjo-shu brewing to the kura throughout the prefecture. The result was that out of nowhere several no-name Ishikawa kura began to waltz off with gold
prizes at the tax department's new-sake appraisal competitions. They are hardly "no-name" anymore.
When I visited Ishikawa last spring, I dropped in to visit the kura that brews Tedorigawa. Mr. Yoshida,
the current president, described how Ikemi-sensei and others like him would evaluate the condition of sake-in-progress.
"Back then, a kantei-kan (inspector) would come in, roll up his sleeves to way above the
elbow, and go from one small tank of moto (yeast starter) to the next. He would reach in deep, feeling the condition of the mash with his entire arm, then deep in the middle of the tank take a handful of the stuff and
squeeze the dickens out of it; this was how he assessed the condition of the dissolving rice and koji in the moto. Then, he would pull out his arm, one of our lackeys would wash it off as he stood there, and it was on to
the next tank of moto. When they came, which was often, they would check on each tank like this, then report back and advise us."
Apparently, they succeeded too in passing on the tricks of the trade to the
brewers themselves, as Mr. Yoshida adds with something akin to disappointment or regret, "but you never see them coming around anymore."
Much sake in Ishikawa is brewed with water running off tall and
beautiful Hakusan Mountain, which then flows down and into the Tedorigawa river. Compared to the rest of Japan, water here is relatively hard. This is neither good nor bad, but rather calls for brewing techniques suited to
such water, as harder water usually allows more vigorous, if rougher (when allowed to continue unchecked), fermentations.
Hard water also lends itself very well to the brewing of yamahai-shikomi sake, perhaps the
funkiest style of sake out there, and one of which I am personally fond, and write of often. Many kura from this region (and all over Japan, too) brew yamahai, but the stuff from this regions seems to be more common, and
certainly more well known than that from anywhere else.
Long ago, sake from this region was known as Kaga no Kikuzake, or "Chrysanthemum sake of the Kaga region." The name, it seems, was bestowed by the
warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi during his hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties there. It refers to sake brewed with water from Hakusan, in deference to the goddess of the mountain, Kikuri Hime, who resides in a shrine called
Shiroyama Hime Jinja. The term Kaga no Kikuzake is still used today within Ishikawa, although not as commonly.
In fact, I recently heard a curious historical anecdote. Hideyoshi was the second of Japan's three great
unifiers, the first being Oda Nobunaga. Someone recently explained to me that Nobunaga actually preferred sake from another region of Ishikawa, other than Kaga. When Hideyoshi took over upon Nobunaga's death, he went way
out of his way to be different from his predecessor in every way, including his choice of sake regions. As such, he deliberately promoted and drank the sake of the Kaga region instead of Nobunaga's preference, making it the
famous brewing region it is today. However, the details of this story got lost in the haze of the evening, compounded with my lack of in-depth knowledge of Japanese history. On top of that, the gent who told me is a bit of
a loose cannon, so perhaps it is best not to quote this newsletter on this one point.
There are, at present, just under 40 kura actively brewing sake now in Ishikawa. Many are small kura that make top-notch sake
but are not often found outside of the prefecture. There are, however, plenty of great Ishikawa sake that are much more easily found.
But more than just great product comes from Ishikawa. This region is also the
home of the Noto toji, a famous guild of master brewers, and in fact the fourth largest toji guild in Japan. Albeit in smaller numbers today, from the late Edo Period, Noto toji began to travel to brew in kura as far away
as the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto region, as well as Shiga and Shizuoka Prefectures.
Also originating here is Association Yeast #14 also known as Kanazawa Kobo (yeast). Yeast #14 yields light, low acidity, fragrant sake,
often reminiscent of melon-like fruit.
As a general indicator of how good Ishikawa sake is, consider this: 80 percent of all sake brewed there is consumed within the prefecture. There are still many, many relatively
unknown smaller kura making a perfectly decent living selling to local customers. A kanpai to their continued success.
Good Sake to Look For
Let us look this month at some greater- and lesser-known Ishikawa sake. As I got a bit carried away in creating my "must include" list, the reviews
are necessarily brief.
I have reviewed the "Chrysanthemum Princess" no less than four times over the last five years in this newsletter. Yet their reputation demands it. Here, they use
Yamada Nishiki for every single product they make. Bar none. Even the cheap stuff. Not only that, but it all comes from Yoshikawa Village in Hyogo, and "Special A" graded fields. While it would be hard to call
them diversified, they cannot be accused of lacking in focus. They have many expensive products, including a daiginjo called "Gin," retailing for about 10,000 yen a 720ml bottle, and (my favorite) one called
"BY," a one-year aged daiginjo selling for half that. In short, their sake is very solid, full, exquisitely structured and balanced, but very, very far from wimpy, delicate or even attractively feminine.
-- Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai-shu
Kikuhime Yamahai is about as wild and gamey as it gets. It pretty much defines the genre, especially in terms of the bitter and tart aspects, as well as balanced but high levels of
sweetness and acidity. Exported to at least the US.
Another Ishikawa classic, Tengumai is overall a subtle, deep brew with a classically clean finish. Much of it is of the
(wonderfully) orthodox ginjo genre, without being overly ostentatious or extreme in any one facet.
-- Tengumai Yamahai Junmai-shu
If the above Kikuhime is the "yang" of the yamahai world, Tengumai is
the "yin." Certainly wild and gamy enough to be recognizable as a yamahai immediately, it also strikes a subtle balance between rich and light, with more coming out of the woodwork in every sip. Exported to at
least the US.
-- Tedorigawa "Meiryu" Daiginjo
Autumnal fruits in the aromas move smoothly into a focused, slightly earthy flavor, peppered with a blend of herbal and fruity facets. At 2500 yen a 720ml
bottle in Japan, this sake is very well priced. While it is not currently exported, they are soon to be exporting at least a yamahai junmai-shu, and other products - perhaps even this one - will surely follow.
Perhaps the currently most famous toji in Japan, Naohiko Noguchi, left Kikuhime a few years ago for nearby Jokigen. His mark has already been made here as well. Much sake here balances ginjo aromatics with
more earthy, solid flavors.
-- Sougen Junmaishu
One of the largest brewers in the region, yet one of the most distinctive. This junmai-shu is best described as a new, gleaming, well-waxed Mack truck. It is big,
but beautiful. Full and only barely fruity, it is solid enough to support an incredibly wide range of food. Somehow, Sougen seems to appeal to almost everyone. This junmai-shu is available in at least the US.
Now this is a company that I seem to have failed to introduce before, which I admit has been a grave oversight. Fukumitsuya is a large-ish brewer that makes several brands, most notably Fukumasamune,
Kuro-obi, and Kagatobi. They put a lot of energy and effort into bringing sake into the 21st Century, especially in relation to sake and food.
-- Kagatobi Junmai Ginjo
Lately, Kagatobi is to me the most appealing
line coming from Fukumitsuya, and this junmai ginjo is fruity in the aromas and front/top part of the flavor profile, but dovetails into a focused, compacted finish. More of a light style than an earthy one for sure, but
still with a solid, umami-laden structure. Kagatobi was once available in the US, and if it is not now, rumor has it that it will again be soon.
-- Manzairaku "Hakusan" Junmai Daiginjo
Sitting near the
foot of one of the most beautiful mountains in Japan, Hakusan, the Manzairaku kura itself is classically beautiful, as is the sparsely populated, old-Japan village surrounding it. This junmai daiginjo is, in short, peach
and strawberry laced on top, softly textured in the middle, but tied together with a mild but effectively placed acidity. Manzairaku is being exported to several countries.
-- Shishi no Sato "Shun" Junmai-shu
"Village of the Lion" is an old and tiny kura that can be hard to find, yet memorable enough to make it worth remembering. Most interesting to me is this
13.6% alcohol genshu (undiluted sake) that, while gentle, has flavor and aroma in spades. How they kept the alcohol that low (for a genshu) and the flavor and aroma this gorgeous I cannot fathom. Nuts and a very mild
sweetness are the overriding characteristics here, and they promote it as a sake that gently supports food in the background, confidently content with a back-seat role.
-- Benkei Junmai-shu
Another tiny brewer
that I rarely find, one I stumbled on in a tiny liquor store with clueless (if kind) owners. It must have been recommended by the distributor. Benkei was the name of a 12th century warrior priest that was the heroic staunch
companion of one of the most tragic figures in Japanese history, Yoshitsune Minamoto. Smooth and with an umami-loaded foundation, this sake is anything but tragic, very unassuming, with a pleasant balance of sweetness
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara, March March 19, 2005
On the evening of Saturday, March 19, I will hold a sake seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. The topic for the evening will be yamahai and kimoto styles of sake:
what makes them the funky types that they are, what kind of a range of flavor profiles you can expect, and how the differ from, er, "normal" sake. This will offer participants a chance to unravel the mysteries of
yamahai and kimoto, and to know whether or not they fit into your realm of preferred sake.
The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those
interested can reserve a spotby sending me an email. No deposit is required.
Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for
getting there will follow with the confirmation email.
Stay tuned until next month, when I will definitely be able to announce the beginning of a set of new seminar-events at a different location, a very famous and
very traditional sake pub in another part of Tokyo. Details are being hammered out as you read this.