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Dassai Brewery; Kijoushu
Making Sake with Sake

# 72

Oct. 2005

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #72
October 1, 2005

-- Dassai: A Unique and Innovative Kura
-- Kijoushu: Making Sake with Sake
-- Good Sake To Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements
-- In the Archives

Dassai: A Unique & Innovative Kura (Part 1 of 3)
The already bad connection threatened to cut out completely as the speeding bullet train sped into the tunnel toward Osaka. Still, his laugh was audible. "That was funny! I thought I heard you say 23!" The pause was pregnant, to say the least. He replied: "I, uh, did say 23."

"Twenty-three? Aw, c'mon! Gimme a break, Sakurai," I said.

The 23 in question was the degree of milling for the rice of a new product Sakurai-san was planning. What it means is that the outer 77 percent of each grain of rice is to be milled away - ground into fine powder - to remove fats and proteins. While the minimum milling for sake's top grade, daiginjo, is 50 percent, very often top daiginjo are milled down to 35 percent, so that 65 percent of the original raw material is milled away and not used in the brewing process. A couple of brewers take it further, down to perhaps 27 percent.

Sakurai-san had recently gotten the notion that being able to say that his new sake product had the highest milling degree of any sake in the country would be a great selling point. His plan hit a hitch when he heard about these few places going to 27, and even one to 25 percent. His solution? Out-mill 'em. Take it to 23. (He has since been matched, and one-upped, for what it's worth.)

And so he did. The result is his Dassai "Niwari-sanbu" Junmai Daiginjo. Not surprisingly, "niwari-sanbu" means 23 percent. "That sake is the defining theme of our kura now," continues Sakurai-san, who is not only the owner of Asashi Shuzo, brewers of Dassai, but also its toji. "We take all the technique we learn and the experience we earn from brewing that product and apply it to all our other sake. It raises the level for everything we make."

That final bit of milling, the last two percent that for a while gave Dassai national bragging rights, is costly. Sakurai-san was warned by the milling company, "We're gonna bill you for this!" And indeed they did. The process at that level and stage is very, very delicate. In fact, the final two percent alone takes 24 hours. "Boy, that last two percent is expensive," Sakurai-san smiles wryly.

There are various and sundry opinions on milling the rice that much. The point is, of course, to mill away fat and protein lurking in the outer layers of the rice grains of proper sake rice, leaving naught but the good starches behind. But the more you mill, the more you end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, since where the bad ends and the good begins is not all that clear, or clearly delineated. In fact, there is one "expert" out there (a university professor, not a brewer) who insists that milling beyond 50 percent is meaningless. What has Sakurai-san to say about this?

"Well, theory and practice are different, now aren't they," he responds confidently. "All I know is, you can taste the difference. Besides, if I am going to mill it that much, I *have* to make good sake. So I try harder!"

It costs him too. Asahi Shuzo spends about ten million yen a year (perhaps $100K or so) on milling alone, contracting it out to Shin-Nakano, a manufacturer of rice milling machines. "For that much, sure, we could buy our own machine. It would likely pay for itself in time, but hey, I am fine leaving it to the experts, and they are happy either way as well. Plus, I have no room in here."

Most small, craft brewers of fine sake will own at least one expensive milling machine and do their own milling at home. One reason for this is that if you want to have something done right, you do it yourself. No one will put more care into milling than the brewer that will use the rice. But Sakurai-san knows his position on this is solid. "Shin-Nakano knows Dassai is all about highly milled rice. With the massive amount of work I give them, they surely want my business next year too, so I can trust them to do their best."

* * *

Asashi Shuzo is an odd kura, by Sakurai-san's own admission. Odd in many ways, a result of numerous factors. For one, rare is the "owner-toji," the kura owner who does his own brewing. Traditionally, the kura owners were the land owners, and the actual brewers - including the master brewer, or "toji," - were migrant craftsman, farmers or fishermen from the nearby countryside that came to live in the brewery for the winter and brew. And so it was here as well, at least until 1999. That was the year Sakurai-san found his toji could not come back to brew the next season.

So he contacted a well known consultant in the industry, Dr. Horie, who works behind the scenes developing equipment, yeast strains, and more to raise the overall quality of sake. Might you know where I might find an available toji at this late hour, he implored. "Wake up and smell the green tea," was Horie-sensei's startling response.

This industry is changing, and fast, began the sermon. You brewers can no longer count on things being the way they once were. Toji from the countryside, from the ranks of the official toji guilds, are becoming scarce. There is no reason you brewers cannot be doing this yourselves; you have been around the kura your whole lives. You know how to make sake. Take responsibility and brew it yourself, instead of relying on someone else. Toji, schmoji. Crafstman, schmaftsman.

"Well, I...I...I guess he's right. I probably could do it," muttered Sakurai-san in stark realization. And so he became what was one of the first owner-toji in Japan. Sure, he had spent countless hours in the kura helping, and knew the process well enough. But matching the skills of an experienced toji is another matter altogether. But soon enough he caught on, and Asahi Shuzo roared back with a vengeance. "I had actually absorbed quite a bit of knowledge over the years, albeit passively. I surprised myself by knowing just what to at every step of the way. My biggest problem was figuring out where the damn "on" switch was with most of the equipment," he smiles.

Yet another way the brewers of Dassai are different from the norm lies in the fact that they brew 12 months a year. Most kura brew only in the winter; just when they start and when they end is determined by a myriad of factors, most importantly how much sake they will brew. Other factors include the number of brewing staff, the number of tanks, and the average number of days each tank will ferment. Large kura may start as early as September and finish as late as May. Others may start in December and wrap up by February.

At Sakurai-san's place, they began with a skeleton crew, and as the company became healthier and healthier the amount the brewed increased. Keeping the staff and the brewing pace unchanged, Sakurai-san very slowly expanded the season - starting a bit earlier and finishing a bit later - year after year. Eventually, they found themselves brewing all year round.

(To be continued next month. Note to readers: this is an excerpt of an upcoming book on the history, culture, and hand-crafting methods of the sake world, as told through the colorful personalities inhabiting the kura. Details to follow in an upcoming issue.)

Kijoushu: Making Sake with Sake
Kijoushu is a particularly unique type of sake, and while there are but a handful of brewers that make it, there are enough of them out there to make it worth our while to know what it is. And, it is noticeably enough different from regular sake to make one immediately ask upon first sip why this is so.

Forsaking the crescendo of excitement and jumping right to the point, kijoushu is sake that was made replacing some of the water used in brewing with already-brewed sake (of junmai-shu class). This makes it a totally different animal, sweet and heavy, not unlike a "port" version of sake, and a wonderful dessert sake.

When brewing normal sake, after the two-week preparation of the yeast starter, rice, koji and water are added three times over four days, roughly doubling the size of the batch each time. During the last of these three additions, the water is replaced with sake. This leads to a much sweeter and more intense flavor.

In terms of the history of kijoushu, it apparently has been around in one way, shape or form for a long, long, long time. It was mentioned in the "Kojiki" ("Record of Ancient Matters"), Japan's first historical chronicle, completed in the year 712 . However, it did not achieve a legal status as a sake type until 1975, when it was defined in the law books and was first brewed by Hanahato of Hiroshima, who still is the number one producer of this interesting style.

There is another sake called "Yashi-ori no sake" from Shimane that is fundamentally a kijoushu. This has been around a long time, too, and was the sake used to defeat the mythical eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon-like beast that was big enough to cover eight valleys and eight mountains known as the Yamata-no-Orochi. For more details on this juicy tale, go to:

Kijoushu is often aged several years, as the flavor profile is up to it, and the rich flavor and amber-to-brown color set it apart and render it a different animal from sake we usually enjoy. Often it is aged, and the range of flavors and aromas can be more reminiscent of lovely raisins and nuts than fruit and flora. This opens it up to - and indeed necessitates - a whole new way of enjoying it. 

Good Sake to Look For
All the sake selections below are exported to at least the US, and certainly other countries as well.

● Hanahato "Kijoushu" (Hiroshima)
From the pre-eminent producer of kijoushu, this classic brew has been aged eight years before being sent to market. The amber-to-brown color is lustrous and pleasing, and the nutty-fig-raisin flavors and aromas are delightfully buoyed by an enlivening acidity. Despite its age, it is remarkably free from any of the dank, earthy tones that can often accompany aged sake.

● Sekai no Hana "Yashiori-no-sake" (Shimane)
Yashiori no sake is kijoushu, but the naming here ties the sake in with the ancient myth of the aforementioned huge badass dragon. Eight pots were filled with this stuff (a different producer, presumably, then Sekai no Hana), and the dragon drank enough for all eight heads to fall asleep. While this is brewed in the same way as the above selection, it has not been aged quite as long, and therefore is significantly lighter in overall presence, with less mature dried fruit and a lighter, herbal-mossy sweet and viscous nature. Best as an aperitif or with lighter desserts. 

Sake Events and Announcements

● Sake Fridge for Sale!
For those living in Japan, an industrial-use sake refrigerator has become available. It is an attractive, glass-walled unit about 50cm square and about 145cm tall. It can be used to store two levels of 1.8 liter bottles, or three levels of smaller bottles. What it lacks in energy efficiency it more than makes up for in style, as your guests can see all that you have in your collection. So will you, which might prove to be an endless temptation. If interested, please send me an email.

● Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara, November 12, 2005.
On the evening of Saturday, November 12, I will hold the next sake seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. The topic will be the almost-forgotten joys of gently warming, its history and resurgence, and will highlight several premium warmed 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 spot by 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 etting there will follow with the confirmation email.

In the Archives
At the risk of shameless self promotion, I want to encourage readers to scour the archives of this newsletter. Just click the INDEX button near the top of this page for a complete listing of stories available (and searchable) at this web site. A wide range of topics have been covered over the past seven years in this newsletter. The archives go back to August 1999. Within them are covered just about anything related to sake, from what it actually is (8/99, 6/03) to how it is made (9/99, 4/00, 7/04) to what makes for good ingredients (water: 2/01, 6/03, rice: 11/02, 3/03, and yeast: 10/99, 12/02). The topic of sake and region is covered, with articles on the sake of Niigata, Shimane, Fukui, Yamagata, Nara, Fukuoka, Ishikawa and Hyogo Prefectures. There are many more regions to be covered, but these are certainly worth knowing. More focused, less general topics like un-pasteurized sake (11/99, 5/00, 7/03 and 12/04) and nigori-zake (10/03) are there, as are culturally supplanting topics like history (11/00, 7/02) and official government sponsored tasting contests (June or July of each year). Detailed (overly so?) discussions of processes like the yeast starter (8/00, 10/00) and its more interesting manifestations like yamahai (3/04) and kimoto (12/04) and pressing sake from the dregs after fermentation (4/01) along with discussions on aging sake (8/03) and warming sake (11/99, 10/03). And much more. And while shameless self promotion is not usually my bag, being useful and informative is. I simply want readers to know the information is out there. Please check it all out at your leisure.


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