Greetings in the coattails of summer. And in its heat, which is dwindling a bit too slowly, lament some. I recall a few years back after having spent the better part of August in the US, my wife and I were preparing
to come back to Japan in early September. And we were becoming irrationally exuberant over the bounty of autumn in Japan. Sure, every country has its seasonal joys. But Japan seems to play 'em up so well. Autumn is
sometimes revered with the term, "shokuyoku no aki," or "autumn, the season of good appetite!" And oh, so true it is. Perhaps the most quintessential fall delicacy is sanma, an oily fish most commonly (and
deliciously) grilled over charcoal until crisp on the outside, and golden-flaky on the inside. Known
as saury or mackerel pike in English, it is so tied into autumn that the character for autumn is included in
its name: 秋刀魚 (autumn-knife-fish). Beyond this, there are Matsutake mushrooms that nobody really eats as they are so dang expensive, katsuo (bonita) sashimi, and kaki (persimmons) as a few more examples.
But above and beyond all that is the truism that, heck, it has just been so darn hot for so darn long that - as things cool down - just about everything tastes better. And of course, this applies to sake. Fall is the
traditional season for the release of new products, and tastings abound. Like, really abound. Like, overwhelmingly abound. Like, enough already with the abounding. And outside of the obligatory multitude of
work-related tastings we must suffer (huh?) through, sake just seems to enhance every autumnal offering on any table, anywhere. Hyperbole? Perhaps, just a bit. Nevertheless, autumn is surely almost everyone's favorite
season for enjoying sake. So don't be left out, don't be left behind, don't miss out on sake's outstanding potential with food, where ever you may be and whatever you may enjoy eating this fall. And enjoy the
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Sake Brewing Tanks
Sake is no longer brewed in wooden tanks. In fact, they began to be phased out about 70 years ago and have pretty much been non-existent since just after
the war. They were replaced by what is almost exclusively used today, ceramic-lined stainless steel, or sometimes, bare stainless steel.
Why were they phased out? A number of reasons. One, for the most part,
brewers do not want to impart the woodiness into their sake (taru-zake is one exception). The line between character and idiosyncrasy is not just crossed, it is shattered with woody sake. Next, the wood absorbs some
of the sake during fermentation, so yields are a bit reduced – so much so that in days of olde brewers were given a break on taxes for sake absorbed by the wood. And the grain of the wood is very hard to clean
thoroughly, and provides a hotbed for bacteria. With the ceramic lined tanks, brewers can just hose'em off when done.
Interestingly, long ago, when wood was used, they did not at that time either want to make
their sake overly woody. So when a tank was made by the coopers that were such an indispensible part of the brewing team, it was not used to make sake right away. Rather, it sat around for a few years to air out,
and/or was used to store water or rice. It did not earn the right to have anything ferment in it until the woody essences had slowly evaporated.
As always in the sake world, there are exceptions. There are a
handful of brewers that do make sake in wooden tanks. But really, it is maybe 30 out of 1300, and they make perhaps one to three batches a year in wood. It is by no means a trend or movement, just an anomaly. Which is
not to diss the sake that comes from those tanks! It can be quite interesting, and perceptibly different. Surely just a bit of wood gets imparted, but often the flavors end up quite integrated and fine-grained.
Sake brewed in wooden tanks, what little of it there exists, is called ki-oke jikomi. While not very common, if you come across the term, now you know.
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Something as Simple-sounding as Pasteurization
Isn't simple in the sake-brewing world!
Sake brewing can be, to put it mildly, complicated. Just getting from rice to
ambrosia calls for milling-washing-soaking-steaming-molding-fermenting-pressing and a dozen other -ings along the way, each with deep complexities involved. And that is before we begin to consider the variations that
each and every brewer applies.
But after that's all done, once the completed sake drips out, we are done with the hard-to-understand stuff, right? I mean, we just have to store it, pasteurize it, cut it with
water, and bottle it at some point, right? That's pretty straightforward, right?
Wrong. The last few steps, as seemingly simple as they sound, exert massive leverage on the nature of the final product. How and
when a sake is pasteurized, how long and at what temperature it is stored, and even whether it was stored in a tank or bottles - all these sound simple, but can make or break a quality sake, regardless of how good it
might have been at pressing time.
We sat on his garden's porch, the brewer and I, looking at a 350-year old pine tree. As I pondered the fact that that pine tree has been around exactly seven times as long as
I have, we chatted about recent issues in brewing. The brewer in question is of stable (read: large-ish) size and of outstanding reputation, well deserved too. And he commented, "In fact, the biggest issue I face now
in keeping one step ahead of the competition in terms of flavor quality is pasteurization. We keep tweaking things, and even after all this time it is still a bit of trial-and-error."
At first this surprised
me. I mean, you'd think they would have that down by now. Three hundred and fifty years should be enough to figure out something like pasteurizing your sake, right?
Wrong. It ain't that simple, it never was,
and it always needs tweaking. Let us consider some of the various ways it can be done.
First, remember why sake is pasteurized. Momentarily heating it up will deactivate enzymes that would feed a form of
lactic bacteria, and kills any of that bacteria that might be there as well. If sake is not pasteurized, it must be kept cold to not allow the enzymes to do much, or the chances of it going funky are significantly
higher. But you knew that, right? And nama-zake, or unpasteurized sake, is not unequivocally better than its pasteurized counterpart anyway. But that is a rant for another day.
Still, there can only be a
couple of ways to go about this kind of a thing, right? Wrong. There are so many variations to pasteurizing that it is daunting to even think about cataloging them. How many times it is done (once or twice?), to how
high a temperature (about 65C for most), how quickly or slowly it is heated (could be very gently and slowly, could be instantaneous using a heat-exchanger), how fast or slowly it is cooled down, is it done en masse
by the tank or to individual bottles, and if so, by showering those bottles with hot water or letting them sit in a trough of the stuff? And the timing! Sake matures more quickly when nama (unpasteurized) so the final
maturity is hugely swayed by the timing of pasteurization.
One standard way is to run the sake through a coil that is submerged in hot water. A more modern and much more expensive way is the flash-pasteurizer.
All of these will vary from sake to sake, grade to grade, product to product. And of course, they will vary from brewer to brewer as well. What works for one brewer or sake product will not necessarily work for all,
if any, others!
And they will change over time, either based on new research or experimentation or on new market needs, i.e. consumers preferring the results of one method over the other. As one example, much
sake these days is pasteurized only one time, and stored in bottles not tanks. This pain-in-the-arse method gives sake with a more discernible, fine-grained flavor to it. So if a kura's sake suits this style (not all
does!), this is a trend commonly followed.
The point here is that there are countless variations on how to do something as simple-sounding as pasteurization, and each brewer has his or her own methods and
preferences. The standard one-line explanations of old rarely apply anymore. But ask anyway, should you get the chance. And when you do, bear in mind that even the simplest-sounding steps in sake brewing are anything
Final note: I, personally, prefer pasteurized sake most of the time, as I can perceive more depth in it. But nama-zake (unpasteurized) can be zingy, fresh, young and lively. And certainly it can be
more attention-getting, if often less subtle. By all means, explore both realms and decide your preferences.
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Did You Know? Shio-Koji
The Latest Fad in Japanese Cuisine
Surely readers are familiar with koji, steamed rice onto which a mold
(aspergillus oryzae) has been ever-so-carefully propagated so as give the perfect amount and type of enzymes for starch-to-sugar conversion needed for each batch of sake. And, in all likelihood, we all remember that
koji is used in many other things as well, including miso. And lately, a new -- or at least revived -- use for koji has arisen and has gained massive popularity in modern Japanese cooking. Known as "shio koji," or
"salt koji," it has likely been around for a while, but is now readily found in stores, either in completed form or in do-it-yerself ready form. What is it? Or rather, how is it made? One starts with koji, i.e.
steamed and dried rice with white-to-yellow mold grown all round it, so that it looks like rice with frosting. Next, a copious dose of salt is mixed in, as is a measured amount of water. Then, over the next one or two
weeks, the mixture is kept at room temperature or so, and slowly ferments. While no alcohol is created, what we do end up with is lots of amino acids. Certainly, starches are converted to sugar, but the salt keeps
that in check, and the umami richness that results from the amino acids makes shio koji so much more interesting than just plain salt.
How can you use it? The slurry-like condiment is an outstanding marinade
for fish or meat, and can be used to pickle some vegetable as well. In fact, just try it any time you would use salt. It adds so much more depth and richness than straight-up sodium chloride. It is also available in
completed form, a grainy white liquid, that you can use right away. Once completed, it should keep several months in the refrigerator. There are plenty of sources on the internet for ways to use it beyond the above
simple recommendations. Finally: is the koji used n making it really the same stuff used in sake? In short, yes. But there are a million ways to make koji for sake, in terms of how much mold and what enzymes are
present. Koji made for shio koji is a very rough, thick, opulent growth of the mold that one would likely never see used in sake brewing. These days, a lot of sake brewers sell it directly. That's how popular it is.
Give it a try; it is surely available now at most Japanese supermarkets both in and outside of Japan. And be sure to enjoy some sake with whatever you make using it!
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Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course
San Francisco, CA, October 24 ~ 26
The next Sake Professional Course will take place on
October 24, 25 and 26 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco, Caifornia. We are currently taking reservations for this course. Only five seats remain available as of today, September 7. The Sake Professional
Course, with Sake Education Council-recognized Certified Sake Professional certification testing, is by far the most intensive, immersing, comprehensive sake educational program in existence. Three days of classroom
lectures and tastings leave "no sake stone unturned."
The tuition for the course is $799. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation. All marketing noise and shameless self-promotion aside, this course is already filling up quite fast. As such, interested parties should email me soon to make a reservation.
Sake Professional Course Level II
The Level II Sake Professional
Course, with SEC-supported Advanced Sake Professional testing, is scheduled for February 11- 15, 2013. Note that this course is only open to graduates of the Level I course. Should you be interested in attending,
please contact me directly.
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Sake Education Council
Please take a moment to check out the website
for the Sake Education Council, the organization behind the Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional certifications. We plan to grow steadily, strongly and continually, and we will need the support
of all those that love sake to do so. Follow us through the "usual suspects" of social media.
Sake Homebrewer's Online Store
Please be sure to check out Homebrewsake.com for supplies, information and a forum, including lots of supporting information on everything from recipes to history. I have been meaning to mention this site and the gentleman behind it, Will Auld, but have repeatedly forgotten in past newsletters. The site is replete with instruction, augmented with videos, schedules, and more. If you are even remotely interested check this site out right away.
SAKE EDUCATION CENTRAL
For Your iPhone & iPod: The Sake Dictionary App.
Newly improved, now with audio, and
drastically reduced in price to $0.99!
Get it here: http://itunes.com/apps/sakedictionary
There you are, perusing a menu, or standing in front of a shelf of great sake, or perhaps reading a sake newsletter… and up pops one of those hairy, pesky sake terms in Japanese. You know you have heard it many
times, but dammit, you just cannot remember what it means now…
No problem! Just whip out your iPhone or iPod and fire up your trusty old version of The Sake Dictionary. In a matter of seconds, you'll be
amongst the cognoscenti once again. But… if only you could pronounce it properly. Now that would really rock!
Done! Just tap on the term and you will hear a clear example of how to pronounce the term in
Japanese. Repeat it a couple of times and the term is yours for eternity, to toss about and impress your mates.
What's more, it's less! Less than what it cost before, much less. Like less than one-seventh
less. For a limited time only, the audio-enhanced version of The Sake Dictionary iPhone app is available for a mere $0.99.
The Sake Dictionary is a concise little package of all the terms you might ever come
across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in
sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well. And now,
with the new audio component, you can listen and learn just how to pronounce those terms properly.
Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity
hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!
Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms - or how to pronounce them - again.
Get it here: http://itunes.com/apps/sakedictionary
(Note if you have already purchased it, this upgrade to the audio version is free.
Just go to iTunes and get it!)
Sake's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased to announce the publication of my new ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories, subtitled The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew.
Sake's Hidden Stories ($14.99) will give you a view to what goes on in the sake
industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji
is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that
has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their
histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew.
For more information on content and get your copy, go here.As with any ebook or informational product I offer, satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. If you
don't like it or feel it was worth what you paid for it, I will cheerfully refund your money. Finally, for a nice third-party review of the book, check out this cool blog.
Sake Educational Products
Jump-start your sake savvy
Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake
enjoyment. We offer three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.
First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to
sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and
more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access
to a password protected area on www.sake-world.com known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's
personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing
process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.
Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.
More information on the following topics can be found at
- Sake Homebrewing
- Books on Sake
- Information on the archives of this newsletter
- General information related to this publication
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.