Sake World Sake
In this issue:
-The Wonder of "Multiple Parallel Fermentation"
-Good Sake To Look For
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The Wonder of "Multiple Parallel Fermentation"
So, is it a wine or a beer? Or
something altogether different? While it hardly matters in the larger scheme of things, there are those who feel the need to pigeonhole the beloved beverage into one of the above two classifications. Admittedly,
that certainly makes it easier to understand, something to hang your hat on at the beginning. And, being brewed from a grain, the "it's a beer" school has a point, a good one at that, but not being
carbonated, having much higher alcohol content, and often being diversely aromatic make the "rice wine" moniker plausible as well.
But in truth, in the end, it is neither beer nor wine, with
the process being significantly different from both. And what it comes down to is what is known as "multiple parallel fermentation," a direct translation of the term in Japanese referring to the sake
Wine is (chemically, at least) simple fermentation. In other words, there is sugar (glucose) present in grape juice, and the yeast will "eat" that, and give off alcohol and
carbon dioxide. Beer is made from barley, but barley has within it not sugar, but starch. Starch is useless to yeast cells, and must be first converted to sugar before the yeast can process it into alcohol and
carbon dioxide. How is this accomplished? By malting the barley, i.e. by moistening, warming and sprouting the barley. Malting the barley gives rise to enzymes, and these enzymes are later employed to covert the
starch molecules into sugar molecules. After this has been accomplished, yeast can be added (or "pitched," as beer brewers say), and fermentation can proceed.
Of course, the above is a gross
oversimplification of the arts of beer and wine. But it will suffice for our present purposes.
Sake, too, is made from a grain: rice, which like barley contains starch but no sugar, being therefore equally
useless to yeast. And like barley for beer, these starches must be first converted into sugar. However, since we have started with milled rice, there are no husks; we cannot malt this rice, and therefore cannot
get our precious enzymes from the malting process.
And so, as most readers surely know, we get them from koji mold, which is propagated onto a portion of the rice, and the enzymes created in this process
give us our starch to sugar conversion, known as saccharification. After we have some sugar, we can add our yeast, and let fermentation commence.
But here is where sake brewing is unique. The
mold-inoculated rice that produces the enzymes is there in the tank along with the yeast. So, in beer making, saccharification and fermentation are sequential, in sake, these take place in parallel, i.e.
simultaneously in the same tank. Hence the unwieldy if aptly descriptive term "multiple parallel fermentation," heretofore referred to as MPF.
That is all well and fine, but here is the
point of this whole diatribe. When making wine, the grape juice has an initial sugar content of about 20%, and this leads to perhaps 11% or 12% alcohol in the end. In beer brewing, just before the yeast is
added, the concoction contains about 13% sugar, with the final alcohol being 5% to 6% or so. But with sake, the sugar content of the moromi (that fermenting mash) never exceeds a mere 6%, but the final alcohol
content can be as high as 20%.
Why is that? Because the sugar is slowly converted and fed to the yeast. If all the sugar needed to reach 20% alcohol were present at once, the yeast would be effectively
choked out, and fermentation would not go well at all. But thanks to the wonders of MPF, the sugar trickles out to the hungry yeast, which continues cranking out the alcohol much longer. And this leads to sake
having the highest naturally occurring alcohol content of any beverage on the planet.
Not that alcohol is everything. But the MPF process and the particular yeast strains most suited to it also yield
esters and acids and other things that lead to the peerless profiles of aroma and flavor for which sake is known and loved.
"Umami" is a word used to describe flavors and the nature of a food or drink. While it has
been working its way slowly but surely into English tasting vocabularies for both food and wine, it still manages to elude a concise translation, and therefore understanding by many.
Yet, it is not a
difficult thing to understand or identify when you taste it. This makes it all the more curious that we never found a word for it in English. Some of the more common ways to convey a notion of umami include
vague terms like yumminess, deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, and savory.
Examples of foods that exude lots of umami include parmesan cheese, much meat, soy sauce, scallops, ripe
(especially in comparison to unripe) tomatoes, and mushrooms; all these have flavors that generally satisfy the palate in a hard to describe way..
And it is not as if this umami stuff is a figment of our
gustatory imaginations, with no objective grounding in reality. Quite to the contrary. Umami has been found to be caused by several substances, including the amino acid glutamate, and its chemical salt form
monosodium glutamate, the much-maligned MSG. (Although a small percentage of the population is allergic to MSG, it has over the past few years been considered safe for almost everyone.) When present in its
"free" form, i.e. not bound to other amino acids, glutamate exudes umami.
Not only can we identify what leads to umami, but it seems we can concretely identify it as well. It was long thought
that the human tongue can only sense four flavors: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. But in April 1997, two researchers at the University of Miami isolated taste buds that respond only to glutamate.
This apparently qualifies it as a fifth taste
Sake is often described as having - or lacking - umami. Not surprisingly, it is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle).
This is not to say the more umami the better. Like all flavor and aromatic elements, it is a matter of balance - and preference.
Dry, light sake often has little umami at all, and is indeed prized for
just that quality. Other styles of sake have that rich, meaty quality that umami describes, and are in demand for that. Too little umami in any sake will make it taste thin and weary. Yet, too much umami can
often correlate to off flavors, or a rough and cloying quality. As in all things sake, balance is best, and a whole host of other factors, like sweetness, dryness and acidity, must be taken into account to
strike that balance.
Much cheap, mass produced sake, with its gads of added distilled alcohol, is low on umami. Fine, top-grade ginjo-shu sake may not be considered, upon sipping, to have much
umami, as it would cloy the subtler flavors and elegant fragrances it was brewed to exude. But again, too little would be a fault for sure. Sturdier stratums of sake, like typical junmai-shu, are more often
where good, solid umami-laden sake can be found. But in the end, there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake that these guidelines are all just generalizations.
Recently, I stumbled
onto a semi-foolproof way of identifying umami, or rather an example of directly comparing two tastes that differ only in the presence of umami. I was visiting the young toji (master brewer) of the very popular
sake Taketsuru in Hiroshima at his home. His sake, by the way, has umami in spades, although that is seemingly coincidental to this story.
He and his wife have recently become very, very interested in
green tea. Not the ceremony, but rather the range of flavors that can be drawn out of a cup, and the best ways to go about that. During my visit, they brought out special tea and water, and hemmed and hawed in
an passionate and involved way about how to best make this cup. They patiently waited as we chatted for the temperature of the water (put into a separate vessel for cooling) had dropped sufficiently, then waited
again for the teal leaves to "open" and release their flavor, glancing into the teapot inquisitively from time to time, exchanging opinions and short queries.
The tea was of course exquisite,
but more relevantly, teeming with umami. After a barrage of questions, I realized this was a great way to taste the difference at home: easy, and with measurable, reproducible results.
So get a bit of
decent green tea, it need not be too expensive, but not too cheap either. Put a healthy pinch in a cup and pour just-boiled water over it. Note this is NOT the proper nor best way to make green tea, but that is
not the point here. Next, let the rest of the boiled water cool down until it is close to lukewarm, something you could probably drink straight down without burning yourself. Take another healthy pinch of
tea, and pour this water over that, letting it sit a good five minutes. And taste and compare.
The tea made with just-boiled water will taste like tea, but it will be a bit thin, and lacking ...
something. The team made with the cooler water will exude depth, breadth, and something hard to put into English. That something is umami. Go back and forth tasting them, and you will know all there is to know
about what umami is. It really is quite easy to identify in this kind of an experiment.
While it is just a word, and by no means indispensable to our enjoyment of sake, the concept of umami can be useful
if only we understand it. It adds to our arsenal of expressive terms for remembering and having fun with sake.
Good Sake To Look
As I am currently on a month-long trip to the US, I have taken some time to look at some sake that is (relatively) readily available here. While availability will vary based on local distribution, all
of the below are at least being exported to the US.
Sougen (Ishikawa Prefecture)
Sougen is a decent-sized brewer, but their local distribution in Ishikawa seems solid enough (and good
for them) that they do not have a huge need to be sold everywhere, the point being I do not come across this sake that often. Not often enough, I dare say. This junmai is very solid and well constructed, a bit
earthy and smoky, but very very polished. It reminds me of a new, gleaming, shining, silent-running truck. It also has the wonderfully charming quality of going well with about any meal I try to pair it with.
Yonetsuru has long, long been a leader in the sake world, one of the first brewers to commit to making ginjo-shu, and going strong ever since. Innovative to
say the least, they keep on the cutting edge while maintaining traditional styles as well. Much of their sake is predictable yet great, yet other products like their F1 daiginjo, deliberately different each
year, and their Kissui, made with a variant of Kame no O rice, are new and envelope-pushing. This ginjo, which comes in 500ml bottles (not 720), is floral and "greeen," balanced and fragrant. That
forest-air touch makes it unique and memorable, and leads to some easy pairings.
Wakatake Onikorishi (Shizuoka)
Junmai Ginjo / Junmai Daiginjo
"Onikoroshi" means "demon slayer,"
and there are many sake around Japan sold under this product name. (Trademark laws were not exactly in their heyday 300 years ago, and in most situations these are grandfathered in to legality). But in the
opinion of most, this is the best. Light, aromatic, dry and fresh, in a "classic Shizuoka style" (if that really exists), the aroma is full of citrus-touched melon. Both a junmai ginjo and a junmai
daiginjo are available. While both are very enjoyable, the junmai daiginjo is well, well worth the few extra dollars.
By the way, originally "Onikoroshi" referred to sake that was so bad it
would kill a demon that drank it. But once upon a time, a kura (not this one, Wakatake) decided to embark on against-the-grain marketing, saying their sake was so damn GOOD it would kill a demon that drank it.
Having said that, most sake sold under this name is actually quite cheap, very dry sake, and hardly premium.
>From the seventh largest brewer in Japan, from the
heart of Nada, where one third of all the sake in the universe is made, comes this excellent example of traditional sake styles. Solid, tight, with a slightly tart acidity and a reigned-in aroma, Kikumasamune is
enjoyable chilled, but at room temperature it opens up even more. This is a great reminder of how important it is to "drink the sake, not the label." It is all too easy to write off the large brewers
without really, really tasting their sake.
Sake from Tokyo? Well, yes, or at least as far as governmental jurisdiction is concerned. Actually about an hour west of
downtown in a lush, green valley, sits Sawanoi, with water so good it makes for bragging rights, and a character laden sake. Slightly floral, not overly ostentatious, and very consistent and identifiable in its
style. A gentle mineral touch seems to hover in the background, with some mossy herbal tones as well.
Tsukasa Botan "Senchu Hassaku" (Kochi)
>From Kochi, where they are not
shy about their fondness of sake, comes a classically bone dry sake that maintains some meat on those bones. A citric-clean aroma leads to a very dry flavor, but with a good viscosity and weight that makes it
wonderful for casual sipping among friends, and great with little nibbles and such.
Hitorimusume "Sayaka" (Ibaragi)
A very unique sake, made with a unique process that
differs slightly from most sake, leading to a very, very dry flavor with a piercing acidity on top of that. While this "laser beam" quality might be a bit much for some, it is surely worth trying and
knowing about as a style. Also, its palate-cleansing abilities are second to none, for sure, and will compliment an oily fish dish or something similar quite well.
Sake Events and Announcements
"Sake Course for Average Folks" by Matsuzaki Haruo
On Friday, July 23, from 7:00 at
Shin-Romantei in Tokyo, famed sake critic will hold his 65th Sake Course for Average Folks seminar. The topic will be "kioke jikomi," or sake brewing in wooden tanks. A couple of brewers have started
to brew isolated batches in wooden tanks, with interesting results. A lecture will be followed by a tasting and party. For more information, and a reservation, email John Gauntner.
Advanced Info: Sake
Event at Japan Society, New York City, Tuesday September 28
On the evening of Tuesday, September 28, 2004, there will be a lecture by John Gauntner followed by a tasting, with sake poured by the brewers
of The Sake Export Association, at the Japan Society in New York. While I did not think that this had been officially announced, the word seems to be out to some degree. Please check with the Japan Society of
New York for details. The presentation, which does not have a formal name yet, will be about sake and regionality: a tentative link.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available
for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more
THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake,
more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit
more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of
Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color
photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and
drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan,
Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO HANASHI, published by Shogakkan
This anecdotal read describes aspects
of the sake world from a foreigner's point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to
the subject. Written in Japanese.
Also worth searching for:
-SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider's Guide
(Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic
notes and good peripheral information.
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must
check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at firstname.lastname@example.org. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by
enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is
generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a
Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H.
Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in
Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: email@example.com, and see their site
To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word "subscribe" without the quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org . To unsubscribe, send the word
"unsubscribe", without the quotes, to email@example.com. For a list of other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions related
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All material Copyright 2004, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
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