Archive for November 2010

Yamada Nishiki Rice Krispies?

November 25, 2010

At a recent tasting party called “Umai-jan – Junmai-shu” (“Ain’t that junmai-shu tasty?”) a brewer from Kanagawa  (Hashiba-san from Izumibashi) gifted all 250 attendees with a little bag of puffed rice made from Kanagawa Prefecture-grownYamada Nishiki (basically the best variety of sake rice, albeit a ways out of its best growing region) and  bit of a rice called “Wasanbon” from Tokushima. The guy next to me, a retired gov’t taster, went off about how they made it.

“Somehow they heat it up then all of a sudden reduce the pressure… ” he was still yakkin’ away but I had figured it out (and returned to my sipping, albeit politely): they’re basically Rice Krispies. They are a bit sweet too, but I have no idea when enzymes for starch to sugar conversion would have been involved, so I am assuming they added sugar. Another similarity to Rice Krispies.  This may be the most extravagant breakfast cereal ever.

Don’t these guys have, like, sake to brew?


Umami Explained

November 22, 2010

It was long thought that the human tongue can only sense four flavors: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Recently, however, western science is catching up to Eastern intuition in identifying a fifth bona fide flavor: umami.

Unfortunately, umami does not have a simple English translation. It is best described as that aspect of a yummy food or drink that makes you say, “Mm, that’s good. I think I’ll have a bit more of that!” Some examples from the plethora of words that close in on the meaning of umami include: deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, savory, well-rounded… you get the picture.

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.

Sake is often described as having umami, or not having umami. Not surprisingly, it is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle). However, one cannot simply say “the more umami the better.” It is very much a matter or 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. Tasting a wide range of sake help determine your own preferences.

Although it is not what everyone wants, too little umami in any sake will make it taste thin and weary. Yet, too much umami can often correlate to “zatsumi” (off-flavors), or a rough and noisy flavor profile. As in all things sake, balance is best. Other factors, like sweet/dry 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 deeper recesses of flavor and elegant fragrances it was brewed to exude. But nor would it be considered lacking in umami.

What it comes down to is that sturdier stratums of sake, like typical junmai-shu, are more often where good, solid umami-laden sake can be found. But there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake that these guidelines are all generalizations that cannot hold a candle to tasting experience.

If you’d like to learn more, perhaps you would find the Sake Notebook useful. This 14 page .pdf  resource lays out the basics of sake in an easily digestible, very practical format that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, and provides enough education on all things sake to fuel your study, appreciation and enjoyment of sake for years to come.

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The Brewing Process

November 14, 2010

Picture this: It’s early spring, and as the last few cherry blossom petals flutter down, sakagura (sake breweries) everywhere are seeing the light at the end of the brewing season’s tunnel. Soon enough, there will be nothing left to do but wait for the moromi (fermenting concoction) in the tanks to run its course.

At this stage, the sake is still a white, milky mash of sake, yeast, and unfermented rice solids. Before it is ready to drink, the clear sake must be pressed away, separated from the lees of the mash. This process is called shibori, or joso.

This pressing process has been taking place at each brewery since the late fall, as each batch is pressed immediately following its 18 to 35 day ferment. In fact, the timing of this step is of crucial importance in determining the quality of the final product. There are several methods by which this shibori is accomplished.

By far the most common is by machine. The moromi is pumped by hose to something resembling a five-meter accordion, which slowly compresses the solids between mesh screens, sending the fresh-squeezed nihonshu out a hose. Technically known as an assaku-ki, but more often referred as a Yabuta (in honor of the company monopolizing the market), the amount of labor it saves is immense as the process is almost completely automated.

Much sake, however, is still pressed the old way. It’s significantly more labor intensive, but it does arguably lead to better sake.  Some would say that the difference is all but negligible, but the market gets what the market demands.

The moromi is first poured into small cotton bags, which are laid in a large wooden box, on top of which a lid is placed. Known as a fune, the sake is pressed out by cranking the lid down into this box.

Whichever method is used, just-pressed sake, known as shibori-tate, has a charm all its own. The alcohol content is high, about 20 percent, as it has not been “cut” with water yet to bring it down to the usual 16% or so. The flavor is much what you’d expect: young and somewhat brash, and could do with a bit of mellowing.

At this stage in the brewing process, you’ll find it is a fine time to try shiboritate. Most sake shops carry it. Much of what is available at this point is also namazake, or unpasteurized sake. Although it may not present the finely-hewn profile that six months of aging will lend it, nama shiboritate will always impress and please with its liveliness and freshness.

I hope this gave you an inside-view of what the process of brewing sake is all about.  If you’d like to see some stunning visuals of the process, I offer you a 15-minute, gorgeously presented slide-show available for download here: Sake Production Slideshow.



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