Snow Goddess

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Japanese scientists are champions at crossbreeding. This applies to many fruits and vegetable available from the shelves of Japanese grocery stores… as well as cereals such as rice.

There are about 260 rice varietals in Japan, out of which a hundred are specifically cultivated for sake brewing. No need to learn the exact number, it will have changed the next time you need it. The three varietals most widely used in sake brewing today (Yamada Nishiki, Gohyaku Mangoku and Miyama Nishiki) have less than a hundred years of history. The “oldest” one, Yamada Nishiki, was cross-bred in the 1920’s, the “youngest” one, Miyama Nishiki was “labeled” in the 1980’s.

Yamagata Prefecture has a history of developing new Sakamai (i.e. sake rice) strains locally. Famous for its tenderness, and the “ricy” flavours it gives to sake during the fermenation, Dewa Sansan sake rice has become an Ambassador of Yamagata Sakamai. It was cross-bred in the late 19th century by the local agricultural research institute (1885, according to the Tatenokawa brewery).

Recently Yamagata has communicated on the development of sales of brewed from “Yuki Megami” sake rice (雪女神, i.e. “snow goddess”). Yuki Megami can be “safely” polished down to low levels of Semaibuai (a delicate and expensive process) and is therefore aimed at being used for the production of Daiginjo sake. A sake graded “ Daiginjo” or “Junmai Daiginjo” is the produce of rice whose Seimaibuai (residual mass of the rice after polishing) was measured at 50% or less (of initial mass). It should be no surprise that Yamada Nishiki was a happy parent of Yuki Megami. As a matter of fact, most sake bottles competing in the annual national new sake appraisal competition are Daiginjo (or Junmai Daiginjo) brewed from Yamada Nishiki, which has therefore been collecting most trophies over the years.

A high proportion of large Shinpaku in a standard lot characterizes Yuki Megami, like its parent. The Shinpaku is this zone that looks white under the light, at the heart of the grain. The white colour is caused by the diffraction of light, and reveals a complex structure of heavy starch molecules imprisoning void.

Sake brewed from Yuki Megami is not easy to find in Tokyo yet, but I put my hand on a bottle of Kurouzaemon. This very pale yellow daiginjo brewed by Shindo Sake Brewery, located in the plain of Yonezawa, was very pleasant to drink indeed, very well balanced, and offered interesting aromas of ripe banana or quince. Its finish was clean and short.

Will Yuki Megami become the next banner of Yamagata sake? To be followed.

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Sake on the rock(s)

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For those who live in the sake world microcosm in Tokyo, which includes a significant population of foreign aficionados, “sake and music” often has an electronic sound, the sound of sake samurai Richie Hawtin, well known British techno DJ, who is touring the world to give concerts. Richie is a sake “producer” as well, with his “ENTER.Sake” label. The liquid itself comes from some of the exciting young brewers on the contemporary sake scene, and Richie is introducing the drink in nightclubs and festivals where it is not usually seen.

For me, until recently, “sake and rock” was synonymous with Satoshi Kimijima. Mr. Kimijima is a rock musician outside working hours, and one of my favorite sake retailers in Yokohama and Tokyo (Kimijima-ya) … as well as a distinguished wine sommelier and importer.

And there comes Phoenix sake. The French rock band, “pride and joy of Paris”, as a Japanese music magazine was naming them, were in Tokyo last week for a show, 18 years after their first concert in Japan (Hokkaido) … and their first encounter with nihonshu as well.

In-between, quite a few things happened, and not only a few successful music albums and awards. Christian Mazzalai, guitarist, used to live just across Workshop Issé, the Japanese grocery store and experimental restaurant founded by Kuroda san, who passed away last year. Kuroda san was one of the best sake ambassadors in France, a perfect French speaker, and a true poet …. It seems that soon enough the whole band was exploring the world of sake with “Maître Kuroda” (as the band calls him), and through sake and Japanese folk songs, Japanese culture more generally.

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The fruit of this friendship is the Phoenix Sake Project. The first two sake “produced” by the band were released in 2017 … and a few days ago, with the help of their partner Tatenokawa, a 180-year old sake brewery from Yamagata Prefecture. The label is harboring a beautiful rainbow (see picture). I had the opportunity to taste the 2018 version at its launch party at the Trunk hotel in Tokyo on April 25th. It is a fruity Junmai Daiginjo, on the dry side. While the strong impact leaves room to hints of bitterness (quite common for dry sake), it has this amazing capacity of sake to evaporate like pure water as the sake goes through the throat. The Kagami Biraki that took place at Trunk hotel touched me personally. In that ceremony, the band broke the lid of a sake barrel open with hammers. The skirt of the barrel was a direct homage to Mr. Kuroda, who never saw the sake. Interestingly enough, my last conversation with Maître Kuroda was about “Kaze no Mori” and Yoshihiko Yamamoto the young CEO of Yucho Shuzo, whom Kuroda san affectionately called “the bad boy of sake” (my readers know how high I rate Kaze no Mori, and how much I enjoy visiting Yamamoto san). Phoenix sake is most probably sold at Issé in Paris, and can be found in Japan as well … at Kimijimaya of course! (Kimijima san is a partner in the project). I was there the other day to take a picture. The first Phoenix bottle on the left is the Tatenokawa one … and the second Phoenix bottle a “Kaze No Mori” sake, as I should have known! Small world full of coincidences…

 

Sébastien sur France2

C’est avec joie que je partage avec vous le lien vers le petit reportage tourné par une équipe française lors des visites qui ont alimenté mon dernier post Visite de Terrain . Il a été diffusé au cours du journal de 13 heures le 30 avril 2018 sur France 2.

I am happy to share the link to a short story filmed by a French team during my recent visit to Katsuragi (please refer to my Field Visit post). It was on air on 30. April 2018 on France2  (French national TV channel) during the 1PM news program.

 

France_2_(2008).svg  Cliquez ici  (3:46)

 

Field visit

At the heart of the sakura (cherry blossom) season, Sebastien took two French guests and a TV crew with him to Nara Prefecture, for a “field-visit”.

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The visit started at the foot of Mount Kongo in Katsuragi City, in this fertile area between peak and valley (or sea) that Japanese people generically name “Satoyama”. Katsuragi saw the birth of the Japanese civilization as we know it, close to the early capital cities built by self declared “Emperors” … and their burial mounds. Rice has been cultivated in the hills we were in for many centuries, possibly more than a thousand years. Fresh water is flowing all year long from Mount Kongo, and amazingly enough, the calendar-map that sets the rule for farmers to irrigate their fields (defining when and for how many days) has not changed since Edo times. While they enjoy the best views, the fields nearest the peaks are not the easiest to cultivate, quite small, and their crop often fall victim of wild boars’ s appetite. As a result, aging farmers are happy to let someone else take care of such plots. Making the most of them is the challenge Mr. Sugiura has been undertaking for 15 years. A former employee of a large conglomerate constructing dams and bridges, he went the way of a career change to grow rice and vegetable. Sugiura san very early on adopted organic farming, sacrificing time and yield to obtain higher quality produces. About 10 years ago, he started to contract and sell part of his Akitsuho rice crop to Yucho Shuzo, a nearby sake brewery (located in Gose). Akitsuho is a local table rice, which is appropriate for sake brewing as well. A source of pride for Sugiura san, his Akitsuho rice is transformed into excellent “Kaze No Mori”(the commercial brand) sake by Yoshihiko Yamamoto, who took over form his father a few years ago. As a matter of fact the starch content of Sugiura san’s Akitsuho makes it desirable.

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Before visiting Yucho Shuzo though, the small group stopped at Takagamo-jinja, one of the very early Shinto shrines built by powerful families, the Kamo clan here. Visiting a shrine with a properly looked after altar serves as a great reminder of the role of sake in Japanese spirituality. The altar displays the daily offerings to the locally enshrined deity: water (i.e. life), salt (i.e. purity), rice (i.e. abundance) … and sake. Our host, the local priest Suzuka san, was “only” the 86th generation…

At Yucho Shuzo, Yamamoto san took the group through the main stages of sake production and the secrets of Kaze No Mori (literally the “Forest of Wind”; as a matter of fact the deity of wind is enshrined in small sacred shrine erected on the eponymous plateau), followed by a guided tasting. Yamamoto san (the kuramoto i.e. brewery owner)is leading a very young team whose main technician is a young Toji (master brewer) named Kazuma Matsuzawa.

Nara calls itself the birthplace of sake. This took place back in mythical ages. In addition and closer to us, Bodaisen Shoryaku-ji, a Buddhist Temple located about 20 kilometers away from the ancient capital of Japan, Nara, is regarded as the birthplace of “modern sake”, a pasteurized clear beverage brewed from polished rice in several phases, including the preparation of a yeast starter. That took place in the 16th century and the driver for the latest developments in the brewing technology was nothing more than the prospect of selling rice surpluses as a high value product, at a time the Temple needed huge funds to maintain its prestige and protect its precincts. It did eventually loose the political battle … and its splendor. Soon after, sake production progressively became the business of private corporations near Japan’s rice belt Osaka. The few buildings of Shoryaku-ji still standing are now scattered in beautiful nature.

The Future of Sake

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This month (March 2018), I was teaching the “Sake Basic Course” at Le Cordon Bleu Japan. I was responsible for writing the manual in 2016. Because sake is brewed to be paired with food, le Cordon Bleu has a competitive advantage in the field of sake education. The last of the four sake tastings during the day focused on food pairing, with an assorted plate straight from the LCB kitchen.
A little more than an anecdote, the class picture shot by facetious Ai says a lot about the future of sake: young women and foreign foodies coming to Japan for inspiration and training, before heading back to their country and work in the world of gastronomy.

Tasting nb 4 (left) Eau du désir (Junmai Daiginjo, Banjo Jozo, Aichi), Sohomare (Kimoto Tokubetsu Junmai, Sohomare Shuzo, Tochigi), Sempuku (Honjozo, Miyake Honten, Hiroshima), Hanahato (8Y old kijoshu, Enoki Shuzo, Hiroshima)

Tasting nb 3 (right) Kikuhime Tsurunosato (same Yamahai Junmai in 2 versions, pasteurized and unpasteurized, from Kikuhime, Ishikawa) and Azuma Ichi (Junmai Daiginjo, Gochoda Shuzo, Saga) vs. Wataya (Junmai Daiginjo, Kanenoi shuzo, Miyagi)

The smallest Kura in Japan?

 

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Why did Yamauchi Shuzou settle there in the first place, at an altitude of 540 meters, in a narrow valley, quite a distance away from Nakasendo (the old commercial route between Edo and Kyoto through the mountains) or the towns developing at the bottom of feudal castles?

Water is the answer, abundant clean clear water springing behind the Kura.

While the Kura survived over 21 generations, it is now producing a tiny fraction of its capacity: about 20 Koku, i.e. 3,600 liters of sake only, during the coldest months of the year (temperature was 2 degrees Celsius inside the Kura while we were there, on a sunny day outside). It makes them one of the smallest commercial producers in the country, if not the smallest.

The current heir and owner has been operating it with barely any mechanical or electrical equipment, with fellow farmers, for a number of years, when the fields do not require them to work there. As we found out when we arrived, they still use a beautiful Fune press (Fune means vessel (boat)), made of seasoned massive wooden planks. A Fune press is a sort of tub with a hole at the bottom and a lid that can be screwed with a crank over bags filled with Moromi (fermenting mash). It seems the team at Yamauchi Shuzou fills such bags entirely manually.

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A few years ago the Kura received the help of Oga san, sake retailer (no website) in the town of Nakatsugawa (Gifu Prefecture), who heartedly took on the challenge of learning sake brewing, spending time at the sake brewing research center in Hiroshima Prefecture. Because of the fragile health of Mr. Yamauchi, he is now the man in charge. This year he brewed the fist sake tank he was fully responsible for and wanted to hear our judgment, since almost no one had had the privilege of tasting it. While Mr. Yamauchi brews sake from local Hidahomare (a sake rice from Gifu Prefecture), Oga san chose Gohyakumangoku (another sake rice variety, highly popular, where rice grains had been polished to 55% of their initial mass), and produced a clean, very dry Junmai. Faithful to the water used to brew such sake, I would qualify it as easy-to drink, quite masculine, designed to support local flavourful food during a whole meal. The rest of the production is brewed from rice cultivated by the Kuramoto and his aides.

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Oga san suggested we climb the steep ladder to the attic. It was full of ancient tools used at the brewery, a sort of sake history museum without a curator.

I enjoyed the visit very much. Yamuchi shuzou (no website!) is a place where one feels the craftsmanship that sake brewing requires, in the many operations and decisions that the Toji or Kuramoto need to make. As Oga san puts it, there is no cheating. “We produce a single tank of each of our sake each year, we cannot adjust the taste by blending one with another, it is what it is”. And it means sake is different every year as well!

In the short selection of sake from the Higashi Mino region (Nakatsugawa and Ena cities) I had received from my host before making my way to Nakatsugawa, the Tokubetsujunmai from Yamauchi Shuzou had the strongest acidity and fullest body. All were Junmai sake brewed from Hidahomare in Gifu. It had sort of mature flavors as well, which had prompted me to try a pairing with a French blue cheese … then raclette cheese (the bottle standing in the middle). It was a success, and it turned out to be a very good companion for the roast deer fillet we paired it with in Ena (Gifu Prefecture) as well.

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“Chiyo no Matsu”, inspired by the written records of Kofuku-ji monks

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How do you brew sake if rice is not polished, and how does such sake look and taste like?

In the quest for delicate, highly fragrant, almost ethereal Nihonshu, machines and technology are playing an important role, starting with the very first step in sake brewing: rice polishing. Over the last 40 years we have seen a rapid development of the Daiginjo class of sake, a grade requiring rice to be polished 50% or more (Seimaibuai – the residual mass after polishing – needs to be measured at 50% or less).

There even seems to be sort of a competition amongst a few brewers to release products on the market with extremely low Seimaibuai, a statement about their mastery of the polishing and fermentation process, their search for the most refined aromatic sake. When released 10 years ago, Dassai 23 (23 for 23% Seimaibuai, i.e. 77% polished off) was a record for a widely distributed sake, and Asahi Shuzou the company communicated on the delicate process of polishing rice down to that level, without breaking, heating or drying the kernels. Such polishing lasts about 7 days. We have seen sake with lower Seimaibuai numbers since, in particular for the rice used to produce Koji, however such sake are not marketed or sold as broadly as Dassai 23.

At the same time, the pendulum of rice polishing has started to shift back, in my opinion. Economics are in favour of a lower polishing of course (less waste), but I believe the driving force goes beyond economics, and is a new trend: the development of sake expressing a “terroir”, the taste of the local rice. Such Sakamai (sake rice) is more and more often cultivated with environmental friendly processes (Zero or low additions of pesticides and fertilizers). One does not want to polish it too far, and “waste” this valuable raw material.

Some brewers are experiencing with brewing sake from such rice almost whole (unpolished). This leads them to deal with new challenges, although I should write “old” challenges, because in effect, higher Seimaibuai takes us back to the old times: pre-Hiroshima sake (made possible by electrical rice polishing machines, developed by Mr. Satake, in Saijo, Hiroshima Prefecture, from 1896) or even pre-Edo sake (produced with the help of large scale mortars powered by foot or waterwheels, in Nada in particular, the largest sake production in Japan).

Sometimes the sponsors for such “experiences” are not the brewers themselves. Sugimoto san is a well-established sake retailer in Nara city. At Momotaro, he only sells Nara sake and related products.

Leveraging his huge local experience, he worked with Yoshimura Shuzou (Uda, Nara Prefecture) to produce a Nihonshu from rice with a Seimaibuai of 95%, i.e. polished less than the white rice we ordinarily consume as food.

To brew sake from almost whole rice, they found their inspiration in the old records of Kofuku-ji, a major Buddhist temple in Nara city, and more specifically the written recipes for sake brewed at the temple more than 500 years ago.

While the official brand for the product is “Chiyo no Matsu”, the sake is referred to by Sugimoto san as “Sobo no sake”, sake produced by monks (as written on the label).

One difference between sake produced in Nara at Kofuku-ji Temple and the sake that would be produced around Itami and Nishinomiya (the Nada region) in Edo times later, is the number of steps where rice, Koji and water are added to the yeast starter in the tank containing the Moromi (fermenting mash). Most sake brewing has been based on Sandan Jikomi (3 additions over 4 days) since Edo times.

For sake brewed from very roughly polished rice though, three additions are not sufficient to ensure the mash will not yield a sake tasting like “Nuka”, in effect the outside layers of rice kernels, containing fats, minerals and proteins, removed by polishing. Nuka is sort of reddish slightly oily flour, and is used for vegetable pickling (or as animal food). It seems that Kofuku-ji monks had recorded a brewing method with 5 additions of Koji and rice, however Yoshimura Shuzo actually developed a new recipe using 8 successive additions (Hachidan Jikomi). Arguably, monks were probably using relatively small ceramic containers (more control). After the pressing of the Moromi, sake is not filtered with charcoal (Muroka), and not diluted (Genshu).

How does it look and taste like?

As illustrated by the picture, Chiyo no Matsu has a sort of a light amber color, and looks thicker than most sake.

Despite the small size of the tasting glass I was using, appetizing, strong aromas of prune (dried plums) filled my nostrils immediately.

Then as the tongue confirms instantly, Chiyo no Matsu has a relatively high residual sugar content. Its Nihonshudo (sake meter value) actually is minus 29. Nihonshudo measures the density of sake compared to the density of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius; while pure alcohol is lighter than water (and its Nihonshudo is positive), a negative value indicates that sake is heavier than water, indicating the presence of other components, sugar in particular.

While full-body, Chiyo no Matsu does not taste syrupy in the mouth. As a matter of fact a strong acidity kicks in rapidly and plays a balancing role. The acidity (measured as the quantity in g/L of acids, expressed after rebasing masses to succinic acid’s mass) is about 3.1 g/L. It should be compared with an average value for traditional sake well below 2.0, and a value close to 4.0 traditionally for white wines.

Alcohol content is 16%, a number on the lower side for undiluted sake, consistent with the Nihonshudo. The yeast was not able to transform all the sugar before the mash was pressed, before unwanted flavours develop.

This 2017-2018 brewing year (brewing year starts in July), the brewery has been working with Tsuyuhakaze 露葉風, a local Nara sake rice, and Yama no Kami sake yeast (literally “The God of the Mountain”), “resuscitated” from old sake pottery vessels found in archeological excavations at Omiwa Shrine. Located in Sakurai, (Nara Prefecture), Omiwa is said to be the very first Shinto shrine in Japan, and the birthplace of sake. Omiwa is not a building, but a mountain. Every year sake brewers gather there to pray for a good brewing season.

When Chiyo no Matsu is warmed up, it tastes less sweet (the tongue does not as acutely perceive the sweetness at higher temperatures), all the more as the acidity stings even more.

Such sake should be paired with flavorful, savory food.

Overall, Chiyo no Matsu has a good ricy umami, offers a pleasant drinking experience, creates a real surprise … and tells a great story.