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.