Spirit and courage

“ The number one virtue is a spirit of inquiry; then second comes courage”.

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Toji (brewing master) Touichi Takahashi, 73 years old, was the focus of a March 2019 episode of the NHK program “Professional”. His words, inserted as the conclusion of the episode, resonated all the better as I had met Takahashi Toji at Saiya Shuzoten (Saiya brewery) one month before, while visiting Akita for my own education about Yamahai (*) and Kimoto sake. I had been very kindly received and guided by Kuramoto (brewery owner) Kotaro Saito.

Yuki no Bosha (their brand) had always intrigued me. Many of their sake are brewed from a Yamahai yeast starter … but will not hit one’s palate with the typical assertive acidity and often gamy funkiness of most Yamahai sake (which I do not necessarily dislike, depending on drinking circumstances!). Yuki no Bosha sake is tasty, umami rich, offers a pleasant acidity, and is always very well balanced, without any wild side to it. What is the secret of this delicacy?

Plunging into the history and idiosyncrasies of Saiya Shuzoten, I learnt a lot about Takahashi Toji’s spirit of inquiry (“challenge your methods”), dedication to creating the best environment required for brewing (for men and microorganisms), and courage to make changes indeed.

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Sake brewing starts with rice. Yuki no Bosha aims at expressing the taste of “traditional” Akita sake and Akita sake rice. All the rice used at the brewery is cultivated by farmers having contracted with the brewery directly, or brewery workers. Most of it comes from the vicinity of the brewery (Akita is located 500 km North of Tokyo, on the Sea of Japan), and a small proportion comes from Hyogo Prefecture, the land of Yamada Nishiki rice (a bit less than 500 km West of Tokyo). During the summer season, Takahashi san, who cultivates premium celery, regularly tours sake rice fields to inspect the development of the plants, exchanging with farmers about their treatments of the field, with a view to obtain the rice that the brewery wants. For example, all other things being equal, the quantity of fertilizers has a direct impact on the ratio of proteins to starch in the grain. More proteins lead to heavier sake taste and an excess to unwanted flavours.

In October, after rice is harvested, Takahashi san moves to the brewery with his quilt. He spends 6 months in residency there, joined by the team of Kurabito for the season (brewery workers). Although these Kurabito are local people, all live in residency as well. The development of the team spirit for a single mission, the daily exchanges at the end of the working day, are seen as an essential part of the Yuki no Bosha brewing style and education.

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About atmosphere, smiling Takahashi Toji is adamant that the yeast and Koji mold “watch the face” of the Kurabito. “If people are not happy in their heart when brewing sake, this will show in the taste of sake”. Recent renovation work in the eleven classified brewery buildings led to the opening of a large skylight in the roof of the broad, high ceiling modern room where rice is washed (4 times!), soaked and steamed, cooled down and inoculated with the Koji Kin (Koji mold spores). On a sunny day like the day of my visit, such luminosity made quite a difference, on people’s spirits, and technically, when it comes to inspecting the rice at all stages. Since that same renovation work, workers can enjoy individual rooms at the brewery, rather than a futon in a dormitory.

Talking about environment further, in the early 90s, Takashi san started to break the vicious circle of the regular use of chemical cleaning disinfectants to control the microbiological population living in the Kura, with a view to create a stable equilibrium. No more chemicals. Effectively spotlessly clean Saiya Shuzoten (as far as my eyes could judge) became the first organic sake brewery in Japan, although they do not seem interested in the certification for the sake of it. This was all the more interesting to me as it looked sort of counter intuitive when I was reflecting on their “clean” Yamahai: was it the result of the systematic eradication of unwanted microbes?

Unlike Takahashi san who joined the brewery 34 years ago after working in Aomori, Kurabito hired by Saiya Shuzoten in recent years must have no education in fermentation, no experience in another Kura, and are “prohibited” from bringing in books or technical information about sake brewing. “They have to learn fermentation and sake brewing with their 5 senses, and not let their mind get influenced by other external information” explained Saito san in essence. Indeed, challenging the conventions, breaking with tradition, Takahashi san was a pioneer in a new brewing style, after he joined the brewery received the trust of Saito san’s own father. Over a few years he stopped the use of pole ramming altogether (agitating and mixing the Moto (yeast starter) and the Moromi (main fermentation mash)), demonstrating that this process was actually not required by the yeast … and getting rid of a piece of hard labour for Kurabito. This style, when applied to the whole brewing process can be labelled Yamahai as well (**).

While the brewery received a first gold medal at the Kanpyokai (National New Sake Appraisal Competition) for that new sake style, sales did not increase as a consequence, pushing the management team into further introspection. That is when Takashahi san, with the support of his employer, decided to retire some of the brand new, automated, expensive thermo-controlled brewing tanks, and come back to much simpler steel tanks with a ceramic layer. Sake the following year made Takahashi Toji’s heart happy, and this bold move marked the beginning of stronger commercial success for the brewery, according to the management. As Takahashi explains in the NHK footage, an optimal fermentation across the tank does not necessarily mean that the output will be the “best” sake. It takes away the complex alchemy in the taste of a less uniform Moromi at the time of pressing.

Soon after he arrived, Takahashi san started to select yeast from the best tanks and cultivate it. The treasure chest of the brewery is a freezer (-85degrees Celsius), where a dozen of strains of such yeast are stored for the future usage of the sole brewery, contributing to Yuki no Bosha’s unique aromas and taste. Do I need to add that Saiya Shuzoten was the first brewery in Akita, and one of the very few beyond the Prefecture’s border, to stop buying yeast from the market altogether? When preparing a new flask filled with a blend of awakened yeast, he thinks of the small cells as children. As he puts it, he is not producing sake, he is raising it, “it” being effectively the living yeast solution, Moto then Moromi.

While driving the fermentation with his 5 senses rather than curves and charts, Takahashi san does not refuse technology … especially if it can contribute to lightening the burden on the shoulders of the Kurabito, without compromising with taste. I was surprised to find a big Koji making machine in the Koji Muro (Koji room). That particular piece of equipment monitors and controls humidity and temperature precisely during the 48-hour mold development phase. When the time of brewing Daiginjo sake comes (the most expensive sake in the brewery line-up), Takahashi san actually sleeps in the Koji room to be able to monitor Koji close to his senses. When on the second day temperature rises above 38 degrees showing strong mold activity, it is usually time to mix the rice and expose a larger surface to air to control growth. These steps are called Nakashigoto then Shimaishigoto, taking place in the middle of the night. Coincidently, on the day when the NHK crew was at the brewery, things did not go as expected. Temperature did not rise as expected, a sign of slow mold development. It was fascinating to see stressed Takahashi Toji look after the Koji as he would take care of a feverish child. He eventually decides to cancel the Shimaishigoto … for the first time in his 50 years career! The following morning though, he gives a high rating to the finished Koji. Has he found a new way to make Koji, let me re-phrase, to raise Koji mold, with less human interference, lightening the burden on Kurabito further?

Sakaya Banryu! There are 10,000 ways to brew sake, and Yuki no Bosha is only one of them, but Takahashi san is responsible for sort of a revolution and became an influential person.

In the NHK episode, he explains that from his early years, he has been inspired by his child memory of tasting the Doboroku (rough homebrew sake) prepared by his grandfather and has been looking for the emotions associated with it ever since. I do not know if he feels he has reached that goal, but I can only say that I wish I had had an opportunity to meet the grandfather who inspired such an amazing person…and taste his Doburoku.

(*) Shubo or Moto prepared in the Yamahai method: sort of a natural, slow way to let yeast propagate and multiply in a small tank filled with Koji, rice and water. Over four weeks or more, a number of other micro-organisms (nitric acid bacteria and lactic acid bacteria, wild yeast) have time to trigger various fermentation and biochemical processes contributing to the flavor profile of Yamahai sake. The main difference with Kimoto Shubo is the absence of pole ramming, crushing the rice in the water.

(**) Yamahai is a contraction of “Yamaoroshi no Haishi”, literally abolition of Pole Ramming

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Soul brothers

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How much in common can a Swiss winemaker based in Basel and a Japanese kuramoto  from Kamogata have? “Soul brothers! We share the same vision about our respective products, the same philosophy about our raw material and its cultivation” said Valentin Schiess. Soon this soul will have an avatar, since the former aims at brewing sake in Switzerland with the help of the latter.

As our latest podcast on Sake On Air discusses, 2018 was rich with new projects for sake brewing overseas…and in Japan. There may be about 40 “craft” brewery projects outside Japan now, not counting the further development of new private brands.

Following the 1945 defeat, Japan went through a drastic land reform inspired by the US administration, depriving corporations of their arable land. It offered the hope of a future for millions of people involved in farming and/or coming back from the frontlines, but created a major shock in the rice procurement of sake breweries, forced to relinquish control of how rice is grown (and what rice), and buy their raw material from a State owned cooperative. What a distance with most European wine makers!

Progressively in more recent times though, practices such as contracting with farmers directly, renting farm land and now even owning farm land, were made possible again for sake breweries.

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Marumoto san, the 6thgeneration head of Marumoto Shuzou, who describes himself as a rice farmer, started rice cultivation in 1987 (one of the pioneers amongst brewery owners), then went all the way to producing organic rice in the immediate vicinity of his beautiful kura, situated in the hills of Okayama Prefecture. He was one of the earliest ones (the first one amongst sake brewers) to receive an Organic Certification in 2009, followed by the certification of his sake for the European and U.S. markets. To be fair, certified organic rice only represents about 10% of his input, he explained, “far sufficient!”. This represents “a lot of work ….” (cultivation, monitoring at all stages to keep the certification).

Marumoto san believes in the benefits of the climate at the foot of Mount Chikurinji for their Yamada Nishiki. It must be special, since Chikurinji was chosen as the best place for astronomical observation in Japan. At the same time, the area is exposed to storms and bad weather. The proof came last summer, with the dramatic flooding in the Okayama, Kurashiki  & Hiroshima regions. About 1Ha of the fields Marumoto Shuzou cultivates ended up under water like their neighbors’. The damage to the fields was limited, but Marumoto san has lost his organic label for rice for one full year (field contamination through water). He will then get it back in absence of further contamination. Note that in general, rice farmers turning organic need to be patient 3 full years.

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Meanwhile Valentin Schiess, who had studied oenology and wine making in the 80’s at some early adopters of natural methods, had left his job to follow his passion in 2006: growing vine with biodynamic principles on the few parcels of land he could put his hand on in prestigious “Bunder Herrshaft” (Eastern Switzerland). He owns about 1 Ha. Since 2013, he has been making wine from their grape in his boutique winery in the urban center of Basel (Vinigma brand) and progressively ramping production up, renting a further 1.2 Ha of vineyard, and collaborating with more producers, reaching about 30,000 bottles under his Vinigma brand.  His raw material is cultivated with natural methods “whenever possible”.

Valentin Schiess had been nurturing a connection with Japan. An interesting anecdote is the story of his grand-parents who lived in pre-war Japan (his grand-father was a priest and researched Zen), bringing back memorabilia and familiar language expressions such as “Ah Sodesuka!” used in their daily life.

At a sake event in Europe in 2017, trained wine sommelier in charge of sales Madoka Haga (from Japan) got in touch with Matsuzaki san, on the forefront of the export of sake culture, member of our Sake2020 sake promotion NPO, and less than 2 years ago, here are we, gathered in Tokyo for a tasting of the highly enjoyable products made by both partners-to-be: red Jeninser 2015 made from Gamaret dried in fresh air for a few weeks, white Apriori 2017 from Humagne Blanche and Petite Arvine, two very old cepages in Valais on the one hand, Chikurin Karoyaka Junmaidaiginjo from Yamada Nishiki, stored and aged up to 3 years at -5 degrees, and Chikurin Karoyaka Organic sake on the other hand.

A ski accident prevented the partnership to take a more concrete form this year, but I will be following its development. I have always found exchanges between wine and sake specialists enriching. In addition, I will seize any opportunity to get close to the gorgeous landscapes these companies can offer their visitors as well…

Tasting in progress …

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Tasting starts with the election of the beverage, and the friends to drink it with. That is usually what requires most anticipation.
Then follows the choice of the drinkware, an empty skull, a pewter tankard, a delicate Bohemian glass, a makie cup (lacquered with motifs drawn in gold powder)….
As a matter of fact, every vessel starts stimulating one’s senses in its own way: weight, temperature, color, odor (for wooden cups), contact with the palm of the hand or the fingers.
The beverage is poured, and one focuses its attention on the interaction between the liquid and the vessel: bubbles, tears, legs, color, transparency, temperature…
Comes the time to bring the vessel closer to the nose and check the aromas, the orthonasal evaluation: the vessel’s shape dictates if it can be shaken, put in rotation … or not, as well as the selection of esters and other aromatic compounds that will be captured and stay, for a while, above one’s detection level.
Soon enough the mouth wishes to have its own experience. To get the beverage to the tongue and palate, does one need to lift the chin? What sort of shape do the lips need to take, small purse, or relaxed like a large smile? Where on the tongue is the liquid hitting the sensitive buds first?
From that point, the process is common to all vessels, performed with more or less intensity: oxygenating the drink while spreading it through the mouth, swallowing, judging the flavors through the back of the throat (the “retronasal” evaluation), appreciating the aromatic length  … or the vanishing of the flavours like pure clean water…

In the world of premium wines, extensive research has taken place, aiming at selecting the shape of the tasting vessel that arguably enhances the idiosyncrasies of each terroir best … to the point where one feels guilty about not using the proper vessel and not bringing the wine to the “right” temperature. With few exceptions, such vessel is a tulip shaped transparent glass with a stem, and the host will know what is required. Who will dare experiencing something else?

In contrast, but without opposing them totally, the sake culture still encourages the amateur to follow his/her mood, intuition or experience, and select the vessel within a large range of possibilities, including wine glasses, whose shape is definitely fit for the most aromatic sakes.
Indeed part of the fun starts with being charmed and hesitant like a bee in front of a colorful flower bed, taking different drinking vessels in hand, weighing them, hearing their stories and origins, before the bottle is presented.

There I was, drinking with Akiko S. at the 2018 autumn sake flea market in Tokyo, where Tada san, a kanzakeshi (warm sake “sommelier”), had teamed up with an upmarket antiques business to offer a unique tasting experience to their patrons: a cup of warm sake in a truly old sake vessel. I felt excited already choosing my favorite one, holding the venerable pieces in hand, with the perspective of using one of them soon. Akiko selected a small, smooth ko-imari cup with blue glaze under cover (“sometsuke”), i.e. an early imari porcelain ware from the Arita region in Kyushu Island. I selected a 2,500 years old Chinese earthenware cup. Tada san poured a Junmai Ginjo sake from Masu Izumi in Toyama Prefecture, warmed to Atsukan temperature (40~45 degrees). At this temperature, this ginjoshu tastes dry and reveals a strong umami making me salivating.

I was however not prepared to the surprise of experiencing how the same sake tasted different in the 2 vessels. It tasted distinctively sharper in the imari porcelain ware, rounder and deeper in the rougher ceramic cup: two expressions of the same sake.

I won’t be able to repeat the experience with these two precious cups which I resisted buying, however this Junmai Ginjo from Masu Izumi is readily available (I even saw some in France actually), at a very reasonable price. Why not try on your own?

 

Sound waves

Sound waves

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(photo from an exhibition pamphlet at The Hangar)
海中熟成酒 (Kaichujukuseishu) designates sake matured in sea waters. Have you had the dream of digging out a port wine jar or sherry bottle covered by crustaceans, from an old Portuguese or British shipwreck while scuba diving near Nagasaki? Slowly evolving temperate temperatures, water pressure, as well as the movements of seawater activated by weather, tides and/or currents, create a very specific environment. Have you asked yourself what a nihonshu left a few years on the seabed would taste like? It is actually possible to find out. Kaichujukuseishu is available in Japan. Inspired by Ueno san, owner of Shusaron, a Shinagawa bar and business specializing in aged sake, a few sake breweries have over the last few years been filling a large crate with thousands of nihonshu bottles, immersed and anchored 15 meters below surface in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the Izu Peninsula.

Amongst the kura I often refer to, have participated brands such as Daruma Masamune (Tochigi), Kidoizumi (Chiba), Izumibashi (Kanagawa), Kakurei (Niigata) …

墨流し“Suminagashi” (floating ink) is a traditional art, a process of marbling plain paper with water and ink. According to specialized sites, the art originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, and has developed in Japan since the 12thcentury. A number of different techniques are employed to create the movement, and Japanese artists have been using the energies of nature, a breath of air or the flow of water. Shingo Nakai was recently exhibiting his works at The Hangar Gallery, one of my favourite places in Naka-Meguro, not only for its great sake and shuki (sake vessels). Shingo Nakai lives with his time, and has been experiencing with sounds and noises, to produce ripples or waves.

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What is the relationship between the two concepts? Someone had to build one, and that someone is Yoshiaki Soma, owner of The Hangar, designer, tireless geek and amazing artist in fermentation matters.

There I was, visiting the exhibition, when he served the featured 2 glasses of sake, brewed by Sato san at Aramasa. The difference between them? One of the two bottles had been “aged” in a bucket of water agitated by sound waves for 2 weeks in Soma san’s bathroom (during daytime!). Not only do I love the story and Soma san’s imagination, but the sake was excellent, and my palate, hopefully not too much influenced by the story itself, was able to identify a subtle difference between the two beverages. The one “aged” in water tasted mellower and rounder, expressed more flavours … which is what people generally say about Kaichujukuseishu.

Foreign converts

I recently took part in a sake tasting event for 9 independent craft breweries across the globe, organized by Iida Group of Companies.

I have quite a bit of admiration for those who challenge themselves to start brewing good sake in their hometown, and put it on the market. They definitely play a role in the spreading of sake culture across the world, educating customers.

That is probably why most receive support from Japan, Iida Group, breweries, independent consultants etc. Because sake is part of an “ecosystem”, they need to engage with farmers in their country (or region), so that they grow local rice cultivars for them, or Japanese cultivars using Japanese seeds. The import of rice harvested in Japan is not a long term solution.

I had seldom experienced such a diversity in flavors at a sake tasting event focused on so few references. This made the exercise quite interesting. I cannot say that I loved them all, however I did identify my favorites, brewed by Sequoia, YK3 and Seda Liquida.

Gambare! Don’t give up!

Part of Iida Group of companies, Shinnakano KK is one of the leaders in rice polishing technology. Outside Japan’s frontiers, they set up a mill in the US and have been supplying good polished rice to US sake breweries for about 20 years. Naturally they are following the development of new sake brewery projects across the globe with interest, and supporting such projects with their sister companies when relevant. Here follows their selection this time.

 

flag-for-canada_1f1e8-1f1e6 YK3 (b. 2013) is a Canadian brewery owned and managed by a Japanese team (Kuramoto [owner] Yuki Kobayashi & Yoshihiro Kawamura, Toji [master brewer] Yoshiaki Kasugai, 3xY.K.). They are located near Vancouver, which I associate with Nature and pristine water. Yoshiake Kasugai has a long experience brewing sake in Japan.  Three products brewed from Californian Calrose rice were presented, including a 2010 vintage (all Seimaibuai 70%).

flag-for-canada_1f1e8-1f1e6 On the other side of the country, Ontario Spring Water Sake (b. 2010) is owned by former financier Ken Valvur. Greg Newton is the Toji. Their three sake branded Izumi (“Water spring”) were brewed from the same Calrose rice (Seimaibuai 70%). They initially received support from Miyasaka san and his brewery (Masumi brand in Nagano), which I regularly visit.

flag-for-united-states_1f1fa-1f1f8 “The oldest sake brewery in Tenessee” is Proper Sake Co. (b. 2016, are there others?). Kuramoto Toji is Byron Stithe. Bryson Aust is co-owner. They use Yamada Nishiki (60% Seimaibuai), presented three Muroka Nama Genshu (unfiltered, unpasteurized, undiluted sake).

flag-for-united-states_1f1fa-1f1f8 From Massachusetts in the US as well, Dovetail Sake (b. 2011, Kuramoto Daniel Krupp, Toji Todd Bellomy) were presenting 2 sake brewed from Yamada Nishiki (Seimaibuai 60%).

flag-for-united-states_1f1fa-1f1f8 Born in California (2014), Sequoia Sake Company is owned by a trio, former IT specialist Jake Murick (who is Toji as well), Noriko Kamei, and Warren Pfahl. They introduced a broad selection of 9 sake, sharing one common “platform”: organic Calrose rice as Kakemai (rice added to the fermentation tank, Seimaibuai 60%) and Yamada Nishiki  as Kojimai (for Koji, Seimaibuai 50%). They seem to like proposing experiences. In particular, there was a Ginjo sake (a bit of alcohol added at the end of fermentation) presented in three parts: one aged in a bourbon barrel, another one in a red wine barrel, a last one in a white wine barrel. It was interesting to compare the flavors unique to each bottle. Vanilla aromas (oak) were present in all. I liked the bourbon one, which tasted like a mature sake (chocolate and somewhat smoky flavors), and the white wine one (flavor of coconut and citrus), much less the red wine one (tanins?).

flag-for-new-zealand_1f1f3-1f1ff New Zealand Sake Brewers (b. 2015) is owned by Kuramoto Toji and former Japan resident David Joll, as well as Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall. They use a diversity of rice (Gohyaku Mangoku, Yamada Nishiki, Calrose, Sasanishiki). “Zenkuro” is their brand. It means … “All Black”.

flag-for-spain_1f1ea-1f1f8 In Spain, Antoni Campins started to brew sake in 2015 (Seda Liquida, brand name Kinu no Shizuku). He is currently using Yamada Nishiki (Seimaibuai 50%). I found his sake easy to drink, on the sweet side. I was thus surprised to read about its relatively high Nihonshudo for a “sweet” sake : +7, despite a “standard” alcohol content (15%).

flag-for-united-kingdom_1f1ec-1f1e7 From the UK, Kanpai – London Craft Sake (b. 2016) is managed by Kuramoto Toji Tom Wilson, with his wife Lucy. Tom Wilson experienced sake brewing at a few places in Japan, including Masuda Tokubee Shoten, topic of my last blog entry. He is using Gohyaku Mangoku or Calrose rice (both Seimaibuai 70%).

flag-for-mexico_1f1f2-1f1fd Ultramarino was born in Mexico in 2016, introduced 3 sake branded “Nami” (the wave) brewed from Yamada Nishiki, graded Junmai (Seimaibuai 55%), Junmai Ginjo (Seimaibuai 50%!) and Junmai Daiginjo (Seimaibuai 40%!!).

flag-for-france_1f1eb-1f1f7 As my readers will know, there are other active craft breweries. On this blog I posted about Brasserie Chevalier in France last year.  I am looking forward to their first sake (next winter hopefully?).

 

Nihonshu heart and soul

Do you know where to worship the deity of Apergillus? For those who know Japan well, it should not be a surprise that there is such a Kami in the Shinto pantheon. Indeed the fungus produces miracles, namely enzymes called “amylase” and “protease”, responsible for breaking down starch and protein molecules of cereals into sugars and amino acids. Koji-kin, as it is known in Japan, made good miso, good soy sauce and good sake possible. Potential worshipers are now legions all over the world.

The conditions of the arrival of Koji-kin into Japan are not very well known: imported by Chinese merchants or craftsmen, brought back by traveling Japanese monks? However, these travelers were necessarily going at some point through the Setonaikai (the Seto Inland Sea), between Honshu and Shikoku Islands, on their way to Nara. Kotaishi Jinja (皇太子神社) is a place dedicated to the deity of Koji-kin, and its shrine located near costal waters in Kagawa Prefecture seems to be the main one.

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About 7 kilometers inland from Kotaishi Shrine, industrious former indigo dyer Seizou Kawahito founded a sake brewery 127 years ago (1891), attracted by beautiful underground water near the River Saita. The patriarch had a dream about Japanese cranes landing on the river … a new sake brand was born: Kawatsuru (川鶴, river crane).

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Truly friendly Yuichiro Kawahito, Kuramoto Toji (6thgeneration owner and master brewer), was our host for the July edition of Sake Salon. Looking at old photographs, we could guess that the brewery was a quite large producer from inception to the peak years of sake production in Japan, but now operates on a much smaller scale, with 7 people, allowing Mr. Kawahito and his crew to truly put their “Heart and Soul” (the name of one of their sake) in their products.

They source their rice from the prefectures facing the Seto Inland sea, and are part of this movement of Kuramoto getting “back” into rice cultivation. They take good care of 3 paddies near the brewery, producing Yamada Nishiki. They buy the rest of their Kagawa rice from 12 farmers under contract, located closer to the mountain.

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Mr. Kawahito came with a selection of 6 sake. I loved the consistency of them all, across rice varietals and grades, the medium acidity and the low bitterness. As intended, they surely are a great match for local gastronomy, tasty white fish swimming the heavy currents of Setonaikai in particular, such as Hamachi (Yellowtail) or Tai (Seabream).

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As a local delicacy, Yuichiro Kawahito had brought some Otaru (firefly squids) dried in the sun.

From right to left, rich “Heart and Soul” was brewed from their own Yamada Nishiki, polished down to 80% Seimaibuai only, to reveal all the flavors of their terroir. Fruity Yellow label is an almost scientific approach to bottling a Genshu (undiluted sake, so as to not dilute aromas) but keep alcohol level below 15%. Junmai Ginjo grade, the sake was born from the same sake rice. Their sake favored by locals bears a blue label. Smooth, it must be highly enjoyable warm as well. This Tokubetsu Junmai sake was produced from a blend of Yamada Nishiki and local Oseto sakamai.

Then came their special products: an Omachi sake (rice from Okayama) with a high seimaibuai of 80% (little aromas, but what a rich taste), and a summer sake (light and refreshing, with a great Kire (ending like water through the throat), bearing the “Taste the Power” name. It was born from Hattan Nishiki, a Hiroshima Sakamai.

Last but not least, we ended the tasting with a Junmai Daiginjo from Omachi rice polished down to 45% Seimaibuai, aromatic and fruity, with a complex flavor profile. This fuller body sake attracted attention at the Kura Master competition in 2017 in Paris.

 

Tradition and Innovation in Fushimi

At last I made it to Mr. Masuda’s Sakagura in Fushimi (Southern part of Kyoto city), and re-united with Guillaume Ozanne, the French Kurabito who came from my homeland in Normandy.

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(picture taken at the Gion Matsuri in July 2017, Mr. Masuda is on the left)

The two large buildings containing the sake production and storage rooms, the offices and the owner’s living quarters, sit on both sides of the narrow road running alongside the Katsura river.

Nature generated quite a bit of stress in recent months: the Osaka earthquake damaged the roof’s structure (perceived intensity of 6 on Richter’s scale in Kyoto), and a few weeks ago heavy rains swelled the Katsura river to threatening levels.

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That road (Toba Tsukurimichi) has a very long history. In Heian times (starting 794 AD), it connected the new Imperial Capital, Kyoto, to the Kii Peninsula and the former capital of Nara already. On the economic front, it then became a vital artery between Kyoto and strategically located Osaka, a city of merchants, the rice storage and trading centre of feudal Japan.

Masuda san’s ancestors used to run an inn for noblemen on the road. In Edo times, it became easier to start new businesses, and a sake brewery was opened next to the inn, in 1675. While sake production in Kyoto became a started and bloomed soon after the city became Imperial, Masuda Tokubee Shoten actually is one of the oldest if not the oldest surviving sake brewery in Fushimi.

One night, a noble man resting at the inn enjoyed the sake brewed from the waters of nearby Kastura River and gave it its poetic name, “Tsuki to Katsura” (Tsuki designates the moon, and Katsura the Japanese Judas tree).

Unlike some of its Fushimi peers, Masuda Tokubee Shoten remained quite small and still very much illustrates what traditional craft sake is about. They mean it!

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Fast-forward to our times, the Kura proved to be a major innovator in the sixties. Keiichi Masuda (Tokubee Masuda’s father) pushed the tax administration hard to be allowed to re-introduce nigori sake (or nigorizake, ie cloudy sake) in the marketplace. He was successful in 1964 and his efforts eventually resulted in an amendment of sake brewing regulations. Today, a metal mesh formed into a long parallelepipedic structure is introduced into the fermentation tank and sake is pumped directly from the space in the middle. In other words while coarse filtering of the Moromi (fermenting mash) is definitely taking place, such Moromi does not go through the standard “filtration” process that involves pressing the mash through a filter.

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Another trademark product of Masuda san is aged sake. Each of the last 52 years, the kura set aside a selection of sake in sealed ceramic jars. I understand that Mr. Masuda, 14thgeneration owner, is currently pondering about the best way to put such a treasure on the market, allowing sake fans to experience more of his old vintages. We are looking forward to it (if we can afford them !).

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After my visit to the Kura, I ran to an event I was hosting that day in a nearby Ryotei (traditional restaurant). For the sake tasting part, I introduced both the nigorizake (Junmai grade, sparkling, delicate nose of yoghurt and fruity aromas (banana)) and “Yanagi” (Willow Tree), a soft, subtle and flavorful Junmai Ginjo (pear, vegetable aromas) brewed from a blend of Yamada Nishiki and Yume Nishiki Sakamai.