“Southern Beauty”

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The translation of “NanbuBijin” into Southern Beauty may look somewhat misleading for a nihonshu actually brewed in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, located at the Northern tip of Honshu island, a cold and snowy region in winter(*). However, a beauty it is, and an important kura in my sake education. In March 2011, after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, at the time the first sakura flowers were blossoming, the Japanese authorities called for restraint from the population in hanami parties (where and when people gather under the sakura trees in full bloom), as a show of respect for the victims and those mourning. Keisuke Kuji, head of the brewery, uploaded on Youtube an emotionnally moving video, that attracted a lot of attention. From his damaged brewery, he invited people to do the opposite, and party with Tohoku sake to encourage the region and contribute to its renaissance. I truly believe this video did a lot for Tohoku sake, and I met a few people in Tokyo who discovered or re-discovered the product at this occasion.

Nanbubijin is producing a large number of references, allowing the sake learner to compare two or three different bottles where one parameter only differs (rice or yeast, or pasteurization, etc.). John Gauntner has been working with Kuji san for many years to prepare the tastings of his sake teaching courses. Another reason for my respect …

The impressive collection of prizes collected by the Nanbubijin sake on the national or international scene is a sign that the company’s moto “品質一筋” (something like “Resolutely Qualitative Sake”), is not treated lightly.

Last night, during a Sake2020 event, we had the chance to hear from Kuji san and taste his traditional Tokubetsu Junmai (Special Junmai) brewed from the rather confidential (outside Tohoku at least) Gin-otome sake rice. It won the Tokubetsu Junmai prize category as well as the overall sake champion prize at the London held International Wine Challenge competition earlier this year. Despite this award, price in Japan was not moved: you can enjoy an IWC champion sake for JPY 1620 (12 euros) per 720 ml bottle! This sake is smooth to creamy, gentle, mildly aromatic, perfectly balanced and will support many styles of food.

Talking about elegance, we enjoyed a gold prize winner at the National New Sake Competition in Japan this year as well. Gravity is the only force that pulled the sake drops from bags filled with moromi (the fermenting mash) and hung by the neck. Made from highly polished Yamada Nishiki rice (35% seimaibuai, ie 35% of the mass is left after polishing), its fruity aromas gently fill the entire mouth and make a lasting impression. This “shuppinshu” (sake aimed for competition) is of Daiginjo class (a limited amount of alcohol was added at the end of the fermentation process). Maybe because I drink less of that type of sake, I can’t help noticing a slight bitterness as well, which can be associated with the acids produced by the yeast selected for the fermentation process. This invites me to recommend to pair such sake with a delicate dish.

It was fun to compare 3 identical bottles but for the rice used, and to discover an interesting umeshu (plum liquor). Unlike Aragoroshi, the Ume no Yado umeshu with plum puree in suspension that I am often proposing in my tastings, the Nanbubijin umeshu is light and therefore easy to pair. The green plums are left for one week only, in a tank filled with sake brewed from koji only. The whole rice used for brewing (as opposed to 15~25% in general) was inoculated with koji mold (aspergillus oryzae) so as to maximize the saccharification of the starch, allowing the brewer not to add any sweeteners to the blend. Kuji san explained that to the surprise of the workers in the kura the first year, such sake turns a nice pale pink (plums are green!)…

Kuji san is a real showman … and a great technician. He shared his view about some technicalities in the sake brewing process, pressing and pasteurization in particular, convincingly illustrating the impact of both the advances in technology and the evolution in the style of sake, on the process over the last 20 years. Thank you for the lesson.

(*) “Nanbu” (Southern Part) was the name given to the region in feudal Japan

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Summer treat

Kunpu is an early summer breeze bringing aromas of green leaves”…and a beautiful name for the shop/atelier of Sachiko Tsukuda, located in a well preserved residential area, near Sendagi station, not far from Nezu shrine.

Trying Tsukuda san’s pairings of the day between “wagashi” and sake opened new possibilities: fresh, creative, highly seasonal, surprising sweets, paired with a range of nihonshu chosen to highlight the confection’s taste and textures, by their mouthfeel, acidity, aromas and/or aromatic length.

Wagashi, Japanese confectionary, is not limited to anko (azuki [red bean] paste), mochi (pounded rice cake), or rakugan (small solid cake of rice flour and mizuame [starch syrup]). I already wrote about dorayaki (castella wrapping anko) and yokan (azuki hardened with kanten [agar agar]) in the past. While most relations will agree how beautiful wagashi can be for the eyes, I often find it underrated by foreign palates. Is there enough to change one’s mind?

Our treat for the day was composed of:

  • Ukishima lemon cake (rice flour) associated with goya (a bitter Okinawan melon) and a modern junmai sake branded Yamamoto (Shirataki, Akita Prefecture)
  • White yokan with spices (coriander seeds, cardamon …) and berries (cranberry, raisin, …), associated with a sake from Takachiyo (Niigata Prefecture)
  • Kintsuba (wheat flour cake) flavored with grilled sweet corn, paired with a seasonal, light summer junmaiginjo by Daishinshu (Nagano Prefecture)
  • Ukishima associated with gobo root (burdock), paired with a mature, full body sake branded Kirakucho (Shiga Prefecture), aged 10 years in tank at room temperature

The next step is to find four friends willing to experience the full diner course…I ll be back Tsukuda san!

Remedy against nihilism

“Subirats, Catalunya, Spain”. I am not sure the municipality was looking for that publicity, but on 21st August 2017 in the afternoon, the whole world listening to the news saw or heard its name. That is where the driver of the van, which had killed or wounded so many people on the Ramblas in Barcelona a few days earlier, was located and shot by the police. We were there!

“There” is the Penedes wine region. We were not walking exactly the same wineyards luckily, visiting a couple of Houses near Sant Sadurni d’Anoia and Sant Pau d’Ordal. I was really impressed about the warm welcome received at these “domaines” and the organization of the tours. There are some good ideas to take from Spanish wine tourism, and translate into sake tourism.

In Sant Pau, we tasted the beautiful wines of Mr. Josep Maria Albet I Noya, ecologist, and a pioneer in organic wine in Spain (1978!). People thought he was crazy to look for grape quality at the expense of yield, at a time when Spain was known for its cheap reds targeting the European market (Spain joined the EEC in 1986). Mr. Albet searched his region for old local cépages, asking locals about old vine trees forgotten about in their gardens. After performing a number of DNA analysis he ended up with seven “re-discovered” varietals, which he tested before selecting and planting two. We really enjoyed the Marina Rion fresh white wine, balanced and quite complex for an “aperitif” wine. The other cépage is Belat, used for reds. Mr. Albet definitely does not want to do things like others, and trusting his client base would follow him, left the “Cava” appellation whose charter he disagreed with, for his sparkling wines, keeping the traditional production method. What I loved was the choice of new labels for the bottles, butterflies reminding us that insects massively come back to surfaces cultivated organically.

The other house we visited, Llopart, was a pioneer in cava production. It started in 1887. There as well, the same quality for the reception of guests … and beautiful bottles. The production method is similar to a methode champenoise, with local variations and constraints. We were attracted by their “Espumos”, a cava crafted in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the first bottle of Llopart Cava: same blend (Montonega, Xarel-lo and Macabeo, coming from some of the oldest vineyards of the domain, cultivated organically, same method (no sugar added, “brut nature”). The cava was aged for more than 5 years in bottle (“gran reserva”). The beautiful label is a reproduction of the original 1887 one. The bubble is fine, the colour golden, the aromas deep (fruits with aging notes), the taste complex and the aftertaste lingering. Last but not least, we found cave really affordable in terms of price.

I will not forget August 17th, 2017 in Barcelona. I will remember the names of Subirats and Penedes as well, to which I will associate these two nice memories.

Tradition & Innovation

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I owe a lot to Sakurai san at Dassai, since my participation to a Dassai tasting event when there were so few for foreigners in Japan, was a defining moment in the development of my passion for sake… and therefore my life. For the first time, I actually tasted a series of high quality nihonshu from the same brewer, easy to understand, and heard the story behind, the heritage, visualizing the small kura in Yamaguchi embarking on a great challenge: conquer the world.

I certainly see Asahi Shuzou (Dassai) as an innovative kura in the Japanese landscape. It created sort of a disruption, under the inspiration of its leader. In 1999 Sakurai san found out that his toji (master brewer) would not come back the next season. This had started to be an issue in other places as well, as a whole generation of toji (master brewers) was getting past the retirement age, and the economic crisis in sake was not encouraging younger people to join the sector. The job is really hard physically and mentally, Sakurai san decided to take responsibility for production. I understand he was one of the first kuramoto to become kuramoto-toji. Not only did he take over production, but he decided to brew Junmai Daiginjo only, the highest sake grade, mostly from Yamadanishiki sake rice, and he developed what I see as a new production and marketing approach for that premium sake. The production method is quite “systematic”, employees at Asahi Shuzou are precisely repeating all the steps of a very detailed, fully documented production process that includes all the “what if?”. The aim is to get the same sake quality and features in every bottle obviously. That is where all the data accumulated by science about sake brewing, all the charts, can be useful. While most medium size kura (breweries) tend to release a large number of references every year, Sakurai san simplified the line-up to a handful of references only, easily understandable: the rice polishing ratio (seimaibuai) makes the name of the product: 50, 39 … and 23 a few years later, which looked like an amazingly low number when it was announced, back 7 years ago. By the way Dassai reports that it takes about 7 days to polish the rice to 23% seimaibuai. Sakurai san changed the way his sake was marketed in Japan, but the big challenge he decided to take on, is the export market. He created an internship program for international trainees, whom he asked to translate his website and brochures to (I was invited to that tasting by a French student working at Dassai for a few months), and targeted a number of countries including France, which remains a difficult market for nihonshu despite the buzz in Paris. He pushed his sake on the wine lists of a number of high end restaurants, and it was recently announced he would partner with Joel Robuchon for a new restaurant in Paris. I do not know the numbers at all therefore I cannot judge the economics, however I can say that if a Parisian knows a few brands of sake, it is likely that Dassai is one of them, and I am quite sure that it has a positive impact on brand recognition here in Japan. Dassai has introduced a number of other interesting innovations, such as the use of centrifuge machines at the time of pressing the mash (moromi), this internship program for foreign students, or the Kosher certification of the sake, as early as 2011.
Thank you and Kanpai Mr. Sakurai.

Wa – Harmony

“Wa” is one of the key values in the Japanese psyche. One tries to understand and accommodates other stakeholders’ viewpoints, opinions and constraints, so that the group can take action smoothly in an effective way.

This value has clearly been applied in the rural communities since rice cultivation was introduced in Japan. As a matter or fact, not only is teamwork required to transform plains or valleys, forests into paddies, but also rice cultivation itself is a collective effort. All farmers in a valley are sharing the same water irrigating the fields. Such water often comes from higher up in the mountains, and is distributed through an elaborate network of channels.

May was the season of rice planting in Kanto. There is only one rice crop in a year in Japan, with the exception of Okinawa. Around late April, rice seeds (grains) are soaked in water and planted on large trays covered with a thin layer of soil, and left germinating in a nursery (a greenhouse) under the spring sun near the field, until the seedlings reach a height of about 15 cm.

Meanwhile paddies are flooded and plowed. Such seedlings (called “Nae” in Japanese) are then transplanted into the rice paddies, by 2 or 3, in rows and columns forming a grid pattern. The distance between seedlings depends on a number of factors (rice varietal, sunshine, etc.). Most farmers (an aging population) now use tractors for obvious reasons, however there are a number of events organized across the country where teams gather to plant the rice “the old way”.

In all events I have seen in Japan by the way, rows of participants plant in front of them, walking across to the other side of the “virgin” paddy. As a consequence though, one has less visual control about the “quality” of the row he/she creates behind him/her (a possible issue when harvesting with a tractor), and puts his or her feet deep in the mud to ankle or knee, right next to the seedlings he/she just planted.

I understand that in other countries (Vietnam for example), planters mostly walk backwards, planting in front of them, with a better control of the rows, and without stepping on their recent work. At the same time, they place the seedlings in their footsteps, a surface that has become very “uneven”. Old photographs of Japan suggest that the method was used here as well!

By law, sake breweries, like all other companies, were prohibited from cultivating rice after the war, and have therefore naturally been kept at a distance from rice farming for decades, buying from individual farmers’ cooperatives. This created a major difference with the wine culture, where the winemaker often grows his own grapes. The legal system evolved though, breweries are now able to contract with farmers directly, or even cultivate their own rice. Naturally, they got active in producing rice planting events, a great way to connect with clients and fans in harmony, and connect clients and employees alike with the precious raw material: sake rice.

Kidoizumi shuzou (Chiba Prefecture) and their lovely team, one of my very regular destinations close to Tokyo, are renting paddies and planting rice in a beautiful small valley, close to the brewery, for the second year in a row. The day was humid to say the least, and pictures illustrate some steps in the process: washing the soil away from the seedlings’ trays and transplanting. If planting is a hard work, cultivation from there is no less hard … unless one uses chemical fertilizers and other products to control pests and weed. Bad habits are difficult to let go, and that hard work definitely is one of reasons why the development of organic rice in Japan is limited (the farming population gets older …). Another one though gets us back to the collective nature of the sector. Because everyone shares the same water, and paddies are located next to each other, it is quite difficult to convince inspectors that no trace of chemicals can be found in one’s own plot of land unless no-one uses any chemical in the area. We actually worked in a paddy that was the first one receiving water from the water retention pond located just above. It helps but is unlikely to be sufficient. Kidoizumi’s sake rice will therefore not be labeled “organic”, but will in effect be “quasi-organic”. A lot of that “quasi-organic” is called “Shizenmai” (natural rice). I see the use of quasi-organic rice as a big trend in sake brewing, and am looking forward to enjoying Kidoizumi sake from that particular rice next year, brewed in harmony with nature.

 

“Dignity!” (Mr. Stevens)

One of the highlights of my trip to Fukushima Prefecture earlier this month was the visit of the Daishichi sake brewery, together my daughter. Mr. Ohta 10th generation kuramoto (owner) kindly devoted some time to receive us. His aide Mr. Saito assisted him, carrying our belongings, opening and closing doors, supporting our movements throughout the large kura rebuilt between 2001 and 2010. His impeccable service and posture, in the reception rooms of the high-ceiling building faced with red bricks, and furnished with classic Western style elements, reminded me of Mr. Stevens, the hero and narrator of The Remains of the Day(*), played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1993 screen adaptation of the eponymous novel.

Located less than 100 km away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Daishichi and its people went through very difficult times in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake: on the news of radioactive pollution, the staff stopped ventilators and air-conditioning, sealed windows and doors, until expensive protective equipment was installed (air curtains, creating positive pressure inside, special filters, etc.). Then of course the company has had to put in place a series of detection tests of radioactive elements at all stages of production (water, rice, sake). Fortunately the buildings have very thick walls, and all water comes from a well located within the brewery, fed from rain and snow slowly filtering through the slopes of the Adatara volcano, further West. In short, I can say I feel safe with their products.

Ohta san has brought a number of innovations to his sake brewing process over the last few years. It finishes with a new bottling line where sake has minimum contact with air oxygen before the bottle is sealed (the bottle is filled with nitrogen first), and it starts with “superflat” rice polishing, aiming at optimizing the peeling of fats, minerals, vitamins and proteins of the outer layers of the sake rice endosperm. The challenge is to fine-tune the rotation speed of the polishing roller, and the debit of the rice flow falling down by gravity on such roller, so that the shape of the rice grains (which has a long and a short axis), is respected. Interestingly enough, I understood that Daishichi actually re-sold computer controlled polishing machines to get back to an earlier, much more “manual” version from a previous generation (see picture, source Daishichi). After the polishing itself though, a modern machine using imagery technology checks every bit of raw material that will be used in the brewing process, rejecting unsuitable grains (not ripe, or broken), small stones or dust, etc.

What Daishichi is mostly known for though, is their attachment to the very traditional “Kimoto” method of producing the yeast starter. Taking twice as long a time as the more recent “Sokujo” method (publicized in 1909), and much more labor intensive (see picture, source Daishichi), a kimoto style yeast starter generally leads to a sake with a broader and richer flavor profile, all other things being equal. In particular one may find a few more lactic aromas (as lactic fermentation is left naturally developing prior to alcoholic fermentation in the tank), a great asset for the pairing with cheese and other fermented foods. It works, really….and I am looking forward to the result of the recent introduction of tanks made of wood in the process.

As my readers will know, I like ancient stories about sake. I enjoyed hearing the story of a very special “cuvee” brewed and bottled for the 1200th anniversary of the founding of Mount Koya (“Koyasan”) and its 100 temples (in 816 in Wakayama Prefecture) by the Grand Master Kukai, whose posthumous name is Kobo-daishi. According to tradition, Kukai’s mother, who was not allowed to enter the site (a woman…), used to prepare sort of a medicine to protect her son’s health, which was related to unfiltered amazake (sweet sake, with no or little alcohol, and lees in suspension). Sanbo-in, a Koyasan temple, is partly dedicated to the soul of this loving mother. Adjacent to the temple is the dense forest of giant cryptomeria sheltering Koyasan’s beautiful necropolis. There rest the lords Niwa in peace, rulers of Nihonmatsu, the city of Daishichi. Hence the “homage”. Nihonmatsu’s castle is represented on the label of this nice bottle of Honjozo Kimoto sake for daily consumption.

(*) the novel was written by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki!

When Yellow meets Gold

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Located in a basin surrounded by relatively high mountains, the town of Saijo in Hiroshima Prefecture enjoys cold temperatures highly suitable for fermentation control during winter, and abundant clean spring water. With its eight breweries nested within a few hundred meters from each other, it is not a surprise that it remains one of Japan’s most important brewing centers …. and a great sake tourism destination. Its emergence on the national sake scene is “only” about a century old though, and occurred after local brewers had developed the necessary skills to brew superior sake from very soft water, which limits yeast’s activity and reproduction in particular. A key contributor was the Satake company, which developed the first power driven “four mortar rice milling machine” in 1898, and is based …. in Saijo of course. I was lucky enough to be able to visit them a couple of years ago. Kamotsuru was the first sake brewer to test such machines and claims it became the first company to sell ginjo and daiginjo sake (polishing ratios of 60% or less and 50% or less respectively, expressed as “seimaibuai”, ie. residual mass of the grain after milling, compared to its initial mass). “Kinpaku” or “Gold leaf”, a daiginjo, is one of their leading products, with an original bottle, and the presence in the sake of two small gold flakes. Asian consumers in particular seem to like this auspicious sake, but I have not had confirmation of how much President Obama liked it, when he was served some by PM Abe during his 2014 visit to Japan. What prompted me to write this article though is not sake today, but the nice “dorayaki“ confection kindly brought to me by Hiroshima Prefecture representatives. The buttery lemon filling between the soft pancakes is highly enjoyable, and makes a nice pairing with the delicate, crisp Gold sake offering rich fruity aromas. The connection lies at another level as well. Called Sakuraya, the shop was founded about a century ago in Saijo, and uses “sake kasu” (sake lees) from local breweries for some of its products. Escalator wit?