When I saw Dave Grohl’s Sound City earlier this year, the first thing I thought of was sake. Really. Let me explain…in 1991, Dave Grohl recorded the album Nevermind with Nirvana at Sound City Studios, which was amongst dilapidated warehouses in San Fernando Valley. But at one point, this studio was responsible for some pretty amazing bands and artists, such as Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty and of course, Nirvana. When it finally closed in 2011, Dave Grohl bought the Neve 8028 analog mixing console from the studio, one of four in the entire world. He loves this recording device and believes that it brought a certain je ne sais quoi to the music it had a hand in creating. It’s a great film so go and watch it, but basically, he talks about how this mixing console was part of an era when artists couldn’t be so easily auto tuned, chopped up and “fixed” to sound so “perfect”. When drummers got too excited playing, they sped up. Singers voices were flat. Sometimes the sound wasn’t balanced. And this all contributed to the “personality” of the music. Not anymore.
When Justin Bieber’s new album “drops”, no one hears him singing flat or sharp. Nor does he speed up when he’s not meant to. He’s auto tuned to death and there’s not a shadow of character in any of the songs. How does this relate to sake? Here it is:
Sake traditionally gets a few additional treatments after it’s done brewing, which in this fun analogy is equivalent to auto tuning a singer. The first one is 加水 (kasui), 割水(wasui) or basically, adding water. When the brewer is done adding rice, water and koji to the tanks in three stages and the sake is finished brewing, the resulting sake can end up anywhere from 18-20 degrees in alcohol, which is then brought down down to a more palatable level.When there is no water added to the final sake, it’s called genshu. It means that the sake is undiluted (*by law, even genshu sake can be diluted by a maximum of 1%). Almost all sake gets diluted to some degree and it’s not necessarily a negative thing by any means. But there are a new batch of young(ish) sake makers who are rethinking this practice. Instead of adding water at the end, they’re adjusting throughout the brewing process. This results in the final sake finishing at a enjoyable 16-17% alcohol percentage (rather than the 20% it usually is), which in turn means not needing the kasui step, or the dilution, or adjustment. Whatever you want to call it. These new era of sake makers believe that adjusting the alcohol at the end not only dilutes the alcohol percentage but also dilutes flavour, and the personality of the sake. Also, by adding water throughout the process, they say that the water is more incorporated and integrated into the sake.
The second is charcoal filtering and again, most breweries do this. It’s a step that takes out any colour that might be in the sake. Clear sake has been associated with purity and the notion is important to the Japanese culture. So brewers use charcoal to filter the colour out, even if it’s only slightly green/gold. The sake it stripped clear to look clean and pure, except unfortunately, it can also be stripped of flavours. Again, like a auto tuned voice or a guitar riff that’s been edited to be perfectly in time. The new sake thinkers are refusing to charcoal filter, challenging the common belief that sake needs to be crystal clear. What’s wrong with a little colour in your glass?
** 2018 update: there are various levels of charcoal filtering that can be utilized. Not all charcoal filtered sakes are devoid of flavour or character but you do tend to see more restrained results. Like a crisp, clean Pilsner, the best versions of charcoal filtered sakes can be balanced, pure and very drinkable.
The third and last is pasteurization. Historically, breweries pasteurize twice. Once before the finished sake goes into tank for aging and then a second time before bottling. Pasteurizing twice stabilizes the sake, ensuring that it doesn’t change or evolve very easily over time. Often, this is done by heating plates or hot water; some sort of heating element is used. This again, some brewers are thinking now, is making the sake boring and lacking character. What they’re doing instead is right after pressing, the sake is immediately bottled. At this point, the bottles are heated to around 65 degrees celsius, brought immediately down in temperature and then bottle cellared for some time. The cellaring/aging time can be anywhere from 6 month to 2 years, depending on who you you’re talking to and what you’re drinking. By bottling right away, they have to pasteurize in bottle immediately. But this ensures that the sake remains juicy, alive and full of life. A little more Stevie Nicks and a little less Kesha.
** 2018 update: technological advancements in shower pasteurizers (shower heads spray the bottles with warm water, then cold water immediately) and other pasteurization machines have evolved greatly in the last few years. This means that the process is much more efficient and gentle and we end with sake that is concentrated and stopped in time. “Flash pasteurization” is the new narrative.
Who are these brewers? There’s a group of them, starting out with brands like Kuheiji, Yamagata Masamune, Jikon, Kozaemon. *full disclosure – these are some of the breweries I represent. But I recommend trying them to see for yourself. Finally, there’s nothing wrong with rocking out to Kesha, Justin Bieber or any of the pop stars. There’s also nothing wrong with sake that has water added, charcoal filtered and pasteurized twice. These can be some of the most well balanced, refined and drinkable sakes out there. Either way, I think it’s important to know what’s going on in the world of sake and how brewers are challenging themselves to be more inventive by challenging the norm to make better sake.