Let’s talk about…Kimoto

There are positives to cold, snowy weather. Cute down jackets and ear muffs, making snow angels and snowmen and of course, eating ice cream in the hot tub.

In the sake world, cold, snowy weather also means that you have a natural environment suitable for creating certain types of sake. By utilizing the low temperatures, brewers were able to control fermentation so that bad stuff didn’t happen. As a result, they became famous for their tasty sake that didn’t have bacterial contamination and spoilage. These things are not good for sake, in case that wasn’t clear.

In warm climates on the other hand, brewing techniques developed that allowed for clean fermentation despite the challenges that a hotter environment bring. Using warmer temperatures for shorter amounts of time when making the yeast starter created less risk and a cleaner sake.

Many regions within Japan are fondly known as “Yuki Guni”, which translates to Snow Country. These are places where there are lots of snow (duh), usually the warm, fluffy kind, and the locals have adapted to this landscape. In the case of Akita, where Taiheizan is located, many local breweries have taken this backdrop and welcomed it with open arms. Akita style Kimoto sakes were born out of this climate.

A traditional style that developed in the 1600s, Kimoto sakes are made with a yeast starter that don’t have lactic acid added. With most modern sakes, lactic acid is mixed into the starter and the pH drops, which is a safe environment to add sake yeast. Other weird stuff doesn’t get into the mix, making sure that the rest of the fermentation goes smoothly. Before brewers realized all of this and lactic acid was a thing of mystic powers, lactic bacteria in the air had to create lactic acid naturally in the yeast starter. This takes time and in unlucky instances, stuff happened in the mash that messed things up.

Cold snowy weather to the rescue! In places like Akita where the winters are pretty solidly cold, low temperatures keeps a lot of the wild bacterias and yeasts in check, even for Kimoto sakes. The result in a clean fermentation and you get sake. Ta-da.

Akita style Kimoto is also a little different from other Kimoto methods and Taiheizan Brewery was instrumental in spreading these techniques. Kodama san, the brewery president, as well as the Akita Prefectural Sake Association president, tells me proudly that his forefathers taught many brewers in his region.

A key difference in Akita style Kimoto is that while Kimoto yeast starters often used smaller wooden vats called hangiri to physically mash the rice with wooden poles, Akita style puts everything into one place. Because all the ingredients are in the tank at once, the rice soaks up all the water, making the mash very hard. No wooden pole is going to be able to get through it so electric “drills” are used instead.

Kimoto also uses less water because wild organisms love water so limiting the amount makes it safer and cleaner. But this again means a harder consistency…tough times for brewers!

So what do these taste like? Kimoto sakes can be clean as a whistle, aromatic and pretty or downright funky. It all depends on what the brewery is trying to do with this method. It’s not the how but the intention that dictates what we get as a final result.

So next time you pick up a bottle of Kimoto sake, make sure you take the time to think about how much work and effort went into the bottle. Or better yet, just drink it and have a good time.

What About Sparkling Sake?

 

My inclination to be sassy makes me want to say “What about sparkling sake?” when someone asks me this question.

Of course, I only say it in my head so I don’t become a social recluse but it comes from my frustration with the category, where the sakes can be fresh and beautiful, made with integrity, or strange and disjointed.

All too often, sparkling sake seems too much like a gimmick, where someone pondering the age old issue of “how do we get young people to drink sake?” came out of it the other end with an answer for a pop-drinking, sparkling water loving generation and culture that they weren’t part of. There’s also the notion that the export market will like sparkling sake and use it as a gateway to more serious sake. Not trying to be a Debbie-Downer. I promise.

Quite simply, when a consumer picks up a bottle of sparkling sake, it’s a game of chance.

To counter this perception and lack of consensus in the marketplace, the Japan Awasake Association was formed, who’s mission is to share knowledge and information between brewers making sparkling sake to improve quality and to set a standard for the category. The aim is to place sparkling sake amongst the top sparkling beverages of the world and promote it’s versatility in the marketplace. The association has also created a set of standards that producers must follow in order for the sparkling sake to be certified “Awasake” by the association.

**“Awa” means bubbles, so Awasake is in reference to sparkling sake.**

Awasake designation (from www.awasake.or.jp):

There are 6 requirements that must be met for a sparkling sake to be designated as a Awasake by the association:

1) The only allowable ingredients are rice, rice koji, water.

2) Awa sake must only use domestic rice and must be classified as above “grade 3” quality by agricultural testing. (this is done by the agricultural boards)

3) The bubbles must be from natural carbonation (traditional method)

4) Visually, the sake should be clear and the bubbles after the sake is poured into a glass should be consistent and persistent.

5) The alcohol must be over 10% abv

6) The pressure when the sake is at 20 degrees celsius should be 2.5 bars.

Additionally, the quality should remain consistent for 3 months at room temperature. It must also be pasteurized.

These sakes will have official Awasake stickers on the bottles, making it easier for identification.

I think this standardization is a great step in the right direction for the sparking sake category because it gives clarity to a consumer as to what goes into a certified Awasake. However, I also think there are sparkling sakes that will never be certified Awasake that are fun, easy and can be enjoyed without thinking about it too much.

Here are a couple of great sparkling sakes that don’t have Awasake certification for separate reasons. For the Mizubasho Pure, it’s now certified but as this association is brand new (2016), what’s currently in the market is pre-certification.

Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori – a slightly cloudy sake that has notes of honeydew, Asian pears and tropical fruits. It’s been carbonated so although it will never be a certified Awasake. Nonetheless, a delicious sparkling sake with lots of potential for pairing potential.

 

 

 

 

 

Mizubasho Pure – Nagai brewery was one of the frontiers in making a traditional method sparkling sake. They researched for years how to utilize Champagne techniques in a sake context and was instrumental in forming this association. The Pure is clean with precise bubbles and a great mouthfeel.

Hanami – Drinking Ideas

If you’re in Japan in the Spring, there are a few things you should be doing. First, there are the cherry blossoms. Everyone talks about them because they’re like nothing you’ve seen before and you should go see them. Better yet, have a picnic under the blooming trees because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. You can even drink under the trees so there will be people getting horribly drunk. Don’t be one of those.

The second thing you have to do is to have fresh sake. In the spring time breweries are busy pressing their first batches of fresh, juicy nama (unpasteurized) sakes. The first tanks of the season are started around November and they’re ready to press by this time of the year. In Canada, we’re lucky to have three sake producers who all bottle nama sakes so that we can have them all year round. There are also a few available from Japanese breweries that are shipped in specifically for this occasion, so make sure to keep your eyes open for them! They’re only available for a few months.

Lucky for you, you don’t have to choose between the two because you can actually do them together at a hanami. “Hanami 花見” translates to looking at the flowers and it’s a tradition to eat and drink under the trees with friends, family or fellow colleagues. Whether it’s a homemade bento box or a few snacks from the convenience store, make sure you have some beer, sake or maybe even some bubbles.

Unfortunately in Canada, we’re not allowed to drink outside (legally). But I’ve picked a few of my favourites to have under the cherry blossoms in High Park in Toronto or Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver. A blanket in your living room does the trick too!

Amabuki Strawberry Yeast – from Shiga prefecture in southern Japan, this brewery specializes in using yeast from flowers to brew sake. Are you one of those people not really using their university degree? Sotaro Kinotshita, the president of the brewery, did his degree in sake brewing and his research topic was using yeasts derived from plants, which is precisely what he started doing after he took over with his brother. Pretty, light and juicy, with a soft acidity and freshness that’s unmistakably nama.

Kozaemon Sakura Sake – very lightly cloudy, this roughly filtered sake looks like white sakura petals are falling from the trees. It’s a seasonal sake and is shipped to Vancouver only once a year. Don’t be fooled by the Gokyakumangoku rice, usually known for making sake on the leaner side. Nakashima Brewery’s signature style is bold and personality driven. Never a shy sake! (by allocation)

Somdinou Blanc Jove – made with mostly white Grenache and a splash of Macabeu. Textured, fresh and full of acidity, this wine from the Terra Alta region in Spain is perfect with ceviche, BC spot prawns (if you can wait that long) or some traditional chirashi sushi, which looks more like vinegar rice salad with lots of bright colours.

2005 Hubert Paulet Rosé (Champagne)– I know, I know, it’s a little predictable, rose Champagne and cherry blossoms. But it’s delicious and serious (and seriously delicious) and you need to find yourself a place to pour this lovely Pinot Meunier rose from Rilly-la-Montagne into a red solo cup and maybe some siu mai dumplings and bbq duck for the perfect picnic.

WSET Sake Level 1 in Canada!

It’s finally here! Earlier last year, WSET launched the Level 3 Award in Sake and while level 1 was available in test markets in London and the US since this summer, it’s just made it to Canada. I’m teaching it in Vancouver and Toronto in the next couple of months. If you’re in or close to either city, it’s a terrific introduction or review into the beautiful world of sake! Because it’s me, I’ll be covering food pairings with REAL food!

Details below:

Vancouver – The Art Institute of Vancouver is offering a WSET sake level 1 course for the first time in Canada, taught by Mariko Tajiri. It’s a 1-day course on Saturday, January 14th and it’s perfect for anyone who works with sake in restaurants or retail, or those who just want to learn more! Brewing basics, sake service, classifications and food pairings will all be covered.

Date: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
Time: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm
Location: The Art Institute of Vancouver
(2665 Renfrew Street
Vancouver, British Columbia)
Price: $349
Contact: Angela at 604.989.8009 or alandon@aii.edu to book your spot now.

The Art Institute also offers gift certificates for Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers…the gift of learning keeps on giving!

Toronto – This session will be taught at IWEG (Independent Wine Education Guild) and the enriched food and sake pairing component will be delivered by instructor Mariko Tajiri, providing the opportunity to experience key pairing principles through interactive tasting.    Students will have access to the Study Guide upon receipt of tuition and are required to read through the material before attending class in order to be familiar with content and participate in activities.  There will be a short break midday for refreshment. Glassware provided.

Date: Saturday, February 25th, 2017
Time: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
Location: IWEG
(211 Yonge St. Suite 501 Toronto, Ontario)
Price: $360 **Special industry pricing available. Please enquire!
Contact: 416.534.2570

Christmas in Japan = KFC?

The holidays is a time of year when family and friends gather around – what else – food. I grew up with roast beef (my favourite) alongside big bowls of white rice and soy sauce at the dinner table on Christmas Eve. Awkward conversations, ever-so drunken uncles and aunts, everyone’s got memories of this time of year: the good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever your story may be, eating and drinking is probably a part of it.

I’ve seen holiday dinners with pierogies, cabbage rolls, sushi and my favourite, KFC. In Japan, turkeys aren’t easy to find. Turkey legs or breasts maybe, but certainly not the whole bird. In the 1970s, Kentucky Fried Chicken found a way to market the Japanese obsession with all things American during the holidays by promoting buckets of KFC fried chicken as a Christmas treat, along with a snowy-white Christmas cake.

You can pre-order these dinners, which now include a bottle of sparkling wine. Maybe it sounds strange but maybe they were onto something; maybe they were a little ahead of the times, as hipster restaurants have sprung up in some of our favourite hipster neighbourhoods around the world serving up fried chicken and grower-Champagne. Whether you’re a Juke Chicken (YVR), Church’s Chicken or KFC fan, here are a few beverages to accompany your crispy, salty drumstick or two:

Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2015 – not quite sparkling but the way this eccentric brewery pasteurizes the sake leaves a little tingle on the palate. Delicious with a salty, not so spicy fried chicken recipe.

tengumai_yamahai_jikomi_junmai

Tengumai Yamahai Junmai – brewed using the powers of natural fermentation and without adding lactic acid, this sake is salty, mouth-watering  and food-perfect. Drink slightly chilled for lots of acidity and umami. An easy pick for all things fried.

fchp03s05b_l_l

Hubert Paulet Premier Cru 2005 Rose – a grower Champagne producer who sells half their grapes to Billecart-Salmon, this elegant but nervy rose is made up of mostly Chardonnay, with a splash of Pinot Meunier. Fine bubbles with strawberries and soft herbs on the palate goes great with fried chicken knuckles at dim sum.

Champagne & Sake: a contract between the label and the consumer?

“Champagne is a contract between the label and the consumer.” The documentary “A Year in Champagne” highlighted the concept that many Champagne producers feel that it is their responsibility to give their customers the same, reliable, consistent bottle that they have become accustomed to. Especially for a non-vintage product, a bottle must taste the same each time, so the consumer isn’t surprised or even worse, disappointed. As Jon Bonne said in his article about the changing tides of Champagne, “the old philosophy that blending, and branding, matter most” has reigned supreme in this region for generations. http://punchdrink.com/articles/champagnes-next-revolution-is-now/

The house style is akin to the producer’s signature and a lot of energy is spent making sure that it is consistent. Those of us in the beverage world like to romanticize about the wine makers, the brew masters, the artisans who make the beverage. However, the role of the blender if often glazed over. These are the (often) uncelebrated individuals in the background who the brands rely on to keep their products consistent.

This has also been the way in the world of sake. For most it’s history, sake breweries expended a tremendous amount of energy on making their products taste the same year after year. A brewer was said to be skilled if they could produce consistent sake regardless of the harvest, the weather and other conditions that could contribute to changes in the final sake. This means that at most breweries, there is a blender whose job it is to taste each of the tanks and the batches, then blend them to achieve the desired taste. As much as the world of sake is fetishized as a boutique, small lot artisan craft, there is actually a tremendous amount of effort spent on making the products in line with what they think is their house style. And in no way should this be considered bad.

Changing tides – in the last 10 years however, some sake brewers (usually younger) have made philosophical shifts. Rather than making dependable, homogeneous sake the ultimate goal, some who belong to this new camp of thinking have embraced variation. This can be between vintages, tanks or taste differences (ie. concentration, purity, etc.) depending on the stages of the pressing cycle. In this situation, each bottle can be slightly or very different from the next bottle that is opened. This can be interesting as you never know exactly what to expect and it also makes it easier for product differentiation. It can be a way of distinguishing yourself from the rest or a particular product from the rest of the portfolio. Examples of brands who think in this way are Kuheiji, Yamagata Masamune and Taka.

In the world of Champagne, we see this shift usually and mostly with grower producers, who want to express more of the terroir of their wines, as well as differentiation through vintages, cuvees and winemaking. As Jean-Baptiste of Rene Geoffroy explained, he is trying to make “wines of Champagne”, rather than Champagne. True to this goal, his still wines are beautiful, regardless of the absence of bubbles. The effervescence adds lift and prettiness to the wines, rather than being the star of the show.

Managing Expectations – A huge challenge in showing variation whether it is in Champagne or sake comes is managing the expectations of your audience. If the consumer is expecting to open a bottle and taste the same product time after time, it is difficult for a producer to try to convince them that variation is a good thing. The bigger brands have more to lose whereas the smaller producers can experiment and play more. Whatever might be the producer’s philosophy, there is room for variation and I think more the merrier, especially when it comes to Champagne and Sake.

 

 

In Defense of Koshu: Vintages, aging & bottle conditioning in Sake

With wine, we often hear about good vintages and bad vintages, or how long a bottle has aged. Now, there’s a new generation of brewers who are taking these ideas to sake.

For centuries, a sake brewer’s skill was said to be their ability to produce the same sake, year after year, no matter the conditions. Good rice, bad rice, wet year, dry year, you had to make a consistent taste. Aged sake, or koshu, has a reputation of being oxidative, funky or misunderstood as ‘unfresh’ sake. Regardless of your opinion of the ‘new breed’ of sake brewers and the sakes they make, there’s clearly some new things happening in the century-old world of sake:

Sake Vintages: there’s two main approaches to sake vintages – declaring the year that the sake was produced or declaring the harvest year of the rice. Since rice is harvested anywhere from September to November but brewing doesn’t usually start until November (not the top-level stuff), there is a difference between the production year and harvest year. Rice harvested in October of 2008 might not be used to brew until early 2009. What these producers are trying to do is show either the difference in rice harvest conditions of that particular year or the difference in aging potential. Some famous breweries doing this include Kuheiji, who declares the rice harvest year and also ages most of his sakes. What he’s trying to do is show the conditions of the growing season, as well as sake’s ability to age. Someone like Yamagata Masamune from Mitobe Brewery, on the other hand, bottles a particularly well made tank of their top-end Akaiwa Omachi Junmai Ginjo into a vintage ‘cuvee’.

Aging: I classify sake aging in two super broad categories, cold and warm. Aging in sub-zero temperatures is a direction we’re starting to see more and more of. It’s usually a Daiginjo, pasteurized only once (to retain the fresh, fruity flavours & aromas) and in bottle. I’ve heard anywhere from 0 to -8 degrees. This really slows down the aging process and really concentrates the flavours. I find that they are very silky on the palate as well. The sakes that are aged in warm or room temperatures are either very highly polished (Daiginjo level) or not very much (Junmai level). I think it’s safe to say that the latter is more common, as aging in warmer temperatures brings out the nutty, earthy flavours that a Junmai sake offers and is highlighted by the aging process. The fats and proteins of the rice are still there and in turn, those are the flavour components, like in the Momotose aged sakes. However, some of my favourite aged sakes are highly polished, like the Kirakucho Hizoshu, polished down to 35%. It’s clean, focused and utterly complex.

Bottle conditioning: this is done often in conjunction with the above methods. Traditionally, at classic breweries, sake was pressed –> pasteurized –> aged in tank –> pasteurized –> bottled. A lot of the new breed brewers are not tank aging or pasteurizing a second time. This can result in more characterful sake. The thought is that by only pasteurizing once, you’re leaving a lot of the flavours (ie. fruit, acidity, some effervescence) that a second pasteurization takes away. Charcoal filtering is another classic technique that removes colour and other aging agents that new breed brewers are opting out of. Why strip colour and flavour out of something you’ve spent a lot of time and effort on?

Try tasting each of these examples of aged sake and see for yourself!

Burt Reynolds & Sake – Water Hardness

Sake nerds are weird people. We get together and talk about yeast numbers and often, how hard the water is. I’m going to indulge my inner geek and talk about this exciting topic…

Water hardness is the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water. These minerals come from rocks, such as limestone that dissolves in the system. Japan, as a country, has generally soft water. The average is 61 mg/L, whereas it’s 120 mg/L for the US. For those of us in the West Coast of Canada, the water is unusually soft, where the source is mostly from mountain lakes fed by glaciers and snowmelt, at around 5 mg/L for Vancouver. Why does this matter to sake?

To put is simply, harder water promotes vigorous fermentation, as calcium is necessary for enzyme activity. This often leads to sakes that are thicker and fuller bodied. It’s suitable for Junmai and Yamahai styles of sake, which have a solid backbone of acidity. Nada, in Kobe, has been traditionally raised as an example of a hard water source. Fushimi, Kyoto, for soft water. Below are examples of water from some of my favourite breweries:

Toronto: 128 mg/L

Vancouver: 5 mg/L

Tengumai: 105 mg/L

Fukumitsuya: 178 mg/L

Hakkaisan: 43 mg/L

Soft water sake has been traditionally called “onna-zake” (“woman sake”) and hard water sake “otoko-zake” (“man sake”). Yes, it’s kind of sexist and gender specific but most of the time, it makes sense. More often than not, hard water sakes are thick and full-bodied, like the Burt Reynolds of sake. And more often than not, soft water sakes are lighter and leaner, like…I’ll leave that to your imagination.

waterThis is a bottle of water I bought at Narita airport and it’s supposedly water from Mt. Fuji. It lists the water hardness, which my inner geek finds super interesting: 32 mg/L. So I imagine that it’s flowed through the mountain a bit, picking up minerals along the way, which is why it’s not super soft.

Water hardness doesn’t tell you everything – there are SO many factors when brewing sake that contribute to the final taste that it can’t just be about the water. But as it makes up 80% of the final product, I think it’s at least worth a thought or two.

Friday (barely) Sake Review : Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2011

IMG_5595I think it’s only appropriate that I write about this sake this week, as Kuheji san was visiting us in Canada recently. It’s a brewery that goes back to 1647 but as the 15th generation owner and head of the company, Kuheiji Kuno is shaking things up…

Sake, for hundreds of years, has been said, should taste the similar (if not the same), year after year. There is a ‘house style’, kind of like non-vintage Champagne. So the brewer’s skill was in being able to recreate that profile no matter what conditions you were faced. Kuheiji, on the other hand, questioned this notion and said that he’s going to make sakes that taste different, depending on the vintage. The vintage indicated is for the rice harvest year and there is no blending. Since 2008, all of the Kuheiji sakes are vintaged, making it the only brewery that has vintage declarations for all products.

Respecting the past, heritage and legacy of sake making, yet not afraid to question what others have not, Kuheiji is a frontier in an often conservative industry.

Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2011

Specs:

Rice: 100% Yamadanishiki

Polish: 50%

Alcohol: 16%

Vintage: 2011

Sake Meter Value (SMV): N/A not indicated, as the brewery does not believe in giving this information to the public. They believe it is misleading and unnecessary.

Tasting notes: Floral, with notes of Summer berries, mangoes. Medium richness on palate, medium acidity. Concentrated fruit with medium finish.

Has aged well, the elements (alcohol, fruit, acidity, etc.) have mellowed, have integrated. Aging sake is for another post!

 

 

Kozaemon Sakura Sake

I’ve been waiting to taste the Kozaemon Sakura Sake like an eager, giddy child on Christmas morning and today, finally, it happened. It’s a seasonal release and only available in Spring, right after it’s been pressed. We were able to scoop up a mere 10 cases for the entire province but what a treat it is to be able to have a nama nama sake outside of Japan!

In a way, it’s akin to Beaujolais Nouveau but minus the crazy, cheesy marketing it is unfortunately subjected to. Only available once a year, right out of the tank, the Kozaemon Sakura Sake is completely unpasteurized and fresh as Spring. As you can see in the glass, it has some ‘ori’ lees left in, adding a layer of bright fruit and texture.

Specs:

Rice: Shinano (Nagano) Miyamanishiki

Rice Polish Ratio: 50%

Alcohol: 16.5%

Acidity: 1.6

Tasting Notes: Right out of the fridge, there’s notes of melon and pineapple on the nose but it’s DEFINITELY nama, with a gamey, wildness. As Kozaemon sakes are, it’s bold and unapologetic about expressing it’s personality. There’s also a slight grapefruit pith bitterness on the nose and that’s more prevalent on the palate. A good amount of weight and richness but not overwhelming. As it warms up, the elements come together and become more cohesive. The aromatics are bold but I always enjoy Kozaemon’s sakes as the weight and acidity support it. No perfume-y nonsense that doesn’t match the palate – we’ve all had sake like that, right? Acidity is key; refreshes the palate and makes you want to drink more.

Miyamanishiki rice tends to give a little bit of smokiness as it warms up (learned that from Kozaemon himself!) and it adds a nice element to the sake. What to have it with? How about BC Spot Prawns? The heads deep fried with a bit of ground pepper (white or black) would do nicely. Or Thai green curry? This would stand up to it. A fun, dangerously easy sake. If you’re lucky enough to find it, enjoy it, as it won’t be around for long! But don’t worry, there’s always next year.

Where to find this sake:

Shuraku Sake BarMinamiMikuZen Japanese RestaurantViti Wine and Lager