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.

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.

 

 

Dave Grohl, Justin Bieber & sake

SOUND-CITY-450x281
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.sound board

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:

masamuneraiten

Mitobe san from Yamagata Masamune. A young and forward thinking brewer

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.

img125sf2249_1

Kuheiji sakes – many sake experts agree that this brand had a huge role in changing what people thought sake should be

 

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 sake26making 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.

232776_photoWho 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.