My trip to: Canmore Uncorked

On April 12th, I poured wine and sake for 400 people. I was scared. Do you know what 400 people at a wine tasting looks like?

It looks like this:

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And this:

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Honestly, I though doing a public tasting for 400 people by yourself wasn’t going to be too hard, until I realized that there was 400 people.  So I put on a brave face instead of curling up in a ball and waited for the masses or mean, gnarly, people ready to pounce on me if I didn’t give them what they wanted. What I faced instead were some of the nicest, friendliest, open-minded people I have ever met.

I got questions about sake that were insightful and people were genuinely curious. And no one came to me with a beer, ready to do a sake bomb. Figure that!

It shouldn’t really have been a surprise, considering that they live here: IMG_5273

And that the organizer of the event, Kevin, who owns Crush & Cork in town, is also one of the nicest, curious and passionate people I have come across. Doesn’t hurt that he’s got a kick-ass store (with beautiful new shelves, I might add) with a great sake and wine selection.

Even after 7 years of doing this, it’s always nice to be reminded that there are unexpected markets and people that get good sake and have passion for what they do. It makes it worth traveling to -30 degrees places to do sake dinners in the winter or carrying 30 cases of sake up the stairs for a delivery.  At least in hindsight!

Crush & Cork – Wine, Beer & Spirits – Canmore:

  • 117-1000 7th Avenue
    Canmore, AB T1W 2A7

http://www.tourismcanmore.com/event-calendar/canmore-uncorked

 

How to Pretend to be a Sake Connoisseur

      Now do this with sake. The clear stuff.

I often get asked “how do you taste sake?” Quite simply, you should taste sake like you taste wine, which is why I posted the video above. The colour can tell you things (age, filtering methods, style) and if there is any sediment, it might be a tad old or had some solids come back out. Getting your nose in there will tell you if it’s an aromatic style or earthier style and then tasting it while getting air in your mouth will open it up for you. As for whether or not the tiny traditional cups or wine glasses are better for sake, I think that’s a topic for another day…

However, compared to wine, sake is very insensitive to air. It’s actually the temperature that affects it the most. So whether you’re serving it or storing it, make sure that it’s done so at the right temperature. Too cold and it’ll be in shock, too warm and the acidity will be gone. Store it too warm and the aging will speed up, too cold and it’ll never mature. Unfortunately, there’s no strict rule to serving or storing sake – you have to know the sake and it’s style to know its potential.

If there’s one rule to serving sake in my opinion, it’s to not serve it too cold. Everyone’s had a glass of white wine chilled so much that glass was frosty and you couldn’t smell anything.

cold-glass-white-wineMaybe that was a good thing (especially if the wine isn’t that great!) or maybe it was hot and humid and all you wanted was a refreshing, simple glass of wine. But if you want to taste sake or wine, I mean, really taste it, it shouldn’t be too cold.

Go and slurp that sake! You have my permission. But don’t blame me for the stares in the restaurant. 

Dave Grohl, Justin Bieber & sake

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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:

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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.

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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.