Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tobin: 18 Liter Bottles of Joy

There are three common ways to press sake, the shizuku press method being the most expensive.

Sake is scooped up and poured into cotton bags that resemble a pillow case.

The bags are hung with sake slowly dripping out of the bag, with the lees or kasu (rice solids) being left behind.

I've tasted shizuku press sakes on many occasions. It's clear that this is sake at its most elegant.

I helped by washing and rinsing the tobin; and the bags that would receive the sake; and held the bags as the toji poured the sake. This was interesting, especially since it was the 38% polish junmai daiginjo I was honored to brew, and then nicknamed, Grace Kelly. She's a beauty, and her picture on the side of the tank made everyone laugh. Not at Grace Kelly, but at the foolish kurabito who wanted to give the sake a nickname.

A surprise occurred in storing the tobin: an eerie, unknown to me, filamentous white substance had accumulated at the bottom of each tobin. This is called "ori" and it's a mixture of yeast, rice residue and stray esters (sake has 400 esters, wine has 200, which give sake an advantage on flavor and nuance.) I took many pictures to capture the appearance, see the at the end of this post.

We harvested the clear sake of each tobin, leaving the dregs behind to be poured into one large turbo-charged with flavor tobin. This sake is not bad! On the contrary, it's very much rich and savory in flavor. It is not elegant, like Grace Kelly, but rough around the edges, lets call her...Jane Russell.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Of Yeast Patents and Yamahai.

Oba-san (pictured right) and Suzuki-sensei (middle) visited our shuzo today were both kind enough to spend 30 minutes discussing sake with me this Monday afternoon.

It was a very interesting afternoon, as I was in the presence of some brilliant sake professionals and was afforded the chance to share views on sake in America as well as learn something about two fascinating topics, sake yeast as well as a unique yamahai brewing method.


Oba-san; with the participation of Suzuki-san and my toji; Yoko-san; have developed a new proprietoty sake yeast called "Dream yeast #3". Our brewery, Wakatakeya Shuzo, was the very first brewery to brew sake with this yeast. I have tasted sake from the yeast, and it makes a very nice junmai ginjo sake. Our flahship junmai ginjo, called Tani (meaning "valley") uses this yeast. On this occasion, Oba-san was able to bring with him the official certificate of patent which bears the name of Oba-san, Suzuki-sensei, and Yoko-san. A picture of the patent, presented to Yoko-san today:

Yeast is one of four key ingredients in sake, along with rice, water and koji. The word yeast stems from the Greek word "Zestos" (boil) as well as the Sanskrit term yasyati (it seethes). Fukuoka prefecture, through the work of these three sake professionals, continues to demonstrate that there is still room for modern innovation with this ancient beverage.

Yamahai Innovation

I was also able to discuss the nuances of sake brewed in Chiba by Kidoizumi Shuzo, as they use truly unique brewing methods such as deploying high concentration of lactobacillus (instead of lactic acid) and thus brew sake via what is know as the "hot yamahi method". Suzuki-sensei, who used to profess at the prestigious Tokyo Agricultural College, understands this method very well as the toji at Kidoizumi is a former pupil (as is my toji, by the way).

Hakugyokko “White Jewel” from Kidoizumi happens to have been my favorite sake of 2012--and I sampled hundreds, as my friends and bartenders in three countries can attest!

For my friends in Oregon and Washington, you can order “White Jewel” sake through Southern Wine & Spirits. Please inquire with me if you are interested in learning more about this sake and I will direct you. I am fond of the importer's very informative landing page and slideshow:

Long day

I started my shift at 7 AM and I will end it at 6 AM. Sleep is fickle and comes late, not when I ask it, too! Later tonight I will turn the koji rice over with Yoko-san.

You will find me in Japan doing this every brewing season for the rest of my life. Now I need to figure out where I will go and what I will do when I am not brewing sake in the middle of winter. That's the $64,000 question on my mind lately.

Good night and kanpai!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I discovered a new rice variety today. 

This is Yumeikkon rice, sakamai rice hybridized about ten years and grown here in Fukuoka. We wash, then soak this rice for about 30 minutes versus just eight for Yamadanishiki. This is due to the hardness of Yumeikkon versus relative softness of Yamadanishiki.

The parents for this sake-brewing rice are Reihou and Yamadanishiki.

The term sakamai refers to the 80-100 varieties of sake brewing rice versus standard table rice. I have much to learn, but I can tell you this much: sake brewing rice is not yet grown commercially in the USA and this is one disadvantage to all US brewed sakes.

Why is Japanese sakje rice, AKA, sakamai, better for those who love premium sake?

A picture says a thousand words. (Courtesy of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

On table rice, anything that is not starch exists (typically) on the outside of the grain. This includes, but is not limited to, proteins, lipids, minerals, fats, albumins and ash.

When premium sake is achieved, the toji (master brewer) polishes the rice before brewing such that with sakamai, impurities that are not sakamai are largely removed.

I look forward to sharing more of what I learn about rice and sake as I spend my time living and working as a Japanese sake brewery in Fukuoka, Japan!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

My New Life Working & Living At Japanese Sake Brewery

Ten Days In

A sake brewery can be a chilly place to work. If the weather is 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it's just as cold inside the kura (the warm koji room, as warm as Hawaii, notwithstanding). 

Yet working in this cold weather is a boon for sake lovers, so I curse it not. Sake yeast propagation soars in the winter, but in warm weather yeast suffers from jet lag and can't operate at normal capacity (art imitates life!) The yeast, much like this gaijin kurabito, needs to hustle in order to make delicious sake. When it's warm outside, sake yeast is not as active and sake is less flavorful as a result. Now, in the dead of winter, hundreds of sake breweries come to life with activity. 

Cleaning, as if I joined the US Navy

Friends and family ask me what it is like to be living my dream, for my great passion – my ikigai – is the sake industry. I don't wish to write like an otaku, or a sake geek, right now....and discuss the nuances of brewing sake. But I will tell you this: Kurabito (kura = sake brewery, bito = worker) life rotates around keeping the kura clean, as unintentional yeast propagation can spoil sake and corrupt entire batches. One is not yet a proper kurabito if you have yet taken a wet rag and wiped down walls, ceilings, and a phalanx of 2700-liters tanks *twice* (wet with water, then again with an astringent mix of persimmon juice and water. Take that, wild yeast.) Cleaning is the most regular activity in a kura..

A Portion of the Kyushu Sake Trade

This picture includes sake and shochu breweries in Fukuoka (in green), Saga (in red) and Nagasaki (in blue).

There is one brewery on this map that matters more to me than the others combined right now: Wakatakeya Shuzo. 

The man who owns Wakatakeya, Mr. Hironobu Hiyashida (pictured with me above), looks after his employees like they are member of his family. To think the brewery has been in operation in his family since 1699. I have been made to feel welcome and more than at home immediately. It is an authentic concern for his employees. Together, we have a mutual celebration and appreciation for the sake trade. 

As a consequence of Hironobu-shacho's leadership, my cohorts.themselves treat each other with kindness, care, and concern. Even the new guy who does not speak much Japanese. There is a sign in the kura that sums up the spirit best. The kanji read as “Harmony, Brewing, Good, Sake”  I like the sound of that! 

End of the Shift, But Not the Day

Just before finishing this blog post, I got upstairs to the roof for the first time...I am on top of the brewery in this picture, and in some ways, on top of my small, modest sake world. The day is done and it is now surprisingly warm outside. I bask in the sun for a minute before I clock out. I’ve got nothing to do tonight but smile…and enjoy a Wakatakeya sake with my co-workers.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Shizuku shibori namachozo sake... BY 16!! Brewed, then uncannily laid down...not six, not seven...but eight years. Opened this week!! Booty from the Toji's "Secret Stash" and not available for sale. OMG.

I'm blessed to try such sake. After 20 years of enjoying sake, I've not tasted one like this before. I'm humbled.

Another day of the office?!?! Ha! Onward, upward!

PS: this sake is light and fruity, and *not* tasting like koshu whatsoever. I'm stupefied. It broke all the rules.