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The Rice Stuff

Mitchell Coster

John Gauntner

It's fragrant, it's complex, it's layered and delicate. It's light and tasty, and there has never been a better time to drink it. Yet sake continues to be little-known, written off as hot, bland, hangover-causing stuff that could never be considered a premium sipping beverage - could it? While true that most of the sake brewed and consumed is of the less expensive and less-than-awe-inspiring variety, there exists a realm of premium sake, diverse and fascinating, that is almost certain to win you over. John Gauntner takes time out from his sipping schedule to guide you to the right brew.

Good sake, though brewed from a grain, is not unlike wine in its potential for appreciation. There are a range of styles and grades, with flavor profiles and fragrances that are varied and interesting. Over the last thirty years or so, technology and experience have come together to make sake better than ever.

What is the difference between cheap sake served piping hot and decent sake, usually served cool or chilled? Just about everything, really. The quality and type of rice (sake-brewing rice and table rice are different), how much handmade effort is put into the brewing procedure, additives or the lack thereof, and care of the product are all contributing factors.

One major factor is how much the rice has been milled before brewing. Removing the outer portion of the rice grains by grinding eliminates fermentation-inhibiting ditties like proteins and fats. Starches that ferment are concentrated in the center of the rice grain. Most table rice is milled so that the outer 10-12 percent of the original size has been removed. Some sake rice is milled so that only the inner 35 percent remains. That means 65 percent has been ground away.

Wasteful? Not when you taste the final product. Sake is much, much cleaner, lighter and more fragrant when highly milled rice is used. This can, however, be taken too far, leading to sake that is too "clean," in the opinion of some. Some brewers end up literally grinding away character and distinction.


FOUR LITTLE WORDS

sake label
sake label
sake label

How can one tell the difference between a good sake and a bad one? Naturally, recommendations and word of mouth are the fastest. But what if you're on your own? One way is by price, cop-out though it may seem. Sake in general is fairly priced. Spending a few more yen will usually get you better sake. The other way is to leap the language barrier and learn a few terms.

All it takes is four. Four words referring to how a sake is brewed that are indicative of at least a certain level of quality.

Junmaishu is sake to which nothing has been added but rice, water, and koji spores, the enzyme-producing mold that turns the starch in rice into sugars that feed the yeast.
Junmaishu often has a richer, fuller flavor, sometimes with a nicely bolstering acidity The rice used must be polished to 70 percent (i.e. so that at least the outer 30 percent of the grain has been removed).

Honjozo is sake to which a very small amount of distilled alcohol has been added. In cheap sake, relatively massive amounts are added for economic reasons. In good sake, though, the reasons are different: a small amount of alcohol added at the right time in the process brings out fragrant components in the final product. The milling requirements are the same as those for junmai-shu. Honjozo is generally lighter in flavor than junmaishu, and often suited to gentle warming (more on this later).

Ginjoshu is the beginning of the realm of very good sake. It is generally light, complex and fragrant, often with fruity overtones. Although the only real requirement for calling sake ginjoshu is that the rice be milled to at least 60 percent, the term implies a lot of handmade care at each step in the process. Amongst ginjoshu (and the same holds for daiginjoshu) there is ginjoshu that has no added alcohol, and ginjoshu that has had a bit of alcohol added to it. However, ginjoshu with added alcohol (i.e. non-junmai) is called simply ginjoshu, not honjozo ginjoshu as some might expect. Confused? Have a glass of sake and re-read. It'll be clear soon enough.

Daiginjoshu is really a sub-classification of the above ginjoshu. Here, the rice is milled to at least 50 percent, although it is often taken as far as 35 percent. More importantly, special, painstaking techniques are used in each step of the brewing process to bring out specific qualities in the sake. Daiginjo as well comes in junmai and non-junmai versions.


RAW DEALS

sake label
sake label
sake label

An optional fifth term: namazake. This is simply sake that has not been pasteurized. Namazake is fresher and zingier, often seeming sweeter to many. Sometimes, these qualities can overpower the finer aspects of a sake, so namazake is not always better sake. But in general, namazake has a universal appeal that always brings a smile. (If you do buy it, it must be kept refrigerated or it will likely go bad.) Any sake that does not qualify for one of the above categories is known as futsu-shu (regular sake). It is important to keep in mind that there is plenty of perfectly palatable futsu-shu out there. Try not to fall into the snobby trap of thinking that only the special designation sake described above are worth tasting. True, futsu-shu is a bit more hit-and-miss, but there is still lots of fine sake in this stratum as well.

Along the same lines, it is good to be careful to avoid a bias against the big boys. It is too easy to assume that all sake made by all the large breweries is rotgut. It isn't. Many of them make entirely drinkable sake that, if preconceptions were taken out of the picture, would compare quite well.

Most people have a tendency to lean romantically toward jizake, sake from small kura (breweries) in the countryside, favoring them to the exclusion of larger kura. It is likely true, however, that more variety and character are to be found in sake from smaller kura.

Another stereotype to steer clear of is that no good sake should ever be served warm. Most good sake, indeed, is meant to be served cool. But a lot of excellent sake of the special designations above goes quite well gently warmed (not too hot, though!). Experiment.


BRAND NEWS

Recommending meigara, or labels, is a bit precarious: It's all a matter of preference. Even first-time tasters of good sake, exposed to several different types, know immediately what they like best - and it's different for everybody. There simply is no one best type or best meigara.

Having stated that caveat, here are a few brands of differing types, most of which are also relatively easy to find in stores - or at least sake pubs - around Tokyo. This is not meant to be a list of the best, and not all may be your style, but here at least are some names to call out. Note that these are just brand names; there may be several grades of sake for each, i.e. a junmaishu and a ginjo-shu. (For a significantly longer list of recommendations - some 200 selections - refer to the Sake World homepage.)

sake label
sake label
sake label
sake label

Isojiman (Shizuoka)
Suminoe (Miyagi)
Juyondai (Yamagata)
Kaiun (Shizuoka)
Hamachidori (Iwate)
Rihaku (Shimane)
Tsukuba (Ibaraki)
Biwa no Choju (Shiga)
Shimeharitzuru (Niigata)
Hakkaizan (Niigata)
Tsukasa Botan (Kochi)
Sharaku (Fukushima)
Gokyo (Yamaguchi)
Maboroshi (Hiroshima)
Eiko Fuji (Yamagata)
Kamoizumi (Hiroshima)
Kokuryu (Fukui)
Rikyubai (Osaka)
Ume no Yado (Nara)
Masumi (Nagano)
Masuizumi (Toyama)
Ginban (Toyama)
Sake no Hitosuji (Okayama)
Denshu (Aomori)
Urakasumi (Miyagi)
Dewazakura (Yamagata)
Momokawa (Aomori)
Toyonoaki (Shimane)
Tosatzuru (Kochi)
Azuma Rikishi (Tochigi)
Mado no Ume (Saga)
Shigemasu (Fukuoka)
Okuharima (Hyogo)
Kotsutsumi (Hyogo)
Tengumai (Ishikawa)
Suehiro (Fukushima)

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