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Sake Anomalies; Plus
Dassai - An Innovative Kura

# 73

Nov. 2005

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #73
November 1, 2005

-- Sake Anomalies: Give Ground Grudgingly
-- Dassai: A Unique and Innovative Kura (Part II)
-- Good Sake To Look For
-- Sake Events & Announcements

Sake Anomalies: Give Ground Grudgingly

Al Gizzi never likely thought his legacy would live on in quite this way. And he surely never considered that he would be associated with sake. Al Gizzi does not likely remember me. Which is fine. Nor I would be upset if he does. Al Gizzi, or "Gizz-balls" as he was known behind his back in his less popular moments,  was my high school football coach. He was also an English teacher, and his love for literature lent him a leaning toward alliteration that bled into his coaching efforts.

I was fortunate enough to have played offensive guard, where protecting the quarterback is paramount. When he drops back for a pass, we offensive linemen were taught by Coach Gizzi to take the impact of the defensive rush, and "give ground grudgingly," referring to how we would slowly yield petite portions of the pitch, backing up to form a pocket from which the quarterback would find his receiver way down field. Give ground grudgingly. Succinct yet thorough, these words described our ideal movements perfectly.

Our team never went anywhere, although we did manage to finish a respectable 7-3, and my football career came to an abrupt if predictable halt upon my graduation from that esteemed institution. But Gizz-balls' words have remained with me over the years.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with sake? Lately we have seen a whole range of new "types" of sake hit the market, things like sparkling sake, low alcohol sake, and even high alcohol sake. Then there are things like aged sake, kijoushu (see last month's newsletter), and red sake. And, of course, there is that bane of my existence, sake cocktails. (It hurts my fingers to type those two words on the same page, much less in the same sentence.)

But, alas, when confronted with these less-than-orthodox types of sake out there, the handful of funky variations made using one whacky ingredient or method that surely has the old brewmasters spinning in their graves (no mean feat, mind you, when one has been cremated), I have come to the realization that it might be time for me to "Give Ground Grudgingly."

Yes, it may be time for me to acknowledge that these types are out there, and that there may even be people that like them and want to drink them. With just a vestigial hint of a Grudge remaining, the time has come to Give Ground, recognize and even endorse these for the benefit of those that do or might enjoy them.

Why have I been so reticent to do this until now? A number of reasons, most of them centered around my intention to convey good, useful information about sake.  I am personally most fond of "orthodox" styles of sake. What is orthodox? Like, you know, *regular* stuff. Fairly youthful, not sparkling, not cloudy, not red, not unusually high or low in alcohol, and not mixed with anything else. And there are TONS of these, from all walks of sake, including dry, heavy, sweet, light, aromatic, subdued, subtle, lively, soft, tart, thick, airy, smooth, textured and including every permutation of these and everything in between. There is such diversity within this realm of "normality" that it could never come to be considered mundane.

But as I pointed out, it is much, much more than just a matter of my personal preferences. As one who promotes - even proselytizes - about sake, I want folks to know where the best of sake is to be found. (Hint: it is NOT in nigori, sparkling, hi- or low- alcohol, red sake or aged sake. And it sure as hell ain't in cocktails!)

Not that I am dissing these novel types. Not at all; really. It is all about enjoyment in the end, and if you like them, end of story. But if you want to know where the best of sake is to be found, the culmination of centuries of honed skills combined with modern technology, unique, artisanal sake, and if you want to enjoy sake that you know will be a viable product and part of the market as well as a dependable connoisseur product for years to come, drink the afore-defined orthodox stuff.  

Still, creativity and innovation are cool and to be respected, and in fact are indispensable to the survival of anything. Which is one of the reasons I am giving ground grudgingly. Also, I realize now that there is a healthy dollop of these heretical variations running around, both inside and outside of Japan. And, I also realize that there are plenty of folks that do want to drink these more curious styles. Which is another reason to place my own preferences in the back seat for a while and give ground grudgingly to their admittedly rightful place in the market.

Here is a rundown of the rogue types; hitherto offenders, henceforth contenders.

Sparkling Sake
Perhaps the fastest growing of these new types, there are two main types of sparkling sake out there. One, like champagne, sees a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Another is made with some secret, patented, protected process to which I am not privy. Everything in the Universe has a price, and this includes bubbles in your sake. That price is paid from the coffers of flavor. Much of this sparkling sake has an alcohol content of about eight percent, yet others are up around 14 percent. To me, it generally tastes like spiked cream soda; it is just the size of the spike that differs. But admittedly cream soda has its appeal too, and this stuff can be very drinkable. There are at least four sparkling sake in the US now, maybe more.
Red Sake
There are several ways to make sake that is reddish in tint, a pigment that often approaches rose wine. These include special "red" koji mold, a yeast strain that spews red stuff as it ferments, and most commonly, red rice. Red or purple colored rice strains do exist, although they are not actively cultivated much anymore. There are one or two red sake in the US, and both (to my knowledge) are made with red rice strains. Usually, these are far too astringent and very grassy in flavor for my tastes, but there is at least one fairly tasty exception. Still, they are a far cry from traditional sake profiles. I have written a bit more about red sake, for those that are interested, here:

Low Alcohol Sake
A few brewers have come out with sake that is only eight to 12 percent alcohol, jacking up the acidity quite a bit to provide punch. The thinking is that some folks cannot handle a full 16 percent, so these products would appeal to them. Hmm.

High Alcohol Sake
The newest of the brat pack here, there are a couple of sake with an alcohol content of 25 percent or more, even one at 38 percent. Note, these are NOT distilled. However, yeast cannot survive above 20 percent alcohol or so. So how do they do it? They freeze it, using one method or another, and take out the ice, effectively removing water and increasing the final alcohol content. There are several methods. Some spray sake into a mist and freeze the fog. Others freeze small trays of sake and spin the slush to centrifugally send the frozen water away. Sometimes these can be harsh and taste distilled, other times they can be softer yet powerful. Sake they are not (in my mind, that is), but enjoyable they can be.

This type of sake is made with some of the brewing water replaced by already-brewed sake. An article on Kijoushu appeared in last month's newsletter, and while it can be enjoyable, it is markedly different from orthodox sake, and very little of it is made.

Aged Sake
Known as koshu (old sake), or more formally and eloquently as choki-jukusei-shu (long term matured sake), something about saying that old sake is new smacks of an oxymoron. But in a sense it is true, albeit arguably. From the late 1800s until just after World War II, brewers were taxed on what they brewed not what they sold, and it was essentially due before it was sold. Hence, there was not much motivation to lay sake down for a while. So brewers did not really begin to experiment much in the myriad ways of aging sake until about 40 or 50 years ago. A lot more on aged sake can be read here:, and while I do like some aged sake, and in particular ever-so-slightly matured sake, most sake over the centuries has been brewed so as to best enjoy it young. My main grumble with this category is that it can be distracting. That's it.

I have not had a full glass of nigori-zake in at least umpteen years, maybe more. But this cloudy, white type sake is very popular. More on nigori is written here:

Sake Cocktails
I prefer to spend as little time on this type as possible, since the "grudgingly" part is exceedingly strong amidst my efforts to give ground. But whatevuh. If you like it, drink it, and I have heard from friends in the know in the mixing world that makes a great mixer.

Let me reiterate that I am not "anti" anything. I am more "for" good sake and its spreading popularity. And with sake just starting to really catch on outside of Japan, it might not be optimal for consumers to think, f'rinstance, that sparkling sake has like champagne been around for hundreds of years. More like ten, if that. Low alcohol sake, high alcohol sake, even some kinds of red sake are fairly new and represent a truly miniscule part of the sake world. Even nigori, which was once what moonshine looked like, has only been a legal product on the market since the mid-60s (with Tsuki no Katsura of Kyoto having developed a legal way to produce it).

And so, from here on out, the time has come to Give Ground Grudgingly to the various manifestations of sake that are out there. Hopefully this will help to form a pocket from which that diversely talented quarterback of the sake world, orthodox premium sake, can launch a perfectly timed and placed touchdown pass and win over the world.

Al Gizzi would be proud.

Dassai: A Unique and Innovative Kura
(Part 2 of 3, Continued from last month)
Two issues commonly perceived as problems with brewing year round are fresh rice and ambient temperature. The first problem -- securing a supply of fresh rice -- was solved by refrigerating rice from the previous fall. "Milling it *before* you store it is the key to keeping it fresh," comments Sakurai-san. "As long as you do that, you take the starches and fats that would spoil out of the equation from the start." Next was keeping ambient temperatures low enough for the sake to ferment properly. This problem was solved by thickly insulating the walls of the room in which the fermentation tanks sit. "We then chill it down to about 15C, but in the end, all that cold moromi (fermenting mash) in there to helps keep the temperature just right. In fact, in the end, while it is a bit warmer in here in the summer, it is only minimally so, perhaps five percent only. Looking back over history, I think the real reason sake was only brewed in the winter was the kurabito (brewing personnel); being farmers they just weren't available in the summer." Usually we hear how it just isn't cold enough except in the winter. Yet another sake myth dispelled!

There were other issues that helped this kura become so odd, or shall we say "unique." One of those was a problem that plagues kura all over Japan: people are drinking less sake, especially less cheap sake. And, among those consumers that do drink cheap sake, it usually comes down to price. What this means is that most local brewers who for decades or even centuries could count on the local folks to be their bread and butter (or rice and pickles, if you will) have begun to see their main customer base seriously erode. Asashi Shuzo saw this happening, but Sakurai-san acted fast.

"If I stayed local with my sake, it would come down to a fierce price war. So we began a few years ago to aim for first Tokyo, then overseas. And since Yamaguchi sake is not as established as some other prefectures, I knew that if it was going to sell in Tokyo, unlike sake sold only locally, it would have to be quite good."

Long ago, before the war, Yamaguchi Prefecture was a much more significant sake brewing area. There were many more kura than the 20 or so actively brewing now, and in fact the Kumage guild of toji, or master brewers, was at that time the sixth largest in Japan. But after the war, Yamaguchi Prefecture was targeted as one spot for industrial development. Countless factories were set up, and many sake brewing personnel, including of course these toji, left the sake brewing world for much more secure jobs in factories. Good for JapanĘs industrial progress, less so for the traditional craft of sake brewing, and Yamaguchi sake in general. Today, there are but three Kumage toji remaining in the guild.

He also decided to come up with a new brand name for non-local use. He came up with Dassai, a choice with several significances behind it. The name translates as "Otter Festival," and one of those was simply a reference to an ancient name for a nearby region where once countless otters could be seen frolicking in the local river. Otters will lay out on the shore the fish that they catch, as if they are showing them off for sale in a festival. This all led to references in ancient local poems and stories to "otter festivals" from which Sakurai-san drew some of his inspiration.

Also, a famous haiku poet named Masaoka Shiki that lived about a century ago referred to himself as Dassai, because of his propensity to scatter his reading material all over the floor of his room in much the same way as those otter spread out their fish, so much so that there was no room to walk around. More importantly to Sakurai-san, Masaoka was instrumental in creating a revolution in Japanese literature during his time. "I wanted to convey a sense that Dassai was at least somewhat of a revolutionary sake; we use traditional hand-crafted brewing techniques, but at the same time we employ some new ways and thinking. So the name carries that nuance as well."

But there were inherent problems with the name Dassai, most pertinently its similarity in sound to the modern slang word dasai, which carries a different accent and a shorter middle "s" sound. Unfortunately for Sakurai-san and presumably Masaoka Shiki, dasai means "geeky," or "uncool."

"People didn't like it at first. Distributors were whining, saying it would not sell. I even had trouble registering the trademark for this reason! But eventually it caught on, and also helped my stuff sell back home here in Yamaguchi."

All of this strategizing worked quite well, as 70 percent of Dassai is sold in Tokyo, with only 20 percent staying local anymore. The remainder is spread out across Japan and the overseas.

(To be completed next month. Note to readers: this is an excerpt of an upcoming book on the history, culture, and hand-crafting methods of the sake world, as told through the colorful personalities inhabiting the kura. Details to follow in an upcoming issue.)

Good Sake to Look For
All the sake selections below are exported to at least the US, and certainly other countries as well. Here is a list of some of the representation of the various types covered above.

Sparkling Sake
> Okunomatsu "FN" Junmai Daiginjo. Developed by Okunomatsu (of Fukushima Prefecture) for the express purpose of allowing the winner of the Formula Nippon race, Japan's premier F1 auto race, to spray sake and not champagne in the winner's celebration. I'm serious. Higher alcohol content of about 14 percent, good powerful fizz too.

> Poochi Poochi. From reputable Suehiro, also of Fukushima Prefecture, light and mild.

> Suzune. From Ichinokura in Miyagi Prefecture, the first sparkling sake to have hit the market in a proper way. Slightly full and well structured flavor yet gently sweet.

> Hou-hou-shu. From Chikurin in Okayama, softly sweet yet billowing with texture, wonderful with a drop of lemon in it.

> Tsuki-Usagi. From Umenoyado in Nara Prefecture, creamy and sweet-ish, and very smooth.

Low Alcohol Sake
There are many, many of these. One that appeals to me is Hime-zen, made by Urakasumi in Miyagi Prefecture. About nine percent alcohol, soft, sweet with a cranked up acidity, all yielding decent balance in the end.

Red Sake
Kikuzakari of Ibaraki Prefecture makes Asamurasaki, a red sake with a complex, thin flavor and a lively herbal astringency.

Last month, Hanahato "Kijoushu"  of Hiroshima Prefecture and Sekai no Hana "Yashiori-no-sake" of Shimane Prefecture, two Kijoushu available in the US, were reviewed in detail.

There are countless nigori selections out there. Oodles and oodles of 'em. Here are just a few.

> Tsuki no Katsura (Kyoto Prefecture). From the revivers of this type, thick, creamy & soft.

> Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture). Nice, heavy sediment and a medium body.

> Rihaku (Shimane Prefecture). Lighter, less sediment, and buoyed by a peppy acidity.

> Kamoizumi (Hiroshima Prefecture). Actually, a genshu (undiluted, so therefore a few percentage points higher in alcohol) as well, this sake has the presence and power to back up the texture.

Sake Cocktails
Sorry. Decorum and principle forbid me from providing recipes or recommendations for these unmentionable monstrosities. You are on your own on this one.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara, November 12, 2005.
On the evening of Saturday, November 12, I will hold the next sake seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. The topic will be the almost-forgotten joys of gently warming, its history and resurgence, and will highlight several premium warmed sake. The cost for the evening -- half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material -- will be 7000 yen. No deposit is required. Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email. To reserve a spot, send me an email at

ALSO. Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.


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