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Oakes Weekly - March 11, 2004
A Newbie's Intro to Sake
Styles & Seasonals
March 11, 2004
Written by Oakes
When the idea was first floated to add sake to Ratebeer, my opinion on the matter was sought. I had no opinion, and still don’t. Not because I’m a beer purist (I love a good cider) but because I know absolutely nothing about sake. I honestly couldn’t remember what side of the heated/chilled debate aficionados sat on. Given the selection of sake in the stores here in Toronto (about three of them…the sake equivalents of Labatt Blue, Molson Canadian and Budweiser no doubt) I wasn’t going to learn anything any time soon.
So when the opportunity came up to tackle five quality sakes head-on, I was there. I consider it my preliminary research into the matter and nothing further, so sake fans will learn nothing from this piece, but those who are in the position I was up until a week ago might just pick up a few things.
The event in question was a blind tasting of five sakes. It was sponsored by the Sake Society of Toronto and Ozawa Canada, a leading importer of sakes. That was the first thing (and I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me) – you can get good sake here, but like with beer you need to go to a specialist bar. Turns out there’s one up the street from me.
The host, Ken Noma of the Sake Society, started off by making apologies for the standard of lighting available in the room, something any beer lover can relate to. He explained briefly the chief attributes of good sake. The colour is mostly pale, and should have a greenish or yellowish tinge. If it looks like water, something’s wrong. It should be, with the exception of Nigori, clear.
Tasting sake is a ritual not unlike tasting wine…certainly more so than tasting beer. The sakes were rated based on the following scale:
Colour & Clarity (0-4)
Taste & Aftertaste (0-8)
Overall Impression (0-2)
Using these categories, I painstakingly analyzed the sakes, albeit without much of a clue as to what I was looking for, particularly with regard to style. The first turned out to be the oddly-christened Otokoyama (Man’s Mountain), and I liked it. I picked up good complexity in both flavour and aroma (all my notes are online already by the way) and enjoyed its apparent balance. I only say “apparent” because at the time I tasted it, it could have been the most unbalanced sake in the world for all I knew.
Next up was Tamano Daiginjo. This was a fuller-flavoured example, but with even better balance and more rounded flavours. Ultimately, I scored this one the best. The third was Tamano Yamahai. Yamahai is supposed to be made in a more traditional style, and as such I figured I’d like it the most, but I did not. In fact, of the five, this was the one I thought had the least going for it. Past an acceptably spicy nose I found a weak, undistinguished palate.
Fourth was a real crowd-pleaser. Sato No Hamare (Pride of the Village) is very aromatic, with an explosive sweet, fruity bouquet. It seemed easy to fall in love with this one, and I wonder if the small sample sizes didn’t skew some of the opinions because it really didn’t hold up much in the palate, with an array of unusual flavour components fighting for attention.
Lastly was the meatiest brew of all – an undiluted Genshu-style sake called Tenzan (Heaven’s Mountain) Junmai Genshu. This was the most potent (18%) of the sakes on hand, though they all occupy a happy place in between wine and spirits. From the muscular aroma to the bold, complex flavour, this was a very enjoyable drink.
Tasting aside, sake has quite a few similarities with beer. The first thing is the superficial simplicity of the ingredients. Sake is made from rice, koji, water and yeast. But like beer, it’s not as easy as making soup and fermenting it. Any of a number of different rice strains can be used (same as barley). This is then polished. The polishing process was refined after the Second World War, and this made for cleaner sakes. However, the result was that all the major sakes began to taste quite similar to one another. So many producers have begun to study ancient techniques, particularly with regards to polishing, to produce more tradition sakes, which have a far more diverse and complex flavour profile (sound familiar?).
The polished rice is washed and soaked, then steamed and allowed to cool. Koji is described as mold spores, and after this is applied to the rice, the molding rice is mashed. After a multi-step mashing process, yeast is added and fermentation undertaken. This is then filtered, skimmed and pasteurized.
Like beer, different styles are equated with specific regions. Sake was formerly only brewed in winter, so for example the northern island of Hokkaido became an important producer during times when other parts of Japan were too warm to make sake. Southerly Kyushu became known for the strong Genshu style of strong sake, which would be expected to keep better in warmer weather, given the preservative qualities of alcohol.
Furthering my suspicions of underlying connections with beer, Ken Noma himself would fit right in at a Ratebeer event. While most of the crowd seemed fine with casual tasting, his original vision was as hardcore as it gets, and only the limited lighting kept everyone from doing as I did in terms of painstaking evaluation (I staked out a well-lit area as soon as I arrived). Also, when he mentioned about doing a Canada Vs. Japan beer tasting, I immediately informed him about Hitachino Nest (I also learned that the emphasis is on the second syllable, not the first & third as I’d thought). I told him he could buy some in Buffalo. His response? “Where, Premier?” I might as well have been talking to Kimchee or Joey Capps.
Lastly, I learned what Joris means when he talks about “retronasal”. I guess wine-tasters would know this already, but the technique in sake terms is called “fukumibana” and refers to taking some liquid in the mouth, then breathing in through the mouth (careful not to dribble) and then out the nose, bringing the flavours (but not liquid) into the nasal cavity.
With that, my evening of sake tasting came to a conclusion. I learned quite a few things I didn’t know about sake before, and I think it helped a lot to have the advice of Mr. Noma and Sho Ozawa to learn from. It might have been interesting without the background knowledge, but not as educational.
I can now say that I know a thing or two about sake. That might be all I know, but it’s more than I did a short time ago.
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Fourth was a real crowd-pleaser. Sato No Hamare (Pride of the Village) is very aromatic, with an explosive sweet, fruity bouquet.
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