Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, September 09, 2006


A phenomenon which reminds me of microbreweries.

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the entire article, with more pictures, etc.

SAKE'S REGIONAL REVIVAL: Japanese breweries embrace terroir and a return to local flavors - W. Blake Gray, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

When Japan's sake brewers gather to discuss "terroir," they don't spend a lot of time talking about limestone and volcanic loam. Instead, it's all about types of water, strains of yeast and rice, and consumers' expectations.

Sake definitely can taste of its terroir. Taste a fruity Yamagata sake, with its notes of apricot or green mango, beside a crisp, clean Niigata sake -- some are almost like good light vodka -- and you'll understand immediately.

[Podcast: W. Blake Gray talks about the Ohyama Tokubetsu Junmai sake.]

Not every sake brewer strives to make distinctively regional sake. It's easy to manipulate the sake-brewing process to eliminate the taste of terroir. In fact, daiginjos -- the most expensive sakes, for which at least half of the rice is polished away -- have no real regional character.

It's at the "ordinary" junmai level that you can taste the terroir of sake, which brewers in Japan are increasingly trying to highlight. Like the "return to terroir" movement among California winemakers in the late 1980s and early '90s, it's part of the global slow-food movement toward prizing each area's unique qualities.

And the sweet part for the average sake drinker is that these junmais are cheaper: about $20 to $40 for a good 720 ml bottle, instead of the $50 to $120 that most good daiginjos fetch. "Plain" junmais are usually the most affordable sakes on Bay Area restaurant wine lists. So to taste the terroir of sake, you have to spend less money. How great is that?

When the French came up with the word "terroir" to describe the environmental factors that give a specific wine its unique flavors, they weren't thinking about using it to describe a beverage made from rice. But the word fits, even if some of the factors that make up terroir for sake are different.

Though soil doesn't really matter, climate does: Sake from areas with cold winters has long been prized, in part because chilly brewing conditions cut down on unwanted microorganisms.

Different local strains of yeast also matter to sake just as they do to wine.

Local brewing water is a crucial terroir factor, making up an estimated 80 percent of the final product. Sake from areas with soft water, like Kyoto and Hiroshima, have a soft mouthfeel, while sake from the Kobe area, known for its hard water, is enjoyed for its firm body.

Different strains of rice are also important. Yamada Nishiki, originally from warm southwestern Japan, is the most prized variety -- the Cabernet Sauvignon of sake rice. But just as with Cabernet, Yamada Nishiki isn't always planted in the right places, and better sakes are made by brewers that pay attention to this impact of terroir.

Role of brewers' guilds

All that said, the most important factor in creating sakes of regional distinction is the person brewing them -- the toji. Toji guilds are regional, not national, and they play a big role in developing and maintaining regional identity.

"Among toji, there's not a great deal of individualism," says Chris Pearce, owner of World Sake Imports in Honolulu. "You're supposed to make sake in a certain way if you're a member of a toji guild."

Sake used to differ more by region prior to World War II, according to Beau Timken, owner of San Francisco's True Sake -- America's first sake-only store. After the war, in an effort to increase sales in the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka, sake brewers homogenized.

"They sold their souls to make a product they thought people would like, rather than make their product and find people who like it," Timken says.

In the 1970s, Niigata brewery Koshi no Kambai, taking full advantage of the area's hard water (Niigata city calls itself "the Water Capital"), invented the dry, clean style that made its region famous -- a contrast to the sweeter sakes popular at the time. Subsequently, the Niigata area toji guild has played a big role in turning one brewery's style into the regional style.

Yamagata borders Niigata; it is the prefecture just to the north. Both are adjacent to the Sea of Japan, but they have little else in common. Niigata city, the capital of Niigata prefecture, is a prosperous industrial city of 500,000. Yamagata prefecture's capital city -- also called Yamagata (there are fewer names to learn in this part of the country) -- has half the population and is much sleepier; it's most famous in the rest of Japan for its rural-sounding dialect.

Increasingly, though, the country boys are gaming fame for their sake, which is bold-flavored, fruity and floral: the anti-Niigata. While Niigata sake started as a regional specialty, the clean style has been easy to emulate elsewhere.

"A lot of breweries (outside Niigata) are proud to make what they call Niigata sake," Pearce says.

In contrast, Yamagata breweries are showing the rest of Japan how to be successful by tasting more local -- an important market distinction at a time when overall sake sales are flat as Japanese diners increasingly choose beer, wine and shochu (a distilled liquor).

"Times are hard at the moment," says Philip Harper, a native of Cornwall in the United Kingdom who is one of the few non-Japanese toji in Japan's history. "It's not possible to sit back and do business as usual. Breweries are more conscious now of the need to be stressing regional identity."

Timken credits brewery owners for driving the return to terroir, and not only because using local ingredients is cheaper than trucking in rice.

"The current crop of owners of breweries are global guys," Timken says. "Their fathers are not.

They've been to Europe, they've been to the U.S. They're coming home and deciding to respect what's local."

In 2004, Yamagata sakes took more gold medals at Japan's National New Sake Tasting Contest than Niigata sakes, which usually dominate. Yamagata sakes are high in umami, the fifth flavor, according to Harper, who also writes books about sake.

New rice developed

Yamagata sakes began to find more fans after research scientist Toshiki Koseki created a new strain of rice, Dewasansan, that's better suited to the region's hot summers and cold, snowy winters than Yamada Nishiki. Koseki worked on the rice for 10 years before releasing it to local breweries in 1996. Dewasansan is now trumpeted on the label of many Yamagata sake bottles in the same way as Intel advertises its silicon chips inside various companies' computers.

"Dewasansan is more complex than Yamada Nishiki," Koseki says. "When sake went down in popularity, I wanted to help by improving the quality of sake."

But far more than rice sets Niigata and Yamagata apart. Timken says most Niigata brewers heavily charcoal-filter their sakes.

"They strip everything out. There's never any flaws in Niigata sake," Timken says.

While this would seem to mean there is no more terroir in Niigata, it's not true: Niigata's terroir springs from water. Other regions with hard water -- Kobe, for example -- can easily mimic Niigata's style. A brewery in a region with soft water, like Kyoto, would find it almost impossible.
Indeed, a good Niigata sake sometimes tastes like a good vodka, only much lower in alcohol. Most sakes from all regions have an alcohol percentage between 15 and 18 percent, similar to a California Zinfandel or port-style wine.

Of Yamagata, Timken says, "I think they make intelligent sake. Their sakes have full aroma and full depth of flavor. They're just deeper brews." But he says they are less like each other than Niigata sakes are like each other because Yamagata breweries depend more on the vagaries of nature, such as participation by local yeasts.

If Yamagata sakes are of a type, it is mostly defined by what they are not: simple. They are more fruity and floral than other sakes, but one might taste of mango and another of Thompson seedless grapes.

Which style is better: Niigata or Yamagata? Neither is by definition. It depends on what you're eating.

Pairing sake with food

"Cuisine dictates the flavor of sake," Timken says. "If you live near the ocean, like in Shizuoka or Miyagi, where they eat a lot of seafood, they make lower-acidity sakes to complement their cuisine. Up in the mountains, the breweries make more dense, higher-acidity sakes to go with mountain potatoes, game, that sort of thing."

Hiro Sone, owner and chef of Ame restaurant in San Francisco and Terra in St. Helena, says his favorite Niigata sakes are "almighty. You can drink them with almost anything. Of course sashimi goes well, especially white-flesh fish. Because they have a strong backbone, they can take chicken or quail, too."

Hector Osuna, wine director at Eos in San Francisco, recently had a Niigata sake (Shirataki Ginjo) and a Yamagata sake (Ohyama Junmai) on the wine list.

"The Niigata sake I really loved with oysters," Osuna says. "A lot of people at our establishment have sake with oysters."

Osuna paired the Yamagata sake with sake-steamed halibut with soy-sake broth, Asian aromatic herb broth and root vegetables. "The structure and the pear, apple and mineral aromatics that came out of the sake fit well," Osuna says.

Yoshi Tome, owner of Sushi Ran in Sausalito, says that when he gets a particularly terroir-driven sake, he likes to highlight it with a traditional regional pairing, such as delicate sake from northern Akita prefecture with white-flesh fish sashimi, and hearty, dry, bold sake from warm, humid Kumamoto, one of Japan's southernmost regions, with stronger flavored foods like mackerel in miso.

This kind of food pairing is a new-old idea. A century ago, local people ate the food they caught, hunted or grew with sake from the local brewery, which was meant to be a perfect match.

Then breweries found technological ways like refrigerated fermentation, and rice and yeast from other regions, to change the way sake tastes. For decades, regional character was widely ignored.

Now that it's back in vogue, one of the most delicious beverages in the world is even more fascinating. Dirt may not matter, but more and more, terroir does.


Vaughn Wood said...

Thank you for your insight. I had Sake for the first time last week at a local Sushi bar. I didn't realize that you can have it hot or cold. I tried the house Sake both hot and cold. Perhaps it's my American taste buds, but I definently preferred it cold. I noticed they also served a carbonated version. I enjoyed the smooth and pure sensation with each sip. Thanks for your recommendation in your article.


Rick Matz said...

Carbonated sake? I never heard of it, but it sounds interesting. I think warm sake is a lot easier to drink than cold sake.

There is nothing, NOTHING worse than a sake hangover. Trust me.

Anonymous said...

Just had Sake for the first time and let me tell you...I had the WORST hangover I have ever had! Especially when compared with the relatively small amount of Sake I drank compared to my usual consumption of wines or liquor.