April 2014

Sake Styles – The Theme of Akita Sake

Posted by Beau Timken in 2014, April, Newsletter, Sake Style
Akita Style 1 I just returned from Akita Prefecture where I visited almost a quarter of the 39 breweries that are currently producing sake in this northern Tohoku region. Why did I pick Akita? Well, we sell a lot of Akita sake at the store, and I just so happen to like Akita sake. But I knew nothing about it, and had never been, which made this sake destination a wonderful one.

I often get asked, “Is there terroir in the sake business?” Meaning, like wine, do different prefectures or areas make different flavored sakes because of the natural elements needed for making wine or sake? My answer is a big fat “Not really.” Most breweries buy their raw materials from some other prefectures and only use their local water. There is a movement to using local ingredients such as brewing rice and cultivating their own house yeasts etc, but on the whole the “concept’ of terroir does not really exist in the raw materials aspect. But there is a certain terroir-like element in the way that sake makers produce sakes in different regions.

Akita Style 2There are some sake generalities when it comes to what each prefecture’s sakes taste like as a region. For example my last trip to Japan found me in the heart of Ishikawa prefecture where they make a style of sake that can be described as big and full-bodied with a lot of “yamahai-style” sakes that drink very large and very flavorful. And the trip before that saw me in Niigata Prefecture where they are notorious for making light and dry and super clean sakes that are almost the opposite of Ishikawa sakes. Nevertheless these are generalities of how the sakes are made and consequently taste. So what do Akita sakes taste like? That is what I went to find out.

One of the perks of being in the sake biz is that the owners typically escort me around their brewery. I am eternally grateful for this because I get to learn so much more about the each kura and I get to ask the millions and millions of question that burn within my enquiring mind. I usually ask the same questions at some point during the meetings before the actual tours. And one of the more difficult questions revolves around the “generalities” of the prefecture in terms of flavor and taste of their sake.

Akita Style 3“What is the theme of Akita sake?” I would ask. And then an answer usually popped up in the next ten to fifteen minutes. In most cases they don’t quite get the gist of the question and I have to give some examples and then the light goes on. More often than not themes do come to the surface as they did in Akita.

Each brewery owner who I met with said basically the same thing about what Akita sake used to taste like over 10 years ago. They mentioned that on account of the fact that Akita cuisine tends to be salty the sake was made sweeter and with more viscosity. (Basically fatter and sweeter sake that was heavy and had a lot of body) Today they said almost to a person that Akita sake still has good body – good feeling – but does not have that heaviness. I heard the word body a lot. They like sake that covers the palate and is not super thin or water-like. I heard the word “structure” a lot as well and both of these words came before flavor, which was interesting.

Akita Style 4Some of the owners then started to differ on their theme of Akita sake. Some said that Akita sake is still on the sweeter side, fruitier, and still has full flavor, while others said that Akita sake is now on the dryer side with a quick finish. One of the owners said that Akita sake had changed from fat and sweet to a “rich” taste with a clean body. And there was that word again, body! Several kuramotos made a point of highlighting the sweetness of the rice itself, and that the people of Akita like the flavor of sweet rich rice with a lot of umami.

To generalize I would say that most of the owners who I spoke with would say that Akita sake focuses on feeling as much as flavor. They would say that their sake is full in the palate and would edge toward a sweeter flavor. They would also add that their sake tastes like it has more body but drinks light. If I had to compare a prefecture’s sake to Akita’s it would probably be Yamagata. I think that Akita focuses a little bit more on how the sake feels on the pallet as in more body, but it has similarities to the flavor profiles of Yamagata sake.

Key Words To Describe Akita Sake:
  • Body
  • Rich
  • Structure
  • Round
  • Sweet
  • Ricy
  • Velvety

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