June 2006

The "Sound of Sake" – How Sake Makes Music & The Role of Amino Acids

Posted by Beau Timken in 2006, June, Newsletter

sake clubRoughly two years ago, a customer – who is far more intelligent than I – brought me an article written in a scientific magazine (no not Maxim) that appealed to those with large brains. This tech rag had an article about a Japanese inventor at JVC who had been trying to bend wood to make the perfect speaker cone for JVC speakers.

Well lo and behold the article has again surfaced but this time in a magazine that is pitched more to my mindset (no not Maxim), and basically it says the same thing about the frustrated engineer who was trying for years to make birch wood bend without cracking.

Departures Magazine – May 2006 (Frank Vizard)"The Sound Of Sake" – Satoshi Imamura, an engineer for JVC, had been trying for years to mold speaker cones from wood. When he tried with birch, a superb sound enhancer, it cracked. Then one evening in a restaurant, it hit him. He asked the waiter how the chef got his dried squid so chewy and was told it had been soaked in sake. So Imamura did the same with birch and found that he could bend it into a cone, thanks to the amino acids. The resulting line of speakers ($1,300-$1,700 a pair) has remarkable range and clarity – enough to convince even the most serious audiophiles."

This article resonates with me on two levels. The first is the age- old adage that "anything is a good idea when you are liquored up." Secondly the fact about the amino acids, which plays a huge role in the feeling of a sake, strikes a cord for those who want to know why some sakes drink thicker than others and why some sakes are better for aging than others.

When I receive a prospectus about a sake that I am about to review the brewers will always enclose the Nihonshu-do (Sake Meter Value – SMV), the San-do (which is the overall acidity level) and the Amino- sando (where they separate out the amino acid levels). But more often than not, the brewers will short cut the Amino Acid number thinking that nobody really cares. Oh but we do! Why?

One could generalize and say that the San-Do or acidity level is the driver for the flavor of the sake, whereas the Amino-sando is the driver for the feeling of the sake. Thus, when one has a low Amino Acid level the sake could be watery or too thin (so much so that the imbalance affects the flavor as well). Likewise, if the Amino Acid levels are too high one can expect a sake that is almost too chunky to the point of being funky.

The range for Amino-sando is about 0.7 – 1.4 and this probably doesn't mean much, as 100's of years of brewing have taught the makers that nothing works outside of this narrow spread. Point being, the range is so tight and most sakes hover right around the same Amino-sando number and that's just the way it is!

But I have had tons of conversations with brewers about their Amino Acids and what a brewer can do with them to maximize a particular sake over another, like tweaking an engine for more performance. And most agree to disagree what the perfect levels and ranges are and should be (remember they are all dealing with different raw materials that respond so differently to the Amino Acids). The bottom line is that some brewers like a plumper feel with their brews and jack the Amino Acids up, and others feel that a lower presence allows for more flavor flow!

Lastly, when one lays down a bottle of sake – aging or "Koshu" sakes – the brewers again differ on which type of higher or lower amino counts make for the better aged sake. Personally, I find that I prefer the fatter sakes with higher Amino Acids to age. They just get more expressive for me, as the nutty, musky, earthy elements explode more, and this may perhaps be another reason as to why the oh so elusive and vague "umami" characteristic comes forth driven by the Amino Acid count in sakes that are not aged.

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