November 2007

Sake Spotlight - Yours Truly Looks At "The Pick-Up Artist"

Posted by admin in 2007, Newsletter, November, Sake Spotlight

sake spotlight nov 2007"Sake Spotlight" is a unique section within the Newsletter that takes a closer look at specific sakes that may be purchased at True Sake. I approach different professionals within the industry to give their perspectives and insights to the how, what and why's for very special sakes. These insiders are importers, brewers, authors, sake sommeliers, or just enthusiasts who will take your knowledge base a little further. What I like about this segment is that often my review is quite different than that of the guest professional's adding to the point that there is no right or wrong when discussing your opinion about sake.

Typically I do not "do" the Sake Spotlight. But I have just returned from a very atypical trip to Japan and brewed sake at a very atypical brewery so I couldn't resist shining a little light a cool kura.

I went to Yamagata to stay with my dear friend Masao Aisawa from the brewery Takenotsuyu (we sell four of his brews.) Ideally I wanted to brew with my pal, but he did not start his brewing season until November 1st. So instead of spending all of my time cleaning his brewery before the season commenced - yes I literally cleaned his floors and koji room etc - he offered to take me to Kudoki Jozu for two days of hands-on brewing. (An offer that I seized with much excitement and trepidation.) Why? Because Kudoki Jozu has a reputation for being a very "clean" operation, one that might feel burdened by hosting some hairy white boy.

Well suffice it to say the kuramoto Shunji Imai and his son Toshifumi Imai "Executive Director" made me feel like royalty - word about the sake freak in San Francisco had made its way to their beautiful brewery so they were pretty pleased to impart true sake knowledge on me.

For two days I sweated with father and son in their koji room making excellent Ginjo sake, and for two days I felt like a god! I will say here and now that this experience reminded me once again how labor intensive it is to make a bottle of sake. I often forget the trials and tribulations - the seconds that count - the temperatures that need to be perfect - the corners that can never be cut. It is hard as hell! Sure there are machines to ease the process, but god damn there is so much at play at any given minute or hour. (This is and was a good reminder for me as I again look and taste each bottle of sake in my newly rediscovered appreciation for this fact.)

I will write more about making sake Beau's way - tongue firmly planted in cheek - in a later Newsletter, but for now I would like to discuss this great brewery.

Kamenoi Shuzo (the brewery's name) was founded in 1875 in Yamagata Prefecture. Mr. Imai is a fifth generation owner and his son Toshifumi represents the sixth. A promotional handout that they gave me states that their "Theme" is "All Ginjo-shu, Focusing on Yeast Number 10." A pretty cool and bold statement that basically states that we don't mess around with a vast array of products rather we focus on doing a small segment very well and very controlled as we limit the use of our resources. They sell roughly 130,000 1.8L bottles per season and roughly 80% of their product is "Junmai variety" meaning they don't add much brewer's alcohol to their product line.

Ten years ago the Imai family rebuilt the majority of their kura. The emphasis was creating a state of the art low-temperature storage facility to enable further quality control over their product. These guys take "neat-freaks" to a totally new level. It is truly the cleanest and most refined brewery that I have been in. I heard the words cleanliness and order a lot over those two days - and to think the dirty hairy American chimp was digging his bug infested fingers into their pure divine rice.

Again they specialize in Kobo #10 or as they say "Ogawa No. 10" that "yields sake with a relatively low acidity, both soft and elegant in flavor and aroma." For me this yeast always has an apple-like aroma and typically produces velvety flavors. They use ten different rice varietals but the workhorse is Miyamanishiki. Kudoki Jozu also uses Yamadanishiki, Omachi, Kame no O and their very own rice specimen called Mirai, which they and only they cultivated and use in production.

On the food front the local cuisine is superb, as they possess an abundance of amazing fruits and veggies and the best offerings from the Sea of Japan. This area is like a surf and turf dream come true, and the sakes of this region really compliment these amazing flavors. At two different drinking events a majority of the guests brought their own food offerings from killer vegetables/pickles etc to fresh and smoked fish dishes. I was pretty impressed!

I have purposely waited to speak about the "brand" called Kudoki Jozu. Why? Because the translated name is outstanding and very intentional. I had a 30-minute discussion about the origins and intent of this name and I am still a bit unclear. There are two ways to name this brew, as I understood it. One had to do with impeccable loyalty! The second had to do with a term that we all know and love - The Pick Up Artist - as in the smooth guy that makes good with the ladies. Both mean a lot. They are incredibly loyal to the making of sake and are equally loyal to their customers. And secondly they feel that their brews have a quality that makes an incredible impression. I asked quite frankly "Do you mean that you make sake that chicks like?" and Shunji laughed and said no, rather we make sakes that captivate.

If you take a look at this month's "New Store Arrivals" you will see my review for the only product available in the US - the Junmai Ginjo. Currently we are offering this sake only in the 300ml bottle and 1.8L on account of the fact that the 720ml and inventories are old - over two years old. And yes I told Mr. Imai this and he said that he would "look into it" with creased eyebrows. Eventually we will carry the 720ml size. I mention this however because I personally purchase and enjoy this older version of the brew. (Remember my motto - I drink bad sake so you don't have to! This is typically true of other older or damaged brews, but I really like the flavor of Kudoki Jozu in an "off" state.) Miwa - the store's manager - and I were talking about selling the older brew to those who would want to explore sake in a differing condition. This would be considered a No-No in the sake selling industry, but we are not like that at True Sake. I believe that sake that is made well will drink well under most conditions. We like proving that point all of the time! So if you would be interested in trying sakes that we have identified as being "good" in other states of condition please send us an email with the words "Sake Explorers Club" (I just made that up) in the Subject Line to our info @ email address. And we will consider the merits of offering certain brews that should be off of the radar.

For this review, as I am gushing about this brewery, I will mention two brews that Mr. Imai gave to me to try in Yamagata. Sadly, they are not available here in the US. But if you find yourself in Japan, by all means grab a bottle or ten. The first was a 720ml black frosted bottle of Dai Ginjo, and the second was a proprietary offering that will knock your socks off. (This 300ml bottle is in the photo with no label and a hanging tag that says Frozen Sake Concentrate in Japanese - hand written by Mr. Imai.)

Kudoki Jozu Dai Ginjo "Pick-Up Artist"
From Yamagata Prefecture.
Dai Ginjo.
Yamadanishiki 35%.
SMV: +3 Acidity:1.0
The nose on this Dai Ginjo is filled with blueberry, mineral, green apple, and peach elements. Wow! What an expansive sake filled with layers of vibrant and full-bodied fruit tones on a fat and juicy fluid rush. Huge attitude is supported by tremendous guts as this brew does not drink sweet, rather it has a hint of crispness, which is odd considering the thickness. Round and full with a disappearing acidity play this ghost leaves your mouth "slimed" in the best sense.
WORD: Expansive
WINE: Bordeaux/French Chardonnay
BEER: Huge Belgians
FOODS: Shellfish, pate, caviar, great breads.
Kudoki Jozu "Concentrated Junmai Dai Ginjo" 
It's not often that a head brewer/owner of a brewery will give somebody an un-labeled bottle of sake and say "here take it and enjoy." Take what? Basically I was given a bit of sake modern- history with a handwritten tag that said "Frozen Sake Concentrate." (A truly a unique brew in the sake brewing industry that is made by concentrating the final product.) This process uses a machine that freezes the water in the finished sake to remove roughly 30% of the 80% total water in a completed brew. The machine can produce 8 X 1.8L per day, and there are only four of these machines in Japan. The point of this special brew is to raise the alcohol content without losing flavor and feel. After this sake was fermented and completed the sake had these measurements:

    SMV: +1 Alc: 17.5% Acidity: 1.5 and Amino Acids: 1.1

Then Mr. Imai used the "machine" to achieve the measurements:

    SMV: +5 Alc: 22% Acidity: 1.7 and Amino Acids: 1.5

Basically a sake that has been dried! The nose was immense with loads of grape and blueberry elements. Talk about a vast and chewy sake! This beast had a smooth front with large impact. Deep and loaded with grape tones there was a definite "appearance" of booze. Bold and brash, but still very velvety and very elegant. The depth was tantalizing and the overall drinking experience was complex and frisky.
WORD: Deep
WINE: Beaujolais
BEER: Stouts
FOODS: Anything edible!

My adventure at Kamenoi Shuzo was highlighted by the fact that Mr. Imai not only owns the brewery, but he is the toji as well. He is the man! And as he said to me, it was up to an owner of a kura to spot trends and see how and what sakes customers like, and it was up to a toji to focus on making great sake. When you are both, essentially you are ahead of the game. There is a growing trend in the brewing world to be both owner and toji, and Mr. Imai has been doing this for a very long time. (He is pretty humble, but he did say that he made "one mistake once" which resulted in a blown batch of sake. I asked if he ever made the mistake again and he looked at me as if I were crazy). I think that the flavor and feel of his brews are a testament to this approach. Good people - Good sake.

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