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Sake Spotlight - Miwa Goes to "Misty Bay"

"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.

This month the Sake Professional and Sake Sommelier Miwa Wang - a true sake goddess - takes a look at one of the best branded sake breweries in Japan. (Best branded because they make great sake that appeals to a whole host of consumers.) Miwa ventured to the "source" and has a soft spot for this great kura:

Miwa goes to "Misty Bay"

UrakasumiUrakasumi (my neighbor calls it "You rock, Sumi!") is one of the very first sakes I had when I started at True Sake. In January of this year, along with my sake drinking partner David, I was fortunate enough to visit the Urakasumi Brewery in Miyagi prefecture. For the past 280 years, they have been making sake in the coastal city of Shiogama, which loosely translates to "Salt Pot".The name of the brewery comes from a poem written by a Kamakura period general, Minamoto no Sanetomo. Describing the area of Shiogama, the poem mentions words "ura" (bay) and "kasumi" (mist). Combined, the name Urakasumi came to be used in the last century.

It is January 15th. I printed a map from Google Japan and got on a train in Tokyo to visit a part of Japan that I had never been to before. After a pleasant three hour ride, I stepped out of the station with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. To get oriented correctly, I asked the station master for directions. Showing him the map, I was expecting a few directional hand gestures; instead, he offered to walk us to the brewery. On our walk, he said the city of Shiogama had the largest number of sushi restaurants per capita in Japan and told us we should revisit the town during their famous tuna season. We nodded our heads immediately, signaling our perfect agreement with his suggestion.

After a few minutes walk, there it was: U.R.A.K.A.S.U.M.I. It was 1:45 pm. Our appointment was at 2:00 pm sharp. I took some pictures of the quaint store front. At 1:55 pm we walked into the store to introduce ourselves. The woman nodded and quietly led us through a gate right next to the store. There, we were met by a sales person and the brewing master, a serious sort, who carried himself with a sense of purpose. After twenty minutes of introduction and Q&A, we stepped into the brewery of "Misty Bay". The rising white steam from the rice steamer dominated my sight. It was mysteriously beautiful. Then, the aroma of fermenting rice looming in the brewery hit my nose.

At the rice washing area, I saw several square metal boxes in a row, designed to pivot down on top of a metal axle. I'd never seen this before in other breweries and asked what it was for. Simply put, it offered easy access for the people moving the rice out of the box by hand. In the steam area, David noticed a gutter running along the inside of the roof line. Its purpose was twofold. It was used to collect residual condensation that developed in the ceiling in order to protect the building. This allowed the roof hatches to be closed permanently during the steaming, so that the neighbors would not keep calling the fire department thinking there was a fire. This happened quite often.

In the sake pressing area, there it was: a classic wooden "fune". An old antique pressing device still being used today. There were three huge logs that provided the weight needed to do the actual pressing. It was constructed on a pulley so that it could be operated by one person. To make a long story short, this place was like the house of an inventor: many hand-made tools designed to make great sake. At the end of the two hour tour we were back in the seating area and tasted a few Urakasumi sakes, including the Junmai I am going to tell you about.

Awhile back I had heard that Urakasumi uses eating rice varieties for some of their sake. Indeed, Urakasumi Junmai is made from rice called Manamusume, a varietal used for eating, which was hybridized from two other rice strains twenty years ago in Miyagi. Typically, premium sakes are made from brewing rice varietals, which are larger in size, have less protein and contain "sinpaku", the white core that is key to promoting koji growth. They also grow taller and are more expensive. I kept thinking they must be very skilled to create such great sake from rice with lesser attributes than brewing rice offers.

Moving fast forward to June: here I am, again at home, with a bottle of Urakasumi Junmai. Now that the precious summer-like days in San Francisco are gone, and our old friend the fog is cooling the entire city to the temperature of late autumn-brrrrrr, I decided to enjoy the sake warm, as well as room temp, and cold.

It is 6:30 pm. The temperature of sake is 46 Fahrenheit, which reflects a bottle of sake being taken out of a refrigerator and poured into an un-chilled glass. Although this might be bit too cold, I figured many home drinkers experience sake at this temperature. The scent from the open bottle has slightly salty aroma and a gentle floral tone. In the glass however, the sake gives off a hint of cream and the smell of steamed rice, which is exactly what the brewery smelled like. This blend of grain and cream reminds me very much of cinnamon toast. When I take my first sip I'm reminded of "bekko ame", a Japanese hard candy the color of amber, followed by the impression of rice and the feel of mineral water. As the sake flows down my throat, what's left behind is "kire", which loosely translates as the feeling of a quick finish with a kind of tart sensation that is very slight. It is like what you feel in your mouth after biting into a wooden popsicle stick.

Chilled, this sake drinks extremely neat, meaning clean with well balanced flavors and a mouth feel that is neither light nor heavy. Although I make a reference to sugar a few times, this sake is not sweet.

By now, the bottle has been sitting at room temperature for about a half hour. I pour yet another glass. This time the sake is at 58F, still with a cool feel. To my surprise the sake holds the same elements as before, yet with a different emphasis. More creaminess and salt-like mineral tones hit first, followed by gentle cooked sugar tone. Because of salty air-ness in this sake, I think of ocean food-after all the city of Shiogama is about sushi. As the sake comes to a room temperature, I notice a quiet sizzling sensation on the palette and a light layer of "umami"-yummy-ness I call it. This savory feel is a pleasant surprise.

As I warm my sake, I took a quick sip, with the temp at 63F. The weight of the sake is lighter and slightly acidic. At 115F, on the verge of being hot, the sake feels elegantly airy, fruity and floral with almost no trace of acidity. At this temperature, every flavor elements is pronounced, sitting in harmony with each other. Although the liquid is warm to the touch, there is a cooling sensation on the palette, like a breeze you feel on a hot day. Urakasumi Junmai is like an old friend. No matter what your situation is, it offers wisdom of taste.

I always felt that the cold summer days of San Francisco are suited for good warm sake. We've all had bad piping hot sake, and people always question about cold vs. hot. The truth is there is a world of "okan-zake", which is warm sake that is yet to be explored. Think of weather, think of food, think of your mood. And take a well-built Junmai (or hearty Junmai Ginjo) and please taste it at different temperatures. For more suggestions, always feel free to come by and ask me. Kanpai!

Thank you Miwa - can almost see the brewery now! (On a weird side- note, I always like opening boxes of sake from Japan because more often then not the smell of the kura comes out when you cut through a sealed case - one of my favorite boxes to open comes from Urakasumi.) The owner of this brewery - a true friend - is one of the hardest workers in the sake business. Koichi Saura is a monster in the sake industry! And I mean monster in the sense that he is of "huge" stature - greatly appreciated by all fellow brewers. Saura-san just stepped down as President of the "young brewers association" the group that really tries to get out and market the heck out of sake. He is personally responsible for creating many different "outreach" efforts such as "The Sake Samurai Association" of which I am a founding member.

I am sad to say that I have never had the chance to visit his kura - yet! So I am completely jealous and envious of Miwa and David and their trip to "Misty Bay." What I like about this brewery is that they make superb sake - always balanced and extremely "sake-like" - which is refreshing in this day of making sake taste like so many different "things." We sell three of their brews - the Junmai, the Junmai Ginjo "Zen" which is regarded as one of the top "Ginjos" in Japan, and their Junmai Dai Ginjo. All three brews are superb!

Lastly, I recall a conversation that I had with Saura-san three months ago when I asked him flat out - "What's up with the whole Uragasumi vs. the Urakasumi spelling and pronunciation?" He laughed and said that it was his dad's fault! His father preferred the "Uragasumi" spelling and pronunciation, but Koichi said that is not how it should be pronounced, and if you see it written or hear it said that way then the person doing the talking is an "older" gentleman who did so during the generation of his father.

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