June 2008

Sake Relevance - The Imai "Five"

Posted by admin in 2008, June, Newsletter

sake relevance june 2008He's one of the coolest guys in the sake-making world and I am a dweeb! He owns a killer brewery and oh - just so happens to be the toji "head brewer," and I am a water and rice loser. And of course he is a brilliant guy with a great family and I am a sake "mo-ron" - said in my best "Animal House" voice." So why in the heck did Shunji Imai and his son Toshi make an out-of-the way trip to True Sake? To get a "Double-Double" from In-and-Out Burger silly!

If you will recall - last October I changed from "hairy foreigner" aka "geijin" to "kurabito" aka "brewery worker" in Yamagata prefecture for several superb days of making tremendous sake. Please read the November 2007 Newsletter to get a better feel about the brewery that produces a sake called "Kudoki Jozu" or as your grandmother would interpret it - "The Pick-Up Artist."

Shunji and Toshi wanted to visit True Sake badly, so I put them both to work for the day selling their sake, autographing bottles and of course taking many photos. Customers were treated to info overload, business cards from the owner and many offers to visit their excellent brewery in Japan. In return for their working skills I then took them on a driving tour of SF, which of course featured a much-desired stop at "In-And-Out Burger." (Toshi thought that a Big Mac was the ultimate burger!)

We then had dinner at a Japanese-Hawaiian fusion restaurant where I produced two of Shunji's sakes for pairing with pineapple and pork! (The Junmai Ginjo that we sell and a Junmai Dai Ginjo that I brought back from their brewery - man I wish we could carry this sake - so superb!)

As I typically ask the same questions of brewers and brewery owners - for consistency purposes - I decided to go "softer" with one of the "hard" guys in the nihonshu game! Herewith is my five-question interview with a stalwart in the rice and water game:

BT: What year was your favorite brewing year and why (keep in mind that he wears two hats - kuramoto = owner and toji = head brewer)?

He said 1991 very quickly! Surprisingly so. In 1991 they completely changed their koji room. This is huge! Ask any brewer. Ask anybody! When you change your koji room (the very temperature-controlled room where brewers introduce a powerful mold to steamed rice to start the saccharification process) you are messing with the "guts" of a sake making process. If you make an entirely new koji room it is like removing the tips of your fingers to have no fingerprints! You are gone. The essence of your brew is changed - forever! Sometimes for the better and often for the worse in the short run. Sometimes the "essence" of your brewery is captured in the moist wood walls of the koji room, and this "essence" is there year in and year out for decades and centuries. It is like a proprietary component that you cannot replicate in any way, form, or fashion. And in 1991 he took his history and ousted it! A very ballsy move that usually conjures up more bad memories than good!1991 was also the year that they hired a new group of brewery helpers. As Shunji said the process of training and bringing new helpers up to speed is three years. But this class was well-trained to begin with, so he was fond of this year because he made a radical change and it paid off and he also hand-picked great employees who are all still employed at the kura (except one who was the best of the lot - he became the koji professional at the brewery - but died of Leukemia).

Shunji said that the year that his head koji maker died - 2003 - was also the year that the brewery invested in an automated koji (rotating) machine that replaced his koji captain. He said that 2003 was his second favorite year! Both of his selections as his favorite brewing years were filled with great change, something that brewers loathe. I find that very ironic and telling.

BT: What do you enjoy most about making sake?

He said that enjoys the winter! I asked him to explain and he responded that as owner of a brewery he has so much to do all of the time. Purchasing, organizing, orchestrating etc and he is always on- call and distracted. But when winter comes he gets to take off this hat and put on his brewing mindset! He gets to focus on nothing but making sake. He "loves" this. The sheer bliss of pure focus on crafting great sake is his absolute favorite aspect of the sake industry.Of course I had to follow that up and ask what is the most frustrating aspect of making sake? Without hesitation he said training kurabito. (When he said this he shot a look across the table at his son Toshi who last fall went back to Yamagata from NYC to help his dad make sake.) He also added that on the positive side of making sake is that he always tries new things in the process or product line. But he is endlessly frustrated by what the industry thinks of new things.

Lastly, he took out a piece of paper and a pencil (yes a pencil) and drew a stick figure standing on a sheer cliff edge. Toshi translated that his dad "always feels like he is standing on the edge of cliff when brewing sake each season." I said why? He said that it was the pressure of succeeding each year. (Imai-san is very much driven by the National Sake Competition in Hiroshima each year and is quite proud of his room of Gold Medal certificates)

BT: What is the most important step for you when making sake? Each brewer has a different "most important" step, what is yours?

Like a flash he said the "koji." Then he quickly said "shubo" and paused then said the "moromi." This is the "gold standard" of responses when you ask any brewer what's the most important step for making sake - or the step that is the easiest to screw up. There is a little poem/jingle that goes in this order as well - Koji, Shubo, Moromi! (I wasn't going to translate these brewing terms as I have said this before many times - but for those new to the rag: Koji = the spreading/inoculating of the steamed rice with koji (Aspergillus Oryzae)) mold spores, Shubo = the yeast starter - think of bread making - that produces a concentrated yeast fluid for better fermentation - Moromi = the actual brewing process of adding all of the elements and allowing them to do their thing for roughly 30 days of fermentation.)

BT: When people drink Kudoki Junmai Ginjo what should they look for?

Our sake has lower acidic properties and as such we strive to make fine and clear sake that drinks clean and soft but has huge body. The taste has rice qualities, which are determined by the quality of rice that season. Our sake has very pronounced aromatic qualities that translate into the flavor of the sake. We use a very good kobo (yeast - Association #10) that works well with our Miyamanishiki brewing rice. Look for clean qualities that have a good complexity.At this point - Shunji-san leaned over and said "Beau do you think our sake is too dry?" "We are thinking of making it a little more sweet." I burst out a loud NO! I then explained that there is such a trend by the majority of our brewers to go sweeter! In the last 6 years I have noticed a sweetening of sorts, where normally dry and ricey brews have gone fruity and sweet. I think that this is a disturbing trend, but may very well speak to drinkers who like more body and upfront flavor. (I spoke of this in the last newsletter - May'08 - at the International Wine Challenge event that I judged at in London) My firm "No!" took Shunji back but a large smile came across his face and he said "good!" He followed that up with a "Don't worry Beau-san."

BT: What is one thing that you can tell my readers that they have never heard before in the sake-making world?

"How about rice quality?" Shunji asked. "In what sense?" I fired back. We then had a 30-minute discussion about weather and what that does to influence the flavor of sake. (As many of you in the biz know - somebody will spend 20 minutes telling you something and you think that you understand and then they say something completely the opposite and you are left scratching your head. This is what happened right about here. Basically I gathered that there were acidic properties in rice even before it is converted to glucose, that were significant enough to change the final product. But alas after convincing me of this Shunji said "no there are no acids in rice." I was thinking fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated that are known to influence the aroma of sake). Well not enough to change the balance and flavor of a final product. Hmmmmmmmm.)After unwinding this 20 minute shpleel I did gather the following: When one speaks of rice crops there are two certainties - 1) if it is a particularly hot summer then the rice becomes hard and is harder to ferment with 2) if it is a cool summer then the rice stays soft and has better permeability for the koji mold to greet the "shinpaku." Hot equals bad and cold equals good! This is where Shunji said that sunny summers produce more acidity and colder summers produce lower acidity. But what he then explained is that rice that has had "sunny summers" has more balance when fermenting - producing a better-balanced sake. Likewise colder summers produce a better fermenting rice that actually has less balance and the result is that this imbalanced rice can ferment bigger and better in some ways or not well in other ways - a more hit or miss! (But the overall result is a bigger achievable flavor!)

Damn! Welcome to my world! Just think that when a kernel of rice is too hard - or harder than usual - it doesn't mill well, absorb water well, steam well, take mold well and generally is harder to make work! Whereas softer rice does mill, absorb, steam well, and takes mold better.

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