July 2008

Sake Magic - It's The Water Stoopid

Posted by admin in 2008, July, Newsletter

sake magic july 2008It's all about the rice right? "Rice Wine" "The rice-based alcohol" "Wine made with rice" "Rice juice" "The Rice Is Right" (they don't say that - just made it up)"That rice drink." There are so many "expressions" about sake, because nine out of ten dentists just know vaguely that it is made with rice and that is the greatest differentiator between sake and wine or vodka. When one thinks of sake they automatically think of rice. Justifiably so! We have been conditioned to know that it is a rice booze from Japan. But what we are never told is that unlike wine, which is grape juice - no water added - sake's final product is made up of 80% water.

The emphasis is indeed rice! Read the label and the rice is mentioned automatically and importantly because many Japanese consumers will buy sake based on what type of rice is used and where the rice comes from. Rice for lack of a better word is featured! It is the meat and potatoes of the sake and the one thing that consumers can quantify in terms of purchasing comprehension. Which leads me to expose the great "mystical" element in sake that has fallen prey to marketing, mentioning, story telling, lore, mysticism, and a myriad of other selling anecdotes that best "quantifies" perhaps the "almost as important" ingredient in sake making - water. Know thy rice - but have faith in thy water!

Water is as much to the history of sake as rice itself. It is a co- partner. It is an equal. Or in divorce terms it is 50% common property. The only problem is water is not as sexy as rice. You cannot sell a bottle of sake because of the water! A producer cannot say our rice blows but our brewing water is superb! Quite the opposite is truly the norm in the industry. The result is that water has been devalued to second-class status, but in reality it is the true core of the industry and has a historical note second to none.

If you have read this newsletter for at least a month or two you will most obviously know that the better a brewery's water the better the final product. Some breweries are blessed with good water and some breweries are not. Historically Japan had/has two "brilliant" water centers - Kobe and Kyoto - where the water was so supreme that sake grew on trees. Okay this is a slight exaggeration! Nevertheless these two areas were known for amazing water composition that resulted in perfect fermentation and end product. Kyoto was known for a very soft water that spawned the "colloquial" designation of feminine sake, and Kobe was gifted with a powerful liquid known as "Miyamizu" that was the end result of water that flowed from a mountain and passed up through a layer of shell deposits at seaside and produced a "hard" water that made "perfect" sake. Both of these areas house the most breweries per capita in Japan because of the water!

Japan itself does not have hard water per se. You will find harder the world over. Quite frankly the island nation has quite soft water in general. What makes water hard versus soft? I'm thinking wikipedia here folks. But the bottom line comes down to the composition - less iron and other "hard" elements. Iron is a killer! (Think volcanic Island chain with lots and lots of minerals in the mix.) One brewer said that it takes 5,000 years for his water to get from the mountain range two miles away to the well on his property. It's not the down hill racing of water, rather it is the extremely long journey of water coming up through three hundred meters of earth crust that acts as a filter to relieve the volcanic properties. Many attribute the water composition - sake benefits - to the fact that water moves in Japan. Huh? Water moves in Japan! No truer statement has been "whack- a-moled" on this keyboard tonight. Japan is a volcanic island chain; ergo not many flatlands dot the nation. As such there are far more rivers than lakes. Water is almost constantly in motion throughout the abundant valley and mountain terrain. Think a sand drip castle at the beach! Water flows - it moves - and there is absolutely no space for it to stagnate. Funny enough that is all above ground! Think of the liquid slip and slide that resides underneath a volcanic island!

Hard or soft - iron heavy or iron light - some folks have good brewing water and some don't. But there is always a story! This is where the "mystical" aspect of water comes into play. I visited a brewery in Hyogo Prefecture and per usual I asked to see their "water source." I ask this because some brewers cherish this part of their kura and have a little shrine or "highlight" their water in some capacity. And some do not! For example the brewery down south that has their "water source" smack dab in the middle of their property's small parking lot! (This I believe would be considered metered water - in other words a paid utility.)

In Hyogo the son of the owner took me out to their "water source." And yes it was a nice little patch with a small little white fence enclosing it. The son said that they were so lucky to have this water supply, because it made for excellent sake - I agree! - but went on to say that their water wasn't always as good. Huh? He then proceeded to tell me how the well used to be somewhere else and this new well was a relocated effort that made all the difference in the world. I had to ask where was the other well? Sweeping his arm left he pointed to a spot 15 feet away. No way! Yes! No way! "Yes I promise." A simple movement of 15 feet brought the water up through different levels of the earth that filtered the water in a way that was markedly better than the other area. Hmmmmmmm!

Yes, these anecdotes not only exist, but they are the lore that makes this industry great. To highlight this fact I shot off an email to Chris Pearce (sake lover, sake writer, sake importer, and sake soul) and simply asked "know any water stories?" Chris sent back an article that he wrote for a local rag that touched on this very topic! In his words:

I remember one conversation I had with the president of a brewery in Niigata which drew its water from a well that tapped a subterranean river bed. It was ideal for the light, clear sakes made in the Echigo style of the region, but finding it had not been easy. "Someone told me," I said, "that your grandfather had to dig twelve wells until he found the water he was looking for. Is that really true." He laughed dismissively and said that journalists exaggerate everything; there was no truth to this story whatsoever. "Twelve wells?" he said. " That's ridiculous. He only had to dig nine."

In his book "The Hidden Messages in Water " Masaru Emoto takes the observation and study of water to new heights - depths. This New York Times best seller is filled with all types of "scientific" experiments to deduce if water has memory capabilities and is aware of its surroundings. By photographing frozen water crystals Mr. Emoto tries to establish his premise that water knows all - feels all and sees all. From playing classical music to water to applying words like "Thank You" or "Fool" to bottles of water the result was either formed crystals or not. Point being water does have a meaning. And "happy" water is a condition and not necessarily way of being. Water will be happy if made to feel happy and will be sad (irregular) if made to feel sad.

"Water in a river remains pure because it is moving," writes Emoto. "When water becomes trapped it dies." He further offers, "Therefore, water must constantly be circulated." Perhaps this results in happy water in Japan. (On a side note there are several breweries that do play music to their fermenting sake - they quite agree with Emoto that the vibrations and "love" from the music makes for a happier product. One such brewery has even invented their own type of brewing music different than classical.) Emoto ventures on by photographing water crystals of tap water - "there is no tap water in Japan that is capable of forming complete and whole crystals, due to the use of chlorine." - and then water from springs - "the upper reaches of rivers, and other such natural sources creates beautiful crystals." He then postures that water that is emerging today in most cases has taken 50 years to be converted from rainwater to underground filtered water, and that this water is now the first of the waters to be contaminated by pollution created by the industrialization of Japan.

I always ask brewers if they keep yearly samples of their water. More often than not the answer is no. Some chart the chemical composition of their water, but do not see any radical changes that would show "pollution" in its most raw form. It got me to wondering if the government checked on these water supplies to see if brewers were using a safe water source - for the public's better interest. I shot off an email to Philip Harper who is the head brewer of a kura in Kyoto and he replied that there is no governmental body that checks the quality of a brewery's water. No FDA-like regular quality control testing. That said a brewery couldn't make good sake with really bad or dangerous water. (He did say that the famous "Miyamizu" water source in Kobe is "guarded" and well kept after.)

I then asked Philip to say a word about water - under the premise that it is this mystical yet overlooked element in sake making:

"You're quite right that water gets missed. I wrote a bit about all this in the Japan Times last year. The thing with rice is that it's easily quantifiable, but of course it doesn't carry nearly the same weight as grape variety. There are lots of wine people coming to sake now, and I would guess it will take twenty years for us to get past all this!You are right to point out how micro an influence water is. I want to spit when I hear people banging on about Niigata water or whatever. It's just lazy."

I love this guy! PH calls it like he sees it. I then pressed Philip more about the quantities of water used in sake production. FYI at a brewery they will usually use two waters - good water for brewing sake and "other" water for cleaning equipment and all of the other water functions that do not go into a bottle etc. So how much water is necessary to make one bottle of sake? I have seen so much water being used at a brewery - for all of the stages - and I guessed roughly 20 liters to make one ishobin (1.8L - 60oz bottle) and here is what Philip offered:

"That's not so hard. The actual water used in mashing would be about a litre - with some variation depending on the style of brewing. You're pretty much on the mark with 20 litres by the time you've used water for washing rice and equipment and in boilers and so on. It might be a couple of litres more.One of the toji I worked for often told a story of how the owner of the brewery got on his back when the water supply changed from a well to metered mains water. He couldn't believe they could possibly need that much water in brewing, and thought they were either wasting water, or there was a leak somewhere. So my boss made scrupulous notes of every moment when water was in use, and the skeptical kuramoto was finally convinced.I'm lucky to have good mountain spring water to brew with - not just because of the quality it gives to the sake, but also because of the savings it means in utilities costs."

I am a big fan of a brewer who loves his/her water. Call me a sucker and a guy who likes the hype - but I quite enjoy the stories of water and the mystical qualities that produce superior brews. I love the fact that they make a story out of it, and I am especially in love with brewers who bring their brewing water to sake tastings. This is great stuff! They will put their aqua in ishobins and pour it like sake for consumers to taste and more importantly feel. It is a great thing to take a sip of water then a sip of sake and blend the two in the mouth to see how the flavors meld. Just an amazing way to break down the essence of sake.

The only thing better than a brewer speaking about his/her water is listening to a brewer speak about another brewery's water. Ouch! Look out! Meow! Some brewers will secretly admit that a "competing" brewer doesn't have a good water source and in fact has to truck their water in from miles away! Or a nasty ditty like the one owner (of a brewery that has very soft water) who told me that guys who have hard water must ferment for shorter periods of time, which results in more acidic sakes - higher levels of acids that are not found in long slow soft water fermentation. It's true that hard water has a shorter fermentation time, but does this really account for higher levels of acidity? I cannot say!

In my book I coined a term called "Franken-water" as in water in the mold of the monster that was welded together with a collection of mish mashed parts of unknown origins. Basically I was speaking to those brewers who didn't have pristine - sent from heaven - tears of virgins - dew from bamboo - mountain blessings juice - but simply just had water that they had to control to make their sake. It can be done! It is done. Sake made with water with no story! No Way!

But when I sip a brew, and contemplate the fluid in my mouth I romanticize about that 80% and I am the ultimate "waterboy" who loves the owner of a brewery who says that his water is so good that he only has to pasteurize his brews once, or the other owner who says that his brewing water is so superb because his water source rests below ancient pine trees - huh? - the root system acts like a filter. So yes perhaps water is the unknown marketable aspect of sake - not the glorified rice varietal that screams from the label - rather the "word of mouth" ingredient that cannot be quantified or personified other than by the simplest statement of "they have good brewing water."


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