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Sake Knowledge - The Definitive Temperature Swing Experiment

sake knowledge march 2009Okay so we all have heard the line - "don't let it cool down then warm up" or the other sage advice given - "keep from putting it on ice then letting it warm up" - or the other more definitive - "wine - beer and especially champagne never keep putting it on ice or in the fridge and then let it warm up!" So robotically we don't! But why? How much degradation occurs when you warm then cool warm then cool a beer or wine or champagne? And of course what about sake?

So leave it to your True Sake specialists to conduct a rather cool experiment that tests these principals. We decided to take three bottles of the exact sake from the same batch with the same shipping date from the same case! But what brew to choose? At first we thought Daiginjo or Ginjo but then realized that these highly milled brews may not show a significant enough of a change if there is one, so we decided on a Junmai that most brewers recommend be stored in the fridge. But which one? Basically we wanted a brew that we knew and knew well.

Finally we settled upon Masumi Okuden-Kanzukuri from Nagano Prefecture - the "Mirror of Truth." And yes we were hoping to shed some "truth" on the subject of temperature swings and their direct impact on sake. At first we wanted to do the experiment for 30 days only, but then we decided upon 60 days to inflict as much "damage" as possible. Now please recall our philosophy at True sake - a well-built sake will stand up to all forms of damage from extra UV light to much shaking from storage in heat to lots of movement. That is why we picked this particular well-built Junmai! (Now please realize that the brew is made with Miyamanishiki and is milled to 60% - so like most "Junmais" these days it is actually milled to Ginjo standards.)

Okay so how best to get the desired result showing the "huge" impact that temperature swings have on a brew? Well we needed three bottles. The first stayed at room temperature in a cool dark corner of our shelves. The second stayed in the fridge at the constant 40 degrees level. And the third - ahhhh the poor third bottle was put in the fridge every night and then we took it out during store hours - bringing it to room temperature by roughly 3PM every day! Bottle C was in fridge for 60 days - Bottle B was on room temperature shelf for 60 days - and bottle A was in and out of fridge every day/night for 60 days!

Let the games begin!

For the tasting we brought the brews out of the fridge for roughly 20 minutes and placed the room temperature brew in the freezer to meet the other sakes in the middle. So let's say that they were between room temperature and chilled. Then Miwa had the idea that one of us should do the tasting blind and the other - in the know. We both used different glasses - Miwa used a smaller glass (all three of hers were identical) and I used the Ridel Chardonnay glasses (all three the same). Then we went to work!

The great thing about playing with sake is that you discover far more than you initially intended. This experiment was no exception. Miwa went blind and I did the pouring. Going into this I thought for certain that we would find very large differences in these brews - let that be known. I decided to taste the "better conditioned" brew first - Bottle C (the one in the fridge for 60 day where the importer recommends storing it). Then I did Bottle B (the one sitting out in room temperature for 60 days) next followed by Bottle A (the one in and out of the fridge every day for 60 days). My thinking was that I wanted to use the fridge bottle as the "basis." I poured Miwa B-A-C in that order.

I don't want to go too deep here but the color of all three brews were pretty close - clear - but the room temperature brew did have a golden hue to it. That hue helped Miwa pull that sake. The aromas were also pretty consistent. But I will say that the fridge bottle did have the largest nose - really kept it's aroma profile - followed by the room temp brew and then the "in and out" sake. So this tells me that the fridge does help maintain the aroma components and of course preserves the coloration of the sakes. (We all knew that right?)

So then it was time for the rubber to hit the road. I tasted bottle C first - the fridge bottle. The brew drank very tight and compact. There was a creamy finish that was also tight. The acidity was really pronounced and the sake tasted drier than I recalled. The acidity was pretty jumpy. Miwa tasted B first but I will give her C notes to parallel mine. She too wrote that the acidity hit first with a drier feel and a creamy finish. Our reviews were almost identical. The "conditioned" fridge bottle C drink crisp and snappy and the acidity controlled the over flavor and dryness.

I then went to bottle B (the room stored brew), which was softer and more velvety with a touch of honey or rich sweetness. The brew felt softer and more mellow than C, and the flavor was more gentle and inviting. They were not vastly different. There were many of the same components, but the overall texture and feeling play made the room stored bottle drink more friendly and felt better in the palate. Miwa said the brew drank milder and rounder than C with a touch of sweetness and good balance. Again our reviews were almost spot-on. We both agreed that the room-stored version had the better balance, the better feeling and lastly just tasted better. This was shocking to us!

Lastly and ta-dah! I finally tasted the "tortured beast" expecting big ugliness! But alas the brew drank on par with the other two. It was dryer than the room stored brew with a tingle of tangy flavors. It drank thinner than B, but not as tight as the fridge-stored brew. The body was clean and the finish had a little twitch, but it was not even close to a train wreck! It was drinkable and quite frankly drank better than the conditioned brew (the fridge-stored sake.) Miwa said that it drank with more tingle, lighter, tighter, and with a corn-like flavor. Our reviews were pretty close, but we both agreed that the brew did not go to the realm of "horrible." In fact the bottle that was brought to room temperature every day and chilled every night for 60 days drank like a very good sake, and we both preferred it over the fridge-conditioned sake.

I guess the best indicator of how "non-disruptive" the tortured brew drank was the fact that Miwa did not identify it in the blind tasting line-up. That speaks volumes! So what does this mean? I cannot speak for wine, champagne, beer or whatever, but for sake temperature variations did not have the horrific impact that many had lead me to believe. A sake went from 40-70 degrees everyday for 60 days and it drank fine. Did it change or alter a bit? Yes - to a degree it did, but in this particular case it improved the brew in our minds. And that is the truly amazing by-product of this experiment.

In summary let it be known that sake is durable. If it is built-well it will stand up to the duress found in the shipping and handling of sake. And like a river that you can never stand in the same place twice, sake is always changing - albeit in the fridge or on a dark room temperature shelf. But change in many cases can be a good thing - as both of our preferences for the room-stored version of this particular sake pointed out. By storing the bottle in room temperature we feel that it improved the sake. And this is great news for the makers, the exporters and distributors, and of course for retail outlets such as True Sake.

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