June 2010

Sake Universe - The International Sake Tasting!

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, June, Newsletter
I'll be the first to admit it - I am extremely lucky! Fortunate and plain ol' blessed! Why? Because as a friend of mine joked many years ago when I mentioned that I was going to open the first sake store outside of Japan- he said "Build it and they will come" (yes the line from "Field of Dreams") I did and they have! Seriously, I have been so very lucky to have so many sake enthusiasts come and visit and explore the store bringing with them stories and sake "things" that they felt deserved to make the "pilgrimage." This has taken the form of sake antiques, sake paraphernalia, and of course sake!

As much as I enjoy the vintage or period sakes that people bring, I get far more float in my boat when folks bring sakes from different countries. That's how I tasted the line of Osakes from Vancouver. They were hand carried and presented to me - thank you hand-carrier! That's also how I had accumulated sakes from Australia and Brazil. So in the spirit of international sake brewing we did a little International Sake tasting which featured sakes from Canada, Brazil, Australia, and Norway! (yup! Norway! - please see the below article on Sake Beer from our brewing buddy in Norway) Herewith find a brief review of several of the these efforts and please do not kill me for not adding our very own US made sakes - this is a project that is in the works.

Nøgne Ø From Norway

Yamahai Nama Junmai. SMV: -10 Alc: 15%

This sake was hand carried to the US in a drinking water bottle, because it was a portion of the first batch of sake that Nøgne Ø head brewer Kjetil P. Jikiun ever produced at his craft beer brewery in Norway. He flew to Chicago for a beer industry event and then FedEX-ed me his potion. As first efforts go it was a little "baby step-ish" but I still found some little successes. Again please remember it was also in a plastic bottle and out of the cold for quite some time. The nose was a collection of sweet rice, lemon, mineral, and white pepper elements with of course a subtle plastic smell. The color was murky yellow, which usually means muroka and I believe this to be the case. The first sip was sweet and sour together with a tangy finish - I found it to be meaty with a little bulk and a good acidity play. Chewy and gooey with hints of lemon and lemon peel that lingers with a curtain call of sourness. A larger glass brings out a smoother delivery but mutes the unique flavor a bit - makes the brew drink flat but with body. A small vessel reveals a robust tanginess. Judging by the feeling I was thinking the water may be pretty hard, and will ask Kjetil. All in all it was a game showing, and I am extremely proud of his first effort. I did mention to him that I would perhaps tamp down the amino acid level a little, as it had a subtle cloying effect. Kjetil has finished his second batch and he is trying to get me a sample. This batch he sold to market. You Go Norway! (Kjetil is exploring ways to get his nama-zake into the US!)

(He just finished his trial batch and crushed his second "brewing" - please read the following email that he sent to me):

This is just a quick email to update friends and fellow sake lovers. Nøgne Ø has now release its first sake. We have a Nama Genshu at 19% alc/vol, a pasteurized Junmai-shu at 16% and a 17% Nigori. All of these are yamahai and muroka, of course. I am not very good with computers, so for pictures I have to ask you to check out our website - www.nogne-o.com. (Go to the list on the left to get the other sake related subjects/news) Last week we had a press conference in Oslo. Not many attendees showed up of course, which confirms what I expected: That there is no market for sake in Norway! But that is just the way it was seven years ago when we started making craft beer. At that time there was no market for that either. During the press conference, attendees from the Japanese embassy were very supportive. They are going to use our products in the embassy in the future, and in October they will arrange an event with focus on sake and Japanese food, where we will be representing the sake part! As for now, we are trying to find markets for our products. Any names for sake importers in European countries would be of great interest to us, if anyone has something/someone to suggest. My intention was to travel to Japan in May to visit all you people who have helped us so generously. But being in charge of the sake brewing almost on my own is really demanding and extremely tiring. As such I have had to postpone this plan. Maybe July or August can work out! Everybody at Nøgne Ø are very proud of our Nihon-shu. It has been a milestone to get to present these products. We are very grateful of all the help, support and advice we have received through the last couple of years! Thank you! Kjetil

Azouma Kirin "Dourado" From Brazil

"Saque" There is no grade. "Lot 68" Alc: 15.5%

Interestingly it came in a 740ml bottle. (Same with Australia's effort) Wine is 750ml and sake comes in 720ml bottles. The nose on this Brazilian brew is a collection of alcohol, melon, cream, cocoa and veggie elements. There is a hint of "offness" in the nose - smells old. This smooth and rich brew has a round and chewy sweetness that ends with a bit of heat in the finish. It drinks fat and heavy and a larger glass brings more tingle to the end of the sip. There is no question this sake has layers of honey elements and as the brew warms, more cocoa hues come out. It drinks better chilled. I find a ton of "residual sugar" impact - big glucose with a fat body. The problem is the acidity - needs more to disperse all of the sweetness. Balance is lacking. If I had to bet, I think this brew was meant to drink far fruitier and has gone "koshu" in the bottle. Perhaps it is past its prime and I didn't drink it under peak condition.

Sun Masamune "Go-Shu" From Australia

Junmai Daiginjo. "Masterpiece with Rice" Go is the name for Australia.
740ml bottle. 50% milling. Alc: 13.5% Toji is Hirofumi Uchiyama

Doh! When opened the nose spelled the demise of this sake. The first waft was leather followed by musky, earthy, soiled wood elements. Done baby done! The first sip was supreme astringency. Coupled with the nose, I had to drink for components, as this was no longer a Daiginjo. There is a lightness to the brew - dry and crisp. A larger glass brought out a wateriness that was just off. My final notes were "dry and unbalanced." Was this at one time a good sake? Hmmmmm. Dunno. But I would gather that they are making a very low amino acid, dry, and compact brew that drinks very thin and crisp. Sorry Toji-san. The brew did not stand the test of time. Condolences.

Osake From Canada

Junmai Nama Genshu 375ml bottle. Alc: 18%

I brought this sake back from Vancouver when I visited Masa Shiroki's brewery on Granville Island. He also gave me an "Arabashiri" private reserve bottle, but I prefer speaking about market available sakes. The nose is unmistakably nama with grape, green apple Jolly Rancher, and fruity elements. This genshu is a very brisk nama that is fat and frisky with chewy flavors up and down the palate. Look for ripe melon, honey, and creamy tones that drink in a very plush fluid flow. The acidity is noticeable and gets more pronounced in a larger vessel as it pushes the tingle to the sides of the mouth. I pick up a hint of charcoal or mineral elements in the brew, but this does not detract from the fluid that feels really nice in the mouth. It is a wide effort that can best be described as thick and would surely go well with larger flavored cuisines. 18% of pure Canadian impact sake.

All in all I would say that this wasn't exactly the best International Sake Tasting/Comparison in that all the brews had seen some wear and tear. That said I look forward to being at a real international competition so that I can get a better gauge on how they are doing. I will say this - "Domestic" sake is an extremely important avenue for the road of sake in the future. The better locally made sake is away from Japan, the more we will see casual drinkers jump at that price point - and if the product is good then that translates to all the more sake drinkers. And we all know "heaven holds a place for sake drinkers" - from all countries!

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