March 2011

Sake Exploration - The Higher The Drier

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, March, Newsletter
Sake Exploration Way back when, way back before I knew the difference between a banjo and a honjozo, I created a bar graph system to rate the sakes that I drank on a scale that went from 0 (on the left) to 10 (on the right). The left side, 0 - was the sweet side, and the right side, 10 -was the dry side. Each sake that I tasted I would tick off the number on the bar diagram in my notes. "Aaaaahhh this guy drinks pretty fruity and sweet - it's a 2!" "Damn! This guy is bone dry - took the saliva right out of my mouth - it's a 9" And so on and so on and so on.

Then one day I met the Nihonshu-do system and said "Hmmmmm I can relate to this!" If you do not know the Nihonshu- do you should. Of course you may know it as the SMV or Sake Meter Value system. Basically it is way to measure or quantify the residual sugars of a batch of sake after fermentation is complete. (They actually measure this the entire brewing process, using another system as well, but the end product is put into the SMV system for selling and informational purposes.) Yes people actually buy or order sake based on this system. But should they?

This dated brief description is open to a little modernization:
  • Nihonshudo - Also referred to as the Sake Meter Value (SMV), which is to index the sweet and dry attributes of each brew. The values are determined via a Hydrometer that measures the density of the fluid and are given a negative or positive number based on the density of the sake. The larger the positive number, the drier the sake; the larger the negative number, the sweeter the sake. A "0" value represents a sake that is between semi-sweet and semi-dry. SMVs are accepted by most breweries and provide the consumer a quick method of determining the taste profile of the brew.
Good ol' 0 used to be the basis, but as tastes have changed in the sake world +2 is now the more common point of no return! Meaning there has been a movement towards slightly sweeter sakes, and +2 is considered on the sweeter side. But what really is sweet and dry as per flavor and drinkability? I have tasted a +7 sake, which should be dry that actually drinks fruity and sweet. Hmmmmm? I have also had a +1 that drank sort of dry! Is this a theory vs. reality scenario?

The SMV or Nihonshu-do is important! And yes many customers come to the store and say I want something over +5! (It's always the dry people who want want want! I guess it's not cool to come in and say "Oh give me something sweet!" - some do but they pale in comparison to the dry folks) I will always to try sell folks out of their comfort zone - dry people are missing out on some amazing sakes that can be considered sweet, and some sweeties are missing out on semi-dry brews that fit in their wheel-house of flavor.

Notebook So, back to my personal reviews, which now number 1,374 in my multitude of sake journal books. I still use my system. I still rate the sweetness or dryness of sakes using my bar method. It is consistent to me. I will definitely know the SMV and the Acidity information for each sake, but will attribute my own scale to each brew. I enjoy doing this because I can witness first hand these "fluctuations" or drinking inaccuracies. When a sake comes to me with a SMV: +6 and it drinks like a +2 I can use this info to translate it to others in my specific sake reviews.

I decided to write this section specifically because of one new sakes that now graces our shelves at True Sake. It is a bone dry sake that is laser fast. (Wow I almost sound like Austin Powers - sharks with lasers and throw me a bone people!) And it spurned a little debate amongst Team True Sake as to where to place the bottle on our Junmai/Honjozo semi-circle, which we have in order from sweetest to driest. (Did you know that? Next time you are in the store check it out, and yes we do it by the SMV in most cases but we have several brews placed higher or lower than where their SMV would have them.)

When I tasted this particular sake I enjoyed a softness and a semi-fruity personality. It drank, dare I say it, a little on the fruitier side (just slightly). It wasn't sweet by any means, but it didn't taste dry. It drank sort of dry, but the flavor compensated for the feeling. It has a relatively low acidity at 1.2 and drinks soft as a result. Thus I thought it belonged in the middle area of our semi-arch. When I came back from a brief vacation the bottle had moved to the furthest most part of the arch. The driest section. THE driest section. Hmmmm. It appeared that several of the Team True Sake tasters could not get beyond the fact that it drank laser quick and bone dry.

In principal it does drink dry! You bet! But the flavor would appeal to those who like a tingle of fruitiness. Sweet-Dry (not really). Fruity-Dry (sure). Dry-Dry (yes, but missing out on the fruit.) So I asked the rep for this particular sake and she in a sense agreed that it did not drink like a SMV: +10. Yes! I said it. It's a +10. But again, the overall drinking experience should supersede the rating in my book. There are those who would miss out on this sake if it were banished to the driest part of the sake semi-circle.

Again there is wiggle room in the sweet and dry game of categorizing sake. There is no specific true indicator. The Nihonshu-do is the theory and the drinkability is the reality. If you know a sake is a +10 then you will think that it drinks that way. If you taste Asian apple-pear in each and every sip then you may think that the sake drinks on a different level. I trust the SMV. It does get you to the ballpark! But what if they are actually playing football in the ballpark that day! You never know until you get inside.

Herewith is my review for a very affordable sake that is new to the States and the store.

Eiko Fuji Honkara "Super Dry"
From Yamagata prefecture. Honjozo.
SMV: +10 Acidity: 1.1

The nose on this unique honjozo (or alcohol added sake) is a collection of white grape, honeydew, pear, apple and wax elements. There is no question this is a dry drinking sake, but there is an abundance of fruity elements such as Asian apple-pear and white grapes that are wrapped in a feel good fluid that is semi-thick and clean that makes this sake drink more on the soft semi-fruity side. Bright and smooth this brew definitely takes on different characters at different temperatures. For more feeling and acidity let the brew come to room temp. For a cleaner and more compact flavor enjoy chilled. Also warms well. WORD: Asian apple-pear WINE: Dry soft reds/ Very dry whites BEER: Tight Ales FOODS: Clean flavors, sushi, sashimi, grilled fish and chicken, steamed veggies.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that sweet and dry is also heavily influenced by the temperature of the brew at any given moment. As sakes warm they do different things. And of course cold sakes tend to suppress as well. The point is to explore and decide for yourself. Oh and we would love your thoughts on where to place this sake on the semi-circle.

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