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Thursday, Sept. 23, 1999

NIHONSHU

Osaka still has reasons to be proud of its brewing culture


Osaka has long been a great center of commerce and activity, but likely doesn't stand out as a major brewing center in the minds of most people. True, it has never been nearly as significant as its Kansai cousins -- Kyoto, Hyogo and Nara -- but the sake brewing culture was, and still is, strong there.

Osaka has historically been blessed with clean water and good rice. Things today are certainly not what they were hundreds of years ago, for either water or rice. But long ago water in Osaka was good all around, and tiny breweries existed (either officially or otherwise) in abundance, especially in Kawachi, Ikeda and Izumi. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka Castle, Osaka consumerism boomed as it grew into a true castle town. Naturally enough, so did the demand for sake. Sake production in those three areas took off. At one point there were 38 sakagura (breweries) in Ikeda alone.

Hideyoshi was known to be fond of a sake called Amano-zake, brewed in a temple named Kangoji on Mount Amano. It was (and still is) brewed using koji that is much further along in its starch-to-sugar converting than koji used in normal sake. Amanozake is darker, mustier, sweeter and more tart than modern sake. One Osaka sake, which uses the brand name Amanozake, re-creates the original style in a sake they call their Amanozake Boso-shu.

Later, in the Edo Period, came the kaisengyo, companies that did nothing but ship goods up to Edo by boat. Some of these began to also brew sake in Osaka, specifically to be shipped up to Edo. Clever.

However, when modern industrialism took over, the sakagura rapidly disappeared from Osaka. At present, there are 19 left in all of Osaka. In fact, in the once-hallowed brewing center of Ikeda, there is but one of the 38 mentioned that remains: Goshun. On their label, Goshun proudly advertises as "Ikeda-shu," the sake of Ikeda, although few would understand the historical significance of the statement.

Although there is not that much sake brewed anymore in Osaka, there are several names worth remembering that alone make a study of the sake history of Osaka worth studying. Beyond the above-mentioned Goshun and Amanozake, Akishika and Choryu both brew wonderful, solid and settled sake, as does Rikyubai, mentioned below.

Then there is Osaka sake rice. Until 10 or 20 years ago, both Komachi and Yamada Nishiki, two of the best (if not the two best) sake rice strains were grown in Osaka, but economics forced them out, since what little land was available would be put to more profitable use growing table rice. At present, however, at least two kura (Rikyubai and Akishika) grow their own Yamada Nishiki.

Most of the toji (head brewers) come from Tanba, one of the top three areas for toji in the country, but a few make the trek down from the Nanbu region in Iwate. This, by the way, is a trend that has certainly increased over the years, since the Nanbu toji group is the only toji group whose numbers have not dropped off significantly, due to diligent training of younger personnel and an organized labor union-type group.

Osaka sake even has a fairly easily identifiable character. It is generally neutral on the sweet-dry scale, but smooth and not at all cloying. Much of it seems to be full and with great mouth feel, but not heavy in character. The daiginjo of the area is often quite fragrant, unlike neighbors Kyoto and Hyogo.

One more interesting point is that most of the sake brewed in Osaka gets consumed there. It is not so simple to find it in Tokyo (which doesn't seem to concern the Osaka brewers at all). But, without a doubt, it is worth the search.

It's back, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai's fall sake-tasting event. The Ginjo-shu Kyokai is a group of 83 sake brewers from around Japan that gather for a sake tasting open to the public. Each will present five or so of their sake for sampling. If you want to find out and taste what really good sake is, this is the place.

There is also a spring event, but the fall event is usually a bit better as the sake has mellowed and aged a bit, and is generally a bit more rounded, balanced and pleasant.

The cost is a measly 4,000 yen, and you receive a bottle of ginjo-shu to take home as an omiyage, so that the tasting itself is rendered basically free. Be warned that there is no food at all available, only bottled water. A pretasting small meal is highly recommended if you want to avoid la-la land. You can use the spittoons, but hey, this is, after all, great stuff. Why waste it?

The event will be held in Osaka Oct. 7, 6:30-8 p.m., at the Nankai South Tower Hotel Osaka. In Tokyo, it will be held Oct. 21, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. To attend, for either event call the Ginjo-shu Kyokai at (03) 3378-1231 and ask for an invitation to be sent. Or, fax them at (03) 3378-1232 with a written request to have them mailed. If you are interested in sake, this one is worth leaving work early for.

Sign up for a free e-mail newsletter and wade through oodles of information about sake at www.sake-world.com. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to sakeguy@gol.com, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8233.

* * * * *

Rikyubai (Osaka)
Junmai daiginjo
Nihonshu-do: +/-0
Acidity: 1.4
Seimai-buai: 45 percent

Daimon Shuzo, brewers of Rikyubai, are located in the Katano area, and have been producing sake there for 173 years. During the Heian Period (over 1,000 years ago), the aristocracy of western Japan often went to Katano as a vacation spot, enjoying the scenery and hunting. Although a good deal of sake was produced in Katano in the Edo Period, now only Daimon Shuzo remains.

This daiginjo has a lively but balanced nose to it, strawberries and light melons, which become bananas with a bit of butter apparent at room temperature. It has a nice, relatively rich and full flavor to it, but with a surprisingly crisp backdrop to it. A decent richness pervades the flavor, but is kept even by the decent acidity. Much easier to find in Kansai than Tokyo.



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