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Friday, Feb. 29, 2008

Daiginjo — the peak of the brewing season


Special to The Japan Times

Look at the labels of pricier sake and you will almost certainly find the word ginjo.

News photo
Rice is prepared for fermenting as daiginjo, the highest grade of sake. PHILIP HARPER PHOTO

Meaning "brewed with particular care," it is one of the most recognizable sake terms, and not just for nihonshu (sake) geeks. Even Japanese with no interest in the more arcane wonders of their national drink know what ginjo means: the good stuff. Usually drunk chilled, ginjo sake is distinguished by its refined flavor and fruity, flowery aromatics.

To craft a sake with the "G" word on its label, the aspiring brewer must first polish the rice, grinding away the mineral-heavy outer portion of the grain so that 60 percent or less of the pure white center of the kernel remains. Polish until half or less of the grain remains, and you can offer the result as daiginjo, the highest grade of sake.

The further you polish your rice, the less that remains, eating into your original investment. This extravagant use of raw materials is one reason that top-shelf ginjo brews come with such impressive price tags. You can find a 720-ml bottle of ginjo for around ¥1,000, but most breweries demand ¥2,000 or more for a bottle of daiginjo, and ¥5,000 a throw is standard for champion-class sake such as Ichigin, as mentioned in the side story. With high costs and low yields, daiginjo is the fragrant zenith of one extreme of sake philosophy.

As you read this, weary brewers all over the land are struggling with the demands of daiginjo production, a sleep-deprived, nail-biting process that takes place in the chilly depths of the winter season. Cold is good for ginjo brewing, and even breweries boasting automated facilities often revert to a more traditional, small-scale, hands-on style of brewing when climbing this peak of the year.

Special yeast strains are used in the quest for a heady ginjo fragrance, and the varieties that put on the best aromatic show are lackluster fermenters, prone to giving up the ghost before reaching the desired balance of flavor, aroma and alcohol content. Hardcore daiginjo fermentation often takes well over a month at low temperatures, so the related headaches are notable for their duration as well as their intensity.

Finally, when it comes to the pressing stage, a low-yield, laborious technique called fukuro-tsuri may be used — mainly when the sake is destined for entry in Hiroshima's prestigious National New Sake contest, held annually (the next one is on May 22). Instead of applying pressure to separate the liquid from remaining rice solids in the conventional manner, fermenting mash is poured into long bags (fukuro), which are then hung up (which is what the tsuri part means). Known as shizukua, the pure sake that drips out under its own weight is often but not necessarily ginjo. Only small amounts of this kind of sake ever reach the marketplace.

It may cost a little more, but ginjo and daiginjo sake offer a world of flavors and aromas that are utterly unique.



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