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Friday, Aug. 31, 2007


Ice and fire: sake shifts with the seasons

Special to The Japan Times

My favorite pick-me-up answer to the summer heat is chilled, unpasteurized nama sake (or namazake), brimming with zippy spice. Cold nama sake, with its nutty complexities, is the flavor lifeline your palate is longing for.

News photo
The texture, timing and aroma on the foam of fermenting sake give the brewer clues as to the drink's state. PHOTO COURTESY OF KODANSHA

The undiluted genshu variety comes with a relatively high level of alcohol (up to 20 percent alcohol by volume) and a full-throated roar of flavors. If you think that sounds a long way from the light and crisp summertime ideal, you are quite right. The trick is to whop some ice cubes into a glass, and pour cold genshu over them. A kaleidoscopic variety of sensations result from the unceasingly changing tastes, liberated as the temperature and level of alcohol shift.

But as farmers prepare for the harvest of early-maturing rice strains, my thoughts turn now to autumn sake. And that means hiyaoroshi.

The traditional — and still predominant — system of storing sake is to pasteurize it twice, first as freshly-pressed new sake, and once more before bottling and shipping. This is done to stabilize the sake and, most importantly, to kill off the lactic-acid bacteria that turn it cloudy and sour and were the nemesis of many a prewar brewery that failed to keep the microscopic fiends safely at bay.

Pasteurization (heating the liquid to 60 C plus to sterilize it) is called hi-ire (literally "putting in the fire" in Japanese). It has been documented as standard practice in the 16th century, 300 years or so before French chemist Louis Pasteur pioneered the technique in the West.

It is only recently (in sake terms — a matter of a few decades) that refrigerated transport and storage, and strong nerves on the part of early pioneers, have put unpasteurized sake in the marketplace for the general consumer.

Do try these at home — hiyaoroshi to savor

Kariho Hiyaoroshi: From Akita Prefecture, this junmai (rice-only) sake is made in the traditional style known as yamahai. There is a momentary initial impression of vanilla mingling with creamy and even buttery/cheesy notes. Move from sniffing to snifting, and a wonderful balance of acidity and body awaits. After the reserved aromatic beginning, there is rather more action in the mouth. Thanks to its excellent balance, it is versatile enough to work across the wide range of suitable serving temperatures given on the label, though the livelier in-the-mouth (rather than up-the-nostrils) aromatics are all the more readily appreciated warm. Happiest with Japanese home-cooked dishes, though also eminently at home with smoked meat or cheese.

● ¥1,260 (720 ml)

Fukucho Kosmos: A sake from Hiroshima by Imada Shuzo. The toji (master brewer) here is Miho Imada, heir to the family concern, and one of the still few female toji. The name of their hiyaoroshi offering is written with the characters for autumn and sakura (cherry). The phonetic reading is Cosmos, after the flower often seen in blossom in fallow rice fields in autumn. This flowery name contrasts with the businesslike, generic approach of the Kariho people. The sake itself offers no less of a contrast: it is an intensely fragrant ginjo (high-grade, special-brew sake), with pronounced floral notes. Like many highly aromatic ginjo brews, this is less at home with Japanese food than with other cuisines (my bottle went well with pasta, garlicky tomato sauce and spicy sausage). My wife perceives those floral elements as hyacinth; past experience with Imada sake has zapped the aroma processors in my brain, so that it always leaves me panting "orchids, orchids."

● ¥1,260 (720 ml)

There was, however, one time of year when sake lovers could taste sake that had only been heat-treated once. The season was early autumn, and the varity of sake was hiyaoroshi. After being pasteurized in spring, the new sake was left in sealed tanks over the summer, as spoiling micro-organisms are at their liveliest in hot weather. Then, at this one time of the year at summer's end, breweries would ship sake without heating for that second time, and its distinctive freshness and balance of flavor made it a highlight of the connoisseur's year.

Nowadays, many breweries store sake in refrigerated warehouses, and some even brew almost all-year round, diluting the visceral thrill that enthusiastic drinkers must once have experienced when enjoying this autumn treat, as fleeting a pleasure as the cherry blossoms of spring. Even so, many firms still put hiyaoroshi products on sale at this time of year, and many are limited editions that reward the drinker's attention.

The traditional timing for shipping hiyaoroshi was not a specific date, but the time at which the outside temperature reached the same as that of the sake, quietly aging in vats within the great earthen brewery walls as the summer heat subsided.

This year, however, the Central Brewers' Union has fixed Sept. 9 as Hiyaroshi Day. As always, the sake world is buzzing with arcane internal discussions about the validity of the timing and other details of the business. Fortunately, less theoretically inclined brewers, retailers and organizations are busy actually getting the nectar out there, and events are happening on or around the ninth in many locations across the country. Here's hoping that a welcome bit of team play from the industry results in a Glorious Ninth for all of us who make, sell, buy and drink sake.

Master Brewer Philip Harper is the author of "The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur's Guide" (Kodansha International)

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