I have made it a rule, in the past 5 or so years of my life, never to say no to interesting opportunities if I can at all help it. Thus, thanks to Mr. Menace, I was recently fortunate enough to attend a very special seminar on sake. Not only was it conducted by John Gaunter, one of the foremost non-Japanese experts on sake, it was held here:
That’s the home of the Boston Consul-General of Japan, Takeshi Hikihara!
The purpose of the seminar was to learn more about and taste a variety of high-end sake – to show that even with all of the recent tragedies Japan has gone through, they are still creating fantastic, safe, high-quality products. In addition to the immediate problems caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Japan is forced to struggle with consumers who may be fearful that their exports have been exposed to harmful radiation from the affected nuclear reactors. This was a chance to show that this is not only not true, but that the sake creators are still making superior beverages. Meanwhile, Haruo Matsuzaki, chief of the sake export group who were involved in putting this event together, asked us to remember the passion of the sake-makers for their product.
Going into the seminar I knew very little about sake – I’ve had it once or twice in Japanese restaurants, but not in any structured or meaningful way. By the end of the brief talk I’d learned quite a bit, though Mr. Gaunter made quite clear that it was merely the tip of the sake iceberg. A few highlights:
1. Sake is brewed, a bit like beer, rather than fermented like wine is. Sake is made from rice, and rice is pure starch. Fermentation requires sugar to work, so some of that starch must be broken down.
2. However, unlike beer, where the starch is broken down into sugar, and then, in a whole different step, fermented, sake has this break down and fermentation happening at the same time. This is accomplished by infecting some of the rice with a special kind of mold, called koji. Because both of these things happen simultaneously, sake’s alcohol content is naturally higher than that of beer and wine, usually around 16%.
3. Most sake is not aged. About 90% is meant to be consumed a few months after brewing. There are a few notable exceptions, however. That said, even these are not cellared as long as certain wines or spirits.
4. To a degree, sake quality correlates with sake price. This is because the three tricks to better sake are better rice, rice that is highly polished (meaning you are losing quite a bit of the grain) and is more time-consuming to make. All of these factors lead to more expensive sake.
5. The catch-all phrase for the top four grades of sake is “ginjo.” While only 7% of sake available fits into this category, this is the premium grade product. It further breaks down into six different styles that are primarily differentiated by how much the rice is polished, whether amendments such as additional water or alcohol are allowed, and how it is brewed, but the term “ginjo” will at least get you to the quality sake.
Gaunter’s main point was that to enjoy sake, one doesn’t need to know everything about sake and its rich history – one must simply drink it and enjoy it. He also pointed out that it went well with food of all kinds, and the Consulate did not disappoint in this regard.
This was the “light buffet” prepared for our tasting pleasure.
As you can see, it involved dishes of both Asian and Western pedigree.
Truly, it was the most complicated “light buffet” I’ve ever seen. Usually those words describe some salad and over-rare roast beef.
My sake-tasting partner and I elected to eat lunch before embarking on the rest of our sake journey, since we had up to 20 to get through, and, as mentioned, the alcohol content of sake is quite high. We also vowed to do a considerable amount of tasting and spitting, a practice that is just good sense if you want to maintain your dignity in the Japanese Consul-General’s home.
Everything was outstanding. A gentleman from Harvard’s Japanese Studies department informed me that the house chef made his own pickles, which were delightful, and the spring rolls were a revelation. Armed with this base I commenced to tasting.
To a palate informed by beer, wine, and cocktails, sake is a nearly alien beverage experience. The flavor is light and very floral, yet hot from the high alcohol content.
The bulk of the others had peach, melon, and lychee notes to me. One of my favorites was the Akita Seishu Company’s Dewatsuru “Sakura Emaki” – a sake made with ko-dai-mai rice. The rice is red, and the sake produced from it is a lovely pale pink:
Packaging and naming seemed very important. Most of the bottles were gorgeous, with elaborate names like “Heaven’s Door” and “Bride of the Fox.” This manufacturer, Takasago, has a claim to fame in it’s “ice dome” – an igloo-style structure in which it brews its sake:
It was a fantastic day, and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about a spirit I hadn’t really understood. I learned a lot, had amazing food, and all in a gorgeous setting. Here’s to saying yes!