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MOULD IS A curious thing. Not because it makes people throw out week-old bread but because it’s the key ingredient which makes sake so delicious, not to mention hygienic.
A long time ago, way before there were sake bars or barrel-breaking ceremonies, sake was made by a few people standing around a tub and spitting chewed rice grains into it. The enzymes in their saliva allowed the rice to ferment and create something for happy hour.
Fortunately, koji mould was later discovered and used to produce the beverage we now know as rice wine. But it’s not just the koji alone which gives sake its flavour. What koji basically does is convert the starch in rice to sugar, but to turn the sugar into alcohol, yeast and lactic acid are needed.
In today’s sake-making process, 90 per cent of breweries use commercially produced lactic acid to speed up production. Only a handful depend on natural lactic bacteria.
These micro-organisms present in the air usually have to fall into the sake vat for fermentation to begin. That’s like hoping some sakura petals will float onto your head while walking through the park in spring, which means it will take a while and some careful planning.
Employing fermentation by natural or homemade lactic acid, called the Yamahai method, is a more laborious process that requires much time and care. It takes an extra two weeks of work, which is why so few breweries do it.
But yamahai also results in a sake that is richer and fuller, with a longer, more satisfying finish. It’s a fact not lost on Tengumai - from Ishikawa prefecture in western Japan - a sake producer which is synonymous with yamahai.
With the Sea of Japan in front, and majestic mountains behind, Ishikawa is blessed with bountiful seafood, fragrant rice and pure water. The Shata Shuzo brewery, which makes Tengumai, has leveraged on nature since 1823 to make unique sake that is jimoto, meaning local. Tengumai uses locally grown Gohyakumangoku rice, and semi-hard water from Ishikawa’s sacred Mount Hakusan, one of Japan’s three holy mountains.
The prefecture’s terroir is significant too. Kazunari Shata, the eighth-generation owner of Tengumai, explains that the rainyand humid weather gives the koji rice, or fermented steamed rice, a stronger flavour.
“Tengumai’s koji process is also longer for the mould to fully cover the rice for stronger flavour,” adds Mr Shata. By applying the yamahai method, umami and complexity are further imparted to Tengumai sakes.
This deep, complex and rich flavour is most evident in its premium sakes, like the Junmai Daiginjo, made from rice grains which have been polished to less than 50 per cent of its original size.
Unlike most sakes that are as clear as water, Tengumai is slightly yellow, due to reduced charcoal filtering to retain natural flavour. With 200 years of brewing tradition to uphold, Mr Shata has to remain more than committed to sake excellence. For example, his brewery has five milling machines, unusual because most breweries outsource such work.
“With my own machines, I can better control the polishing process and mill more slowly and carefully to reduce damage and produce a more even polishing result,’’ he says.
But it is time-consuming work. To achieve his Junmai Daiginjo’s 35 per cent polishing ratio takes three days.
Apart from standing out from the crowd with yamahai sake, Tengumai also does something very special – ageing.
Despite being commonly called rice wine, sake is actually brewed, like beer. It is meant to be drunk fresh, that is, within the year.
Tengumai ages its sake, usually for oneand-a-half years, in the tank before bottling.
But there is also the Tengumai Kokoshu, which is stored for three years, and its prized Tengumai Ginkouburi – “gin’’ as in ginjo, and “kouburi” for crown – which is aged for between five and seven years.Ageing, explains Mr Shata, influences fragrance and taste. “It gives the sake elegance, and makes it more refined and rounded.’’ To better enjoy the nuances, he even designed a wine glass that enhances its bouquet and flavour.
All these efforts are part of his mission to ensure sake continues to be sought after.
“Sake is rapidly becoming popular overseas, but demand is quite sluggish in Japan. I think this is more the problem of the kuramoto (sake brewery) rather than changing consumer preferences and the rise of other alcoholic beverages.’’
By that he means that a major brewer might have sacrificed quality for profit, creating a mediocre product. If it was drunk by someone tasting sake for the first time, it may well turn him or her off sake completely, scuppering Tengumai’s raison d’etre.
“For 200 years, Tengumai has been brewing sake that everyone can enjoy and pair with food. My dream is to take the Tengumai brand overseas, so it can be matched not just with Japanese food but other cuisines.”
A TASTE OF ELEGANCE
Shata Shuzo brewery’s crown jewel is the Tengumai Ginkouburi, a 35 per cent Junmai Daiginjo aged for between five and seven years. The “gin” in Ginkouburi refers to ginjo, while the “kouburi” means crown. Compared to ordinary sake, yamahai sake exudes more complexity and umami. Add the extra half decade or so to the Tengumai Ginkouburi and this gem of a sake bursts with flavour.
On the nose, there is a unique fragrance of rice with a mildly floral whisper.
On the palate, it is silky and soft with a hint of overripe melon. It is obvious that the extra five to seven years have influenced its fragrance and taste.
Kazunari Shata, the eighth generation owner of Shata Shuzo, says: “The Tengumai Ginkouburi gains elegance with ageing, making it more refined and rounded.”
He recommends drinking it from a wine glass, and has designed a special Tengumai glass that enhances his sake’s bouquet and flavour.
Tengumai, he adds, brews sake that is perfect with food. Ginkouburi, in particular, is best paired with cooked seafood - not raw – like buri shabu (yellowtail hotpot), and barbecued meat – not steak.
But not all of Tengumai’s sakes are serious. Tengumai Origarami Spring Junmai Daiginjo is a namazake – a semi-dry unpasteurised sake that is cloudy and slightly fizzy. It is fresh and delicious as an aperitif, but also matches fish and meat equally well. In addition to the Tengumai label, Mr Shata’s brewery also makes another sake called Gorin. Unlike Tengumai which uses local Gohyakumangoku rice, Gorin is made with Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo prefecture.
To create a different taste profile from Tengumai, Mr Shata also used a different yeast for Gorin, which eschews the yamahai method. The result is that Gorin is softer and smoother with a crisper finish, versus Tengumai’s richer flavour with more acidity and a longer finish.
Mr Shata says: “Gorin was born as a product for beginners and adds variety to Shata Shuzo’s range. It has a short ageing period that combines the lightness and pleasant taste of a quick brewing starter.”
Shata Shuzo produces about a million 720ml bottles of sake a year, with Tengumai accounting for 90 per cent and Gorin the rest.