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Hey, that’s a sake of a different color

by John Gauntner

When you think about it, the realm of sake flavor profiles and types can be perceived as, well, a bit narrow. From the sweetest to the driest, from the roughest to the cleanest, we are not exactly talking about major bandwidth.

This, in fact, can be the appeal of sake. Within that narrow range are deep but subtle facets to be explored. But still, the range of types and styles is indeed a bit different. It takes a geek (like me) to fully appreciate them. “This one is made with rice polished a full 5 percent more than that one. Whoa! BIG difference!” Nah. Not really.

And so it was that, in 1970, a group of Niigata brewers got together and thought, “Hey, can’t we come up with something really different, but still have it recognized as decent sake?” The result was akaisake.

As might be gathered by the name, akaisake is red sake. It is indeed proper nihonshu. It tastes and smells like decent nihonshu. The alcohol content, the production process, the overall feel are all that of normal nihonshu. But it is red.

The first question is obviously “So, how’d they do it?” There are, actually, several ways to create a red color in sake. One is the rice; there are strains of rice that are reddish and purplish. But these are not the kinds of rice best suited for sake brewing. A cool color is a cool color, but if the sake doesn’t taste good, it is all for naught.

There are also strains of yeast that will yield a reddish tint. But again, yeast has such leverage over the final flavor and fragrance that going with established yeast strains is best if you are going to mess with other parameters, especially since many wild yeast strains give off far too many acids to make good sake. Tweaking more than one major variable at a time forces a brewer to relinquish control.

What is left is the koji. There are strains of koji, appropriately named beni-koji, that create a reddish tint in the final product.

Niigata is one of the few prefectures that has a fully functioning prefectural sake brewing research center. It was under the auspices of this organization that akaisake was developed, and they chose to do it via the koji.

Nothing holds more sway over the final flavor than the koji, that mold that creates sugar from starch. And the choice of what strain to use is not trivial. But obviously the Niigata brewers found one that gave color while maintaining a proper sake-flavor profile.

In akaisake, the red tint is created only a small amount of koji mold. Just enough to give the tint, not enough to affect the flavor adversely. That balance is delicate, but they have pulled it off quite well.

There are 11 kura in Niigata (out of 100 or so) that have chosen to participate in the Akaisake Kyodo Kumiai, the association promoting akaisake. But each uses the exact same labeling and packaging, and the recipe and methods are the same. While there will naturally be subtle differences from kura to kura, it is basically the same product.

The color, when you have it in front of you in a proper glass, is more of a peach, or an orange-tinged red, than a full-on crimson. Creative types would say auburn or persimmon. More importantly, it looks quite appealing.

The pleasant flavor and fragrance were a bit surprising. I expected roughness and acidity, with perhaps exacerbated sweetness to balance that, as is so common in sake that strays from the fold and hovers on the fringes. Not at all with this sake.

The fragrance is honey-laced young apple with a dash of cinnamon. The flavor is smooth and balanced, and while a bit sweet (especially for Niigata sake), it is not cloying at all. The sweetness is backed by a fruity astringency that is well within the envelope of enjoyableness.

That’s the good news. The bad news is only for purists. Akaisake is not premium sake, but rather bottom-shelf — at least in terms of ingredients. There are added sugars (during fermentation) and acids for flavor-adjusting, as well as added distilled alcohol. But if you are open-minded enough to think that if you like a sake, it is a good sake, potential bliss awaits you.

While brewed only in Niigata, akaisake is widely available. Readers interested can find akaisake at Daimaru department store at Tokyo Station, among other places. It is well worth a try.