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Brewing it naturally isn’t so easy

by John Gauntner

In recent years, there has been increased interest in organic sake. To legally specify something as organic or organically produced is difficult, at least in countries that have begun enforcing the standards that are needed to ensure safety and quality, as well as the protection of the environment.

Until very recently, there were no legal standards or definitions for organic sake. As such, yuki saibai no okome (organically grown rice) or yukimai (organic rice) was commonly seen on sake bottles. But the sake itself was not certifiable as organic. Until now.

Organic rice is certified by the Japanese Agricultural Standards board, under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Such rice is defined as having been grown in a paddy where no agricultural chemicals have been used for at least three years. This has to be certified by a third party.

Now, organic nihonshu is defined by the Taxation Ministry as sake in which 95 percent or more of the rice used in brewing qualifies as JAS-certified organically grown rice.

While there are several varieties of sake made with organic rice, there is, as of this year, only one truly certified organic sake product in Japan: a junmai ginjo brewed by Saiya Shuzoten of Akita Prefecture, brewers of the eminently quaffable Yuki no Bosha and Yuri Masamune brands. This brewery is the very first sake brewery in Japan to be certified as an organic foodstuff processing factory.

This product has been brewed with organic Koshi Hikari rice, which isn’t a true sake rice but rather a table rice. Siayu Shuzoten wasn’t able to gather enough organic sake rice to use it this year, but next year we can look forward to an organic sake made with the sake rice Akita Komachi. The current organic junmai ginjo is reportedly quite nice — dry, clean and smooth.

Note that often the term munoyaku (no agricultural chemicals) is seen on sake bottles. While the difference between munoyaku and organic may at first seem trivial, there are several reasons for the distinction.

First, true organic certification is very stringent and specific. The rice may have been grown with something the brewer does not consider chemical, but which is just not an approved method or substance. Something like this may have been unavoidable considering the region, rice strain and other factors, despite the best intentions of all involved.

Also, the rice strain and rice field itself might not be officially certified as organic, even though the rice was indeed grown by totally organic methods and materials; it’s a matter of red tape, if you will.

Finally, and most interestingly, the Japanese landscape and traditional irrigation methodology can be a hindrance to certification. Why? Because the whole point is to ensure that no prohibited chemicals were used as fertilizers in growing the rice. In Japan’s landscape, very often rice paddies are irrigated by water that flows down from other paddies belonging to other farmers. If a producer cannot absolutely guarantee that the water has not been contaminated by chemicals somewhere down the line, it cannot be certified as organic.

Of course, the use of organic or even munoyaku rice does not say anything about the quality of the sake. In fact, to my palate, the munoyaku sake I have tasted so far seems to be a bit more wild and less refined, albeit earthy and solid. Presumably, organic sake would be in a similar vein; however, no proper sake rice has been organically produced on a large scale yet, so the jury is still out.

As sake brewing is a traditional craft that has always been very closely tied to nature, it is more than appropriate for sake brewing today to maintain natural resources. Munoyaku sake, and fully qualified organic sake even more so, are good steps in that direction.

On June 1, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Robert Yellin and I will be hosting another sake and Japanese pottery seminar from 6 to 9 p.m. at the sake pub Mushu near Shin-Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations. If you would like to attend, e-mail sakeguy@gol.com

Participation is limited to 40 people. The cost for half a dozen sake samples, ample food and a hopefully enlightening lecture is 7,000 yen.

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Yuki no Bosha (Akita Prefecture)
Junmai ginjoshu

This brewery exhibits great strength in consistency, be it either of their main brands (mentioned above) or their organic sake. They rack up golds and silvers at the national sake-tasting competitions on a regular basis, showing just how much control they have over their processes.

This sake, like all of their products, is fairly dry and straightforward, but very tightly put together. A true Tohoku sake, and a truly drinkable sake.