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Right down to the nitty-gritty grains

by John Gauntner

Rice is not, as most readers know, simply rice. Good sake is made from proper sake rice, and cheaper sake is made from much less expensive rice. In fact, most run-of-the-mill sake is made with rice bought from the local agricultural co-op, and often the purchaser knows nothing about it other than it came from within that prefecture.

Among the 50 or so types of officially designated sakamai (sake rice), there are many differences that make each type more (or less) suited to sake brewing: size, starch content and the hardness of the grain are but a few of those considerations.

And even within one sakamai type, there are greater and lesser manifestations. Let’s look at some of these differences, as well as how they are measured and conveyed.

When the rice arrives at the sake brewery, it comes as genmai (unmilled, brown rice) in 30-kg brown paper bags. Each of these has a printed panel of information like that pictured here. All that the brewer needs to know about the rice within is listed here.

In this case, the rice type, Yamada Nishiki, and its prefecture of origin, Hyogo, is printed above the two stamps. But while Yamada Nishiki may be recognized as the best sakamai by many, just because it says Yamada on the bag does not guarantee anything. Below that, in a big, bold stamp, it says “tokujo“, which indicates it is the highest of the five classes of rice. The others below it are toku, itto, nitto and santo , in that order.

The differences between the various grades are established by factors such as size. And while size does matter, other elements effect quality, such as broken grains or aomai, grains that have not ripened and remain green. Size, by the way, is measured by the weight of 1,000 grains, or senryuju.

Note that just because it says tokujo does not mean that every grain in that bag is of tokujo class. There will always be a certain amount of smaller grains, cracked grains and aomai as well.

Next to this stamp is a smaller one indicating the inspection date and name of the inspector. The “kei” stamp shows it has been officially weighed. The word sake, written in katakana, shows that the rice is sake rice, so that it might be used for other Hyogo sakamai as well.

Finally, the name of the farmer and the township are also noted in the bottom half of the box. This is important since sake rice, like all rice, is particularly affected by soil and sunlight. The oval sticker indicates that this rice field is rated as a “special A region” for Yamada Nishiki. This “ranking” is based on soil and climate conditions, and while this designation may be a bit dubious, rice from such regions does command higher prices.

Good Yamada Nishiki like this is expensive, as much as 30,000 yen for a 60-kg unit known as a hyo. This is three times more expensive than fine table rice. Bearing in mind that brewers then mill away the outer 50 percent or more of this expensive stuff, it is a wonder sake is affordable at all. In fact, rice is 70 percent of the cost of sake overall. The easiest way for a brewer to make sake less expensive is to use lower-quality rice.

Related to this, many brewers will use rice for their koji production that is superior in quality to the rice later added to the fermenting mixture. Since koji exerts immense leverage on the final flavor profile, it makes sense to use the best rice in creating it.

Perhaps the point of all this is that there is much, much more to the rice world than most of us are aware of, and the methods of quality-control and selection for sake rice can be interesting.

There are also various philosophies, and those who think outside of the box get good results. One Okayama brewer has his own ideas about things. He told me on a recent visit that he does not buy his rice from his contracted farmers by weight, but rather by square meter of area of field.

Why? Because the farmers will not then be tempted to maximize yields by getting as much rice as possible out of every little piece of land. This will then allow more nutrients to be available for the rice that does grow there, and even if yields are reduced, the rice itself will be stronger and make better sake. (Their sake is called Chikurin, by the way.)

On July 27, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Robert Yellin and I will be hosting a sake and Japanese pottery seminar from 6 to 9 p.m. at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations. The sake topic will be toji ryuha, the guilds of master brewers in the sake world. Participation is limited to 40 people. The cost, which includes six sake samples and ample food, is 7,000 yen. If you are interested in attending, e-mail sakeguy@gol.com

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Gassan (Shimane Prefecture)
Junmai ginjo

The master brewer here has been in charge of sake production since 1962 and obviously has his rhythms in place. This junmai ginjo is a wonderful value, full, nutty and fruity, with a grainy mouth feel and a perfect level of acidity that drives the flavors into balance.