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Winter’s the season for sake nouveau

by Philip Harper

Sake breweries are mostly dead quiet over the summer, and are just now getting into full swing as the chilly weather makes for more brewing-friendly conditions.

The kanzukuri (cold brewing) pattern of concentrating production in the coldest months of the year became mainstream in the Edo Period, and timely advances in agricultural techniques found farmers with their hands free at the same period, a coincidence that gave rise to the labor structure that supported the industry for centuries.

When I first started brewing (an alarming 17 years ago), it was still the Old Days. My colleagues were rice-farmers from the area in rural Hyogo Prefecture, who left their families after the autumn rice harvest to live and work the winter months of the brewing season wherever the master brewer — the leader of the team — took them.

As production of a single batch in traditional brewing takes at least six weeks or so, starting brewing in late autumn meant that the first batch was only just ready for pressing at the year’s end.

Nowadays, this landmark of the brewer’s year does not have the inevitable seasonality of days past. As traditional guilds have struggled to produce successors, many breweries have found it necessary to brew with local manpower, some of it in the form of year-round employees.

Cold economics (and the powerful desire of the brewers to get home to their wives and children) meant that the traditional system was set up to brew intensively for a short season. But brewery owners finding themselves with members of brewing staff employed year-round face a different set of calculations. One approach is to stretch the season so that staff can take the odd day off (though there are still many full-time employees in sake breweries who rarely, if ever, get a holiday in the winter).

With people on the payroll in any case, it becomes highly desirable for breweries to start the season earlier than was traditional, so that shinshu (sake nouveau) is available for sale at the beginning of the crucial sales month of December. By the time you read this, there will be plenty of rambunctious, freshly-pressed bottled lightning awaiting your attention.

Despite the nouveau-esque connotation of the word, few sake-lovers actually have “shinshu” in mind when they’re out shopping. For those who thrill to the gamboling, cavorting, rocking and rolling rampage of flavor that is sake fresh out of the press, shiboritate is the magic word. Shibori means “pressed” or “pressing”; tate signifies a state of having happened a moment before.

Apart from having come into the world only a moment ago, there are no rules restricting the field of play for shiboritate. Most consumers assume that theirs will be unpasteurized, but you can find plenty of new stuff that has been heat-zapped, too. Similarly, you can find undiluted genshu (high-grade) interpretations, and others that have been adjusted to a more conventional level of about 15 percent alcohol.

Shiboritate-grade is equally untrammeled: you can find humble “regular” sake interpretations, junmai (pure-rice) shiboritate, alcohol-added honjozo versions — anything goes, though I would say that products with a bit of added brewers’ alcohol tend to predominate.

The start of the winter season is a tense time for brewers, who must cope with the challenges of getting all the gear (mothballed through the summer) online at the same time as carrying out the microbial plate-spinning act that is sake-brewing. There is a delicate balancing act as brewers try to adjust to the particular year’s rice at the opening of the season. The first few batches involve a lot of guesswork, and brewers are glad for any lever on the uncertainty, hence the added alcohol. There are upper limits to the amount of alcohol that can be added (low for high-grade premium sake of the non-junmai persuasion, high for the regular stuff). Still, the brewer is free to use less alcohol than the permitted maximum, and many toji (master brewers) choose not to use the full permitted addition.

This is especially true in the case of premium sake, where the technique is frequently a stylistic choice rather than an economic one. Adding alcohol does reduce the producer’s costs (and the label price), but it results in quite a different sake. It also gives the brewer more control over those wayward early batches.

There is much to be said for a sampling of the first flush of the season’s production. The studiously-inclined should drink shiboritate with due attention. Time and the loving care of breweries mean that sake goes through many shifts of nuance in flavor to metamorphose into an enormous range of possible interpretations before being drunk. This time of year is a chance to grasp where the starting line is.

Purely hedonistic drinkers, meanwhile, are blessed in not being required to think about anything, and should just jump on the water-slide of flavors that is shiboritate. Whoosh!

Master brewer Philip Harper is the author of “The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide” (Kodansha International).