Getting to Know the Local Jizake
If you stop at any train station or bus stop in Japan to find some souvenirs for family and friends, no matter how remote or small the area, there will inevitably be at the very least, a Hello Kitty or Doraemon good dressed up in the regional specialty for you to take home. Whether your town is known for natto, mochi or a famous governor, every region in Japan has some sort of claim to fame. On a lesser known scale for foreigners, the local sake (jizake) also exists as another source of regional pride.
For foreigners, the colorful and eclectic Doraemon and Hello Kitty paraphernalia that line the walls of the souvenir shop may prove to be a much more vivid manifestation of these regional differences than regionally developed sake； but locally brewed sake has a much deeper and far-reaching tie with the land than any commercial good could provide. This issue of ACCESS takes a look at the method of brewing sake and the local types of Yamaguchi sake that may be lurking on the shelves of your local sakaya (liquor store) unbeknownst to you.
In order to do justice to the range of sake types and flavors that exist to titillate the taste buds, it is first necessary to explain the basic production of sake and how it is broken down into its various categories.
Five crucial elements are involved in brewing sake -- water, rice, technical skill, yeast, and land/weather. More than anything else, sake is a result of a brewing process that uses rice and lots of water. In fact, water comprises as much as 80% of the final product, so fine water and fine rice are natural prerequisites if one hopes to brew great sake. But beyond that, the technical skill needed lies with the toji (head brewers), the type of yeast they use, and the limitations entailed by local land and weather conditions.
First, rice is washed and steam-cooked. This is then mixed with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with a mold known technically as aspergillus oryzae). The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches over four days. This fermentation, which occurs in a large tank, is called shikomi.. The quality of the rice, the degree to which the koji mold has propagated, temperature variations, and other factors are different for each shikomi. This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.
Sake can be divided into five main categories, however many of the sakes overlap between more than one category. They are broken down into:
Junmai-shu 純米酒 pure rice wine； no adding of distilled alcohol
Honjozo-shu 本醸造酒at least 30% of rice polished away； a tad of distilled alcohol is added
Ginjo-shu 吟醸酒at least 40% of rice polished away； with or without alcohol added； if bottle is labeled Ginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added； if labeled Junmai Ginjo, it means no alcohol added
Daiginjo-shu 大吟醸酒at least 50% of rice polished away； again with or without added alcohol； if bottle is labeled Daiginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added； if labeled Junmai Daiginjo, it means no alcohol added
Namazake 生酒special 5th designation for un-pasteurized sake； incorporates all four above
Yamaguchi boasts a number of regionally developed sake. Among the most well known are Saito no Shizuku and a number of different sakes made from sakura yeast, whose method of production was discovered in Yamaguchi.
Saito no Shizuku was revealed in April of 2006 as part of the campaign to promote locally produced agricultural goods and products. It was developed from two different strains of rice grain. One strain is known as kokuryoumiyako and was originally developed in the middle of the Meiji Period while the other is called yamadanishiki strain and only exists within Yamaguchi. The Saito no Shizuku type of rice grain is easy to cultivate because it stands at only 90cm high, and therefore, does not get bent or blown over easily. The size of the harvest is said to be 10-15% larger than the Yamadanishiki harvest.
In 2001, a group of researchers from the Yamaguchi Prefectural Technology Institute (located in Ube) in collaboration with a local technology school and other businesses succeeded in using yeast form the sakura flower (cherry blossom) to develop sake. Although it was not the first time yeast from flowers was used in the production of sake, within Japan, it was the first time sakura flowers were used. Samples were collected from approximately 100 sakura trees to search for a type of yeast that could be utilized. Although there are various types of yeast that exist within the sakura flower, it was considered not strong enough to make a sake with enough alcohol content. However, the researchers in Yamaguchi succeeded in creating sake with over 15% alcohol levels. From this sakura yeast, various brands of sake including, hana nara tusbomi 花ならつぼみand hana kahori花かほり were marketed to great success. These sakes give off a fruity scent and have a relatively low alcohol level which makes for a smooth taste.
The next time you pass your local sakaya, get up the courage to head in and ask about Yamaguchi’s sake； you may not only surprise the clerk with your curiosity and knowledge of the local brews but discover yourself to be a budding sake aficionado.