The Truth About Rice Milling: Three Sake That Crack The Common Narrative
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Last year a sake made from rice that had been polished to just 1% of its original weight was released to much hype and fanfare. Before the lids had even been popped, komyo, or Zenith as it is called in English, had garnered attention from what felt like every corner of the food and drinks media. Its makers even went as far as suggesting that it was "the future of sake brewing". Tatenokawa, the Yamagata based brewery behind the sake, were rightly praised for managing the incredible feat of completing the complex process of sake brewing, including making koji, using just the miniscule grains of rice that remained after 1800 hours of continuous polishing. Suddenly everyone was once again talking about the importance of rice polishing, and how the quality of sake increases as the amount of rice polishing increases. However, there is one major issue with this common narrative, and that is that it simply isn't true!
What is true is that the outer layer of a rice kernel contains fats and proteins that can cause what some might deem to be "off flavours" in the final sake. Therefore, brewers often polish away at least 30% of the outer layer in order to obtain a so-called "cleaner" final product. The much lauded dai-ginjo, or super-premium category, takes this to extremes and must by law be made from rice that has a polishing ratio (精米歩合) of just 50% or higher, often resulting in a much lighter style of sake. In an attempt to make sake more understandable to, well let's just be honest, the wine drinking demographic, the dai-ginjo classification has long been heralded as the crème de la crème of the sake world. I will admit that it's an easy concept for consumers to grasp. Just look for a sake with a really low polishing ratio and you have yourself a good one. Easy, right? Except that this flawed logic completely ignores the fact that taste is subjective, not objective. Not everyone, including myself, is overly fond of ultra-refined sake and instead prefer the more characterful, nuanced, dare I even say interesting, styles that are surely one of the main reasons that ji-zake is so appealing in the first place.
I want to make clear from the beginning that the purpose of this blog is not to try and downplay Tatenokawa's brewing achievements with komyo. Truth be told, I am actually a great admirer of some of their other sake. However, the undoubtedly arduous and complex task they underwent during the making of komyo does not afford them a free-pass for some of the questionable marketing that has accompanied its release, or the subsequent affect this has had on novice sake consumer's lack of understanding regarding rice polishing. Indeed, this has undoubtedly been one of the unfortunate by-products that has perhaps tarnished what should have been a universally celebrated achievement in sake brewing history. Outlandish claims that komyo will provide "a new frontier and bring rays of hope to the future of the world of sake" only compound the misunderstandings around rice polishing and therefore cannot be left unchallenged.
Furthermore, it is also unclear exactly what kind of a future they have in mind when you consider the enormous amount of rice that was used to make komyo yielded just 150 bottles, took two and a half months to complete just one stage of the brewing process, and had a price tag (100,800 yen) that put it well beyond the reach of virtually everyone except wealthy trophy collectors. Although it makes a great addition to sake's already extensive array of styles, it is just that, one style amongst many possibilities to choose from. As perhaps one of the rare few that has actually tried komyo, I will admit that it's a very nice sake, superb even in this category. However, it didn't exactly set my pulse racing, and this super-light style is rarely what I would choose to drink if given the option. If you like ultra smooth, clear tasting sake, then this is a good one. But again, sake such as this will definitely not impress everyone.
However, perhaps the biggest issue that needs addressing is the belief from some people within the sake community that komyo represents "the pinnacle of sake brewing". In my opinion, the true pinnacle of sake brewing is simply harmony amongst the workers, but that is besides the point and definitely warrants a separate discussion. Regardless, this statement is not only highly debatable but, in the danger of pointing out the obvious, 1% isn't even the pinnacle of rice polishing. Instead, what this statement demonstrates is the rather worrying misconception that has been taking hold in recent years that places rice polishing as the single biggest factor determining the quality of sake. This is surely the main reason that certain brewers have been partaking in a sort of polishing war over the last ten or so years, with each trying to out-do the previous record and go just that little bit lower. This has naturally filtered down into the mainstream and has now become a popular narrative amongst many fans of sake.
Indeed, what finally motivated me to write this blog was a YouTube video that I watched, by admittedly a couple who appeared to be complete sake novices, who noted that anything with a ratio higher than 70% is "virtually undrinkable". This un-educated exclamation coming from what I believe to be a fairly popular YouTube channel reveals that frequent attempts to conceptualise rice polishing as a measure of quality is now unfortunately coming with a price. That price is at best a complete misunderstanding of the affect that rice polishing has on the final taste of sake. At worst, it reveals that new demographics are completely missing out on all the wonderful character laden sake that they could also be enjoying alongside ginjo styles. It is my long held belief that, especially as it continues to grow in popularity overseas, sake's most effective weapon in its arsenal is not the admittedly brilliant style typical of a good dai-ginjo, but rather its incredible versatility as a whole. Limitless potential with food pairings, the ability to enjoy sake hot and cold, and it's fantastic spectrum of flavours and aromas will only come to be fully appreciated if we stop fixating on polishing percentages.
Therefore, the purpose of this blog is to try and offer a counter-balance to the countless pages devoted to the merits of dai-ginjo and heavily polished sake. In order to do so, I have accumulated a list of three examples that display just some of the wonderful qualities of sake brewed without using highly polished rice. What I am not trying to suggest is that the sake on this list are in some way superior to their heavily refined counterparts. As I said previously, everyone has a different perception of taste and it would be hypocritical of me to then start suggesting that everyone should put down their glass of ginjo in favour of these. Rather, what I hope to achieve is to highlight just what a worthy addition these so called "less refined" brews are to the wonderful family of sake. That being said, I don't think it would be the end of the world if perhaps I even converted a few die-hard ginjo-ists towards some of the less conventional styles in the process. Exploring these supposedly lower quality categories reveals a whole new side to sake that perhaps some are sadly missing out on. At the very least, it will reveal the true potential of this fantastically versatile beverage.
So without further ado, let's get started.
Katori, Junmai Shizen 80 by Terada Honke
Terada Honke in Chiba prefecture like to keep things simple with their sake. But the simplest things in life can often be some of the most difficult to achieve. When you consider that a substantial proportion of the brewing process was left in the hands of mother-nature you quickly realise that Katori is anything but some unsophisticated simpleton. It is made in the traditional Kimoto style, a rather labour intensive method of creating the yeast starter. Furthermore, it uses no cultured yeasts in the brewing process, instead relying on those floating around naturally in the air. However, Katori's other standout feature is its use of an organic table rice variety called Katori-Hikari that has a modest polishing ratio of just 80%.
If you ever want to try a sake that embraces the so called "off flavours" that lightly polished rice is said to impart, then look no further than this. Instead of trying to filter out so called "impurities" Katori is bottled in virtually the exact same condition that it came out of the press. However, you might be surprised to discover that rather than all of this being a negative, the coarse rice and hands off approach to brewing has imparted superb character and complexity into the sake. It's nose is sweet like rice pudding, and it has a wonderful soft palate that wraps around your mouth. Furthermore, gently warming it will unlock a whole new array of rich flavours and aromas. Notes of caramel, brown sugar, and even butter highlight the true intricacies of this superb sake.
Henpei-Seimai Origarami Blue Label by Takachiyo Shuzo
Although the polishing percentage of this sake is a closely guarded secret, a look at the brewery's portfolio reveals that they are not exactly synonymous for heavily polishing rice. The reason for this is that they are instead well known for championing a method known as henpei-seimai, or flat-polishing. By this method, the oblong shape of the rice kernel is maintained throughout the process which is said to be much more effective and alleviates the need for such high polishing. In any event, it is refreshing to see a brand being so successful domestically and that places such little importance on rice polishing that they don't even feel they need to list it on their labels. They tell you the method by which they did it, but outside of that they simply let the sake speak for itself.
What is important from this series from Takachiyo is how the sake tastes, not the classification or lack of it. As for this particular example, the theme is definitely grapefruit, and it has a wonderful full-bodied bitterness coming from the sediment (origarami) that is present. It is bold, flavoursome and actually packs quite a punch from its juicy and slightly sweet composition. In a sense, it is the very antithesis of the often super-light and subdued dai-ginjo's that are so highly regarded in today's sake market. To put it more succinctly, this sake, and any of the others from the same line-up, are for those of us who like our coffee black and our curry hot. They are not shy and reserved, and instead express all of their wonderful flavours and aromas that are the result of quality ingredients combined with a high level of brewing technique.
Tamagawa, Time Machine 1712 by The Kinoshita Brewery
I could have chosen from a number of great examples from the wonderfully eclectic Tamagawa line-up for this list. However, it is almost unthinkable to exclude the simply beguiling Time Machine 1712 brewed in northern Kyoto prefecture. The work of acclaimed British brew-master Philip Harper, this piece of brewing black-magic was made according to a recipe that, as the name would suggest, was first recorded back in Japan's Edo Period. Like Katori, it was made in the traditional Kimoto style using Kitanishiki rice that was polished to just 88%. It's incredible quality is proof that good brewing is not simply down to rice polishing, rather it is the level of care, attention and brewing technique that is the true measure of a good sake.
Immediately recognisable by its striking golden colour, this sake contains an insane amount of acids and amino acids which the brewery claim is anywhere from 3 to 7 times higher than the levels found in conventional ginjo styles. Originally intended to be simply an accompaniment for ice cream and other desserts, Time Machine 1712 has proven to be remarkably versatile and feels suitably at home in any number of different scenarios. Although it is extremely sweet, thanks to the firm acidity, it is not at all cloying, and is one of those special sake that transcends the seasonal labels often placed upon specific varieties. From on-the-rocks in a nice wine glass, to gently steaming away in a traditional pottery vessel, this modern classic will grab your attention time and time again and have you questioning exactly just what your own definition of sake really is.