My Life in Sake

"I was lost on a street corner in Toyko, several minutes late for my Kikisake-shi test, the Japanese Master Sake "Sommelier" exam. I had only a set of directions to the examination hall, written in Japanese characters, and my own limited command of the language to guide me. The first policeman I stopped spoke no English, but he was able to grasp my problem and pointed me in one direction, scribbling down more cryptic Japanese to light my way. Lost again. Another man I stopped pointed me in another direction. As an American I am sure that I stood out like a sore thumb, and I asked person after person to guide me. 10 totally helpful, but utterly non-English speaking people later, I finally found my way.  In this way, Sake also may at first appear indecipherable."

I fell in love with sake the first time I tasted Kubota Senjyu from Asahi Shuzo in Niigata. At the time, I was living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, working for a sub-par sushi bar. I had always been interested in sake, but as I stood at that bar in St. Thomas and savored its taste, I sensed that sake would become a very important part of my life.  I was working as a chef then, but sake became my passion and I hunted down everything bottle I could get my hands on—friends and family even sent bottles from the mainland to supplement the few selections I could find on the island.  I continued cooking for many more years, eventually arriving at a restaurant in Napa, but in my spare time I relentlessly studied sake.  When I passed the Kikisake-Shi test in 2009, I could finally make sake my sole focus and career.

My first trip to Japan was one of the best experiences of my life. I had no idea what to expect, my Japanese was terrible, and I could barely find my way around.  I soon found out that the Japanese are some of the most hospitable people in the world. While in Tokyo, I tried some amazing food, from sushi at Tsukiji Market to chicken sashimi at a fantastic yakitori shop, but it was the whole new world of sakes that really caught my attention! I drank my way through Tokyo, going into one izakaya after the other, pointing to all of the sakes that I wanted to try.  It was amazing!  I was able to tour several breweries, including Shirataki Shuzo in Niigata, a kura nestled high up in the mountains and enveloped in falling snow during most of my March visit.  Here, I got a hands-on experience in brewing sake from start to finish. I could see the importance of each ingredient and each step in the sake making process, from the importance of the water—in this particular case, the high mineral content from the mountain water gives the sake a full, weighty mouthfeel—to the different varieties of rice and their flavor profiles.  I observed the production of shubo, or “mother of sake”, a concentrated yeast created by combining steamed rice, rice, koji, water, and yeast.  What impressed me most, however, was the meticulous attention to cleanliness and organization. If precision is not maintained, missteps can drastically change the final product.  Every small detail in sake brewing determines the quality of the final product, and timing is crucial.  For example, the length of time required for even a simple task like soaking the rice can vary, depending on the rice variety and how recently the harvest occurred.  It was a profound experience that brought sake into focus for me.  Of course, the best part of my stage Shirataki Shuzo was the soba shop down the street.  They made fresh soba every day, and they only had ten seats.  You had to wait forever, but it was worth it!  I ate there every day….  

Three years ago, I became one of few non-Japanese to pass the Kikisake-shi test in Tokyo.  This intensive test is eight hours long and split into five parts.  The first two parts are written exams; the first—probably the hardest exam that I have ever taken—focuses on brewing styles and techniques.  Examples of its content include “What is Karacuchi style?” and “Who started yeast association no. 7?”  The second exam tests a candidate’s knowledge of the history of sake.  “What were the most significant advancements in sake during the Yayoi period (400 BC- 794) period?”  The third section involves a blind tasting on six different sakes: I had to correctly name the style and rice used for each sake.  I had thirty minutes to taste and write down the correct answers, but after those written exams my mouth was so dry from anxiety that I was lucky I could even taste them!  The fourth part is a demonstration of traditional Japanese sake service; by this point my hands were shaking so badly I could barely pour the sake. The fifth and final section is an in-depth discussion on pairing sake with food. The judge suggested several different Japanese dishes and I had to offer various styles and particular brews of sake that would pair with the dish, and explain the rationale behind my choices.  It was an incredible experience that truly changed my life.


At Hana, whenever we sell sake by the glass (rather than by the bottle) we pour the sake tableside into a glass resting in a masu, a small wooden box.  I pour enough to slightly overflow the glass, demonstrating the generosity of the house. (Tajime Shuzo, Chikusen Karakuchi Junmai Genshu pictured)              

Primer In Sake Making

Sake is mostly made up of only three major ingredients; water, rice, and koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae).  Each ingredient is extremely important in the sake-making process and the quality of each ingredient—or its imperfections—shines through in the final product.  The toji must be constantly monitoring all three to yield a quality product in the end.

The Quality of Water

As water accounts for 80% of raw materials used for sake production, it is an extremely important ingredient.  Most sake breweries originated near a great water source. Water plays such an important role in sake production the entire brewery is permeated by the same water that is used for the sake.  Breweries will wash equipment with only that particular water; employees only drink that water; some breweries go so far as to not allow any outside water into the brewery at all.  The brewery water, or shuzo-yosui, is divided into two categories: jozo-yosui (best water) and binzume-yosui (bottle water).  The jozo-yosui must be abundant in potassium, phosphorus and magnesium; these minerals help yeast propagation and aid in the development of koji.  It must also be low in iron and manganese, as these minerals change the color and flavor of sake.  Jozo-yosui is used for washing and soaking the rice, and for the production of shubo.  Breweries use binzume-yosui to top off and dilute finished sake, and to clean equipment.  Sake brewing water is also classified as either hard or soft.  The hardness of water is measured by its levels of calcium and magnesium.  Hard water yields stronger and more masculine sake, whereas soft water yields a light, clean, and feminine sake. Regional sakes include flavors unique to that area, stemming from the natural balance of the compounds found in the local water. This is not “terroir” in winemaking sense, but it is a similar concept.  The three most famous water sources are Miyamizu, Gokosui, and Fukuryusui.  Miyamizu is from Nada in Hyogo—the most famous hard water source in Japan.  This water is high in minerals, particularly phosphorus and potassium, which are perfect nutrients for koji-kin.  Gokosui is from Fushimi in Kyoto. This water has a lower mineral content overall, and it is extremely low in iron, an attribute which creates a sweeter, delicate, and more feminine style of sake in comparison to the drier and more masculine sakes of Nada.  The third type of water is Fukuryusui, sourced from Mt. Fuji in Shizuoka.  Snow and falling rain on the slopes of Mt. Fuji seep deep into the volcanic soils underground.  This natural, purified spring water has a balanced mineral content, with a ratio of three parts calcium to one part magnesium.  Fukuryusui has a crisp flavor with a soft mouthfeel.

The Rice Grain

Like wine grapes, the rice used for sake production are not the varieties you would use for the table.  Sake rice is far starchier than table rice, and each individual grain is larger and hardier, as it has to be able to stand up to the friction and heat created in the milling process.  The most desirable brewing rice is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. There are around 100 varieties of sake rice being used today throughout Japan.  Here is a short list of some of my favorites:             

            1. Yamadanishiki, Hyogo This is most popular variety of sake rice. 60% of all sake is made from this rice grain, which yields a complex, slightly sweet sake and commonly has a vanilla note.

            2. Gohyakumangoku, Nigiita Light, airy, clean sake with a dry finish.

            3. Omachi, Okayama Rich, complex sake and usually has a nutty nose.

            4. Hattannishiki, Hiroshima Light, flavorful sake with earthy undertones

            5. Dewasansan, Yamagata Complex and not too dry style of sake, usually with pear and apple notes.

            6. Kame no O, Nigaata Richer in flavor and drier than most sake rice varieties.  This usually yields a more acidic sake.

            7. Hanafabuki Aomori Rich, flavorful sake with mushroom or umami on the palate.

            8. Haenuki, Yamagata, Very clean and dry sake.

            9. Oseto A rare rice from Kagawa which is earthy and distinctive. Currently only one brewery makes all their sake from this rice grain, Ayakiku from Karawa.     

Making the Koji

In the koji-making process sake brewers face different challenges than winemakers.  Unlike grapes, rice grains do not contain sugar.  It must be created by the action of the koji mold, which converts the starch in the grain into sugars. The propagation of koji on steamed rice is considered to be the very heart of the sake brewing process. Immediately after the steamed rice is cooled to 33° C (97° F),  it is transferred to the koji room known as the muro.  The rice is then spread out and the koji is sprinkled like a fine dust on the rice. This process is called hikkomi. In the next step, spores are kneaded into the rice and the rice is heaped together and wrapped in cloths to prevent heat and moisture loss—the mold is extremely sensitive to both at this point, and skillful control of this part of the process may be the most important step in sake production. It is crucial to keep the temperature even while the koji mold is growing. After approximately ten hours, workers spread, mix and wrap the rice again.  This step is called kirikaeshi.  In about twenty hours, the mold becomes visible in the form of white flecks on the rice.  By this time, the temperature of the rice begins to rise so it is separated—in a procedure known as mori—into smaller batches and put into wooden boxes for more control.  Seven to eight hours later, the temperature of the rice has risen and the rice is mixed again to maintain consistent heat and moisture. This process is called naka shigoto.  At this stage, the mold covers one-third of the rice grain, and shows a characteristic white color and distinctive aroma.  Each wooden tray is agitated to move the rice around, and then the stacking order is reversed to compensate for the variation in moisture and temperature in the muro. As the koji grows, it gives off more heat so frequent checks are needed to maintain the proper temperature as to not impede its growth.  Six or seven hours after naka shigoto is complete, the temperature will reach 39° C (102° F), and white spots of mold will cover most of the grain.  The rice is mixed a final time, and the last stage—shimai shigoto—begins.  The temperature usually rises to well over 40° C (104° F).  The wooden trays are restacked one more time to compensate for the different temperatures and moisture levels in the muro.  When the koji has reached it desired taste and aroma, it is removed from the muro and allowed to cool, stopping the growth of the mold. The finished koji is usually sweet due to the production of sugars, and hard to the touch because most of the moisture in the rice evaporates during the shimai shigoto.  The finished koji usually rests for a day before use.   

The propagation of the koji is so vital that the koji master will wake up every hour to check on its health—for the entire brewing season! 

Some Favorites

I am currently the sake sommelier at Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park, California.  Many customers demand daiginjo sake, because it is widely considered the best.  For me, I love honjozo, junmai, ginjo and daiginjo, but I do not consider them to be grades of quality; rather, I consider them to be three different styles.  Each has positives and negatives.  There is no doubt that daiginjo sake is the most difficult to make: it requires the most money and it is time-consuming to produce.  Therefore, it is always going to be more expensive, but that does not always make it the best sake.  At Hana, I prefer to make my list based around junmai, honjozo and junmai ginjo: these sakes are often more food-friendly and cost-effective.  We serve a lot of tasting menus, and Chef designs the menu based on what he thinks each individual customer will like.  For a menu like that, I have to come up with sake pairings on the spot!  Following are five of my favorite sakes I use on a regular basis.


From left to right: Suehiro Shuzo (Denshou Yamahai Junmai), Shirataki Shuzo (Jozen Mizuno Gotoshi Junmai Ginjo), Fuji Shuzo (Eiko Fuji Hon Kara Honjozo), Miyasaka Shuzo (Miyasaka Yamahai Nama 50), and Nishida Shuzo (Denshu Junmai)

Nishida Shuzo From Aomori The name of the sake is Denshu; it is a junmai made from hanafubuki rice, which lends a richness and umami quality.  This is a perfect pairing with rich foods like stews and Kobe beef. 

Eiko Fuji from Yamagata The name of the sake is HonKara, an abbreviation of two sake terms: honjozo and karakuchi. Karakuchi indicates a traditional method of brewing in which the brewer keeps the yeast just above the point of freezing, so that it converts the glucose into alcohol much slower; thus, the yeast remain alive and the sake becomes fully dry.  This sake is brewed using haenuki rice.  It has light, silky mouth feel with hints of tropical fruit (mango), lime and juniper.  There is a marshmallow-like sweetness to the mid-palate, and the sake pairs well with oysters and sashimi.

Shirataki Shuzo from Niigata Jozen  Mizuno Gotoshi is a junmai ginjo sake made from Gohyakumangoku sake rice which gives it a nice dry finish. The front palate is full of stone fruits like nectarine and apricot.  The brewery is in a mountainous region, and they use run-off water from the mountains for their sake, which imparts a mineral content.  On the palate the minerality reveals itself in a way akin to the taste of melting snow.  This sake pairs well with shellfish, cured fish, and miso-marinated cod.

Miyasaka Shuzo from Nagano Miyasaka Yamahai 50 Nama is unpasteurized sake brewed in the yamahai style, with 50% of the rice grain milled away.  Yamahai sakes are produced by a traditional method of brewing, wherein lactic acid is not added to the moto.  Instead, nature takes its course.  The moto naturally makes it own lactic acid and fights off unwanted bacteria.  This process produces a heartier, gamier style of sake—a food-friendly style that I love!  This example shows peaches, cream, and bergamot.  The rice gives it an earthy mid-palate and it finishes clean.  Since this sake is also unpasteurized, it is really bright and lively.  I use it often for rich dishes like our sake-braised pork belly with poached egg, but the brewery suggests German sauerbraten.

Suehiro Shuzo from Fukushima Suehiro, the first brewery to produce yamahai sakes, makes one of the best: yamahai junmai.  It is round, smooth and well balanced with hazelnut and white pepper notes.  There is a hint of sweetness with a nice umami finish, and it is an elegant example of the style.  I pair this one with tempura and mushroom-centric dishes.

 

Unfortunately, sake is a misunderstood beverage, often due to a lack of education.  Even for people interested in sake there is little to no information available in English.  I hope this changes over time, and America may more access to sake in the future.  So in the meantime, my goal is to continue to educate wine-loving people on this beautiful, food-friendly beverage. Hopefully, we can bring a end to sake bombs forever!   


Stuart Morris is the Sake Sommelier for Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park, CA.  Stuart enjoys pairing sake with not only sushi but also with the most popular seafood dishes to demonstrate the complementary nature of the beverage. He has many regular diners who come from throughout Northern California for his unique pairings.  Whenever a diner is interested in a sake pairing, Stuart will provide personal commentary on the selected pairings so that diners leave with an education and newfound appreciation for the beverage.

 

Photos by Kali Kirschman

  • Wow, very nice...after taking John Gauntners sake professional course this past year in Vegas I can appreciate the dedication you must have.  Sake is so much more in depth than the average person thinks!  I to, work in a Japanese restaurant--Nobu--and I love sake!  But unfortunately we have an exclusive contract with Hokusetsu, so our list is limited to one brewer with different styles.  I would love to visit your place!  Keep the passion, and let's spread Sake even farther into mainstream!!  

  • This is an amazing article probably my favorite to date! Stuart is the man! His talent is unparalleled in my experience for sake & food pairing. Whenever I am at Hana I put myself in Stuart's hands and am never disappointed.

  • Otsukaresama deshita, stuart-san. Keep it up!!!! Domo!!

  • Tasting/drinking Sake at the Morris home in Napa is something I will always remember! Hope we ca do it again soon Stuart- Your level of excitement is only paralleled by your expertise. Great reference, Thank you.

  • I had the pleasure of working with Stuart at Postrio in SF and he is a delight.

    Not that long ago, Stuart served us some amazing sake and we could tell his passion about the craft.

    Congratulations Stuart and hope to see you soon!!!

  • It is great to have talented people like Stuart, his passion for sake is contagious and he has a very genuine way to share his knowledge.

  • I remember last year coming in this restaurant without knowing where i was going in to. Sushi were great, but meeting this guy was exceptional! i learn so much about sake that night.

  • Just got back from Japan myself, thank you for the great article!  would love to discover sake more, as I learned first hand how difficult it can be to discern quality and selection differences.  Any recommended reading/resources to take studies to the next level?  thanks!