Making sake in the kimoto method at Terada Honke (photo from the brewery website)

Another Sake Email! - exciting arrivals from Yoigokochi Imports

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It's quite strange (and somewhat funny) to see the term "natural wine" becoming such a strong marketing slogan, even for products that are not related to wine at all. The appropriation of the term has far exceeded the tenets it once proposed, and has almost become a term for hipness, the new cool, and what looks good on Instagram or other social media platforms. It feels quite strange to hear statements like "oh, this mezcal is like the natural wine of agave spirits." I've written a little about this in regards to sake a few months ago (you can find the article here) so I don't want to repeat myself too much. Yet it felt apt to remark on certain trends in the market before introducing a new selection from Yoigokochi Imports, which currently feels like it's being sold as "the natural wine of sake", but is also a very interesting portfolio of quite delicious and unique sake from breweries that are putting a major effort into farming rice organically and definitely forging their own path in the modern market.

And so a short introduction:

The structures, and indeed politics of rice farming in Japan can be somewhat complicated. In the post-WWII years, when Japan was still reeling from the devastation of the conflict and facing severe food shortages, the Japanese government began to oversee all rice production. The purpose was two-fold. One was to control supply, and then later to control excess supply; there are still government subsidies in place to pay farmers to not grow rice, or not grow as much. This allows for a steady supply, at a price that wouldn't fluctuate much, and prevents the boom-bust cycles that are occasionally seen in other crops used for alcoholic production (agave used for Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco is a prime example), and allows farmers to sustain their livelihoods without the threat of economic uncertainty. The second reason has to do with preventing the reconsolidation of farmland in the hands of powerful landowners. Anyone familiar with the golden age of Japanese cinema (the works of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, etc) is familiar with not only the epic samurai sagas, but also the atrocious working and living conditions of farmers in medeival Japan. The current system, with many small farmers banded together in regional cooperatives, is a protection against any one person having a big influence over an agricultural staple such as rice. For sake breweries, that meant that up until about 20 years ago, the only way to buy rice was to go through these cooperatives, with the Japanese government acting as a broker, as well as a regulatory body that decided not just yields and quanitites, but also classified the quality of rice, and what is could be used for.

These days those regulations have eased, and that's where Terada Honke and Akishika (along with other breweries you can often find on our shelves: Marumoto, with their label Chikurin, Mutemuka, Izumibashi) come in. These breweries have decided to put an emphasis on farming their own rice (or working closely with local farmers), and farming it organically, which in a humid country like Japan, is no small feat.

Akishika Shuzo was founded in 1886 in Osaka prefecture, and Hiraoki Oku, the sixth generation owner, has put a huge emphasis on farming organically, and in 2011 was able to obtain certification. Along with their own rice paddies, they also work with 20 other farmers who do not spray pesticides or herbicides. Akishika grows Yamadanishiki and Omachi, two of the most famous varieties, but they craft sake that feels singular, at once intense and maybe somewhat austere, yet full of complexities.

Newly planted rice paddy. (photo by Masuru Terada, the 24th
generation owner of Terada Honke)

Terada Honke, founded in 1673, focuses on the kimoto method, a longer start to the fermentation process where the mash is allowed to interact with ambient lactic acid bacteria and yeast before alcoholic fermentation commences. A true outlier, Terada Honke is one of the very, very few breweries that allow ambient yeast to totally complete the fermentation and do not rely at all on commercial strains. They are also the only brewery that I have ever heard of that propagate their own kojikin, the spores of aspergillus oryzae that facilitate the saccharification process, converting the starch in rice into a fermentable sugar. Terada Honke farm 2 hectares of rice themselves, and rely on the help of 10 other local farmers, all of who are working in strict organic principles, utilizing processes such as rice duck farming (with ducks released in the paddies to eat the weeds and pests), and non-tilling farming, a philosophy familiar to anyone who has read Masanobu Fukuoka's "One-Straw Revolution", whose influence reaches far beyond Japan.

Making koji rice at Terada Honke. (photo from the brewery website)

 

We're thrilled to present a new selection of sake from these two esteemed breweries. Just as a side note, all of these are bottled as muroka nama genshu (un-charcoal filtered, unpasteurized, undiluted) and so should be stored in a cool dark place before consumption. Oskar Kostecki

Terada Honke Chiba Prefecture Katori 90 Junmai

The Katori 90 from Terada Honke is a really interesting sake, made not of sake rice, but regular table rice (Koshihikari and Yukigesho) polished to a very minimal 90%. This leaves a lot of the rice flavor in the sake itself, since the theoretically "impure" outside of the rice hasn't been completely milled away. This minimal style of polishing is something we've been seeing more breweries experiment with, and the results can be fascinating, leading to very flavorful and forthright sake. Savory, slightly musty, with Terada Honke's hallmark high acidity, the Katori 90 shows notes of toasted grain, barley tea, slight cheese rind, citrus peel, a general woodsiness, and a hint of caramel and spice (Terada Honke sake are aged for about a year at the brewery before release, which would account for the caramel and spice notes). A great sake to drink at room temperature or slightly warmed. Oskar Kostecki

  • Junmai
  • 13 in stock
  • $29.99

  • Organic

Terada Honke Chiba Prefecture Katori 90 Junmai 1.8L

The same, but in big bottle!!!The Katori 90 from Terada Honke is a really interesting sake, made not of sake rice, but regular table rice (Koshihikari and Yukigesho) polished to a very minimal 90%. This leaves a lot of the rice flavor in the sake itself, since the theoretically "impure" outside of the rice hasn't been completely milled away. This minimal style of polishing is something we've been seeing more breweries experiment with, and the results can be fascinating, leading to very flavorful and forthright sake. Savory, slightly musty, with Terada Honke's hallmark high acidity, the Katori 90 shows notes of toasted grain, barley tea, slight cheese rind, citrus peel, a general woodsiness, and a hint of caramel and spice (Terada Honke sake are aged for about a year at the brewery before release, which would account for the caramel and spice notes). Oskar Kostecki

  • Junmai
  • 5 in stock
  • $62.99

Terada Honke Chiba Prefecture Daigo no Shizuku Junmai Bodaimoto

The bodaimoto method is a precursor to modern-made sake, and originated in the Bodaisan Shoryakuji temple in Nara Prefecture in the 14th century, and indeed some bodaimoto sake still starts its life at this historic temple. Not to get too detailed, but the method basically goes like this: raw rice and steamed rice are mixed in a water bath, and left for a period of a few days. The water becomes imbued with lactic acid thanks to natural lactic acid bacteria, and after the rice is removed and steamed, that water is added to the steamed rice, the koji rice, as well as yeast to create the moto (fermentation starter). Lactic acid is very important in sake making, as it eradicates harmful bacteria and fungi, and creates the necessary pH for fermentation to go smoothly. This example by Terada Honke is made of table rice (Koshihikari, and Yukigesho) and only polished to 90%. A rough, rustic, and frankly very fun brew, it shows notes of sharp citrus, lemon, lime zest, corn husks, and toasted grain, balanced by a bit of sweetness. A very interesting, ancient style of sake. Oskar Kostecki


  • Junmai
  • 3 in stock
  • $32.99

Terada Honke Chiba Prefecture Kaikoshu Junmai

"Koshu", or aged sake is a very niche category, and quite polarizing. Yoram, one of the folks involved in Yoigokochi Sake Imports owns a bar in Kyoto which specializes in serving aged sake, some that is even long-aged after the bottle has been opened. I've never had the opportunity to experience Yoram's bar, but the friends who have gone have either raved about it, or found it very weird. Most sake professionals will tell you that sake should be consumed fresh, and there is no point aging it (sake has no tannins, no sulfur, and lower acidity than wine, the things commonly accepted as allowing wine to age). Undoubtedly aged sake is different, and the flavor profile changes so much, it's almost difficult to guess what the sake was when it was fresh. A lot of it can be very intense, something you would maybe have a glass of, but would find it difficult sharing a bottle between two people. This example by Terada Honke shows all the hallmarks of aged sake, yet also has a drinkability that (for me) belies its years. Made from organic Miyamanishiki & Koshihikari rice, this sake is then aged for 15 years at the brewery before release, and shows notes of caramel, cheese, smoke, cured meat, resin, oolong tea, chestnut honey, and a hint of bitterness, almost wormwood. Quite sherry-like on the nose, the palate also has a lushness and softness to it, with the textural quality of the sake melding beautifully with its flavors. Enjoy with cheese after a meal, or pair with robust foods, perhaps a dry-aged steak. Oskar Kostecki

  • Junmai
  • 7 in stock
  • $72.99

  • Organic

Akishika Shuzo Osaka Prefecture Omachi Junmai

The sake of Akishika Shuzo is very highly regarded, both in Japan and across the world, and due to the tiny production, these bottles are highly sought after. We're very happy to finally be able to offer you a few more sake from Akishika, starting with this wonderful Omachi junmai. Omachi rice is one of the oldest pure (not cross-bred) rice varieties in Japan, and has been used in sake brewing since at least the middle of the 19th century. It has been gaining in popularity in recent years and is prized for its more earthy expression, in contrast to the more fruity and floral Yamadanishiki. This example from Akishika comes from rice that the brewery grows themselves, and is bursting with the typical Akishika dryness, high acidity, and intensity on the palate. On the nose it opens with a hint of dashi, followed by lemon peel, under ripe apricot, a slight floral note, with some notes of cedar and something woodsy, something fibrous. The palate is where this sake really shines, bringing that mouthfilling intensity and sharpness (almost severeness; I wouldn't drink this without food) while maintaining the complexity of flavors and textures. Oskar Kostecki

  • Junmai
  • 6 in stock
  • $37.99

  • Organic

Akishika Shuzo Osaka Prefecture Black Moheji Junmai

There are a few examples of single-paddy rice sake that I know of (Isojiman perhaps being the most famous) but all are very expensive and very hard to find.It was very exciting for me get to taste this example from Akishika, and especially to compare it to the normal omachi rice bottling. A particular stand-out of the Yoigokochi Imports tasting, and a bottle I knew I had to get my hands on to explore further. This is made from omachi rice from a single paddy, farmed organically, that is milled to 60% and then aged for 4 years before release. In total,  308 kg of rice were brewed into 660 liters of sake. There is a remarkable citrus element to this, almost like dashi broth with yuzu peel. The nose also shows a hint of green melon, green  melon rind, fresh citrus, lemon zest, cantaloupe, some white blossom, but also a hint of caramel, cut hay, Parmesan rind, smokiness, cedar, and a general savory, woodsy note. The palate carries a lot of intensity, with all the complexity of the nose and a roundness and richness to the texture, as well as a very long finish. This sake is quite beguiling, occasionally being totally driven by its more savory and earthy tones, only for the next sip to introduce burst of fresh citrus and tropical fruit; truly something to take your time with. The bottle I opened felt a little tightly wound at first, and definitely started to open up as it approached room temperature, but was even better the next day. Paired this with a whole branzino, but given a second chance, would have gone for something slightly heartier, as this sake has so much flavor, umami, and oomph. Oskar Kostecki

  • Junmai
  • 11 in stock
  • $82.99

Miyakobijin Hyogo Prefecture Yoigokochi Yuzu Sake

Yuzu sake: a perennial favorite of ours, especially when the weather starts to warm up.  Yuzu is a Japanese citrus, quite tart and slightly bitter, and present in both Japanese cooking, pastry, as well as alcoholic beverages. This beautiful example is made by Miyako Bijin, on the island of Awaji in the Seto Inland Sea, and is bursting with vibrant and tart citrus flavors, with just a small hint of sweetness to balance it out. Great on its own, we also like to mix it with sparkling water for a little bit of fizz. Oskar Kostecki

  • Junmai
  • 6 in stock
  • $27.99