Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Shinkame Brewery: From Holy Turtle to Aged Sake (Part 2)

An important objective for Ogawahara in his visit to Boston was to promote the idea of consuming warm Sake. He states that Sake is the only alcohol in the world where the taste varies according to a wide variety of temperatures, both hot and cold. In many respects this is correct as it is much rarer to warm many other alcohols, except in limited situations. You might enjoy some warm mulled wine, with numerous spices added to it, but you aren't concerned with picking out different nuances in the heated wine. Various spirits might be used in hot cocktails, from a Hot Toddy to an Irish Coffee, but again, you are not really seeking out the different tastes of the spirit because of the temperature. Shochu might be one of the only other alcohols where heating it may truly matter to the taster.

Let's look back through the history of Sake, seeking the origins of heating. The first historical written references to warmed Sake were between 905 and 927 AD., so it may have originated sometime in the 9th century. By the early 17th century, it became common to drink warmed Sake between the 9th day of the 9th month, called the Chrysanthemum Festival, and the 3rd day of the 3rd month of the following year, called the Plum Festival. Essentially, they were generally drinking warmed Sake during the winter months. Around the start of the 18th century or so, numerous people started drinking warmed Sake year round. Only a few decades before that happened, the written character for kan, the general term for "warm Sake," was created.

There are different theories for why the Japanese started to drink warm Sake. The most plausible seems to be for health reasons. In China, people had been drinking warmed alcohol in the winter for many centuries and eventually this practice likely made its way to Japan. In some Eastern health traditions, eating and drinking warmed items is thought to be much better than cold things, which were thought to chill the the body. So staying warm in the winter and overall health seem to have been the driving factors. A Japanese philosopher and scientist, Kaibara Ekiken, also wrote a book stating that drinking warmed Sake improves the circulation of your chi, life force.

For the greater part of the 20th century, warm Sake was the norm. In the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), Bond says, "I like sake. Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.” This might be referred to as hitohada-kan, or body temperature, and was a very common serving temperature at that time. It would also be served at a variety of other temperatures, so there was no real correct temperature, just one that might be more common than others.

Unfortunately, nowadays in the U.S., Sake is most often served much too hot, enough that you must be careful not to burn your mouth or tongue. It is rare to find a spot that will gently warm your Sake, such as to body temperature. If you were in Japan, you could order warm Sake by asking for O-kan, a polite way to ask for it. In the U.S., you have little choice but to accept the steaming hot Sake they serve you. That really needs to change as it does a disservice to the Sake.

With the advent in Japan of the more complex Ginjo and Daiginjo Sakes, chilled Sake started to take hold, as heating was often thought to take away some of the more delicate flavors in these more highly polished Sakes. As such, many people now provide general advice to drink premium Sake slightly chilled, and for most cases it probably is excellent advice. However, there is definitely premium Sake that can be drank warm, but it is more difficult to explain to someone about these exceptions, to tell them which Sakes should be drank warm, and how they should be warmed, Sometimes the back label of a Sake bottle will recommend serving temperatures, but that is not always the case.

Sake shows different flavor profiles, dependent on its temperature. In general, the higher the temperature, the sweeter the Sake will seem. Sake also contains different types of acids, from malic acid to succinic acid, and each acid has a specific temperature that will make it more dominant. For example, succinic acid tends to dominate more at higher temperatures, while malic acid is more prominent at lower temperatures. As such, there is no one perfect temperature to taste a Sake. The flavor profile will vary, dependent on the temperature, so the optimum temperature will come down to your personal preference.

Ogawahara noted that warm Sake is growing more popular in Japan and that women generally prefer warmed Sake, though men are starting to drink more too. Interestingly, while warm Sake is popular in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, people in the colder regions, such as Tohoku, often still prefer to drink chilled Sake. Ogawahara is not opposed to chilled Sake, but he feels that you should take advantage of the full potential of Sake, its ability to show differently at various temperatures.In addition, he believes warm Sake is better for your stomach and digestion, especially if you drink it slowly over time. He even claims that he can drink two bottles of warm Sake in one sitting without a hangover.

He is also an advocate for drinking warm Sake with food, believing it pairs well with a diversity of cuisines and not just Japanese. He also claims that warm Sake may open up your taste buds, as hot water opens up skin pores, while chilled Sake won't accomplish the same. I'm not sure if that actually occurs but it is something I'm going to research. It sounds plausible but I would like some scientific validation. If it is true, it would have ramifications beyond just warmed Sake.

I know that Sake and cheese is an excellent pairing, and Ogawahara feels that warm Sake and cheese is even better, especially if the Sake is warmed to about 42-48 degrees Celsius. And we would soon put that pairing to the test when we tasted some of his warmed Sake. The maximum temperature he recommends for warming any Sake is 70 degrees Celsius, which he feels pairs best with heavier flavors like salted pork.

To Ogawahara, you cannot just sell or recommend warm Sake but you must promote the entire experience, from how it is warmed to how well it pairs with food. It requires time and explanation, to educate people about the concept. It requires restaurants and bars to understand about warmed Sake, to help promote it to their customers. There is so much misinformation out there that needs to be dispelled, that needs passionate advocates to help educate and promote. Warmed Sake needs its time in the spotlight, to illuminate its potential and possibilities.

The picture at the top of this post shows a special Sake warming device that Ogawahara invented. It has three pieces that stack together, and which is pictured above. The innermost, tin container (on the right side) holds your Sake, and that fits into a second, plastic container (in the middle) where you pour hot water, which will thus warm your Sake. Those two containers then sit in a third container (on the left side), which protects your hands from the hot inner container, and it then acts as a pitcher. I think you could also use this for chilled Sake, filling the second container with crushed ice rather than hot water. It is not yet available in the U.S., and costs about $100 US in Japan. Hopefully it will become available in the U.S. in the near future as it would make it easier for people to experience warmed Sake.

Without such a device, I can offer another recommended way to warm your Sake. Just please don't use a microwave to do so. Instead, pour some Sake into a tokkuri, a ceramic flask. Heat some water in a pot until it starts to boil, and then take it off the heat. Place the tokkuri into the hot water and wait for a minute or so, dependent on how warm you want the Sake to be. It might take several times of experimentation to determine exactly how long you should let the tokkuri sit in the hot water. You could use a thermometer to be more accurate in your Sake's temperature.

Ogawahara was kind enough to pour some warm Sake for me, his Hikomago Junmai. This Sake is produced from Yamada Nishiki rice, that has been polished down to 55%, and it was aged for three years before release. I drank some at three different temperatures, from about 45 degrees to 60 degrees, as well as from three different types of cups, including porcelain, lacquer and pottery. There were also some snacks on the table, including cheese, olives, prosciutto, crackers, and roe. I admit that I have little experience with warm Sake, usually drinking it slightly chilled, so this was an enlightening comparison tasting.

The different temperatures changed the flavor profile of the Sake, and it was tasty, albeit different, at all three levels. It presented plenty of umami flavor, and the fruit flavors varied dependent on the amount of warmth, with more fruit at the lower temperatures. There was plenty of complexity with the flavors, and it paired well with the different foods. To Ogawahara, the temperature that best brings out the umami in the Sake will depend on which food it is paired. It would be difficult for me to say which temperature I preferred, as each level was intriguing in its own way.

I wouldn't have thought of warm Sake and cheese before, but it really worked, bringing out the creaminess of the cheese. The warm Sake seemed to bring out more of the flavors in the other food too, especially the olives. The different cups also brought minor changes to the taste, which I knew would happen. I also realized that warm Sake cools down fairly quickly so having a small cup makes more sense, as you can finish it while it is still warm.

Warm Sake is a different experience from chilled Sake, and it is worthy of further exploration and experimentation. In the winter time, warm Sake can be very pleasing, and more than just because of its temperature. Warm Sake makes an interesting match to different foods, even cheese, and I definitely would like to follow up more of those pairings. Shinkame produces a type of matured Sake which lends itself well to warming, and not all Sakes would be as appropriate. I strongly recommend that you try some warm Sake, and not the steaming hot Sake you find at most restaurants.

Besides the warming device, Ogawahara has been involved in other creations as well. For example, he invented a machine to produce the clear part of Sake for Nigori. I should note that he makes a Dry Nigori, rather than the usual sweet ones. In addition, his brewery was the first to make a Sparkling Sake, and it took about two years before it received government approval. He continues to make Sparkling Sake and stated that you definitely shouldn't warm it.

I could have spent several more hours talking with Ogawahara as he had many interesting things to say. For example, he was once invited to an Italian dinner and he tried to pair his Sake with the food. In the end, he decided to blend three of his Sakes together, at the table, into a drink that he considered would be the best pairing. Ogawahara also noted that one of his favorite pairings is his Junmai Daiginjo & chocolate.

For the future, Ogawahara will continue to advocate for Junmai, for warm Sake, and for Sake & food pairings. His daughter and son-in-law, who graduated from the same university as he did, are active in the brewery and will be the 8th generation to own and operate it. They have a great role model to follow, a passionate man with a true love for Sake.

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