JAN 24: A sake diary entry for a difficult month

JAN 24: A sake diary entry for a difficult month

 SUNFLOWER SAKE CLUB

JANUARY 2024

Do you ever feel so consumed by the world around you, that it’s difficult to disconnect your personal reality from the reality of your work?

I think this is a question we’re contending with collectively right now. Deciding together when it’s necessary or appropriate to separate work from life, and on the opposite token, when the vulnerability of allowing this overlap brings us closer. To pretend that Gaza isn’t burning, Noto Peninsula isn’t decimated, Fuyu Fest isn’t happening and I’m not at the very end of my reserves by the middle of January, is a strange and dishonest way to approach writing.

With that preface, the sake I chose for January– and as I wrap this writeup, I approach the end of January– is a bit of a diary entry. The original plan was to share fresh Tahoma Fuji (Seattle) and Shirafuji (Woodinville) but the Shirafuji brew isn’t yet ready, they’re bottling next week. So January club took a few unexpected turns, responding to the unexpected turns of January. The good, the bad, the insightful: January 2024 in a nutshell.

Hakuto Tokubetsu Junmai “Deep Faith”

Stats:

  • Prefecture: Ishikawa
  • Rice: Gohyakumangoku (kakemai), Yamada Nishiki (kojimai)
  • Polishing: 55%
  • Grade: Junmai
  • Yeast: Kanazawa
  • Starter: Sokujo
  • Acidity: 1.6
  • SMV: +2
  • Pasteurization: Once in bottle

The day after I received Tahoma Fuji’s fresh brew (12/31), the Noto Earthquake hit. Off the very tip of the Noto peninsula, along the Suzu city coast, the earth shifted so dramatically that 200 meters of new shoreline (in terms of the depth of a beach, not longitudinally) has been added to the peninsula. A short distance away the peaceful city of Wajima shifted and buckled, streets folded like pastry exposing layers of concrete and soil. A century-old, 5 story urushi factory where Wajima Nuri lacquer handicrafts are made, toppled over like a chess piece. And Hakuto Shuzo, home to the spice-inflected, roasted carrot-y, elegant and versatile Hakuto “Deep Faith” Tokubetsu Junmai, is in such a state that they’ve canceled brewing indefinitely– or at least for the current brewing year.


photo: medium.com

Photos of the scene make the 300 year old (est 1722) brewery seem like a dollhouse, not a full-sized building. Glossy, glazed black earthenware shingles, typical of Ishikawa roofing, are strewn about the street like puzzle pieces. Angles are not what they should be: roofs lying vertical, two stories merged into one, and the cross section of the building (through a computer, looking more like toothpicks than noble logs) reveals the interior of a carefully, lovingly organized brewery, turned upside down and shaken. The 9th generation kuramoto couple, Akiko and Kiichi Hakuto, understandably don’t know what to make of it all. Cleanup of this scale: 2000L tanks leaned to 40 degrees and full of moromi, mighty rafters splintered in two– is hard to compute. Who can look at this devastation and estimate accurately when the challenges will be over, and things will return to normal?

photo: hakuto brewery instagram

So you can see why I had to use my tiny little platform to help. Noto is a small corner of a very troubled world, but it’s the corner I reside in, depend on– the corner I consider community.  Now that Fuyu Fest is over, I’m tallying donations and truly overjoyed that the combined efforts of Sunflower Sake, Okan Lover, Fifth Taste Imports, Kobrand, and everyone at Fuyu Fest, will lead not only to $3806 for our local organization Ikoi no Kai, but also $4300 for Noto…plus about $300 in Noto sake sales. Part of this effort is drawing attention to the sake of Noto, in particular Hakuto. So I encourage you to link arms with sake lovers across the globe as you enjoy this bottle. Hakuto will not be producing a 2023-2024 vintage, so imbibe now, enjoy it deeply, and mark this moment in time as we look forward to their next release in (hopefully!) 2025.

But there was a beautiful side to January too– and I write this retrospectively. One of the most heartwarming moments we had with Kohei and Jo (Okan Lover) during their visit from Tokyo was taking them to sake breweries in Seattle. Shirafuji (whose new nama nigori is on the shelves, and whose new namagenshu is coming in February) are from the same tiny town, Futaba, that Jo is from. Futaba is right next door to the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Plant and was one of the first cities to be evacuated after the earthquake and tsunami on 3/11. “Pack up– you’re leaving now– and you can’t come back for 10 years.” From 4/21 onward, Futaba was strictly off limits and could not be visited by anyone. These were the circumstances experienced both by Jo and the Tomisawa family who own Shirafuji. A lengthy– and very emotional– personal account of Tomisawa Sr.’s experience is translated here. So to meet the Shirafuji family, to tour their new brewery in Woodinville and to once again taste a brand he remembers from his late 20s-early 30s when he lived in tiny Futaba, this was a huge gift. Shirafuji isn’t ready yet, but it will be soon (and you’ll definitely be seeing it in a future club– their 2023 release, what bottles I had left, were a big hit at the Okan Lover pairing dinner!)


Tahoma Fuji Junmai Ginjo Namagenshu (12/23 batch)

Stats:

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Grade: Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu (fridge storage)
  • Rice: Calrose (CA)
  • Polishing: 60%
  • Yeast: #901
  • Water: filtered city (medium hard)

Tahoma Fuji was our next stop. The two Seattle-area breweries could not be more different, except that they share a scrappy and earnest sensibility. Transitioning from the emotional weight and classic execution of Shirafuji, we entered Andy’s backyard brewery building (hugs, fist bumps all around). Andy tells us not to worry about taking off our shoes (unheard of in any other brewery) as he slips into his tie-die brewery crocs. 

The guys are kind of in awe. Andy’s casual use of Bro-Japanese “It’s dope, desu ne?” combined with his formal training at a brewery in Japan, anti-capitalist approach to business, and very homespun, make-do methods and equipment, are unheard of for folks who come from a land of deep tradition, multi-generational breweries, and most importantly…access to real brewing equipment and supplies. Jo and Kohei are both shocked and inspired by the use of a photo developing basin and mini air compressor rigged together for sake pressing. The dumpling steamers (now standard for American home brewers) are stacked above a steel-welded, propane-powered wok burner, serving as a sort of mini-koshiki (rice steamer). Something interesting about Japan is, home brewing is illegal– it has been since the Meiji period (late 1800s), when the government formally defined sake as “seishu”-- refined sake– in order to tell illicit home brew (cloudy sake) apart from legal seishu (clear sake). The tax revenues were too substantial and too essential in a period of rapid modernization to let home brewing continue. And so it has been for over a century. So these sorts of American home brew rigs, this degree of tiny production (Japan enforces a much higher minimum) are something entirely unheard of to the Okan dudes. 


And the proof is in the pudding. Andy’s sake is (as it has always been) fresh, dry, crisp, lightly aromatic, bold– and really limited. He only makes what he needs to support his family. This gives him free time to be a good dad, a coach for his daughter’s team. He uses 60% polish Calrose rice from California (Calrose is a blend of Japonica short grain table rice varieties) and yeast #9 for a strong fermentation with moderate aromatics. The fermenting mash is full of melon and grape aromas, which mellow out in the bottle after a month or two to something a bit more “whole” and composed. Andy heats up some of his 3 year koshu (4 bottles for sale in the shop!) using a hot kettle, a little water bath, and some empty one-cups as vessels. The okan masters are digging it. Then Andy gifts them each a bottle and a slew of photos ensues. You can see from their expressions that this is a rad experience, and for my part, I’m proud to share Andy’s unique character and scrappy American ingenuity with them.

Sakura Muromachi Junmai Ginjo “Bizen Maboroshi”

  • Location: Bizen, Okayama
  • Grade: Junmai Ginjo
  • Rice: Bizen Omachi
  • Polishing: 60%
  • Yeast: Muromachi Kobo (house strain of #9)
  • SMV +2
  • Acidity: 1.6
  • Water: A very cool underground spring below the brewery, the same water which supplies the fields.

I had a bit of budget left, so I wrapped up January’s club by adding in a half size bottle of an omachi sake I think everyone must, must try and which is absolutely one of my top 5 right now. I’m sure I’ll do an omachi deep dive for club one day, but for now Bizen Maboroshi Junmai Ginjo Omachi– the Phantom of Bizen– is a crystal-clear look at the true face of Omachi rice. 

Omachi is a highly sought after, somewhat “culty” sake rice variety chosen by brewers who want a challenge more than a safe and predictable outcome. Phillip Harper, toji of Tamagawa, famously drew an analogy to the operating systems of the 90s. "If Yamada-Nishiki is the Windows of Sake, Omachi is surely the only contender with enough charisma to qualify as a candidate for Macintosh.”

Kurabito Andrew Russell of Originsake.com draws his own analogy:

“Let's look at how Omachi, and it really is only Omachi, manages to attract such a passionate following and stand out from amongst the numerous other rice varieties. In doing so, I would like to make my own analogy by likening Omachi to an elegant classic car, and Yamada-Nishiki to its slick modern counterpart. The classic car will more often than not cause you no end of grief and stress. Will it start today? Will it break down during the journey? etc etc. Conversely, a modern car is dependable, robust, and easy to live with. However, ask anyone who has owned a classic to explain why they go through all the grief and they will no doubt tell you that it's because they just have a certain something, something more visceral and characterful than any modern car can compete with. In a strange way, you end up loving them more precisely because of their little faults and quirks.”

We have a lot of Omachi in the shop, but it’s all very different. KID Tokubetsu Junmai Omachi is fruity, fun, but it does show the broad mouthfeel of the variety. Akishika Omachi and Jujiasahi are a clear look at its intensely earthy, briney, vegetal side. Kuroushi “Black Bull” is a nice balance of herbaceous and rustic notes and full body, without being too forward. But to me, they’re all too different to see a common thread clearly. The “classic character” of Omachi sake is earthy and rustic (herby, grassy, mushroomy) with full body, like cream rather than skim milk. But it can be hard to “see” this character clearly with all the variation at play. For me, it wasn’t until trying Bizen Maboroshi that I finally felt I “got” it. I could finally see the common thread for all Omachi brews clearly.

Sakura Muromachi (est 1688) is situated in a small town set amongst Omachi fields and peach orchards. In Okayama lore, Momotaro– Peach Boy– is a young hero born from a giant peach who battles demons with his friends. So you could not find a more archetypal Okayama scene than this brewery in Akaiwa. In this immediate area the Omachi varietal was first discovered in 1859 by a farmer. So Sakura Muromachi has sourced rice and maintained a relationship with these Omachi farmers since its first discovery. Their sake is brewed with the same cold spring water that nourishes this rice, and they are among a tiny handful of breweries that work exclusively with Omachi rice. 

The result could not be more archetypal: notes of spearmint, balsa wood, white pepper, stonefruit, rose and fresh cut grass. Full body, calming weight, like a heavy silk robe. Delicious, even addictive flavor chilled in a glass. Equally revealing and complex when heated. It finally opened my eyes to Omachi’s authentic character, and it remains a favorite today. The flavor is strong, but it grows on you. So I hope you love it as much as I do.


You may also like View all