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Sake Rice Matters: the Experts are Wrong.

By W. Blake Gray

How much does the type of rice matter in sake? "Not much," most experts say. But I disagree, and one of my favorite breweries, Dewazakura from Yamagata prefecture, has made it possible to taste for yourself.

Wine lovers may take it as a given that rice "varietals" matter. We all believe we can tell a dewaOka01.jpgPinot Noir from a Cabernet Sauvignon without difficulty. So why wouldn't we be able to taste the difference between Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku?

With sake, though, the brewing process has always been considered more important than the type of rice. The best example is the most expensive category. Daiginjos -- for which at least 50 percent of the outer portion of the rice has been polished away -- generally taste like other daiginjos, no matter where they're from or what rice is used.

Polish a little less, though, and you start noticing regional variation. At the non-ginjo junmai level -- for which at least 30 percent of the rice has been polished away -- sakes start to exhibit regional characteristics. Niigata sakes tend to taste crisp and clean, for example, while Hiroshima sakes are soft and on the sweet side.

However, sake experts generally attribute regional differences to water. This makes sense. Few breweries own their own rice paddies, and many buy rice from distant prefectures. Water, however, is always local, and is the largest component of sake. (Incidentally, I have had Japanese brewing experts tell me the best sake water in the United States is in Arkansas, in case anybody there wants to start a brewery.)

Yet even while denying that rice matters much, breweries implicitly show that it matters a great deal. Yamada nishiki rice, originally from the Kobe area, is generally considered the best for sake. It has been planted in many other areas of Japan and is also purchased by breweries in many prefectures.

Personally I think everything matters in making premium sake, just as it does with wine. I can't claim to be enough of an expert to detect the difference made by different strains of yeast, but winemakers and sake brewers can, and I believe them. So why do so many sake experts spend so much time claiming rice is immaterial?

At this point I should acknowledge that the owner of this blog, proud new papa Alder Yarrow, is in the rice-doesn't-matter camp. I told him I think I have an affinity for sakes dewaOkaYamada01.jpgmade from gohyakumangoku rice, and he told me I couldn't possibly know that for sure. So I have hijacked his blog for 24 hours to deliver this dissenting opinion. Alder, I think your daughter needs you ...

Anyway, back to Dewazakura. These guys are technological innovators who also happen to make some great sake. Their "Dewasansan" brew, named after the strain of rice specifically developed for their prefectural climate conditions, is one of my go-to choices in restaurants around town because it's both delicious and widely available.

However, the Dewasansan brew is not a pure test of the taste qualities of the rice itself. One important factor is that Dewasansan uses a different yeast than the company's other main premium brew, nicknamed "Oka." Its alcohol percentage is a little higher than Oka's, and it's not quite as dry.

Enter the beverage geek's sake: Dewazakura Oka Yamadanishiki. This small-production version of the Oka sake has the same yeast and fermentation regimen as the everyday Oka; the only major difference is the rice.

I opened them side-by-side to see if I could taste the difference. They have similarities, the result of a master brewer's attempt to create a consistent style from year to year. Both are creamy with notes of peach.

But to me they are more different than alike. The Yamadanishiki version is stronger on the nose, with more pronounced peach notes and a funky clay-earth like note that I like. The regular version, made from Miyamanishiki rice, smells more straightforwardly creamy, with a chalky note.

On the palate, it's the same: the Yamadanishiki version is fruitier, fuller and has a longer finish. But that's not to say some people won't prefer the regular version, which has a smoother mouthfeel and an appealing white chocolate note.

The great thing about Dewazakura's two versions of "Oka" is that you don't have to listen to some wine writer talk about how he tasted tank samples and he really grasped the difference the rice strain makes. These are commercial products available for sale, and neither is particularly expensive. You can just go out and buy a bottle of each and prove to yourself that the strain of rice matters.

Dewazakura "Oka," Yamagata Prefecture. $25 Where to buy?
Dewazakura "Oka Yamadanishiki," Yamagata Prefecture. $25 Where to buy?

I now return you to this blog's regular programming.

After drinking sake made from it, W. Blake Gray enjoys trying to say "gohyakumangoku" 10 times fast. He lives in San Francisco.

Comments (11)

Arthur wrote:
07.02.08 at 12:53 AM

Very cool and good reading. I can see how *variety* and processing of rice (as well as water and brewing methodologies) can have a big impact on the finished stuff.

Dewey wrote:
07.02.08 at 9:52 AM

Nicely done. However, I believe we reach a point of over simplifying to discuss a single element of sakÚ brewing as being either more or less important than the others.

Water is essential as you can not brew sakÚ without it and the mineral make up of the water will dictate many flavor and body characteristics of the finished brew.

Without koji you simply do not have sakÚ, and flavor impact is dependent on how you manage your koji's life.

Yeast, as with wine and beer, has massive impact on flavor and is often the unsung hero in a sakÚ's profile. Our own recent change of the yeast strain used in a particular sakÚ dramatically altered the flavor profile when all other elements remained the same. If you able to find a Momokawa Ruby bottle before April 2008 and one bottle since April 1 2008, taste them side by side. The difference is in the yeast.

And of course rice has impact but it appears to be that the impact on flavor has more to do with how the rice interacts with the yeast. Yamadanishiki breaks down more easily making it a wonderful food for yeast. Does it impart flavor, sure it does but it is most likely the interaction with the yeast that creates the distinct qualities.

It is simple to say that rice does or does not impact flavor. The bottom line is that all elements impact flavor but more importantly it is the fifth element, the Toji, that has the most impact. For it is this element that defines which rice is used, how the rice is milled, how koji is managed, which yeast is used and how it is managed, and ultimately how every step of the process is cared for. It is the Toji element that has the greatest impact on flavor.

Blake Gray wrote:
07.02.08 at 10:01 AM

I need to clarify something in this riposte. Daiginjos do taste very different from each other (and they're fascinating and delicious).
My point is that the daiginjo class exists on its own, showing few of the regional characteristics you taste with less-polished rice. If you want to taste the differences in rice strain, yeast, water, whatever, do so with a less-refined brew.

Alder wrote:
07.02.08 at 10:57 AM

So, as I've been tarred as being in the "rice doesn't matter" camp, let me clarify. Dewey is absolutely correct in saying everything matters, but the impact that various variables have on the process are different. Mostly I am of the opinion that once 40% of the rice grain is polished away the difference in impact between rice strains is far far less than, as Dewey points out, the Koji and the Yeast, for instance, or any of the hundreds of decisions that the Toji (master brewer) makes in the brewing process, or the water, which makes up more than 80% of the total volume of the finished product.

Does rice matter? Yes. Enough to worry about? Not in my opinion. Enough to create significant differences between sakes that would merit clssifying sakes in terms of the different rices used to make them (in the ways that we do with wine, or whiskey, etc.)? Absolutely positively no.

Blake Gray wrote:
07.02.08 at 11:09 AM

Hey Alder, I think your daughter needs you ...

Lauren wrote:
07.02.08 at 3:46 PM

very interesting article. sometimes i feel sake is the new wine!

07.02.08 at 5:35 PM

That is very interesting! I have just recently discovered Saki. So my taste buds probably won't know the difference just yet. :) Great post!

Pantagruel wrote:
07.02.08 at 6:17 PM

"Daiginjos do taste very different from each other (and they're fascinating and delicious).
My point is that the daiginjo class exists on its own, showing few of the regional characteristics you taste with less-polished rice. If you want to taste the differences in rice strain, yeast, water, whatever, do so with a less-refined brew."

Ginjo/daiginjo level sakes are supremely spoofulated brews, designed more for the competition circuit than the lover of traditional sakes.

07.07.08 at 8:29 AM

It pleases me no end to see the fervor in these posts. Keep writing about sake, Alder!

07.07.08 at 3:55 PM

Hmmm... I am going to forward this to my friend who is a Sake brewer.

My understanding is that certain rice strains have a much more defined strata of protein over the starchy interior - so the more segregated the starch is on the inside of the kernel of rice (and the starch is the part that is converted by the koji into fermentables, and then into alcohol by the yeast,) the more completely one can eliminate the exterior proteins which can break down into fatty acids and other stuff that can go rancid in the presence of oxygen. This is the reason for polishing, and it is the reason for the typically fresh-fruity character of Daiginjo style sake, as opposed to the off-aromas which other styles can exhibit if not held very carefully away from oxygen and consumed quickly.

So, in the case of the brewery that my friend is at, (Momokawa, in Oregon,) they DO specify exactly which type of rice is grown for their production, and the main criteria is this segregation of starch.

(This is all from what I understand, I am not an expert on the matter.)

neil holtz wrote:
06.11.09 at 1:24 PM

where can I obtain more information on Goyakumangoku?

thank you. Neil

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