Forget Everything You Know About Sake
A number of innovative Japanese breweries are changing the way sake is made and you can taste the difference.
I’ve had a somewhat bumpy relationship with sake, starting with bad, cheap, warm glasses in dodgy, pseudo “Asian” restaurants in Scotland.
Things changed when I began to regularly visit Japan and discovered that sake wasn’t flabby and pungent, but light, clean, and delicately complex. This revelation was then ruined thanks to a late-night drinking competition. I lost. Badly. The forfeit was drinking a carafe of sake in one go. It wasn’t wise. I’m not proud. The resulting hangover meant I couldn’t face sake for almost two years. After a suitable period of penance, I began visiting breweries, trying to get my head around the process of creating the rice-based beverage.
It quickly became obvious to me that this was one of the world’s greatest beverages. It was fresh, lightly fruity, aromatic; it went with delicate Japanese food.
Then Japanese friends began to mutter about how a small group of producers were making examples that were heavier, and less linear. Sake with some weight and funk? Count me in.
All of which explains why I was recently standing in lightly-falling snow in Kyoto at 5 AM waiting for my fellow writer (and Japanese resident) Nick Coldicott to drive us one hour west to Hiroaki Oku’s Akishika kura. “He’ll change your mind about what sake is,” Nick had promised me.
The temple-clustered city soon fell away, the mountains steadily encroached. We’re driving towards Nose (no-seh), little more than a ribbon of houses in a high plateau ringed with hills.
We head into the rice fields. It’s bone-chillingly cold. February is the season for brewing, not growing. Oku-san looks around. “My family have farmed here since the Edo period [17th century] and started Akishika in 1886.” He has been master brewer (toji) for 15 years, in which time he has changed production and practice dramatically. There’s now a permanent, five-strong, staff, rather than the common practice of hiring temporary help for the brewing season. When the brewing is finished the team starts to work in the fields.
“We’re at 820 feet above sea level, which is ideal for growing rice as there is a 10-degree temperature difference between day and night,” he explains. “All of Akishika’s rice comes from here—either my own 50 acres, or from 20 other farmers. My aim is to be wholly self-sufficient.”
Unusually for Japan, it is also organically grown, a move that has cut yields by 70 percent, but as I’ll discover, this is a producer driven by flavor and quality with an overarching goal of discovering what is possible from this valley. It is a holistic view, which is rare in today’s sake industry.
This field is an important element in this story. Oku-San makes a single-field sake from this land, using the Omachi strain of rice. “Rice is like grapes for wine,” he says. “Some grapes are good for eating, some for wine. It’s the same with rice and sake. I use five varieties, but the main ones are Yamada Nishiki and Omachi. They make full-bodied sake.”
Back inside the kura, brewing is well underway. Steam wreathes a giant rice cooker. A bag of rice is pulled out, dangling like a giant dessert. Oku-san, bandana in place, stands watching as a carpet of rice slowly works its way along a conveyor belt. He seems to be examining every grain.
As the rice passes, he sprinkles a powder on it. This is the marvelous koji fungus [Aspergillus oryzae], which will convert the rice’s starch to fermentable sugars. At the end of the belt, the rice is bundled into bags. A succession of waiting brewers throw the bags over their shoulders and then rush to a point unknown. We follow the last of the men into a steam-filled, cedar-lined, room.
Here, the rice is being formed into a long pile, which is then covered with a blanket making it look like a sleeping person on a futon. The mound will be left alone to allow the koji to get to work. Flavor creation begins right here as the chosen rice variety, temperature, koji, and time all begin to work together.
We follow Oku-San to another room filled with small, open-top fermenters. Inside each is a pillowy mass of white bubbles.
Unlike beer or whisky, where you add hot water to convert a grain’s starch to fermentable sugar before adding yeast to ferment it into alcohol, in sake these two processes happen simultaneously. The koji-inoculated rice is added to the fermenter with some water, and once it starts to break down and ferment, more rice and water are added in three increments.
To kick-start the process, most brewers add some lactic acid to the first batch of rice, yeast, and water. Oku-San however has revived the yamahai method of allowing natural lactic bacteria to do their own thing. It’s similar to using a sourdough starter in baking rather than fast-acting yeast. “It takes a lot longer,” he admits, “but making a moto [starter] gives a more structured and full-bodied sake, so it’s worth it.”
Any conversation with Oku-san always loops back to flavor, which informs the type of rice he chooses as well as the use of moto, the yeast strain (he uses five types), and the temperature and length of the fermentation. (For the record, he keeps the temperature cool to make the yeast struggle, which brings out fruitiness in the finished sake.)
Unusually, he also does all of his milling in-house and polishes the rice significantly less than is the norm. The trend has been to highly polish the rice in the belief that the more of the husk is removed, the purer the flavor and, the logic goes, the higher the quality.
“Because we grow rice we know how much work goes into producing it. We want to have its flavor, which is why we don’t mill it as much. We choose to have healthy fields and varieties, which are good without high levels of polishing.” He then adds with a laugh, “why waste the rice?”
Anything that I’ve learned previously about sake is quickly being unlearned. Oku-san doesn’t add alcohol (making all of his sake junmai) or charcoal filter the finished product, but racks the sake off of its lees (yeast particles) before pressing it.
Oh, and all of his sakes are aged in bottles for at least three years. “At five-to-ten years, our sake starts to shine,” he says. Just how much, I’m about to discover for myself.
At this point, you’ll also have to forget what you know about sake. These aren’t the sleek, polished (in both senses) fine-boned, supermodel sakes that have become prevalent. This is a new world.
We kick off with a Kimoto Yamatanishiki from 2015 that starts with a woodland aroma reminiscent of fresh mushrooms and drying grasses, before chocolate (yes, chocolate, in sake) emerges alongside a warm, almost biscuity, quality. It’s umami rich before shifting to fresh green apple-like acidity.
The next glass is the single-field sake from 2014. There’s a similar power here, but greater depth as rich, dark fruits combine with cocoa powder, and hints of shiitake mushrooms. The palate flicks between artichoke, green plum, blackberry, and huge, chewy, umami. The acidity has moved forward, adding a layer to the complex mid-palate, adding complexity. “Omachi gives this complexity,” Oku-san explains. “Yamada Nishiki a straight ‘A’ student. Great, but without as much character!”
Already, it’s clear that Akishika’s sakes are like walking out of your front door and finding yourself in a different landscape where your compass doesn’t work.
The third comes from 2012, but here minerality and acidity are uppermost. It has a dusty aroma, like tomato leaves in a hothouse, and is explosive on the tongue, brimming with a mad energy. That acidity will help it last for years.
There’s a twinkle in his eye when he pours the final pair. The first is lightly pétillant, with bright fresh citrus and elderflower on the nose and, absurdly, a palate that’s filled with lush tropical fruits like mango and guava. I’m shaking my head in disbelief.
“Now try this,” he says.
There’s dark almost overripe fruits: plums, raisins, clay, rice and then a sudden handbrake turn into acidity. The umami is there, as is a sweeter touch, then the rich fruits return—there’s even a whisper of chocolate, as if everything comes full circle.
“The first one was the fermented moto. That’s why it’s sweet and sour, yet fruity,” he reveals. “The second is the moto, plus the first addition of rice.”
It’s sake making of the highest order. By ageing, pushing umami and acidity, different yeasts and rice varieties Oku-san is playing a potentially risky game with balance, yet for all their full-throttled qualities that vital equilibrium has been achieved.
Some of what he does can be seen to have parallels with minimal intervention winemaking and brewing, which sadly often means a laissez-faire approach. What he does is the opposite: Rejecting the norms of using pesticides, buying polished rice, adding lactic acid or alcohol and charcoal filtering. And thanks to bottle ageing, the nature of his intervention has been magnified—and has been transformed. It necessitates paying even closer attention and constantly using your senses, something most “natural” winemakers would do well to learn.
Sake is still enduring tough times in Japan. Sales have fallen and breweries have closed. His sakes offer hope that things might turn around. “Back in the day, it used to be said that sake was an accompaniment to food,” he says. “Nowadays, that idea is changing and food and sake are seen as both bringing out the best in each other. It’s reflected in the flavors.”
I think back to something he’d said when we were in the field. “We’re surrounded by mountains and forest, so the food here is based on meat: deer, wild boar and vegetables. Our sake’s flavors have been dictated by the food.”
His sakes now have a cult following in Japan among a new drinkers looking for maximum expressiveness, as well as in a few export markets: Australia, the Netherlands, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S. (where they are available via Miron Wines and Spirits). When Noma ran its pop-up in Tokyo, Akishika was on the menu, and was the only sake that its founder René Redzepi and team served when they then decamped to Australia.
Akishika shows that sake needn’t be just one thing. Rich, rewarding, complex, and, even more importantly, deep, they taste of place.