Thursday, February 14, 2013

English translations favor the wrong sakes: Genshu and nigori, over honjozo

Nigori is too sweet for this; genshu is too strong
Americans often order sake by how it can be described in English. Sure, why not? But for three classifications of sake, this isn't leading to the best drinking.

We drink a lot of nigori, the White Zinfandel of sake, in the States, partly because we have a sweet tooth. But there's a marketing reason as well: Nigori is often described on menus as "unfiltered," a word guaranteed to appeal to wine aficionados.

It's at best misleading, usually an outright lie, and unfair to every other sake. Sake that comes from the press is not that cloudy soup of sweet rice you see in nigori bottles: those little chunks of rice are added in afterward.

You never see nigori sake in Tokyo; people here just don't drink it. But it's a top seller in the US and who can blame breweries for making what sells? Drink it because it's sweet, drink it because you like it, but don't kid yourself that it's somehow more natural; in fact, it's more adulterated.

Now this is putting power into sake
As for genshu, this is sexy to Americans because it really means "undiluted." It has that sense of purity and power, and is often recommended as having the body to stand up to Western food. At least this is the truth.

The problem is that, like cask-strength Scotch, it may be pure but it's really too strong to drink on its own. While most sake is about 15-16% alcohol, genshus are 18-20%. That's a big difference. There are no table wines at that level, and most people would consider fortified wines with that much alcohol to be too strong to have with dinner.

Genshu is like cask-strength Scotch, but I'd rather have the brewery add its brewing water to it than splash in a few dollops from my faucet.

Kikumasamune makes a great honjozo
Instead of genshu and nigori, the sake Japanese drink a lot of is honjozo. But it's rare in the States because of both tax law and marketing.

Honjozo has brewer's alcohol added, but it's not actually higher in alcohol; it's also watered back to about the same 15% level as most junmai (no alcohol added) sakes. That just doesn't sound appealing to wine lovers. I kept correcting American sommeliers last week who called every honjozo "fortified," which is part of the problem. You can't compare honjozo to Port: sure, alcohol is added, but the intent is entirely different.

In fortified wines, alcohol is added to stop the fermentation with sugar still in it, so they're sweet. For honjozo sakes, alcohol is added to make them crisper. The driest sakes on a list are generally the honjozos.

Honjozos are also generally the crispest, cleanest sakes, the better to have with dinner. It's a defined quality level, with a polishing ratio of at least 70%. They're not meant to be as aromatic or fruity as ginjos and daiginjos. Japanese aficionados drink more honjozo than anything else; it goes well with food. They're also a little cheaper than ginjos in Japan, but not in the US because the added alcohol brings on a higher tax rate.

Eating at Tokyo restaurants after visiting 10 breweries, I found myself ordering mostly honjozo. It's great with yakitori (grilled chicken), sashimi, sazae (a sea creature grilled in its giant shell), ramen -- you name it, honjozo goes with it. Genshu would overpower the fish, while nigori is like having Coca-Cola with your meal.

We need a better way of describing honjozo, certainly not "fortified," and even though "alcohol added" is accurate, it's just not sexy. How about "the Tokyo food lover's choice"?

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rapopoda said...

"You can't compare honjozo to Port: sure, alcohol is added, but the intent is entirely different."

So what is the intent? What is the function/result of the process?

W. Blake Gray said...

The intent is to make it crisper and cleaner-tasting. With Port, alcohol is added to stop fermentation with sugar still in the wine, so that it's sweet. Honjozos are not sweet and are in fact some of the driest sakes of all.

Thanks for pointing out that I didn't point this out: will add to post.

rapopoda said...

OK. So to dig in a bit, how does that process make it cleaner? Is it distilled? Is the added alcohol void of higher (fusels) alcohols?
Does the de-acling bit have a deleterious effect?

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: Sake is not distilled. The best I can tell about honjozo, one of the reasons for the added alcohol is that it is more neutral than the sake to which it's added. Again, doesn't sound sexy, but the end result is a cleaner taste. And given how popular vodka is in the States, it's not exactly anti-market. I can't answer the question about fusel alcohols, sorry: I know it's a pretty pure brewer's alcohol that's added.

De-alcing is too technical a term for how they reduce the alcohol percentage. They simply add water.

rapopoda said...

So the added alc is not distilled? How is that done??
That is, how do they isolate the ETOH from all else that is left after a ferment to get at the alc?

W. Blake Gray said...

Sake is not distilled. Of course the added alcohol is distilled.

Unknown said...

As far as the alcohol they are adding to the sake, is there a common base ingredient that the distillers use or the sake brewers prefer? Say grape, sugar, potato, rice, or grain based spirit? And are there kura that distill their own alcohol or is it more common to buy from big distillers? Loving these sake posts by the way, I'm always trying to sell a little more sake where I work.

W. Blake Gray said...

I didn't ask enough brewers about the source of the alcohol to be able to definitively answer. The idea is for it to be neutral, so I'm not sure it matters. I know some large brewers distill their own but I think that's unusual; small brewers buy it.

Unknown said...

A friend, and former Japanese teacher, is of the opinion that because sake brewers aren't required to disclose fortifying alcohol, or limited to what it can be made from, that junmai should take priority over other styles. I don't want to misconstrue her original intent and say it is superior, but I think that sentiment was underlying. I haven't formed any hard opinions yet, and this isn't a view I necessarily share, but I understand the thinking behind it. Did you run into any sake enthusiasts, or any brewers, with that sentiment?

W. Blake Gray said...

Joseph: For a long time I drank only junmai myself. I even wrote that a few times in the early days. Now I know better. The more someone knows about sake, the more open they are to honjozos.

There's a big gap between futshushu, ordinary sake with alcohol added, and honjozo. Honjozo is a premium product.

You know what they say about a little knowledge.

Jesse said...

A few remarks on the post and comments:

Joseph: The majority of sake brewers use brewers alcohol that is distilled from sugar cane. While there is a shred of truth to what you are saying with respect to the undisclosed brewers alcohol, I don't think it is a big enough deal to fully discount Honjozo, Ginjo-shu, etc, in favor of Junmai only sakes.

Mr. Gray: I am glad to hear that you have come around and are embracing the wonderful world of Aru-ten (added alcohol) sakes. While I applaud you for correcting the Somms for incorrectly referring to Honjozos as "fortified" because of the perceived correlation to port, there is a fortification that occurs with adding alcohol with respect to how long it will stay drinkable. Yes, the sake is eventually watered back to the same ABV, but the added alcohol in most cases will actually extend the freshness of the sake once opened. It is not fortified for the reasons that port is, but categorically saying it is not fortified is a bit of a gray (no pun intended) area. The other thing that I need to speak to is the assertion that there is a big gap between futsu-shu and Honjozo. While this is true in many cases, particularly in Japan, there are quite a few premium futsus imported into the US. Two examples would be the Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu and Yoshinogawa Gensen Karakuchi. In these cases, the alcohol that is added slightly exceeds the legal limit (120 liters per metric ton of rice) for added alcohol. The reason for this is instead of allowing all of the sugars to ferment, drying the sake out, the brewer can leave some of character and underlying sweetness, while giving the sake a very dry, crisp finish through the addition of alcohol. The cheap, distilled alcohol-laden sakes that many people associate with futsu-shu simply do not make their way to the US. The reason for this is because we have our own cheap sake (made in CA) that we can buy cheaper than the Japanese futsus which carry a heavy tax. A lot of these sakes will incorrectly brand themselves as "Honjozo" to our market even though they are technically Futsu-shu. My guess is that the importers feel that explaining a premium futsu-shu would further confuse people, so it is easier just to say Honjozo.

Also, the claim that nigoris have their rice solids added back afterward is not the case for most brewers. For cheap, mass produced nigoris, yes this is the case, but the majority of nigori producers use a coarser pressing bag so that some of the rice solids are allowed to pass through. Agreed, calling nigori "unfiltered" is total BS. I prefer "roughly pressed".

Lastly, I wanted to expand a bit on what I think was the underlying question that some of the commenters were asking. It is true that the intent of adding alcohol is to make the sake taste crisper and cleaner. What is happening, from a chemical standpoint, is the alcohol is breaking down and dissolving some of the unfermented solids that are left in the brew. These solids contain additional aromas and flavor components that were not drawn out through fermentation. The result is a sake that, as the article stated, will sit lighter on your palate, possess softer aromas and finish cleaner than their Junmai brethren.

Love the sake slant to the blog recently, keep it up!