Sake begins with rice – Izumibashi sake
Sake begins with rice
Sake begins with rice – this is the mantra that many sake educators begin their lessons with. I am no exception. Rice is not just the starch that ferments and turns into sake. Rice is the heart of sake flavour.
That is why many brewers go to great lengths to secure each year’s supply of best rice. For example, Asahi Shuzō, the brewer of super-popular Dassai sake, has turned to computer technology to make sure it gets its annual order of Yamada Nishiki rice fulfilled. It has partnered with Fujitsu to provide cloud-based crop management technology to rice farmers in its home prefecture Yamaguchi, so that the farmers can increase the production of Yamada Nishiki. The mighty Dewazakura shuzō of Yamagata prefecture spent 11 years developing a new sake rice strain Dewa 33. Dewa 33 rice (pronounced “dewa san san”) raised the profile of not just Dewazakura, but Yamagata sake in general. Dewazakura makes a highly regarded “Dewa San San junmai ginjō” sake with it.
Another facet of the rice/sake relationship is that traditionally, breweries have been the employer of rice farmers through winter. It was a logical symbiosis. Sake brewing, of course, couldn’t start until rice was harvested around October. Not only rice became available, the temperatures dropped, too. Sake fermentation performs best at cold temperatures. Breweries all over the country arose from their summer-long slumber and began production. They needed hands, and rice farmers, who had finished their summer work, came to breweries to work through a winter brewing season. Grow rice in summer, brew sake in winter. (This pattern of employing seasonal workers is changing now. Fewer and fewer people are willing to work non-stop for months, away from their families. Breweries have had to find local workers or convince their families to step into the brewing shoes.)
And yet, some breweries have an even tighter relationship with rice farming. They grow rice themselves. Izumibashi is one such brewery. In their words, “sake begins with rice making”.
About Izumibashi Sake Brewery
Izumibashi brewery is in Ebina city in Kanagawa prefecture. It was founded in 1857. Kanagawa is adjacent to Tokyo, and gets a lot of tourist traffic owning to its landmarks – Yokohama and Hakone.
Surrounding the brewery are rice fields. Many of those fields are cultivated by Izumibashi itself. In 1996, the brewery began growing its own rice. Now, they cultivate over 40 hectares of rice fields – a mixture of own and rented land.
Izumibashi brewery puts an emphasis on natural farming methods. While not going 100% organic, Izumibashi grows rice with minimal use of agrichemicals. Using natural methods to increase vitality and strength of plants, it grows rice that is naturally pest-resistant. Izumibashi has been able to reduce the use of agrichemicals by 96-100% of the existing prefecture standard.
The brewery also works with the local Sake Rice Association to re-cultivate unused land and promote natural farming methods. As a result, all farmers they work with have reduced the use of agrichemicals to 60% of allowable level.
The red dragonfly, the symbol of Izumibashi, favours rice fields. Izumibashi believes that it has seen the increase in dragonfly numbers – a result of using less chemicals. A nice sort of symmetry in that, don’t you think?
Izumibashi brewers also mill the rice they use in their sake. While a few brewers do that, the majority outsource this task. Izumibashi’s staff assess the quality of rice that comes to the brewery, which can differ by strain, origin and even the weather of each summer, and polish the rice according to their findings. From growing to polishing, rice gets a lot of attention at Izumibashi!
Izumibashi only brews junmai sake, which means the brewers do not add any distilled alcohol to sake at any stage. While addition of a small amount of alcohol at the end of the brewing process is a valid technical step in sake brewing (it helps draw out alcohol-soluble flavours), a small number of breweries believe that it can be avoided with enough effort and skill.
So, what sake does Izumibashi brew? Sakenet Australia bring a huge selection of Izumibashi sake. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to meet Hashiba san, the president of the brewery and the 6th generation owner. He visited Australia on a whirlwind promotional tour, spending a few days in Sydney. Sakenet organised an industry workshop, where I had the luxury of tasting through the 10-strong sake selection. My palate was sharpened the same night as I returned to the Kubrics bar for the public sake tasting dinner with a few Sake Club members.
To me, the strength of Izumibashi was in its junmai sake, as well as traditionally fermented kimoto and yamahai sake. Sturdy, dry sake, edging on the rich side. Here, I review the sakes which I liked the most.
Izumibashi “Tonbo 7gō Shinriki” Nama Genshu Junmai Kimoto
I began the tasting with a special treat indeed. Fresh nama genshu, bottled in March 2015. For non-nerds, the long name means it is non-pasteurised, non-diluted, traditionally fermented without the addition of lactic acid to the starter.
Oh, to drink nama in good condition in Australia! It was delicious, creamy, sweet, with lychees dominating. Light astringency was playing on the tongue. Lovely nama brashness, which can quickly grow dull, unless stored correctly. It was also served at the dinner, heated, and the heat brought forward tons of umami savouriness. Highly recommended, get it while it is available. (No brewery picture for this beauty, just my own from the tasting. )
Izumibashi “Megumi Blue Label” Junmai Ginjō
- Rice: Yamadanishiki grown in Ebina
- Seimai-buai 58%
- SMV: +14
- Sake yeast #9
With the SMV of +14, this sake is dry indeed. Overall, light and dry sake, overlaid with some fruity impressions, and a touch of bitterness. It had quite a low impact on the nose, mostly rice. Very calm, settled sake, and very dry. There, I said “dry” three times, so you know it is dry!
Izumibashi “Hajime” Yamahai Ginjō
- Yamadanishiki grown in Ebina
- Seimai-buai 58%
- SVM: +6
- Vintage: 21 BY
For me, this sake was a showstopper. The label said that it was brewed in 2009. That is old! Hashiba san told me that it was the first time he tried his “Hajime” that old. Hajime means “the beginning, the first”, so our conversation seemed rather fateful.
Still, the sake was in great condition. It was still clean, still elegant. Straight on the nose, you could sense aged richness. On the palate, it was honey mixed with gaminess, earthiness. Think of mushrooms in a dark forest. Such gaminess is the trademark of yamahai style. The ageing also brought forward an intense combination of straw, rice and a little cheesiness. It was rich and complex yet elegant. Dry finish. In Hashiba san’s words, it was just right to drink. So find it and drink it, before the ageing works against it. (Although it might get even better, you never know!)
Izumibashi “Megumi Red Lable” Junmai
- Yamadanishiki grown in Ebina
- Seimai-buai: 65%
- SMV: +8
- BY 25 – brewed in 2013, shipped in 2014.
Megumi Red Label was clean on the nose, but sweet and rich on the palate. Some sweet apple notes. It was ageing very well (about 2 years old). Drink it now as it is just right. “Megumi” means “blessing” in Japanese. A lazy pun is rolling off my fingertips, but I will restrain myself…or will I? Go on, be blessed!
Izumibashi “Akane Izumibashi” Junmai Yamahai
- Rice: Kame-no-O, grown on Izumibashi’s own rice fields
- Seimai-buai 70%
- Rice grown on Izumibashi own rice fields.
- SMV: +5
- Vintage: 24BY (just over 2 years old).
Rich, sweet, delicious yamahai with a full-on dry tail. Rich flavour of rice, dried fruits and umami layered over each other, in a delicious layer cake.
I think that’s enough to get you started! Go to sakenet website and get it now!