Extreme Junmai 90: Interview with Yoshi Sako
To celebrate 10 Years of Umami Mart, Kayoko and I have been collaborating with our favorite makers. So far, this year we've launched the Kabamaru x Umami Mart Furoshiki, and the Umami Mart Bitters by Miracle Mile to commemorate this milestone.
If you've been reading our blog, you know that we've carried sake from our local sake brewery Den, since they started releasing bottles in 2018. We've known the toji Yoshi Sako for almost 10 years and are wowed by his commitment to making sake that reflects the terroir of California. He has also incorporated new ways of developing koji, for example, using white koji instead of yellow koji to enhance the acidity in the final brew and eliminate the need to add lactic acid during fermentation (more on that below).
It is inspiring to see Sako pushing the limits of sake using the resources that he has while remaining totally transparent. It is a trait that we love about Den Sake Brewery. Yoshi is always inviting, and is tweaking and improving upon his sake brewing skills with every batch.
So it came naturally that we asked Sako if he would take some time out of his busy brewing schedule to make an exclusive sake that pushes the limits, reflects the terroir of our home, and celebrates 10 years of Umami Mart! To chart the plan, we started with the fact that this sake must be released on August 3, 2022, exactly 10 years after Kayoko and I opened our doors. That meant that we had to plan, and plan fast. Talks started back in January to come up with the concept.
Me, Yoshi, and Kayoko while pressing.
After a stimulating brainstorm with Yoshi, Lani, and Kayoko, we decided on a sake that would use Calhikari rice with 10% polished off to celebrate 10 years. That means that 90% of the grain would remain, keeping intact most of the rice grain that the farmers at Rue + Forsman Ranch in Sacramento carefully grow using sustainable techniques (including creating a habitat for migrating birds). We would call it Extreme Junmai 90. Yoshi and Lani were also kind enough to let us in on the production of the sake.
Kayoko and I felt like we had a hand in it every step of the way. From cooling the rice to pressing to bottling every bottle was made with TLC, brought to you by Den x Umami Mart.
There are a few Extreme Junmais out there. In fact, I featured them for Sake Gumi in April 2020 under the theme Extreme Junmais: Less Polishing, Big Personality. As the theme states, less polishing usually means that you will retain lots of the flavor from the proteins and fats of the rice grain (which reside in the outer layer of the rice grain), resulting in a robust sake full of umami. This was something we wanted in the finished brew, as well as a flavor profile that would pair well with summer foods: grilled meat and vegetables, fried chicken, and corn slathered in butter.
To get into the mind of Yoshi regarding this sake, we asked him some specific questions about Extreme Junmai 90.
What is the concept behind this sake?
Sako: I had been wanting to use low polished rice for a possibility of bringing out more of the characteristic of rice and soil. Making clean and aromatic style of sake by using highly polished rice is great but at the same time I often feel that I may be losing some potential of the rice grown in a beautiful nature land by farmers don't spare any effort to make good rice.
10% milled away matches the 10 year anniversary for Umami Mart!
Rice milled to 90%
What are some challenges you faced during the production of this sake? How did you solve them?
Sako: Before I started, I assumed that this low polished rice would not dissolve well in the mash. The outer layer of the rice is hard and usually it doesn't absorb much water. And even more so for table rice (sake rice dissolves better). So I used a higher koji ratio (more koji rice was used than usual) to break down the steamed rice. Also I used a very powerful koji-kin (koji seed).
The profile of many sakes made using low polished rice tend to be very funky, grainy and heavy. I know some people like it a lot but I didn't want to create that style this time especially for the celebratory occasion.
In order to avoid the flavor to be too heavy, I used some young koji-rice which means shorter period of koji making time for cleaner and lighter taste without losing its enzyme power. On top of that, the main mash was fermented at a super low temperature for some aromatics and clean finish.
Yoshi measuring for acidity and sake meter value.
What are some aromas and tasting notes you have for the sake?
Sako: For aromatics, I find steamed rice, maple syrup, summer corn and hinoki wood. Some of the flavors I taste are: dairy product, young banana, fresh lemony acidity
How was the process in getting rice milled to 90 from the farm? Is 90 milling rate for table rice?
Sako: Normally the white rice you buy from the farm or store is milled (or polished) at a 90% milling rate (10% of the outer layer of the rice is removed), unless it's brown rice. Normally rice is milled more for brewing sake and it needs to be brought to a facility that has special sake milling equipment. So getting 90% milled rice is skipping one step compared to the ones milled to sake brewing grade. It may make the farmer happier since we utilized almost whole grains without wasting.
Yes, 90% milling rate is for table rice.
Do you have any simple summer recipes you can share that go well with this sake? Can you share them with us?
Sako: Pesto pasta with seared scallops with lemon and parsley was great with this sake. This sake's lemony acidity and bitterness pairs very well with anything with lemon twist! I am really curious to see how this sake evolves after a year or two though.Yes, I really enjoyed the potential for pairings for this sake. My favorite pairing was a Porcini Salami from Marin Sun Farms. Having it with buttered and broiled corn and mushrooms was also delicious.
For a summertime celebration, what temperature and glass or cup would you prefer drinking this sake in?
Sako: I see good potential on this sake for aging. Over time, it will develop more butterscotch or sherry-like flavors. Right now it's still showing slightly green vegetable bitterness but it probably will turn into rustic umami after several months. So from now to a couple of months, you can enjoy it with smaller and thin glassware with slightly chilled temp to enhance the fresh aroma and vibrancy. After 5-6months to a few years or so, you would probably enjoy it with ceramic sake cup with room temp or warm.
Yoko: I can't wait!
What are some plans you have for 2022?
Sako: We are planning to popup at Soba Ichi.
Yoko: Stay tuned!
Nano and Yoshi of Den Sake Brewery.
Anything else you'd like to add regarding the process that you think is noteworthy?
Sako: I've been experimenting with making shubo (yeast starter) without adding lactic acid these past two batches.
Lactic acid is for creating an acidic environment which protects sake yeast from bacteria and wild yeast in the yeast starter mash.
This Extreme Junmai 90 was also made without adding lactic acid, instead I used white koji for shubo making. It's different from the kimoto or yamahai method (in which lactic acid occurs naturally and is not added), instead it is a method called ko-on touka (high-temperature saccharification method). White koji can produce a good amount of citric acid which also protects sake yeast from bacteria.
From to tank...
Sako: From my next Batch 17 (currently in progress) going forward, all Den sake will be brewed without using lactic acid. It will be all white koji shubo.
Lactic acid can be purchased anywhere and there is nothing wrong with using it for sake brewing. But oftentimes, how it's made and who makes it are not clearly described. The same reason we specify a farmer's name on the label, We want to provide transparency to our consumers about the ingredients we use as much as we can.
Yoko: We can not be more excited to unveil Extreme Junmai 90 to you. It incorporates the trifecta of what we value most here at Umami Mart: community, quality, and joy! We will be releasing this sake to our Gumi members first, then will be pouring it at our big 10 Year Matsuri event on August 6. We will be releasing pasteurized and unpasteurized versions, depending on if they are picked up in store or shipped. Only one tank of Extreme Junmai 90 was brewed, so when it's gone, it'll be gone forever.