RICE VARIETIES 酒米
Certain varieties of rice were selected, even hybridized, to facilitate the brewing of the saké.
They are called Sakamai 酒米(saké rice) to distinguish them from rice intended for the table named Shokuyômai 食用米.
Rice influences the taste and aromas of saké rather indirectly.
It is the enzymatic activity of the koji that generates the sensation of sweetness.
The acidity is due to malic and succinic acids generated by yeast and lactic acid is catalyzed by lactic acid bacteria.
The fruity aromas of saké are due to the esters produced by the yeast in Moromi; whether it is ethyl acetate for fruit flavours, ethyl octanoate for pear flavours or ethyl caproic for pineapple, in particular.
The same strain of yeast can generate the same aromas, regardless of the source of the glucose that feeds it.
Also, it is the glutaminase produced by the Koji which synthesizes glutamic acid, the famous umami.
Even Ginjoka, the Ginjo flavour, is all the less determined by rice as this rice was precisely stripped of its proteins and lipids during polishing. It is in these lipids and proteins that we find the sapid molecules specific to rice.
Each sakamai behaves a little differently during the brewing process, but the end result is highly dependent on the skill and intention of the Toji.
In fact, the polished and steamed rice is the soil on which a flora grows which will produce esters, ethyls and other sapid molecules which will mark the taste of the saké.
The sakamai is the blank page on which the Toji can tell the story he wants. The Yamadanishiki 山田錦 is the perfect paper, but some Toji prefer lesser white paper, with a grain that will texturize their writing. Hence the return of Omachi, or other cultivars better suited to the neighbouring Kura environment.
Sakamai have many characteristics that ease the brewing of saké. What are these characteristics?
- The grain should be large, with an opaque white nucleus named shimpaku 心白proportionally larger than with other varieties. The bigger the shimpaku, the more starch there will be.
- The grain must resist cracking during polishing. This allows efficient, more homogeneous polishing. Paradoxically, varieties with a large shimpaku are more fragile.
- The grain must have a high water absorption capacity; this allows better penetration of the koji into the grain.
- Once steamed, its surface should not be sticky, otherwise handling becomes difficult. For effective inoculation, there should be no rice balls when preparing kojimai.
- Proteins, lipids and ferrous compounds must be rare and concentrated in the outer layers of rice, the ones that disappear on polishing; shimpaku should only contain starch.
- The shimpaku is tender and dissolves easily so that we have a homogeneous Moroni (without clods) so that the koji and its enzymes can easily convert all the starch into glucose. Incidentally, a rice that dissolves well in water leaves a taste of its own.
Less than 5% of all the rice grown in Japan is used to produce saké. Despite this, there are about a hundred varieties officially registered as Shuzokotekimai 酒造好適米 (rice suitable for making saké). Each has its characteristics; size, starch and protein content, solubility and climatic preference.
The most cultivated are Yamadanishiki 山田錦, Gohyakumangoku 五百万石, and Miyamanishiki 美山錦.
The varieties of Sakamai are divided into two main types:
Yamadanishiki 山田錦 and Omachi 雄町 are of the Okute 晩稲 type, i.e. late-maturing varieties. They are generally grown in western Japan.
While Gohyakumangoku 五百万石 and Miyamanishiki 美山錦 which were developed during the post-war period for cold latitudes are of the Wase 早稲 type. These are the varieties that ripen quickly and are cultivated in Northern Honshu and Hokkaido.
Compared to cultivars of the first type, these rices have a harder grain that dissolves more difficult in Moromi, so they infuse the saké less with their own flavours.
While Sakamai refers to the cultivars with the best yield in the tanks, the Okute and Wase types divide them according to their yield in the fields. Okutes enjoy the long, hot summers of the west, while the Wase are best suited to the shorter, cooler summers of the north.
Some cultivars of the Okute type 晩稲
1. Yamadanishiki 山田錦 is a hybrid between Yamadabo and Wataribune varieties created in Hyogo Prefecture during the Taisho era (1912–1926).
It is the KING of the Sakamai, the most used because it must be admitted, thanks to its ability to absorb water and dissolve quickly in Moroni, it is perfect for brewers. Since it is tender rice, Yamadanishiki needs to be polished much slower than other types of rice to avoid breaking it. It is the most expensive strain of Sakamai. Although strongly associated with Hyogo Prefecture, Yamadanishiki is cultivated almost everywhere in the West, even in Kyushu. It is also the variety of Sakamai the most grown abroad.
2. Omachi 雄町
It is an ancient cultivar used for saké already in the 19th century; it was even popular as table rice. But, because of its long stems which can reach 150 cm, the Omachi proved difficult to harvest by machine and was replaced by other varieties with the mechanization of agriculture. Still today, its long stems make it vulnerable to typhoons which, due to climate change, appear earlier and earlier in the season.
It is mainly cultivated in the prefectures of Okayama and Hiroshima.
It is not a crossbreed, but it was used in many crosses to become the direct or indirect parent of just about all Sakamai from hybridization.
In comparison to Yamadanishiki, Omachi tends to impart wilder, more herbaceous and fuller flavours to saké. Being very soluble, it quickly leaves its mark in the Moromi.
3. Hattannishiki 八反錦
Created in Hiroshima in the 1970s, Hattannishiki 八反錦 is a cross between Hattan-35-go and Akitsuho.
Its short stems, less than a yard with a strong lodging make it quite easy to grow. The medium-sized grains are mostly Shimpaku (almost at 95%) with very little protein. On the other hand, it breaks easily during polishing.
In 2019, 1895 tonnes of Hattannishiki were grown, all in Hiroshima.
Some cultivars of the Wase type 早稲
1. Gohyakumangoku 五百万石
Gohyakumangoku is the second most cultivated Sakamai in Japan. Harvesting can be done as early as mid-August, while Yamadanishiki is usually harvested in October. It is a hybrid conceived in Niigata of Kikusui 菊水 and Shin-200-Go 新200号.
The Gohyakumangoku gives large grains with a huge well-centred Shimpaku. Proteins and lipids are well grouped in the outer layers removed by polishing. But it has the downside of its advantage, its immense Shimpaku prevents the rice from reaching a low Seimaibuai; very early in polishing, there is a risk of touching and cracking the core.
This rice grows along the northwest coast, especially in Niigata, Toyama and Ishikawa. We associate this rice with dry, light and refreshing sakés from Niigata.
2. Miyamanishiki 美山錦
From a cross between Hokuriku 12 and a variant of Norin 17, Miyamanishiki is the third most cultivated Sakamai in Japan after Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku. Definitely the most popular in Tohoku; native to Nagano, it is also cultivated in Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima. Known for its prolific growth and cold hardiness, Miyamanishiki is often used to create hybrid rice varieties for northern climates. Some examples are Dewasansan in Yamagata, Aki no Sei in Akita and Yume no Kaori in Fukushima.
If its stem is as short as that of Gohyakumangoku (1m), its grain is smaller and above all, the Shimpaku is only 50% of it. It therefore has less starch, but tends to produce richer and fuller saké.
3. Koshitanrei 越淡麗
Koshitanrei was born in 2004 from a cross between Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It grows almost exclusively in Niigata Prefecture. This cultivar inherited the abilities of Gohyakumangoku to grow during the short, cool summers of Niigata and the tenderness of Yamadanishiki; it is possible to polish it to Daiginjo level.
The resulting flavour marries the crisp, dry style of Gohyakumangoku with the floral and fragrant characteristics of Yamadanishiki.
Some of my brewer friends use other cultivars, better suited to their terroir.
For example, Ms. Obata from Obata Shuzo uses Koshiibuki, Mr. Nomizu from Kawachu Shuzo employs Takanenishiki, while Mr. Morita from Morita Shôbe uses exclusively varieties of Aomori (GinEboshi 吟烏帽子, Hanafubuki 華吹雪, Hanaomoi 華想い, Masshiguraまっしぐら, and Reimei レイメイ).
My friends from Asamai Shuzo in Akita even employ Menkoina, a Shokuyômai. Using table rice with proteins and other nutrients distributed more uniformly throughout the grain infuses the saké with a genuine taste of rice. In addition, its use changes the economic relationship between the brewer and the farmers. It is a definite advantage for the farmer to be able to sell his rice to both shuzo and consumers.
Besides, many Toji use more than one variety for a single saké; they sometimes use a Sakamai for the Kojimai and the Shubo. And for the Kakemai, the rice that is added to the brew in three stages, they may take another cultivar.
In December 2019, because I fell in love with a Genshu 原酒 saké, I travelled to Nagano to visit the microbrewery producing it. The Shuzo is perched high on the mountainside above a gorge valley. It is run by a pretty and candid couple. He is the Toji. She takes care of sales. Their water is delicious. The rest of the products are ordinary, but the Genshu is fantastic. And they are really nice.
I ask them where the rice comes from.
—From Nagano Prefecture.
—Yes, but ... Where in this raised forest setting do you harvest rice?
—They buy it at the cooperative in Matsumoto.
I was immediately disillusioned.
I need to believe in a nearby rice field, to know that there is a community relationship between the farmer and the brewer, to think that they are sending their children to the same school. When people in rural areas buy their agri-food products in the city, we are not very far from the closure of the ATM, the post office and the village school.
I must add that it reassures me to find snakes, frogs and fish, to observe herons and ducks diving in the rice field, to see dragonflies and butterflies hovering around.
And to know that someone, from this, with domesticated microorganisms, will make a drink for the gods, that moves me.
What does the name of the rice matter?