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Sake rocks it old school

Part of an artisanal revival, the robust kimoto style has depth born of hand crafting and natural ingredients.

May 16, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

WITH a rush of powerful silky flavors, one sip of Sawanoi Kiokejikomi Iroha sake dramatically overturns your expectations. Unlike the light, dry brews that have been the recent darlings of connoisseurs, this is a full-bodied sake -- complex and bright with yeasty, meaty flavors, notes of lemon and a marvelous but faint cedar backbeat.

Fermented in traditional cedar barrels, it's one of the finest examples of kimoto sake. The return of kimoto -- made the way all sake was once made -- is part of the trend toward robust, richly flavored sakes made using revived artisanal methods and often organic ingredients.

These more assertive sakes possess a depth and range of flavors that industrially produced brews never develop. And as the Japanese diet has become richer, and sake has gained an audience worldwide, kimoto and other robust sakes have gained popularity because they can be paired with more kinds of foods than lighter, more delicate sakes.

Beau Timken, proprietor of True Sake in San Francisco, the first all-sake store in the U.S., says full-bodied sakes are the next frontier for aficionados. "These have the flavor dexterity needed, now that sake is seen as a drink to match up with many kinds of food," he says.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 13, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Sake: A May 16 article about sake said that Sawanoi Kiokejikomi Iroha sake was also listed and misspelled as Sawanoi Junmai Gunjo. Sawanoi Junmai Ginjo is a different sake from the same producer.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Sake: A May 16 Food section article about sake said that Sawanoi Kiokejikomi Iroha sake is sometimes listed as Sawanoi Junmai Gunjo. The correct spelling is Sawanoi Junmai Ginjo, and it is a different sake from the same producer.

To add an extra measure of boldness to their sakes, artisanal sake breweries, or kuras, are experimenting with a variety of techniques that hadn't been used since before World War II. They are fermenting sakes in old-fashioned cedar barrels instead of standard enamel-lined, stainless-steel tanks.

They are producing unfiltered sakes, organic sakes, sakes made from sprouted brown rice and sakes brewed with slower, labor-intensive fermentation techniques. And they're working with little-known yeast strains and heirloom rice varieties.


Handcrafted process

PERHAPS the most intricate of the revived techniques is the centuries-old handcrafted process known as the kimoto method, which died out in the early 1900s. To make kimoto sake, brewers create their starter yeast mash without relying on commercially produced lactic acid to speed things up.

When the kimoto mash develops naturally, there's a give and take between the yeast and bacteria until the yeast prevails. The result is gamy, yeasty undertones adding complexity to the brew.

The kimoto method may be used for most sake categories, including junmais, or pure rice sakes; daiginjos, or super-premium sakes; and ginjos, or premium sakes. (Sake style categories, a sometimes confusing welter of designations, provide information about, among other things, whether alcohol has been added and how much of the rice grain is polished away before steaming and fermenting.)

Daishichi, a kura in the northern prefecture of Fukushima, may have been the brewer to inspire the modern kimoto-style revival with its Minowamon kimoto junmai daiginjo. But this 300-year-old sake maker did more than simply bring back the method. It came up with "super flat" rice polishing, a technique that eliminates more of the grain's impurities. Its resulting sakes -- unlike traditional varieties that tended to be a bit syrupy and funky -- had amazing clarity yet also the complexity of kimoto-style brews.

Another brand that paved the way for the kimoto revival, Kodama Brewing Co.'s Taiheizan, made in Akita prefecture, won acclaim for its daiginjo kimoto sake as well as for its explosive junmai kimoto, "Grand Mountain." Its slightly less labor-intensive modification of the kimoto technique resulted in Akita-ryu kimoto, or Akita-style kimoto.

Every year the availability of kimoto sakes continues to expand. The few mentioned here illustrate just how much their styles can vary.

From Yamagata prefecture comes Hatsumago kimoto junmai. Its luscious aromas may be attributed to the unique yeast of Yamagata, a strain that clearly has thrived in the northern region's deeply cold winters.

For a rustic kimoto sake, Kurosawa junmai kimoto is a choice that fares well served warm or cold. Its origins in Nagano prefecture, a region known for its consumption of wild game, may be why the sake pairs so well with grilled and fried foods, the sort of accompaniments likely to turn up in a country-style izakaya, or pub.

Although traditional methods and ingredients are prized for the elegance they can bring to sake, few kuras are dispensing with their modern technology. Automatic rice cookers and computer-controlled temperature for the brew tanks, among other things, are still viewed as essential.

Brew masters no longer sleep by their tanks as was done for centuries, to awaken in the middle of the night to check the temperature of the fermenting sake.

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