A Plum Job: Making Umeboshi

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You’ve been eating it wrong! I said to myself. This was my a-ha moment regarding “Umeboshi” or Japanese pickled plums.

Umeboshi are a universal staple in Japan. These tiny preserved plums can be kept for years and are soft in texture yet very sour, salty yet with hints of sweetness. Its an unusual taste if you’re not prepared for it and my first time trying it years ago, I took a big a bite like I was eating, well, a regular plum. An overpowering sour taste filled my mouth. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. From that point on,I thought umeboshi were just another strange Japanese food to put on my “do not eat” list. Little did I know then, I would come to love these sour little plums.

My change of heart happened last fall at the Hakkaisan company cafeteria. One day, I looked over and saw my colleague use his chopsticks to nip of a small piece of the pickled plum and eat that tiny salty bit on top of a bite of white rice. I tried the same and it was a revelation. Eaten in small bites together with rice, Umeboshi is absolutely delicious. I asked about the plums and was told to my surprise that they were homemade! These Umeboshi we enjoy at the cafeteria are made every year by Mr. Tanaka, one of the managing brewers at Hakkaisan. I asked Tanaka-san to show me how they were made. I had to wait until this summer, but I finally got my chance to see how Umeboshi come to be. I did my best to document the process below.

Umeboshi of course must start with good ume. Japanese ume plums are a unique variety available widely in Japan but more rare overseas. They are quite small, about the size of a walnut and are harvested every year from mid to late June. Because of that, summer is umeboshi making season. Its important that the plums be picked when they are still firm and hard and still mostly green in color. Wakayama Prefecture is the most famous ume growing area in Japan.

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The first step is to wash the ume carefully. Any ume that have bruises or ripped or damaged skin cannot be used to make umeboshi. The skins must be pristine. we carefully washed each ume and then with a small wooden pick, we removed any remaining stems being very careful not to pierce the skin. If there is any blemish on the ume, mold can grow there and ruin your whole batch.

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Once the ume are washed, cleaned, stemmed, and carefully checked for bleminshes the next step is to layer them with salt. Here the plums are put into a food safe container with a plastic lining. The salt will do a few things. First, the salt will draw out moisture from the Ume. The salt content will also begin to preserve the ume and lastly, it will also inhibit the growth of any mold. Different Umeboshi recipes call for a different amounts of salt to ume ratio.

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Next the ume and salt mixture is sealed up with a weight on top. The weight is important to apply pressure that will help the salt to draw moisture out of the plums. Once the weight is on top, the container is sealed air tight to avoid contamination.

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After about 1 week, we carefully reopen the container. Here you can see the umeboshi are still greenish yellow in color, but now floating in liquid drawn out of the plums by the salt.

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If you’ve eaten umeboshi before, you know they are most often reddish in color. where does this red come from? Well, it comes from our next ingredient: red shiso. You may be familiar with green shisho leaves served along with your sushi or sashimi. Red shiso is a relative of the green variety, but quite different in taste. As such, it is not eaten raw as much. Here is the red shiso as we receive it from the farmer. I have even seen red shiso growing wild out here in the Niigata countryside.

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Red Shiso has a two tone leaf with a dark green top and a deep purple underside. To prepare the shiso for use, we must first remove all the leaves from the stems and wash them very thoroughly.

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After washing, we process the leaves in big bunches. We mix them with salt and press them between our hands, squeezing as hard as possible. Tenderizes the tough shiso and removes unwanted moisture as well. Slowly, the leaves soften up and get tender. We press them into ball shapes abou the size of a softball.

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When all the shisho leaves have been washed, salted and pressed, we spread them out in one thick layer on top of all the ume and ume liquid. The weight is set back on top and the container is again re-sealed air tight. These shiso leaves will give off a coloring to the ume and the liquid, turning them from yellow-green to a reddish color.

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The Shisho and ume stay wrapped up for about one month. We next look to the weather forecast and try to find three days with warm temperatures and no rain. Buy this point it is early august and the rainy season in Japan is more or less over. To start the drying process, we strain all of the plums and strands of shiso from the liquid. The brining liquid is now a dark purple and we reserve this liquid. The ume and shiso are separated and carefully laid out on bamboo baskets to air dry outside in the sun.

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For three days the Ume are dried and turned by hand every few hours. this ensures that the plums dry evenly. Sometimes the ume skin will stick to the basket and rip. if this happens, we put these ume to the side to eat immedately, they cannot be further preserved with torn skin.

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After 3 days of drying in the sun, the ume and shiso are returned to the liquid to soften further and turn an even deeper red. From this point on the ume are officially “umeboshi”, but further aging gives them a deeper flavor. As I mentioned above umeboshi are best eaten in small nibbles with white rice. A paste can also be made from Umeboshi and is served alongside everything from chicken skewers to cucumber.

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The Umeboshi is a classic japanese food. If you haven’t tried it yet, please do. Homemade is best and don’t be like me… please learn to eat it the right way!

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Hanabi – Japan’s “Flowers of Fire”

As soon as the weather got warm, I suddenly noticed “Fireworks” were everywhere. Soda cans, snack wrappers, store signage galore was decorated with limited summer Fireworks design. Also, lots of TV commercials began to feature fireworks, too. Fireworks are THE symbol of summer in Japan.

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As a 4th of July-loving American, i’ve seen fireworks almost every year of my life. As so often in Japan, I thought I knew all there was to about fireworks… and then I experienced my first Japanese fireworks festival. Fireworks are called “hanabi” in Japanese and it literally means Flower of Fire. Think of them as a bouquet in the sky…. made of fire! If you look at it that way, who wouldn’t get excited?

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I attended the Nagaoka City summer fireworks festival, billed as one of top 3 in Japan. I heard it was big, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how big. I learned after the fact that the night I was there, there were about 400,000 spectators watching the show! Walking from the station to the event grounds was a giant flow of humanity. Many people were wearing festive yukata summer kimono. The fireworks festival is one of the biggest events of the year for Nagaoka and the nagaoka train station has displays dedicated to fireworks, too.

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There were some differences between this fireworks show and ones we have in the U.S. Usually in the States, once the fireworks start, they run nonstop until the end. The Nagaoka fireworks had an MC over loudspeaker making an announcement each few minutes announcing a sponsor for each display. There was a lot of stopping and starting but each mini fireworks show has its own personality and theme. One even featured a Hello Kitty face in Fireworks!

However the highlight was known as the “Phoenix” display. This is recognized as the widest fireworks display in the world with the launch pads spread out over a mile in length. This display was conceived as a symbol of rebirth and recovery following a deadly 2004 earthquake that struck this area of Niigata. It was an impressive display – one of those beautiful fleeting scenes you try to take in as best you can. Pictures and videos don’t do it justice.

If you’re interested in Fireworks be sure to put the Nakaoka summer display on your bucket list!

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Hakkaisan at Ginza Six!

I think it is fair to say there is no shortage of places to go shopping in Tokyo. You can drop big bucks on electronics in the Akihabara district or shop for cutting edge, mismatched outfits in Harajuku. However the epicenter of serious retail therapy is without a doubt in Ginza. The Ginza district is famous the world over for high end boutiques, Towering department stores, and an endless parade of Ladies Who Lunch.

The latest addition to Ginza’s retail arena is known as Ginza Six which opened to much fanfare in April 2017. If the rest of Ginza is cool, Ginza Six was built to impress even more. With 421 stores in over 500,000 square feet of space, Ginza Six is one of the biggest shopping complexes in Ginza. Entering, you’ll see the central atrium outfitted with a stunning polka dot sculpture designed by arguably Japan’s most famous living artist, Yayoi Kusama.

Ginza Six Atrium

Ginza Six Atrium

Almost Every Japanese department store has an over-the-top food court on the basement level, this is known as a “depachika” (a mix of “depato“, which means department store, and “chika“, which means basement). Most visitors to Japan will easily remember their first visit to a depatchika as the vast selection and stunning presentation of foods is hard to forget. Ginza Six also has a basement food floor on the B2 level, but they really kick it up a notch.

My recent visit to Ginza Six was to check out their basement food floor to enjoy Hakkaisan’s new Ginza Sennenkoujiya shop.

Hakkaisan's Ginza Sennen Koujiya.

Hakkaisan’s Ginza Sennen Koujiya.

Sennen Koujiya is Hakkaisan’s retail shop that sells all of the Hakkaisan sake, but also food and other fermented items from Niigata. The Ginza Six branch is the latest to open.

I visited for the first time on a rainy Saturday. My first impression of Ginza Six was how popular it was. Shoppers were everywhere, even on a rainy day. Lots of people are curious about this new shopping complex and it seemed that every shop was busy. I headed down to the B2 level and took a look around for Sennen Koujiya.

Lots of Hakkaisan Sake for sale at Sennen Koujiya

Lots of Hakkaisan Sake for sale at Sennen Koujiya

Hakkaisan Ginjo Funaguchi

Hakkaisan Ginjo Funaguchi

The shop has a beautiful open wood panel design. Along the left wall, there is a full range of Hakkaisan Sakes, but the refrigerator in the corner contained something special. This shops sells some limited sake that is not for sale anywhere else! These include rare Hakkaisan ‘Funaguchi sakes’ – that is sakes right from the sake press! Fully unpasteurized and non-charcoal filtered. Each bottle is labeled by hand.

Another rare sake that you can only find at Ginza Six is Hakkaisan Ultra Premium Kouwagura 25% Junmai Daiginjo. This is an outstanding sake that has the rice milled to 25% remaining and is aged for 2 years at 0˚C. Super rare and delicious!

Hakkaisan Fermentation goods including Amasake.

Hakkaisan Fermentation goods including Amasake.

The back wall of the shop contains space for all of the perishable fermentation goods including Amazake (a sweet, no alcohol koji rice drink), as well as koji, shio koji as well as koji marinated meats and veggies.

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Along the right side wall is a small tasting counter. Guests can order a limited menu of bites and small appetizers and a sake pairing. I was excited to try, and I was able to enjoy a unique and wonderful pairing! I tried the Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years served in a beautiful antique glass along with the recommended pairing of Fukinoto (spring mountain vegetable) Miso paste along with sour cream and a drip of lemon. It was a beautiful savory and rich pairing with the Snow aged Junmai Ginjo.

Tasting bar and Ginza Sennen Koujiya.

Tasting bar and Ginza Sennen Koujiya.

If you get a chance to visit Tokyo, don’t miss the chance to stop into Ginza Six! A delicious sake and snack is waiting for you at Sennen Koujiya. Pick up some sakes and niigata foods while you are there. You’re friends back home will have depatchika envy!

Ginza Six is popular even in the rain!

Ginza Six is popular even in the rain!

Ice Ice Baby! Tasting Hakkaisan’s Super-Chilled Summer Sake

junmai-genshu3OK, so this is my first summer in Japan. I knew it would be hot, but I didn’t realize it would be h-o-t. And humid. And uncomfortable. Although the summer weather is shoganai (a wonderful Japanese word that means “it can’t be helped”), one thing we can do to cool down is drink some chilled sake. Chilled sake is delicious, but Hakkaisan raises the bar with their limited summer sake release.

It is only for a limited time – from June to August only – that Hakkaisan begins selling their Tokubetsu Junmai Namazume Genshu. Unique to this sake is that Hakkaisan recommends serving it at an ice-cold temperature in a small glass right from the freezer.

This near freezing creates a super crisp and refreshingly brisk sip of sake, with a texture that can border on a sake slushie. It is a perfectly delicious antidote to any summer heat wave.

junmai-genshuIf you chose to serve this sake gently chilled and not ice cold, you’ll enjoy other flavors. I find the taste to have a clean and lightly dry rice flavor with a bright freshness. A crisp finish leaves you wanting another sip.

This sake is a “tokubestu Junmai”. Junmai is “pure rice style” meaning no added alcohol. Tokubetsu means special, and this sake has a luxurious rice milling rate of 55% – much lower and more premium than other Junmai-grade sakes. This sake is also namazume. That means the sake was pasteurized just once after pressing, not twice as is usual with most sakes. This single pasteurization gives the sake a fresh and buoyant edge. Finally this sake is also a genshu – undiluted with water weighing in at 17.5% alcohol. Genshu sakes have more body on the palate and generally can stand up to richer foods. Hakkaisan is known for clean and crisp sakes, so this genshu is gentle and approachable.

Restaurant carafe service of Hakkaisan's Ice chilled Tokubetsu Junmai

Restaurant carafe service of Hakkaisan’s Ice chilled Tokubetsu Junmai

Let’s take a look at the stats for this sake:
Alcohol 17.5%
sake meter value ±0.0
acidity 1.5
amino acid 1.4
koji rice used Gohyakumangoku
brewing rice used Yukinosei, Yamadanishiki, Todorokiwase
rice-polishing ratio 55%
yeast Kyokai No. 1001, Kyokai No. 1801

Hakkaisan Tokubestu Junmai Namazume Genshu is not for sale in the States, but if you do visit Japan in the steamy summer months, I hope you get a chance to try it ice cold. Let’s stay cool this summer!

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Los Angeles International Wine Competition 2017

The Los Angeles International Wine Competition has been awarding the finest wines from all over the world since 1939, and the finest Japanese Sake since 2009. We are proud to announce our sake awards from 2017, the 78th year of the Los Angeles International Wine competition.

GOLD Medal : Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 years
SILVER Medal : Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
BRONZE Medal : Junmai Daiginjo (45) Kouwagura

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Los Angeles International Wine Competition is the platform for an extensive wine education program available to the nearly 1.3 million visitors at the annual Los Angeles County Fair. The Fair’s wine education center features consumer-driven classes, tastings and displays of the award-winning wines. With the Los Angeles International Wine Competition committed to educating the public about wine, the Fair’s wine education program features industry experts with extensive knowledge about wine growing and selection, wine tasting as well as wine and food pairings.

http://www.lawinecomp.com/wos/wine_competition/index.asp

Climb Every Mountain… for Sansai!

Freshly picked Zenmai fern leaf buds.

Freshly picked Zenmai fern leaf buds.

Since I arrived in Niigata last year, I have been eating a lot of sansai (山菜) which means simply “mountain vegetables”. They are a staple food here and the product of foraging by hand in the mountain-side forests. In this snow bound and mountainous area, these vegetables are eaten soon after they are collected, but also preserved and enjoyed all year round. Sansai are famous for having a bitter taste. Their natural bitterness is actually a defense mechanism against animals nibbling on them.

The locals here have developed a taste for the bitter greens and they are served in many ways, the most popular being flash fried as tempura, blanched and serve with a soy sauce and also preserved as pickles. The taste is indeed bitter, but I’ve come to love sansai. Believe it or not, the bitterness is actually a perfect compliment to sake, too!

The Mountain is getting steep!

The Mountain is getting steep!

I was surprised when I received an invitation to go Sansai picking myself. A local guide heard about my love of Niigata mountain vegetables and offered to take me to his favorite spot for picking mountain vegetables. My only instruction was to wear boots and gloves. As we were driving to the mountain, my guide told me we would be picking only one kind of plant that day, zenmai (薇) known in english as cinnamon fern or by it’s scientific name Osmunda Japonica. I had never heard of this plant before, so I was wondering how I would recognize it in the wild.

When we arrived on the mountain, we began climbing up and within three minutes we saw our first zenmai. I quickly learned that they were the first growth of a moisture and shade loving wild fern and they look very much like an extra large fiddlehead fern covered in a kind of mossy spiderweb. It doesn’t sound appetizing, but I’m assured they are delicious. I was outfitted with an apron with a deep pocket and a backpack and away we went.

After about 20 minutes or so we  stopped and wrapped up our Zenmai haul to put in our backpacks.

After about 20 minutes or so we stopped and wrapped up our Zenmai haul to put in our backpacks.

As we started to climb up my guide would expertly spot the Zenmai from far away. We would snap the stems about 2/3rds of the way down and I would collect the stems in my pouch. There were also some guidelines on what not to pick. If the zenmai were too small, we left them alone to grow for next year. I also learned that the Zenmai are only edible when they are in the fiddlehead fern shape. If they had begun to open and spread their fern leaves, I was to leave them alone.

Getting Tired!  Is the air thinner up here? ;-)

Getting Tired! Is the air thinner up here? ;-)

As we marched up the mountain side, the slope got gradually steeper and steeper. When my apron’s pouch was full of Zenmai, I would wrap them in a cloth and load them into my backpack. This foraging became a fun game and spotting the ferns on the mountainside became easier and easier.

After climbing up for 90 minutes, we decided to make our way back down. My backpack was loaded full of zenmai. I learned that my guide usually hikes to the top of the mountain when foraging… that would have been 3 hours up and 3 hours back down! Even though I was wiped out, I was just given the beginner’s course! I’ll need to do some training if I’m going to mountain climbing again.

When the day was over I was impressed with our haul. If you know what to look for the mountain can really provide bounty. The zenmai that I collected will be cooked and preserved for eating next year – can’t wait to try them! Think sansai foraging might be a brand new hobby!

If you don't pick the tender buds, Zenmai turns into an inedible fern like this one.

If you don’t pick the buds, Zenmai turns into a fern like this one.

TEXSOM International Wine Awards

TEXSOM is a leader in bevarege education, and hold an International Wine Competition annually in TEXAS, USA.
Judge sommeliers travels from over 60 countries and judge fairly. TEXSOM is one of important and widely known competition in the world.

This year, Hakkaisan products awarded Silver and Bronze medals.
Silver – Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori
Bronze – Hakkaisan Snow Aged 3 year Junmai Ginjo
Bronze – Hakkaisan Kouwa Gura (45) Junmai Daiginjo

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The End is in Sight! Koshiki Taoshi

In Japan, most breweries make sake on a seasonal schedule. That means production for a given Brewing Year (B.Y.) usually starts in October and runs through the time of rice planting in the late spring or early summer. When the Brewing Year is winding down, there are some ceremonies and gatherings to mark the end of the season and recognize all effort and hard work of the brewers.

President Nagumo's Speech to the Kurabito  (brewery workers) at the Koshiki Taoshi event

President Nagumo’s Speech to the Kurabito (brewery workers) at the Koshiki Taoshi event

As the brewing season is drawing to a close, there is that day when you steam your last batch of rice. This is the day that you finish the additions of rice and koji to your last batch of sake. Of course fermentation will continue for another month on all the tanks you’ve started, but from this point on, no new tanks will be created and no more rice will be steamed. “Koshiki Taoshi” means to knock over the rice steaming vat. The idea behind Koshiki Taoshi is to tip over the rice steaming vat for cleaning as it won’t be used any more this season.

Hakkaisan's Toji or Master Brewer greets all the brewery workers.

Hakkaisan’s Toji or Master Brewer greets all the brewery workers.

When I arrived at the event, I was surprised to see everyone dressed in a serious dark suit. I was used to seeing all the brewers in their white brewery uniform, but now I was seeing everyone dress up in civilian clothes. The mood was serious at first with everyone sitting quietly waiting for the official start. Once the event began we first had greetings and speeches. Hakkaisan President Jiro Nagumo started by thanking everyone for their hard work this year and talking about the Hakkaisan company spirit. Then Mr. Shigemitsu Nagamo, the Toji or master brewer, also thanked everyone for their hard work and dedication this year. Next was our Kanpai or toast. This was the signal that the party could begin. For this occasion, all the brewers were able to enjoy Hakkaisan’s Special Daiginjo sake. This is an ultra-premium sake not sold to the public, and it was a chance for all the brewers to taste the gold standard sake produced by Hakkaisan. This sake embodies what we try to achieve as a brewery.

Hakkaisan Special Daiginjo.  An ultra premium sake not sold to the general public.

Hakkaisan Special Daiginjo. An ultra premium sake not sold to the general public.

Everyone was able to enjoy a great meal and the Special Daiginjo served chilled and warm as well. Hakkaisan beer was also flowing! It is a custom in Japan for the new employees to go around and pour sake for their superiors. This is a great way to foster communication and it really get people talking to one another and in the mood to celebrate. It is also a time to go around and say “thank you” to any co-workers that especially helped you during the year.

Nice Dinner for everyone to enjoy together.  A thank you for all the hard work of this brewing season.

Nice Dinner for everyone to enjoy together. A thank you for all the hard work of this brewing season.

Next came a really exciting moment. All of the sake brewers and this year’s new employees gathered at the front of the room to sing a “sakauta” (酒歌) or sake brewing song. Traditionally, these songs were sung in the brewery to keep time while mixing the tank or some other such task. The songs have a driving rhythm to keep brewers mixing the vat at the same pace. At Hakkaisan, this song is not used in the brewery everyday, but is still performed at special events to keep a connection to this piece of sake culture alive. It was fantastic to see!

All Brewers joined in singing the Sakauta, or sake brewing song.

All Brewers joined in singing the Sakauta, or sake brewing song.

The Koshiki Taoshi event is not the end of brewing, but more a sign of things winding down for the year. Everyone enjoyed the party, but for most, it was back to work and back to brewing the very next day!

Ultimate Wine Challenge 2017 Result!!

UWC_yukimuroWe are very please to announce the result of the 2017 Ultimate Wine Challenge! www.ultimate-beverage.com

Hakkaisan Yukimuro Snow Aged 3 Years Junmai Ginjo Sake received the highest award, the Chairman’s Trophy!

It is available in New York City, California, Las Vegas, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, D.C., Boston, North Carolina, Paris, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Seoul, Singapore, etc. For those you are in Canada, its on the way!!! Toronto, here we come!

This is an umami concentrated sake that pairs wonderfully with aged meat, aged cheese and similar umami rich foods.
Snow has the power to age sake in the best way possible!
Kanpai!

KAMPAI Toronto!

IMG_2476Hakkaisan again attended Toronto Canada’s biggest sake event “KAMPAI Toronto” on June 1st of this year. The Sake Institute of Ontario organized the event which is in its 6th year.. There were over 150 kinds of sake for tasting, and many brewers from Japan were in attendance as well as local restaurants booths to offer delicious food for sake pairing. The event started off with a Sake Seminar by Sake Samurais then tasting sake time for restaurants professionals and the media. A lot of people were sake educated and some traveled from far away cities such as Vancouver or Montreal. At the Hakkaisan booth, we introduced our latest sake “Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 years” for the first time in Canada and gave our guests a pleasant surprise with the story and the taste of this new sake.

The event was opened to the general public in the evening with music and a Japanese drum performance which created a “Matsuri” festival feeling that helped the guests to enjoy sake, food, and a nice ambience. Every year the awareness of sake grows through this event and the event gets bigger and more fun!!

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