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.

ume-wash

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.

ume-brine

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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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.

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!

The Muddy Start to Sake: Taue Rice Planting

If you think about making sake, where does the process really start? If you want to go to the very beginning, you need to look at growing sake rice. I recently had an opportunity to visit a Niigata rice farm and try my own hand at planting sake rice. I was invited to an event known as Taue (田植え) aka “rice planting”. This is mostly done by mechanized tractor these days, but I was going to try planting rice by hand the old fashioned way at a local Niigata Taue community event. Kids, parents, office workers, veteran farmers and one displaced New Yorker would plant the whole field. If I was going to fall on my behind in the mud, there would be lots of people to see.

Baby Steps
Sake rice does not start as a seed in the rice paddy. Rice is first grown from seed to seedling in trays filled with growth medium inside of a hothouse. This allow farmers to water and feed the seedlings and protects the tiny rice plants until they are big enough to be planted in the paddy.

Rice seedlings ready for planting!

Rice seedlings ready for planting!

Inside the rice seedling Hothouse.  Row upon row of rice plants growing in trays.  These seedlings will be planted in the next  day or two.

Inside the rice seedling Hothouse. row upon row of rice plants growing in trays. These seedlings will be planted in the next day or two.

The Gear

Hip waders and rice paddy hat complete the look.

Hip waders and rice paddy hat complete the look.


Now that we had the seedlings ready to go, it was time to get suited up. I forgot to bring my rice planting rubber boots from New York, so I borrowed a pair. The boots closest to my size were thigh-high hip waders that tied onto my belt with some string. I was also issued a pointed rice paddy hat, towel for my neck and a plastic bucket to wear like a satchel to hold my rice seedlings.

The local professionals who came to help came dressed and were completely covered from head to toe. I thought this was a little extreme but then I learned the hard way that the water in the paddy acts like a mirror and will reflect the sun to give you a light sunburn from two directions!

Paddy Prep

Before we started planting, the paddy needed to be prepared. To give us a guideline for planting, the farmers roll a wooden template across the mud to create a grid pattern. this is rolled back and forth down the entire length of the paddy. This grid allows us to plant our seedlings in the corner of each grid square and keep everything aligned and spaced perfectly. Ingenious!

Rolling the wooden template across the paddy to create a grid that will guide us in planting the rice seedlings.

Rolling the wooden template across the paddy to create a grid that will guide us in planting the rice seedlings.

Let’s Get Planting

Into the mud! Ready to plant.

Into the mud! Ready to plant.

I was given some instructions on how to plant. First, grab a chunk of rice seedlings in your left hand. Then using your right hand, break off a little bundle of 3 seedlings. Stick the seedlings into the mud at the corner of the grid. Repeat and repeat! I quickly learned that only using your right hand to plant is a good idea is it quickly becomes covered in mud. After a few rows I was feeling confident and I ventured further into the paddy. Then I began to sink.

Soon the mud was up by my knees and it was hard to walk or move forward. Trying to pull one leg out of the mud to step forward threw me off balance and made me wobble, but luckily, I didn’t fall in front of 50 people. I planted all the rice I had in my basket, 3 stalks at a time until it was empty. Then I found myself stranded in the middle of the paddy with a long walk back to the edge. Walking slow and stilted like Frankenstein, I slowly made it back to safety! The first thing I did was squat down to rinse my hands in some running water. The mud on the back of my thigh high boots managed to get on my behind that way, so even though I didn’t fall, I still wound up looking like I did.

Everyone working together to plant the whole field!

Everyone working together to plant the whole field!

With everyone helping, the field was planted in about an hour. I thought it would take three times as long. After the planting was done, the rice field is flooded with water. This keeps the seedlings protected and inhibits the growth of weeds. Looking out at the finished paddy, I couldn’t help feel a sense of accomplishment, even though I only planted a small part. The lines of rice were not as laser straight as a machine could do it, but I think doing things by hand can be its own reward. The next step in my farming career? I’m heading back into the mud this September to harvest!

The finished rice paddy after planting!!

The finished rice paddy after planting!!

Hakkaisan at Craft Sake Week 2017

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I’ve attended a lot of sake events over the years, but few have been as fun and creatively organized as Craft Sake Week at the Roppongi Hills Arena (April 7-16). This event, spearheaded by soccer star and sake fan Hideyoshi Nakata, started last year but has come back bigger and better for 2017. Over a 10 day run, the event features a total of 100 brewers pouring their products and interacting directly with consumers.

Each of the 10 days of craft sake week has a unique theme. I was pouring sake on April 12 which was “Sparkling Sake Day”. For fans of Happo-shu (sparking sake), this must have been heaven to have so many bubbles to choose from. Hakkaisan featured three sakes: Awa Junmai Ginjo Sparkling, Nigori Sparkling and the Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years. I think all of these sakes were popular, but it was especially fun to introduce guests to our new clear sparking sake, “Awa”. This new sake is made using an in-bottle secondary fermentation and similar to fine sparkling wines, the sake is also disgorged by hand, creating a clear sake with a fine grained bubble and gentle sweetness.

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To participate in Craft Sake Week, guests purchase coins that can be used for sake or for the onsite gourmet food trucks. Sakes cost from 1 to 3 coins and guests are issued a sake glass and can wander and try sake at their own pace. Tables and seats are spread around the open air arena and an expansive live cherry blossom installation designed by architect Sou Fujimoto adds a beautiful backdrop and creates and immersive Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) experience. It’s beautiful in the day and evening.

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In addition to being able to talk to a variety of Brewers and to try a wide range of sakes, chatting with other sake fans is also really fun. The crowd was an international group with a lot of non-Japanese in attendance, too. It was great to see so many people enjoying sake together. While the sake and food were amazing, there was also some other attractions such as a carnival style game to win sake flavor Kit Kats as well as sake pottery for sale.

This event was exciting for me because it showed the evolution of what a sake tasting can be. It does not have to be only a restaurant pairing dinner or a formal standing sake reception in a hotel ballroom. Making sake tasting fun, stylish and exciting is a great step towards creating new sake fans and growing our industry. And as for me, I’m already excited to see what the folks at Craft Sake Week will cook up for next year! Kanpai!

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Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria – Open to All

Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria.  Minna no Shain Shokudo.

Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria. Minna no Shain Shokudo.

One of the perks of living in Niigata Japan has been the food… the glorious food! After 6 months here, almost every single meal I’ve had here outside my own home has been really, really good. Japan values high quality food and gets it right.

One of my favorite styles of food here is Japanese homestyle cooking. This way of cooking is rustic with limited ingredients and is usually very balanced and healthy. The best place I have found to enjoy Japanese homestyle cooking is the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria. This building is called Minna no Shain Shokudo or “Employee Cafeteria for All”. This cafeteria is “for all” because it is open to employees and guests or visitors from outside the company, too. Anybody can stop by for lunch!

Employees can order breakfast, lunch or dinner any day. For visitors, the cafeteria is open to the public for lunch every day from 11am – 3pm.

Most often, you can find me at Minna no Shain Shokudo for lunch.

Typical Employee Lunch Tray at Minna no Shain Shokudo.  Ham Katsu, Shredded Cabbage, Potato Salad, Koshihikari rice and Miso soup.

Typical Employee Lunch Tray at Minna no Shain Shokudo. Ham Katsu, Shredded Cabbage, Potato Salad, Koshihikari rice and Miso soup.

I sat down with Cafeteria Manager and Head Chef Mr. Sano to discuss the ins and outs of running a busy company cafeteria. Sano-san is tasked with a big challenge – for hungry brewers, he has to provide 3 meals a day, every day of the year (except New Years). During the brewing season, the sake mash does not take a rest, and neither do the brewers, so meals must be provided on weekends and holidays too. Every day sees as many 90 employees enjoy their breakfast, lunch or dinner at the cafeteria. Employees are served a simple buffet style meal that changes every day. Two constants every day are miso soup (with amazing in-house homemade miso) and delicious koshihikari rice (a prized local specialty). A word about Koshihikari rice – It is some of the best eating rice you’ll find anywhere and it grows all around this region. We are lucky to get to enjoy it every day with our meals. Please try it if you get the chance!

An example of the lunch set for guests visiting the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria.

An example of the lunch set for guests visiting the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria.

Guests visiting the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria don’t eat the same lunch as the employees, but rather they enjoy a delicious set menu with a choice of meat or fish. This set for guests also includes the homemade miso soup and koshihikari rice. There are always a few seasonal sides along with salad and delicious homemade pickles, too. It is a fantastic home cooked lunch that draws people from far and wide. I see a lot of locals during the week and visitors from far and wide on the weekends. In the winter, I have also seen guests in their skiing gear grabbing lunch after a morning on the nearby slopes! If you visit us during lunchtime, you can enjoy lunch in the same room with the sake brewers! Please say hello!

Inside the cafeteria

Inside the cafeteria

So what’s on the menu for the brewers? Sample menus for employees include pork katsu with heaping sides of shredded cabbage and delicious salads on the side. Udon with homemade Tempura. Curry over rice with a side salad. And the employee’s favorite lunch? Sano-san tells me that is without a question karaage fried chicken tenderized with shiokoji, a salt and koji rice mixture. The karaage IS delicious but I’m team pork katsu when it comes to my favorite lunch.

Minna no Shain Shokudo Head Chef Mr. Sano.

Minna no Shain Shokudo Head Chef Mr. Sano.

You may be surprised to learn that there are some foods that are strictly off the menu at sake breweries. First is natto. For those who don’t know, natto is fermented soybeans with a slimey texture and strong smell that is much beloved by most Japanese. For sake brewers, eating this is forbidden as the microbes that ferment natto are powerful and could potentially interfere with the microbes of sake fermentation. Because of the strong odors, garlic is also avoided. Finally, Japanese mikan (kind of like a small orange) is also not allowed. The orange oil that is found in the mikan peel can get on your hands when peeling the mikan and it has antimicrobial properties which can inhibit fermentation.

Staying away from natto, garlic and mikan luckily leaves lots of leeway to have a great collection of dishes. If you are in Japan, a visit to the Hakkaisan Cafeteria is a wonderful way to spend a leisurely lunch – You’ll become a fan of Japanese homestyle cooking, too!

Koshihikari rice, a prized local specialty with Pickles!

Koshihikari rice, a prized local specialty with local mountain vegetable Pickles!

Sake Tasting: Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years

Hakkaisan Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years

Hakkaisan Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years

Some sakes are at their best when they are fresh and young. Most sakes taste best when they are stored for just a few months. And a rare few sakes really come to life when aged under special care for several years. I recently had the opportunity to taste just such an aged sake… a new product called “Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years”.

Aging sake can be a tricky business. If not done skillfully, sake can turn stale and bitter tasting with age. If done well, aging sake can concentrate flavors and enrich and deepen the best traits of a sake. Hakkaisan uses two ways to achieve richness and balance in their aged sake.

Snow Aging
First, Hakkaisan makes use of an abundant, local natural resource in aging their sake: snow! Hakkaisan Brewery is located in Minami Uonuma City, an area of Japan famous for heavy, deep snowfall in the winter months. Hakkaisan has harnessed the power of the snow by creating what is known as a “yuki muro” or snow storehouse. The Hakkaisan Yuki Muro is a large insulated room that contains a 1000 ton pile of snow placed next to 20 sake storage tanks. The sake is chilled in tank using the cold from the snow alone. No electricity at all is used for chilling the sake making this a very eco-friendly facility.

Inside the Yuki Muro Snow Storehouse.

Inside the Yuki Muro Snow Storehouse.

This snow storage concept is not a new one and has been used for generations in snowy regions in Japan to refrigerate foods before electricity. The snow in Hakkaisan’s Yuki Muro never melts completely, even after a full year, and it is re-filled with fresh snow every February or March. The temperature is a steady 2-5°C (37-41°F) throughout the year – an important point as too much temperature variation can adversely impact sake as it ages. Being able to chill sake at a steady temperature without electricity has another advantage. In the case of power outage or natural disaster, the sake will continue to age properly with no impact to the temperature.

No Dilution
blog-Lehmann-2-The other method used to create depth of flavor and richness is aging and bottling this sake as a genshu. Most sake is diluted with water after production to bring the alcohol percentage usually down to about 15.5%. By contrast, genshu is a style of sake that is undiluted with water, similar in concept to “cask strength” products in the world of whiskey. In the case of Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years, the alcohol percentage is 17%. What are the advantages of genshu? As genshu sakes are higher in alcohol, they offer more body, weight and structure to the sake. This translates into the ability to pair genshu sakes with non traditional foods. The keyword here is Umami! Richer foods with lots of savory characteristics pair beautifully with this genshu sake. Pairing ideas along this vein include beef tenderloin, Mediterranean seafood and even liver paté. This genshu sake also has the heft to stand up to mildly spicy dishes as well, so please try this sake with black pepper chicken or beef curry.

Tasting
Let’s look at the stats for Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years.

  • rice-polishing ratio: 50%
  • Alcohol: 17.0%
  • sake meter value: -1.0
  • acidity: 1.5
  • koji rice used: Yamadanishiki
  • brewing rice used: Gohyakumangoku , Yukinosei

Hakkaisan Snow-Aged sake displayed in Ice.

Hakkaisan Snow-Aged sake displayed in Ice.

This sake is sold as a junmai ginjo grade sake, but the milling rate is actually 50% – a super premium level of milling. Milling sake rice to this level gives sake a clean and smooth body with no hint of sharpness or harsh edge. The aroma is restrained and elegant with soft hints of rice – a hallmark of the Hakkaisan brewing style. The palate is full bodied and rich with the gentle aging process creating a rounded texture. Lovely and delicious rice notes accent the primary flavors of this sake. Despite the bold body, the finish remains crisp and cleansing – ideal for food pairing. I recommend a well chilled serving temperature to bring out the invigorating essence of this sake.

Going International
Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years was recently introduced to the USA with a a launch party at The Modern, the Michelin starred restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The event was attended by about 100 guests from New York restaurants and wine shops as well as press and VIP guests. Appetizers were passed for the group to try pairing this Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo with non-Japanese cuisine. The President of Hakkaisan Brewery, Jiro Nagumo, was also on hand to introduce the sake to the attendees. It was noted that the beautiful all white bottle design is a reflection of the roots of snow storage used for this sake. You will soon see Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years appearing in your local sake shops and restaurants. Please try this sake that is new to the USA – you can get a taste of Japan’s Snow Country in your town!

President Jiro Nagumo introduces Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years to the guests at the sake launch Party at MoMA

President Jiro Nagumo introduces Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years to the guests at the sake launch Party at MoMA