My conversation with John Gauntner
Sake of the month, February 2011: Takatenjin –Soul of the Sensei
Steve here: Hello John. We’re ready to hear about your sake pick-of-the-month for February?
John: This month I have chosen Takatenjin, a Junmai Daiginjo.
Steve: Where does it come from?
John: Takatenjin comes from the same brewery that makes the inimitable Kaiun in Shizuoka Prefecture, on the coast, just south of Tokyo. The former toji (brewmaster,) Shokichi Hase, had worked there 40 years before passing a couple summers ago. He was a very famous toji, known as one of the “Noto Toji no Shitennoh,” or “Four Guardians of Heaven” of the prestigious Noto Toji Guild. Toji guilds are small groups of notable toji whose main objectives are to educate and train successors, to refine skills, and to uphold and improve the reputation of the sake from their region. Of the many ways Hase excelled was by training his successors so that the brewery did not miss a beat after his passing.
Takatenjin Junmai Daiginjo starts with prominent melon aromas, with a mildly viscous touch and an alluring gentle sweetness. It is impeccably clean and punctuated with a spicy, white pepper note and is easy to drink all by itself, or with less oily grilled fish.
Steve: By the way, isn’t this now the main sake brewing season?
John: Yes, the brewing season is about to peak with daiginjo brewing. At all sake brewing kura, the pattern is the same: start with the rougher sake for the first few batches, then make the best sake in the middle of the season (which is now), and finish the season with lower grade sake.
Steve: Why is that?
John: There are many reasons. Because each year is different, toji and brewers need to feel out the rice of that particular year. They ask how it dissolves; how fast it absorbs water. They look at the starch or fat or protein or potassium content. By starting with less premium sake they can get a feel of how the year’s rice is behaving.
They can also get a feel for the year’s climate, the year’s brewing staff and the condition of the stuff in the brewery. Once all this is ascertained they can begin premium sake brewing with a bit more confidence.
And, of course, there is ambient temperature to consider. It is warmer in the early fall and early spring, but much colder now, in the dead of winter. Ginjo and other premium sake need colder fermentation temperatures, which does not come until now.
As the saying amongst brewers goes, “Every year, it’s back to first grade.” That is true for at least the first few batches. Then most of them jump straight to university.
John Gauntner is one of the world’s most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John’s website at http://www.sake-world.com.