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Taking up the challenge of vintage sake

 

In sake production, a “brewing year” (shuzō nendo) runs from July 1 to June 30.

 

When sake is produced and shipped, it is regarded as “new brew” (shinshu) until the end of the brewing year. Sake shipped after the start of a new brewing year, on the other hand, is termed koshu (“old brew” or “aged sake”). Efforts to develop vintage sake are relatively new and somewhat experimental at this stage.

 

Aged sake
Very little of the sake on sale as shinshu (new brew) is actually shipped directly after it is produced. Normally, once sake is expressed from the moromi mash, it is set aside for several months to mature.

 

During these months of ripening, the taste of the sake becomes mellow.

 

Where the maturing sake is stored varies from brewery to brewery. Some ripen their sake in the stable, cool environment of a cave, while others store it underground. There are even some who age their product in the sea. Naturally, in each case, the sake is normally first placed in a vat.

 

In this way, the flavor of sake gains depth. Even when producing shinshu, some degree of aging is seen as essential.

 

However, once sake is stored long enough to enter its second brewing year, it is regarded as koshu (“aged sake”). Koshu is known for its enhanced aroma and its richness of flavor.

 

Even if it starts out clear and transparent, when sake is aged, it becomes colored. The color can vary from light yellow to brown, and depends on how many years it has been aged. The coloring is the result of the oxidation and decomposition of the product’s constituents.

 

A group formed by koshu brewers, the Association for Long Term Aged Sake, has agreed to use the term jukusei koshu (“vintage sake”) to refer to sake aged for three years or more at a brewery. In koshu, one can detect aromas and depth of flavor not found in shinshu.

 

Taking care with the storage of koshu
Aging is not simply a matter of setting sake aside for a period of time. It is essential to pay attention to how it is stored. It can be hard to know whether the brew is ripening or deteriorating during storage. If the conditions of storage are not appropriate, it can be assumed that the quality of the sake is simply deteriorating.

 

One consideration is that sake is susceptible to ultraviolet light, so it should not be placed in a location when it is exposed to sunlight.

 

Sake is also sensitive to sudden changes in temperature. Even if sake is stored indoors, it is preferable to use a place where the temperature is relatively stable.

 

It does not necessarily have to be stored at low temperature. As long as long as the conditions are taken into account, it is possible for anyone to enjoy aged sake.

 

It should be noted that koshu ripened in a refrigerated environment is quite different, with respect to flavor and aroma, from the same koshu ripened at room temperature. That is to say, the flavor of the sake depends on the place where it is ripened and on the person storing it.

 

That's because working out the right conditions for storing sake is a matter of making new discoveries. At the same time, it is important to remember the point mentioned above — that stored sake can either ripen or go bad. Even if it's a matter of uncovering the sake to check it, it's preferable to drink it earlier than for it to go bad.

 

When there were food shortages during the Second World War, koshu production ceased because of the length of time required for aging. As a consequence, the production of aged sake is currently at a stage of trial and error.

 

There are now many sake brewers who have taken up the challenge of exploring ways of producing new varieties of sake using aging techniques. Just as aging plays an important role in producing wine and whisky, producing jukusei koshu (vintage sake) will undoubtedly become a more important aspect of sake brewing in the future.


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