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New book explores ancient Japanese artisanal sake

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There has been a lot of craft sake craze in Toronto lately. Restaurants like Sakai Bar and Omai have led the way, but sake selections are no longer limited to a single sheet of options.

“Some places have pages and pages of sake available (now),” said journalist Nancy Matsumoto, who fell in love with sake and started reporting on it a decade ago.

Matsumoto has teamed up with Toronto sake samurai Michael Tremblay to pen “Exploring the world of Japanese craft sake,” a new book that tells the story of the ancient liquor made from rice, water, koji mold and yeast.

The book begins with an introduction to sake. The history of brewing nihonshu, another name for sake, with rice, water, yeast, and koji mold is steeped in Shinto and Buddhist connotations. Sake was first brewed by Buddhist monks before becoming a commercial product.

Sakamai, or rice specific to sake, is ground and soaked in water, steamed and then soaked in koji. Koji turns rice starch into sugar. Yeast is then added to the mixture to start the fermentation process.

“It’s an incredibly complex process,” said Tremblay.

The book serves as a guide through the Japanese sake industry, once known for its closely guarded brewing techniques.

“The oldest brewery dates back to 1141, we’re talking about 55 generations of a family that’s involved in the brewing process,” said Tremblay, who runs the beverage program at Ki, a longtime Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood. city ​​finance. .

Senkin Brewery's generational sake brewer Masato Usui, left, with Nancy Matsumoto and Michael Tremblay who have released a new book exploring the world of Japanese artisanal sake.

Tremblay and Matsumoto also spent a lot of time interviewing farmers, scientists and other industry figures.

“We wanted to illustrate that sake is a rapidly changing industry due to the personalities and new attitudes behind it,” Matsumoto said.

Tremblay echoed that sentiment, pointing out that some sake brewers have taken inspiration from the natural wine movement.

“There is more openness to develop the product now. There is an appetite for different techniques.

Japanese food culture also plays a big role in the book, as do Toronto restaurants like Omai, as Tremblay and Matsumoto both promote the idea that sake is a great pairing for many cooking styles.

“It’s mainly because of the umami in the sake,” Matsumoto said. Foods that already have umami qualities, such as tomato sauce, aged cheeses, mushrooms, “look harmonious” when paired with sake.

Tremblay has built a following for his meticulously curated sake list. At any one time, he has more than 80 sakes to enjoy at Ki. During the pandemic, he started a bottle shop at the restaurant where many of his favorite artisanal sakes are available.

We asked Tremblay for three brew recommendations highlighted in the book that are available at Ki’s bottle shop.

Hachinohe Shuzo

Hachinohe Shuzo “Mutsuhassen” Ginjo, from Aomori Prefecture

Hachinohe Brewery, based in Aomori, is one of the oldest sake makers in Japan.

Notes from Tremblay: This brewery makes ultra clean and fruity sakes that are absolutely sublime! Bright aromas of pineapple, honeydew melon, fennel frond and tangerine with a silky smooth palate that tapers off with echoes of the tropical core of the aromas.

Yoshida Shuzoten “U” Yamahai Junmai, from Ishikawa Prefecture

This sake is made with medium hard water from the Tedori River and Mount Haku. Harder water means a higher volume of minerals, which helps get the fermentation starter off the ground.

Tremblay Notes: The sake has aromas of ripe Fuji apple, yellow banana (marshmallow) and a herbaceous accent of fresh thyme. The palate has a honeyed, complex and clean weight with a perfect, dry and crisp finish.

Moriki Shuzo “Rumiko no Saké” Tokubetsu Junmai, from Mie Prefecture

One of Tremblay’s favorite sakes is Moriki Shuzo, brewed by master brewer Rumiko.

Tremblay’s notes: The sake is made with one of the first Ginjo yeasts in the sake world, which gives a subtle green apple undertone that plays well with fresh cut herbs (basil), Bartlett pear, banana blackberry and the flavorful steamed rice profile of Sake.