And just like that Summer is gone and the air conditioners of Hong Kong splutter a small sigh of relief as the dial is turned down (a little) from Very Cool to just Cool. But worry not, Autumn, sorry Fall, is another wonderful and bounteous season to celebrate in Japan.
In contrast to the pink pot pourri riot of Spring’s cherry blossoms, September heralds the start of a spectrum of brown as the trees call it a day, many gearing up to bear the weight of the significant snowfalls just around the corner.
For the sake brewing industry, the rice is plump and reading for milling and the brewing teams are readying themselves for the busy production season ahead. It’s exciting times and the launch of a limited edition seasonal sake, hiyaoroshi, coincides wonderfully with this frenetic activity, catapulting the industry back into life. It is also regarded by many as some of the best expressions of each brewery’s sakes.
In typical nihonshu fashion, the parameters surrounding hiyaoroshi are not defined by law. That said, The Japan Sake and Shochu Brewers Association have pronounced September 9 as the official day one for hiyaoroshi season. Generally the industry works to the criteria that the category is for a Fall namazake (a namazume to be precise), a sake brewed in winter, pasteurized just the once before tank storage and then left to mellow it out for six months over the summer. Phew, got that?
If you’re already inspired to go off and comb the shelves of your nearest sake purveyor - Sake Central hopefully - then be aware of hiyaoroshi’s alter ego, akiagari, and there’s not a lot to separate them. Both are aged over the summer and available in Fall but akiagari is pasteurized twice, the second time just before bottling.
But don’t get too excited, outside of Japan in the seasonal selections available there will be more sash labels screaming hiyaoroshi ひやおろし than akiagari. These days with supply chain logistics being cleverer than ever, there really isn’t a lot of need to double pasteurise Fall sake. As such, akiagari is quite rare (tell us if you find any!).
Jumping the gun a little, some brewers choose an August launch and others elect to pasteurize twice (as they would for the majority of their sakes) and there’s even a handful that aren’t pasteurizing at all. So essentially hiyaoroshi as a term just boils down to a seasonal relevance, namely that it is only released in the Fall.
Either way, it’s something to be excited about and even more so in that the practicalities of hiyaoroshi date back to the Edo Period (1603-1867) at a time when sake was stored in taru (large wooden vessels) in the coolest part of the brewery to retard as far as possible any biological goings on. Once the outdoor temperatures aligned with the storage facility’s, it was deemed safe to begin transportation as the sake wouldn’t experience any significant temperature differences.
By comparison, Sakes needing to be transported in the summer heat would have the requirement of a second pasteurization before leaving the brewery but hiyaoroshi could be shipped without this, taking advantage of the decline in temperature as Fall kicked in.
What was labour and cost saving back in the day isn’t so much relevant to today’s sake markets yet the concept of this Fall beverage remains because it delivers a deliciously balanced version of sake, a mature namazake if you can see your way through that oxymoron.
Some pundits describe this early release sake (generally sake is stored for up to 12 months before release) as offering the best of both worlds in that within hiyaoroshi there remains some of the unpasteurized freshness of the namazake melded with a quieter, more sedate expression of the product.
Whichever way you look at it, hiyaoroshi’s smooth and developed taste profile allows it to be the master of food pairings, particularly seasonal ones such as warming nabe (told you Winter’s coming). It also works wonderfully with mushroom dishes, as well as fatty fish like saury and mackerel.
The team at Masumi’s Suwa Shuzo, the original of the now two brewing facilities, will tell you their hiyaoroshi is the perfect partner to roast pork with sweet onion and hot mustard sauce. And we can understand why.
Suwa is an Edo Period institution, with the Miyasaka family brewing there since 1662 and as such well versed in the original temperature strategies associated with hiyaoroshi. Take a train west from Tokyo into the heart of Nagano and you’ll not be disappointed.
Winter there is beautiful but brutal. Masumi president Naotaka Miyasaka tells of mopped floors that would freeze before drying and occasions when the sake itself would freeze in the warehouse. To counter this, a hot spring onsen at his elementary school was a feature of his early years, but so was getting naked with classmates and teachers. Crikey.
Their hiyaoroshi is a yamahai junmai ginjo, made with local Nagano rices milled (at their own Fujimi kura to give total quality control) to 50% for the koji-mai and 55% for the kake-mai and fermented (of course) using their very own and famous #7 yeast strain. Drink it lightly chilled but leave a little aside, if you can, to warm up to room temperature.
Otherwise the sake is unremarkable in terms of the acidity and sweetness, according to the stats on the label at least, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Never judge a sake by its label.
There’s some good fruit aromas, tropical ones, and something a little vegetal. But this sake is all about the palate - it’s brilliantly smooth and wonderfully integrated. It’s clear that it’s a sake made with love, by true professionals.
The yamahai process renders it rich and full bodied, adding an earthiness of sorts and it sounds a little odd to say but there’s the ‘taste’ of a good, mineral rich soil. Radish is there in terms of flavour and its inherent spice, along with dried apricot. In fact it’s a bit like munching on granola that’s had all the cereal and grain bits taken out leaving that mix of chewy dried fruits. In the background, a final nod to both yamahai and Junmai, lingers some meat savoury stock.
We’ve done our best here to tease you into trying hiyaoroshi but it can’t match the kuramoto’s simple but elegant description: Awakened for autumn, beautifully fresh and gracefully aged. Well said.
See you in Sake Central soon (better make it two bottles).