Sake production is a magical process that requires a great amount of skill, with the ingredients being a key factor in the finished product. Rice, water, yeast and koji are the main ingredients for brewing nihonshu.
Another important factor to producing great sake is soil, yet it’s often overlooked. Soil imparts different nuances into sake, differentiating by region and rice varietal. Here’s why the earth should never be taken for granted when it comes to making sake.
Digging for answers
A sake brewery that’s at the forefront of investigating how soil affects sake is Honda Shoten in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. It all started in 1977 when Takeyoshi Honda, the future third-generation owner of the brewery, visited famous French wineries like Domaine de La Romanee-Conti. Honda was blown away by the quality of the wine and he wanted to produce the same kind of quality at the brewery.
At the time, Honda Shoten was selling sake to Ozeki to be rebottled into one-cup containers. Honda wanted to sell premium sake and the trip to France encouraged him to pursue that goal even more. The brewery used table rice to produce sake and though Honda desired to use Yamada Nishiki, the agricultural association refused to sell any seeds.
Refusing to give up, Honda devoted his life to studying the rice and convinced local farmers and other small breweries to use it for maximum effect. During his studies, Honda learned how Hyogo’s soil influenced the taste of sake.
Not all soil is the same
Honda discovered specific regions across Hyogo produced different flavour profiles with Yamada Nishiki. There is Toku-A, a district classification that refers to areas where the most desirable Yamada Nishiki is grown. There are also two sub-categories called Toku-A-A and Toku-A-B.
In order to differentiate the flavour profiles that the soil in each area created, Honda released three different sakes all brewed under the same conditions.
They used the same water, yeast No. 9, same staff and same fermentation practices. All three used Yamada Nishiki rice harvested from Toku-A areas. The regions included the area formerly known as Yashiro in the city of Kato, Tojo in Akitsu and Yokawa in the city of Miki.
What’s fascinating is that although all three areas have similar topsoil conditions, go 12 inches beneath the surface and you’ll find vital differences.
The Yashiro soil is filled with gravel from river deposits, which stops the roots of Yamada Nishiki from embedding deeply. This produces light, mellow sake. Tojo soil is filled with clay, allowing the rice roots to extend all the way down. This produces well-balanced, fragrant sake. In Yokawa, the soil is haioa-iro (grey-blue coloured) or gun-metal grey and imparts a much more acidic taste in sake.
In The Japanese Sake Bible Brian Ashcraft interviews Ryusuke Honda, the fifth-generation head of the brewery, who comments on the Yashiro soil. “If you look at the chemical analysis it’s not actually more acidic than the other two sakes. All their dating readings are the same, but the Yokawa soil has a lot of magnesium and perhaps that makes it seem more acidic.”
It’s important to remember that soil impacts the flavour of sake across Japan. It’s not limited to Hyogo or Yamada Nishiki rice. Honda Shoten have demonstrated they are pioneers of showing the nuances of the earth.