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We Say 'Bye-Bye' To Seimai-Buai: Getting Over Sake's Obsession With Rice Polishing Ratios

At what point does the pursuit of purity overshadow the character and soul of the sake?

 

The year was 1992. In the dimly lit room of a business hotel, Hiroshi Sakurai, the third-generation owner and president of Asahi Shuzo Brewery (which owns Dassai), was interrupted by an unexpected piece of news. A competitor from Nada Ward in Kobe had just released a Junmai Daiginjo sake polished down to an unprecedented 24%. Before that call, Sakurai-san's team at Dassai was on the verge of launching their own sake with a 25% seimaibuai (polishing ratio). But their thunderbolt was already stolen by the competitor's sake with a lower seimaibuai number of 24% on the market. Sakurai-san felt the weight of the news. The competitive spirit of the sake world, where honour and innovation walked hand in hand, meant that this was not just a minor setback but a challenge to be met head-on.

 

The Dassai brand owes all of its incredible modern day fame to its third-generation owner, Hiroshi Sakurai  (Image Source: Japan-Forward)

 

Beyond the sheer labour required, a high polishing ratio is exponentially difficult to achieve as it requires expertise to prevent the delicate core of the rice grain from crumbling. Think of it as slicing a salami into ever thinner slices.

Read a little more about rice polishing and the sake production process here.

 

Dassai created an unprecedented 23% polishing ratio sake in the 1990s  grabbing the public's attention for the sheer labour and expertise required to achieve such a feat. (Image Source: Dassai)

 

Sakurai-san picked up the phone and dialed his brewery. The ambient sounds of the hotel lobby and the distant murmur of conversations faded as he gave a simple, yet painfully gruelling directive: polish the rice 2% more, down to 23%. It was a tough call; one that requires an exponentially increasing amount of labour – 24 extra hours of work for just that extra 2%. But the team trudged on and pushed the boundaries of sake production, setting Dassai on a path to global recognition.

This moment, the spirit of competition and audacity marked the beginning of a period called the "sake milling arms race."

 

 

Before this pivotal period, a polishing ratio of slightly below 50% was already considered the gold standard for sakes, known as Daiginjo, or the 'highest' grade. But the early 21st century saw continued innovation in the sake world. Modernity eclipsed brewing tradition, and breweries constantly sought new ways to distinguish themselves and elevate their sake above sakes from scores of other already high quality breweries.

A high polishing ratio is exponentially difficult to achieve... Think of it as slicing a salami into ever thinner slices.

The Dassai 23, born from Sakurai-san's impromptu decision, became the torchbearer of this new era of premium sakes, and an international household name. You can read all about Dassai's unlikely rise here. Inspired by Dassai 23's success, other breweries began their own quests for perfection. Niizawa Shuzo ventured into the single digits with a 9% polished sake. Tatenokawa, not to be outdone, introduced "Shichiseiki," with a 7% polishing ratio, and then the "Komyo" with a staggering 1% polishing ratio.  The boundaries of what was possible in sake production were being redrawn with each new release.

Of course, a higher polishing ratio doesn't automatically make a sake better; it's just one of many factors that influence the final flavour of the sake.

So, why the obsession with polishing ratio? 

You see, when the modern sake grading system began setting minimum polishing ratios for sakes to qualify for certain grades, seimaibuai numbers appeared on almost every bottle of premium sake. A percentage measure is easy to understand, and gave consumers a simple proxy for sake quality. And so the sake rice milling arms race ensued.

The Reikyo Absolute Zero.

 

The race to the bottom finally came to a ridiculous end when Niizawa Shuzo released a sake that had 99.15% of the rice grain polished away. This meant that the sake had seimaibuai number of 0.85%. And because sake regulations in 2018 allowed seimaibuai numbers to be rounded down to the nearest whole number, the brewer was allowed to label its sake as a 0% seimaibuai sake. 

There's no clear benefit to polishing the rice to microscopic levels, besides marketing a sake brand.

This was the birth of Niizawa brewery's Reikyo "Absolute Zero" expression. While a regular Daijinjo would have taken 3 days of polishing, Niizawa boasted that its rice was polished for exactly 5297 hours and 34 minutes. This is 7 straight months of polishing to give a sake made from a hilariously microscopic speck of rice. A bottle retails for about 800,000 yen, or over US$5,500.

Do people think this sake tastes a thousand times better than a regular Daijinjo? Probably not. If anything, critics have argued that ultra-polished sakes taste ultra-refined, yet they lack the robustness, depth or complexity of less polished sakes. Experts also pointed out that an extreme obsession with rice polishing is wasteful and disrespectful of the ingredient.

Common sense is beginning to prevail. 

If sake traditions count for anything, it's worth noting that terms like Ginjo (60% or lower) and Daiginjo (50% or lower) only showed up in the 1960s'.

So there's no clear benefit to polishing the rice to microscopic levels, besides marketing a sake brand. Dassai's representatives have been overheard saying that they made the Dassai 23 simply to sell more of the Dassai 50. 

While many players in the sake industry use low seimaibuai numbers to pique the interest of new sake drinkers, there's been a growing appreciation for the entire spectrum of sakes. Instead, other breweries focus on heirloom rice varieties, unique yeast strains or traditional brewing methods that open sakes up to a larger universe of possibilities. 

Playing with yeasts

One example is the craft brewery Konohanano which shares the youthful exuberance of American craft beer breweries. 

 

(Source: Omunomu Singapore)

 

Konohanano Brewery specialises in a primordial variant of sake called doburoku, which contains entire grains of rice within the drink. This gives it a unique porridge-like texture, a milky flavour, a bright rice sweetness along with an unusual fizziness from natural carbonation that has been winning over sake enthusiasts. Konohanao tends to use rice polished down to around 80%. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Konohanano is their experimentations with unusual strains of yeasts.

 

 

The 'LAB05' All Koji Doburoku uses strains of yeast that give it notes of exotic fruit with a dominant lactic note that reminds one of Italian salami. On the other hand, the 'Hazy Sake' Doburoku is inspired by the tropical flavours of hazy IPAs of the American East Coast, and is brewed with ale yeast and beer hops – this was probably the closest a sake came to tasting like a hazy IPA. 

| Read our reviews of Konohanano's Controversial Unfiltered Sakes

 

Breweries that return to tradition

If sake traditions count for anything, it's worth noting that terms like Ginjo (60% or lower) and Daiginjo (50% or lower) only showed up in the 1960s'. In fact, before the 1900s, breweries did not have advanced rice milling machines and couldn't polish their rice lower than 90%. Truly traditional sakes are not polished to a very high degree.

A number of heritage sake breweries that have stuck closer to tradition and refused to join the polishing arms race since day one. You could count the famous Tenzan Brewery from Kyushu amongst them. Founded in the 1800s by the Shichida family, who still runs the brewery today, Tenzan Brewery produces a wide range of internationally renowned sakes, from Genshu sakes (undiluted) to Ginjos, to Daijinjos. Tenzan's Daijinjo sakes tend to come in just under the 50% mark, at around 45% seimaibuai. Perhaps the most recognisable expression from Tenzan is the Shichida 75 sake which was released in the early 2000s.

The Shichida 75 proudly labels itself as a 75% seimaibuai sake amongst a sea of sake labels with much lower seimaibuai numbers.

 

Interestingly, while other brewers competed over lower rice polishing ratios in the early 2000s, the Shichida 75 challenged the misguided notion of "lower is better". The sake is made with a deliberately higher rice polishing ratio of 75% seimaibuai to create a full-bodied sake that maximised the flavour of the high quality Yamada Nishiki rice used to make it. This is said to give it complex aromas reminiscent of brown sugar syrup, figs, dried fruits, and a savoury character that sake lovers attribute to the Yamada Nishiki rice. 

Another notable brewery is Senkin Brewery from Tochigi Prefecture, one of the oldest breweries from the region that was established in the early 1800s. The brewery dabbles with the old and the new. Their lineup includes a relatively well-polished expression of Daiginjo that comes in at 17% seimaibuai. There's also the Senkin Nature which honours traditional brewing practices by using organic sake rice, wild yeast and the practice of only polishing rice down to 90%. This gives Senkin Nature expressions more robust, earthier and grainier notes.

Lower isn't better! 

These days, the romantic notion of a relentless quest for 'perfection' by pursuing an ever-lower seimaibuai number no longer resonate with all sake enthusiasts. With the Reikyo "Absolute Zero" out now, the sake milling arms race arms race is finally over. You can't go lower than zero! In time, sake drinkers and the industry would finally get over the obsession with high polishing ratios.

Kameman Shuzo's Genmaishu is straight up made with unpolished brown rice. This makes for a complicated brewing process that ironically requires more skill and time than a typical Daiginjo (Source: Fossa Provisions)

 

We can already see this happening with the likes of Tenzan Brewery's Shichida 75, or genmaishu brewers, who work with essentially unpolished brown rice. Yet, the spirit of competition as embodied by Dassai's famous moves, remain at the heart of the sake industry. The world of sake continues to tap into both tradition and innovation for differentiation and compelling narratives. Whether it's by exploring heirloom rice varieties, ancient brewing techniques, unique yeast strains or even the addition of beer hops, there's a buffet of options for brewers and consumers.

We no longer have a simplistic measurement for what makes a 'better' sake, and sakes could vary across so many dimensions. It also follows that there won't be a 'perfect sake' out there, only one that you personally enjoy!  

@CharsiuCharlie