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Sake Reviews

Terada Honke Musubi (Genmaishu), 12.5% ABV

 

There's no sugarcoating this: Terada Honke's Musubi is a sake that you'd either love or hate. This deemed the most extreme expression from Terada Honke's portfolio, and a sake that was described by the the 23rd generation owner of the brewery, Terada Keisuke, as the "worst-tasting sake in Japan," despite having first developed it himself. 

But why are we tasting this?

Well, Terada Honke is one of the most prominent sake makers that have opened a door to a whole new way of appreciating the sake category for drinkers around the world. This 350-year-old brewery is regarded as one of, if not the finest, maker of “natural sake” by connoisseurs, including the legendary Copenhagen restaurant, Noma.

 

The late Terada Keisuke is credited for reinventing the brewery in the 1980s.  

 

The long legacy isn't its claim to fame. Instead, it was the brewery's turning-point in the 1980s when Terada Keisuke, the 23rd-generation owner, fell seriously ill with gastroenteritis one day. Laying in bed, Keisuke’s rumination led him to a guilty thought that he had been doing a lot of “rotten” things in his sake business. He felt that he did not genuinely put his heart into the sake business; placing money before quality, using the cheapest rice and cheapest methods of sake-make just like every other average brewery was doing.

By cutting corners and adding distilled alcohol, they were making an inferior and less healthful product. Keisuke's gastric illness, he believed, was somehow a karmic payback for cutting corners in the sake business.

So he returned from his sickbed to radically reinvent his brewery with processes that were closer to nature. Lab cultured yeast was replaced with more effort-intensive wild fermentation processes such as the kimoto or bodaimoto methods. Organic rice was used, and very minimal rice polishing was done so that the grains retained most of their rustic, natural flavour. They also ended the practice of adding distilled alcohol, focusing entirely on Junmai-grade sakes.

 

 

Terada Honke is presently stewarded by its 24th-generation custodian, Terada Masaru– a 40-plus-year-old with the lithe build and vigour of a much younger man. Masaru came into the picture when he married his wife, Satomi in 2003, taking on both her surname and the ancient brewery from her lineage.

Terada Honke's guiding philosophy is woven around a respect for traditional methods, a relentless pursuit of quality, and an unwavering commitment to embracing challenges. In a world where sake production is often driven by efficiency and predictability, they stand in bold defiance of convention.

Relying purely on natural fermentation (instead of starter yeast cultures), combined with the labour-intensive kimoto method, each batch is a unique journey, beginning with a blank slate and capturing the wild yeasts and bacteria that fill the brewery's air. To some, this is the ultimate expression of terroir – sake that reflects the natural microbial fingerprint of the place where it was born.

 

The traditional Kimoto method of brewing sake dates back several hundred years, and involves brewers pounding the rice mixture rhythmically to introduce natural lactic acid bacteria. They sometimes sing brewing songs much like how Scottish sailors would sing sea shanties.

 

We're tasting the funkiest sake made by Terada Honke – a 2023 batch of the Terada Honke Musubi Genmaishu.

 

 

"Musubi" is named after the free spirited black Labrador dog that used to happily roam the brewery grounds of Terada Honke. And just like the canine Musubi, this too, is a free spirited and unrestrained sake with a very polarising reception by brewers and drinkers. 

Firstly, this is a genmaishu, which means that unlike conventional sake which uses polished rice, this uses whole unpolished brown rice with the husk of it still intact. The 23rd generation owner, Terada Keisuke, believed that it was a steady diet of nutritious genmai that helped him recover from intestinal issues that plagued him for life. This led him to decide to brew a sake that was made from unpolished genmai rice as well, so that the benefits of genmai could be enjoyed by drinkers too.

Now, it is technically impossible to ferment whole brown rice grains because the strong husk prevents microbes and yeast from penetrating the grain. However, the brewers at Terada Honke then discovered an ancient textbook from a nearby temple with the instructions on how to ferment alcohol out of brown rice, which begins with steeping the rice in water and allowing them to sprout. This process allows the natural enzymes in the rice to break down the hardy carbohydrates, before fermentation could take place.

 

 

After years of trial-and-error, the brewers succeeded in creating sake out of genmai this ancient method of sprouting the rice before introducing wild yeast and microbes.

Unsurprisingly, for over a decade the brewery did not see very much in the way of sales of their Musubi. It wasn't until the world-famous Noma restaurant picked up Terada Honke's sakes in their menu that drinkers began taking on an interest in funky naturally fermentated sakes. Today, the Musubi is one of the most popular expressions in Terada Honke's lineup – something that might surprise the late founder of this expression.  

Terada Honke Musubi (Genmaishu), 12.5% ABV – Review

Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu Genmaishu, brewed in 2023 with organic Koshihikari rice without any polishing whatsoever.  

  

 

Tasting notes

Nose: A gentle lactic tang, reminiscent of subtly aged cheese, mingles with the fresh sweetness of pear juice. Banana and lemon peel add a layer of bright fruitiness, while a nutty, toasted grain aroma offers a grounding warmth.

Palate: The initial taste is clean, with a slight sparkle on the tongue. Contrary to initial expectations, this is a strikingly dry and sour sake. Lactic sourness builds, carrying a vibrant lemon acidity alongside a deep, savory earthiness and umami subtly reminiscent of rice. The texture is both creamy and slightly grainy, with a mouthfeel akin to a full-of-sediment miso soup.

Finish: The sour notes fade slowly, transforming effortlessly into a clean barley malt flavor. It's undeniably reminiscent of a good lager, underpinned by a lingering whisper of tropical fruits – a hint of rambutan and a touch of mangosteen.

 

My Thoughts:

This sake defies everything I know about the category. It's a captivating, almost playful blend of champagne-like acidity and the satisfying graininess of a malt lager. While initially surprising, the acidity is well-calculated, never overwhelming the other flavors. This is not a sake for everyone – in fact, it can easily be mistaken for a slightly flawed brewing batch. But I suspect this is precisely Terada Honke's intent. Fans of very funky natural ciders, wild-fermented wines, kombucha, or sour ales would find this an exhilarating experience.

My Rating: It's difficult to assign a conventional rating to something so unorthodox. Some may rate this 4/10, others may rate this 8/10. But purely in terms of its ability to surprise, intrigue, and challenge expectations, I'd say it confidently lands within 8/10 range.

@CharsiuCharlie