Water: Nourishment And The Reflection Of Terroir

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  • 05 Jan 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Waterfall in Autumn Japan - Credit : lkunl

Respected, even venerated, by some, water is more than merely a diluting liquid. For sake production, for example, it represents 30 times the volume of rice used, since producing one litre of sake requires more than 30 to 40 litres of water. 

Water is present throughout the sake making process, from cultivation to production: irrigation of rice crops, cleaning, rinsing, cooking, making shubo, fermentation (sandan shikomi), cleaning bottles and equipment, up to the point where water is added at the end of fermentation in the case of non-genshu sake.

Let's dare to make a comparison: in the winemaking world, since, unlike grapes, rice does not contain any liquid, water could be considered as the equivalent in sake to the grape juice in wine, with its own characteristics.

Hard Or Soft? 

To understand, we have to remember that water can be divided into two main categories: soft water (nansui), which is low in calcium and magnesium, and hard water (kosui), rich in calcium and magnesium.

The importance of water used in making sake was emphasized in 1840 by Yamamura Tozaemon, maker of Sakura-Masamune sake. This brewery owner (kura moto) owned two kuras located eight kilometres apart in Uozaki and Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

He preferred the taste of the sake produced in Nishinomiya. That's why he decided to take the same toji, the same rice, and the same yeast to create a similar sake profile at the Uozaki kura, but the resulting sake was very different from that of Nishinomiya. It was then that he realized that the only element beyond his control was water. Trusting his intuition, Yamamura Tozaemon transported water from Nishinomiya (hard water) to Uozaki (where the water is softer) and obtained sake with identical profiles. Miyamizu (Nishinomiya) water was born! 

The counterexample to the hard water of Nishinomiya would be the soft water of Hokkaido. One of the revolutions in the sake world came from the use of this soft water. 

Senzaburo Miura, a Hokkaido producer, wondered how to make sake with soft water in the early 1900s. He decided to adapt his production methods to his water: he used a Tsuki Haze type koji (a technique for growing a koji that allows it to penetrate the interior of the grain of rice to promote saccharification and fermentation). Senzaburo Miura also favoured slow fermentation at low temperatures.

The first aromas of Ginjo Ka were born thanks to slow fermentation using soft water. The perfect example of terroir driving man to find new solutions.

The water finds its singularity through the rocks over which it flows. Some kuras favour spring water if nature gives them access to water with the desired profile for the style of sake they make. Others will import water from elsewhere. Finally, some will modify the water they use to adapt it to their production style.

Let’s Talk About Minerals

Therefore, water contains many minerals, and each one plays a decisive role in the production of sake. 

First, there are essential minerals, such as calcium, which allows the yeast to develop and play an acidifying role. Magnesium influences the development of koji. Potassium, sodium, silica, nitrates, chloride, phosphorus, all these other minerals will influence texture, taste, and acidity through increased bacterial proliferation during the development of koji and shubo. On the other hand, excess nutrients will have adverse effects because they affect the balance.

Enemy Number One : Iron

Tojis agree that the presence of iron is harmful to sake production. It can react with amino acids already present in sake, creating an unpleasant odour, aromatic deviations, and accelerated yellowing of sake. Also, the presence of manganese causes an adverse reaction to ultraviolet (light) rays, changing the colour of sake.

The Impact Of Water Upon Fermentation And The Profile Of Sake

This generic table shows the importance of water in the production of sake and its possible variations, from its purest state to the production and taste of the finished product. The presence of nutrients in the water (food for yeasts and bacteria) will directly influence the resulting sake.

Conclusion

For thousands of years, water has influenced the development of sake in Japan, as well as the differing styles of sake from different prefectures. In the new GI legislations (Yamagata or Hakusan) the use of local water is often one of the prerequisites in the specifications, showing the organoleptic impact of water in production.

Waterfall in Autumn Japan - Credit : lkunl