The King of Sakamai and The Queen of Fries
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We nickname the Yamadanishiki 山田錦 the king of the Sakamai. As explained, because it has all the desired qualities, it is the most prized cultivar by sake brewers.
Its grain has an opaque white central nucleus (shimpaku) proportionately larger than with other varieties; it offers more starch.
The grain resists cracking during polishing. This allows efficient, more homogeneous polishing.
The grain has a high water absorption capacity; this allows better penetration of the koji into the kernel.
Once steamed, its surface is not sticky, otherwise handling becomes difficult.
Its protein, lipid and ferrous compound content is low and they are concentrated in the outer zones of the rice, the ones that disappear during polishing.
Shimpaku is tender and dissolves easily in the Moroni.
In rice fields, over the past century, Yamadanishiki has inexorably replaced Omachi because its shorter stems (better resistant to storms and the weight of the ears) curl less and make it easier to harvest mechanically.
And it was the mechanization of the big breweries in Hyogo that kicked the Omachi out of the vats in favour of the Yamadanishiki.
In these large sake factories, the rice is soaked in transport pipes; the rice is soaked and cleaned at the same time as it is carried by a torrent of water through a tube to the place of cooking.
Cooking is carried out continuously in a conveyor which passes the rice through a steam bath. The cooking time depends on the speed of the belt. Likewise, the post-steaming cooling is carried out continuously by fresh air pushed through the perforated conveyor belt transporting the rice to the place of inoculation with the koji.
The rustic Omachi is more than perfect for making sake, but in the mechanics of industrial brewers, its advantages become inconveniences.
Although the Omachi Shimpaku is large and prominent, it is perfectly round while its grain is oblong. From the polishing stage, to reach the Ginjo and Daiginjo levels, it is complicated to completely remove the endosperm at the poles without scratching and breaking the Shimpaku at its equator.
Then, during the pre-steam cleaning, its core is so tender that it absorbs water very quickly, which decreases the margin for error. At this stage, it requires attention and reactivity of a few seconds. This thwarts cleaning and soaking in the transport pipes.
So, Yamadanishiki 山田錦 has become the perfect Sakamai for large and medium-sized breweries that have mechanized their facilities.
The egg or the chicken?
Did brewers use Yamadanishiki more and more because it increasingly replaced other rices in the paddy fields? Or has it been grown more to meet brewers’ demand?
It’s like the potato. Are McCain and McDonald’s getting the Russet Burbank because it’s the most available? Or is it the most cultivated because it is the variety that best suits the needs of dominant buyers in the market?
These big brewers have every interest in encouraging the farming of Yamadanishiki through agricultural competitions or special Yamadanishiki categories in national sake contests; and maintain his status as king.
Do not think that I dispute the use of Yamadanishiki, or Russet Burbank; Admittedly, the first produces delicious sake and the latter turns into delicious fries.
However, it should be noted that it is the small brewers, out of necessity of supply, who have explored the use of more rustic and sometimes more difficult varieties, and who contribute to their culture. It is these small brewers who, with back-breaking work, shape Nihonshu which deviate from the standards and stick closer to the terroir.