Water is the main ingredient in all sake but it usually gets the least attention. Despite getting the least attention, water is important and does play a huge role in the quality of sake. The story that is told to demonstrate this fact is told so often that it has become like a legend.
The legend (no, the real story): Back near the end of the Edo period, 1840, Yamamura Tazaemon owned two breweries. One in Nishinomiya and the other in Uozaki. Tazaemon-san noticed that the sake made at Nishinomiya was always better than that made at Uosaki.
His two breweries were part of the Nada Go-go region or the five sake-brewing towns of Nada. The five districts lie in a line on the coast running west to east: Mishi, Mikage and Uozaki lie in Kobe while Nishinomiya and Imazu lie in Nishinomiya.1 The Nada Go-go region made its fame shipping sake to Edo (Tokyo) by ship, a 20 day voyage. The five districts of Nada produced a little more than 25% of Japan’s sake in 2003. But I digress.
Tazaemon-san struggled to figure out why the sake at Nishinomiya was always better. He ensured that they used the same rice, milled to the same level, the same conditions and equipment; nothing helped the Uozaki brewery to produce sake that was as good as that of Nishinomiya. Tazaemon-san even switched the brew masters but not even this helped. One day, Tazaemon-san, had the water used at Nishinomiya shipped to his Uozaki brewery. Sake was brewed using this water and it was as good as the sake made at Nishinomiya. Tazaemon-san had solved the mystery, it was the water!
The take away from this story is that good water is important if you want to make good sake. But what is “good” water for sake? Those in the Nada region would say that it is a hard water that matches the heavenly water, miyamizu. Mineral rich waters produce sakes with quick strong fermentations and are strongly flavored with full bodies. The mineral content of the miyamizu water is:
This water contains the right combination of minerals that help the yeast to work vigorously. Notice that there is no iron listed. It is important that there is no iron in any water to be used for sake.
While the brewers in the Nada Go-go region had hard water to work with, much of Japan has softer water. In particular the brewers of Hiroshima had very soft water to work with. The Miura-Toji, in 1896, explained the steps needed to produce excellent sake with Hiroshima’s soft water. He suggested a smaller moto be used with less koji than is normal. The koji is made at a slightly higher temperature to bring our more conversion strength. I don’t have more details at this time. Miura’s paper is “An Account of New Brewing Techniques,” published in Japanese. In 1905 the Hiroshima sake, using Miura-Toji’s techniques, took both first and second place in the national sake assessment. So… it seems clear that soft water, without chemical additions can also be “good” water for sake; you have to use the correct techniques though.
If soft water is used, the sake will tend to have a clean and bright but softer taste that melts in your mouth, taking with it the flavors and aromas of the sake. This is in contrast to hard water which produces a strongly flavored sake.
The recipe that most sake home brewers use has been derived from Fred Eckhardt’s work2 and is designed to work with soft water augmented with additional salts to make the water miyamizu-like.
An example of soft water is that of the Bull Run reservoir:
|Bull Run water (ppm)|
You can see that the parts per million here are much lower than those of the miyamizu water. Chlorine is added to the Bull Run water to disinfect the water.
Is Miyamizu the Gold Standard? Can I say, Yes But… Miyamizu is clearly a good, nay, excellent water for brewing sake. However, as demonstrated by the brewers of Hiroshima, their soft water can impart seductively sexy characteristics to sake that are not possible with Miyamizu.