Non-Junmai is Sake Too! Justification From On High

A while back, I participated in an event in Osaka in which I was 
privileged enough to be a part of a panel discussion with perhaps the most famous toji (master brewer) in existence. Actually, from just last year he took on the title “honorary toji,” and in his place at that particular brewery is another gent that is the de facto toji. Those are some big-ass shoes to fill!
The famous toji in question is one Mr. Naohiko Noguchi. Most of his career was spent brewing a sake called Kikuhime, but in his later years he “retired” and then came out of “retirement” a few hours later down the road making a sake called Jokigen. Both of these kura are in Ishikawa Prefecture, from whence Mr. Noguchi hails. This is, of course, also where the guild of toji to which Noguchi-san is affiliated, the Noto Toji guild, is centered. He has been referred to as one of the “Noto Toji no Shiten-oh,” or one of the “Four guardians of heaven of the Noto Toji guild.”

He is known as much for his sharp mind as he is for his brewing skill, and indeed, on that day he was as sharp as anybody in the room, if not sharper than all. And as we had lunch with a couple other folks before the event began, he wasted no time in asking me about sake overseas, and how it was received. He bore down on me with intense, hazel eyes tempered only by a genuine and warm smile.

“How do people overseas feel about junmai versus added-alcohol sake?” he asked. One could sense he had a well-formed opinion just waiting to be expressed.

“Well,” I began as politely as I could, “not much aru-ten gets over there. Most of it is junmai.” Aru-ten is verbal shorthand for added alcohol sake, i.e. anything not of one of the junmai varieties.

“However,” I continued, I do not think there are very strong opinions either way, yet.”

At which point he let fly with that well-formed opinion, albeit from a purely technical standpoint.

“They both have their place, you know. Sure, even I drink mostly junmai,but ya can’t go dismissing anything not junmai just for silly reasons like purity. It’s just another method, adding alcohol is, and it leads to a different kind of sake. Which of the two is better depends on what you are trying to make, and when you plan to drink it.”

I would have asked him to continue if given the chance. Warm smile intact, he spared me the trouble and just kept talking.

“If you are going to drink it relatively soon, sure, junmai is by and large a better way to make it. But if you want to lay it down to let the flavors consolidate, you are better off making it with a bit of added alcohol. And if you expect it to sit on a shelf for a while, same deal. Junmai, ya know, it gets a bit darui (heavy, sloppy, slow) when it matures.”

While I have of course experienced that non-junmai stands up to time in the bottle better than junmai, somehow hearing it from this uber toji made it so much more valid in my mind. And it was the first time I heard a brewer himself explaining that just when he expected a sake to be drunk would affect his decision on whether or not to add alcohol. Fascinating! With card-carrying members of the junmai jihad seemingly on the increase, having a master brewer of Noguchi-san’s stature acknowledge the fact that aru-ten too is proper sake was both reassuring and satisfying.  (Dare I say vindicating?)

As more and more sake becomes available in many countries around the world, I encourage you to seek and find your preferences. And in so doing, at least consider the idea that all brewing methods have their reasons and legitimacy. Drink the sake, not the label. This is especially applicable to aru-ten and junmai styles.

Sake Swag

I am not a big collector of souvenirs, autographs or the like. But 
aftermeeting Noguchi-san, I later sent him a simple postcard acknowledging what an honor it had been to hang out with him for a day. I expected no response, but a scant few days later I did receive a postcard in return, in beautiful if barely readable cursive characters.

 Now this is cool, I thought. This is not something one comes upon every day! I keep it in a special file-cabinet folder called “Sake Swag,” that I admit I  created just for this postcard. (So far, it’s the only thing in there.) The balance of his calligraphy belies the balance of his sake, I thought.

The Changing of the Sake Guard – Sake’s Younger Generation Making Their Presence Felt

Last month, I gave a presentation in Boston and then Chicago on trends and changes of late in teh sake world. In preparing and delivering that presentation, I realized and was otherwise told a few things about the state of the industry that are very worth observing.

Over the past decade or so, a very clear changing of the guard has taken
place, in that the past generation of brewers has handed the baton off to the next generation, seemingly en masse. It really does seem to me that everywhere in the industry, 60-year olds have just handed the operations of the company to their 30 to 40 year old sons (or daughters, in some cases).

Of course, 1300 companies could not be in generational sync like that. But it sure seems to me that a whole lot of them are. When I first got involved in the industry about 18 years ago, I was by far the youngest of any group I ran with. Now, I am almost without exception the oldest. ‘Course, I put on 18 years during these past 18 years, so that has to be factored in too! But still, the sweeping and clear-cut change in generation seems very apparent to me. 
And as I took the time to look around and think about it, I realized that the generation of kuramoto (brewery owners) currently in charge lives, brews and sells in a totally different world than their fathers. The market is different. The economy is different. The brewing landscape too, is different. What worked before, just a scant couple of decades previous, will not work now.

I recall a few years ago visiting one of the largest ten brewers in the country. The president told me that back in the day, like the mid-70’s to mid-80’s, the phone would ring in the office.

“Don’t answer it,” said someone across the room. “It’s probably an order; we can’t fill it anyways.” In other words, sake was flying off the shelves faster than they could make it. Those were the days. But alas, they are long gone, ne’er to return.

And as such, philosophies, ways of doing business, and sensibilities all have changed for the better. How has this manifested itself? Partly in design. Labels are flashier, sexier, more attractive and infinitely more informative than in the past, methinks. (This does not necessarily mean they are easier to decipher to those that do not know much about sake, but one step at a time!)

Marketing methods and sales channels have expanded as well. Many brewers bypass the middleman these days, much more than in the past. Direct sales to consumers too, via mailers and the internet, are far more common as well. And brewers are much more visible at tastings, gathered in groups of one demographic or another – region, age group, philosophy and hair color are just a few groupings we see.

And finally, the sake itself has been changing. Perhaps not that much in terms of how they drink, but what the average brewer offers has expanded significantly, it seems. Many brewers experiment with more varieties of rice, various degrees of milling, myriad yeast types, and subtly different brewing methods, tweaked a bit here and there, than what we would have seen from their predecessors. It’s all very interesting, actually.

Everything from milling rates to new machines, from myriad permutations of variations on pasteurization to new rice types and combinations of the same – it is all enjoyably difficult to keep up with!

Undoubtedly, the younger generation now is technically more adept then the previous one. There is just so much more information readily available for those that want to learn. And many more owner-inherits are embracing brewing technology and know-how rather than just sales. And this gets them much more involved, leading to more variation.

One brewer yanked me aside after one presentation, and augmented the information I had just presented. He was, actually, one of the “hold-outs,” i.e. one of the older generation that had not handed off the reins yet. And he explained a nuance I had not considered before.

“Just 20 or 30 years ago,” he began,” we kuramoto had little say in what came out of our kura. Sure, we could decide how many tanks and for the most part what grades. But the selection of rice, yeast, and methods therein were pretty much left up to the toji. In some cases, it was entirely left up to the toji.

“And what we got at the end of the season was what we got. We just had to go and sell it.” He almost seemed envious of what the current young’ns could do.

“Now, these guys can get in there, get their hands dirty, and even if they are leaving it up to the toji, they can have their say. They can dictate what rice is used, what yeasts are used, and what tricks-of-the-trade are used.” Very often, these “tricks” recommendations from friends and classmates at other breweries. It’s technology exchange in a modern format.

 While this may not seem like a big deal, in the sake world, little things make big differences.

 As a couple of concrete examples, I was told by one brewer in Shimane that they had never used a great rice called Omachi because it did not suit the way that the koji mold is propagated on rice by the local guild of toji. “Omachi does not like the heavier, slightly wetter koji that the Izumo guild uses.” So until this guy came along and took over, no Omachi. And no questions about it. Do not question the toji. Do not pass go; do not collect 200 yen.

 But the young buck, just back from brewing school, knew how it could be done. And he made it happen, so now we have a wonderful Omachi sake from Rihaku.

Another example from up north was a young brewer that wanted to make a sake with no added yeast; in other words, just let it drop in from the ambient environment. Where did he get this cockamamie idea? One of his buddies in another part of the country has been making sake that way for decades. 

 “Please,” began his journeyman toji, “don’t ask me to do that!” But ask he did. And it ended up not only fine, but very interesting, and also gained a fantastic sales point along the way. Yet another fresh idea that never would have happened just a generation ago.

 As such, we have a ton of very interesting new facets of sake to pay attention to and learn about these days, thanks in large part to a changing of the guard. Be sure to engage any brewer you might encounter on the sake trail along which you tread. You’re sure to be enlightened at least a bit.


Hasegawa Saketen “Sake Competition” results: Surprisingly Not Surprising

This past Sunday, the well-known sake uber distributor Hasagawa Saketen held their yearly “Kuramoto wo Kakomu-kai,” or “Hanging out with Sake Brewers” evening. Loose translations notwithstanding, it is a party that follows a tasting contest.

Hasegawa-san is a distributor with perhaps a half-dozen retail shops selling an outstanding lineup of sake in the Tokyo area. Their stores are all in very well-trodden places: Tokyo Station, Omotesando, Roppongi, Palace Hotel, Tokyo Sky Tree – basically places with foot traffic that makes Times Square look like the Death Valley in terms of numbers of visitors. Every year, they have a tasting competition judged by a conglomeration of brewery owners, master brewers, industry professionals and (occasionally) dorks like me. In the past years in which I have participated, we would taste from like 8am to 2pm, then be expected to show up in the several-hundred-in-attendance party from six. The second half of that day is, to say the least, overwhelming.

After tasting so many sake, spitting of course, but absorbing through the tongue and aromas, I am way too hammered to think about setting foot in a party.

I have judged before in the one-day event, but this time only judged in the finals – along Sake Competition 2012with 200 sake brewers. Which is what makes this event so cool, in my opinion. (More about that later.) The prelims were held the day before, when the poor bastards that were judges on that day cut 790 sake down to the 420 we had to taste.

So, we had to taste and score 420 sake in one day. Nay, belay that: in four friggin’ hours. That’s why I was too hammered to think about setting foot in a party, or drinking more sake. But I digress.

To me, it was an outstanding tasting with cool results. There were 200 judges. All gave a 1 to a 5 – that is it. All were experienced. They make the stuff, for gad’s sake. It was totally blind: we had no idea what anything was that we were tasting. It was all done in white kikichoko and separated only by grade.

The group of judges was great, I think. Sure, international panels are great for getting sake to be more appreciated overseas. And pro judges are great for finding flaws. But a large group of mostly younger folks that make it and sell it to me is a great statement of reality about what is good these days.
So, I have taken a long time to get to the point here, but the results of this tasting were totally shocking. Why? Because the winners were sake that are massively popular these days. Maybe this is an indication of how little faith I have in the average consumer. But too often things sell on name alone. Consumers order a handful of brands cuz they have heard, over and over, that they are good. And those of us that like to think we are not slaves to marketing tend to flee from those brands at high speed, hoping to be immune from hype.

But all too often we forget that there is a reason famous brands are famous. There is a reason everyone loves the same few brands. They’re good. And those of us that avoid them because they are simply what everyone else professes to like, well, we may lose out…

And that is what blind tasting solves.

In any event, the winners of the four categories (junmai-shu, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo and yamahai/kimoto) were surprisingly unsurprising. They are all hyper famous, very well selling brands. And remember: the tasting was blind, and by 200 of their peers, i.e. dudes and dude-esses that make the stuff. You’d think these folks if anyone would have their own opinions about what is good and not side with the masses. And you’d be right: they do, and they don’t. Which is why to me, what is surprising about them is that it’s no surprise. The very famous brands of late are very famous because anyone – first time consumers and brewing world colleagues alike – think it tastes damn good.

Note this is NOT a license for you to not bother to develop your own tastes but just drink what is famous. No! Do develop your own preferences, for sure. And do so with confidence. But at the same time, do not flee from famous brands just cuz everyone else likes them!
A short list of the winners is below. In truth, they could not have been scripted better. I mean, look at it. Best junmai daiginjo? Juyondai. Best junmai ginjo? Isojiman. Best junmai? Hiroki.

However, the one thing I am not sure of is how many sake outside of the Hasegawa lineup were involved. Had I been there in the evening, I would know, but I could not hold out that long. Still, while it might have been heavy toward that distributor’s lineup, there were 790 the first day and 420 the second. So regardless, the winners have showed there mettle for sure.

The results can be seen (in Japanese) here:

With no further ado:

Junmai Daiginjgo
1. Juyondai “Ryugetsu” (Yamagata)
2. Ugonotsuki (Hiroshima)
3. Ho-o Biden (Tochigi)
4. Juyondai (a different junmai daiginjo)
5. Ugonotsuki (a different junmai daiginjo)

Junmai Ginjo
1. Isojiman (Shizuoka)
2. Hiroki (Fukushima)
3. Isojiman (a different junmai ginjo) (Shizuoka)
4. Kyokko (Tochigi)
5. Zaku (Mie)

1. Hiroki (Fukushima)
2. Zaku (Mie)
3. Aramasa (Akita)
4. Sharaku (Fukushima)
5. Meikyoshisui (Nagano)

Yamahai / Kimoto
1. Toyo Bijin Yamahai Junmai (Yamaguchi)
2. Yamagata Masamune Junmai Kimoto (Yamagata9
3. Hayaseura Yamahai Junmai (Fukui)
4. Ichinotani Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai (Fukui)
5. Matsu no Tsukasa Kimoto Junmai (Shiga)