Obsolete Sake Classification System: Ye Olde “Kyubetsu Seido”

Fall-in-JapanThese days, we know how to pick our sake. There are classes or grades of sake that are legally defined that exist to help us. And we know these well: Daiginjo and junmai daiginjo, ginjo and junmai ginjo, tokubetsu honjozo and tokubetsu junmai below these, then honjozo and junmai-shu, and futsuu-shu below that. They are all legally defined, even if those definitions can be vague in areas. And while these grades are legal definitions, when it comes to indications of quality, “they’re more like guidelines” as they say in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

In other words, while daiginjo is technically a top-grade sake, you might prefer junmai or honjozo sake in general. And no one – no one – can always identify the grade of a sake on taste and aroma alone. Often? Yes. Always? No. There is too much overlap between the grades.

DSC_0809But still they serve a great purpose and fill a need – making selection easier for the consumer. But while these grades have been around as law since about ’91, and as industry self-regulated agreements since the 80’s or so, there was a system of grading sake that was in place before the current one.

It is now defunct, and has been since about ’90. It served its purpose but became outdated and even irrelevant. But it is part of the history and culture of sake, and has not yet been totally eradicated from some folks’ minds.

That system was known as the “Kyubetsu Seido,” which simply means “Classification System” and was in existence from 1943 to 1989, from which time it was phased out in favor of the current system. The Kyubetsu Seido was wonderfully simple: all sake was graded as Tokkyu or Special Class (the top), Ikkyu or First Class, or Nikyu or Second Class, which was the default for sake that did not make the cut for First or Special Class.

Note, the seimai buai (degree of rice milling) and whether or not it was junmai or added-alcohol, were irrelevant. With only three terms to know, no vagueness or hidden meanings involved, and with a good degree of reliability, what was the problem with the system? What as the catch? In short: price and excessive homogeneity.

ChiyonosonodgThe way it worked was that brewers that wanted their sake officially ranked as First or Special Class would submit samples to the government. They would taste it and asses that yes, it was good enough for that rank, or no it was not. Those that passed the blind tasting assessment of a team of well-trained government sake tasters (great work if you can get it) were permitted to put Ikkyu (First Class) or Tokkyu (Special Class) on the label. And, of course, the tax on such ranked products was higher.

So it cost consumers more, but it did assure a certain level of quality. Consmers did not need to worry about brands so much, or grades, or milling rates or added alcohol or nihonshu-do or anything else: just buy Ikkyu or Tokyu and one would be assured of at least a certain degree of quality.

It was very useful in its time, since there were 5000 sakagura back then, and it helped consumers wade through all that. And of course, it helped the government too, since it led to more tax revenue from sake. And those that sought but a buzz need only seek Nikyu-shu (the default Second Class products) to ensure price performance. To a degree, it was win-win.

blog-backgroundBut it began to unravel and wane in relevance and usefulness as smaller brewers began to come out with better and better sake, both in reputation and in sheer enjoyability. Not able to compete with the larger companies in national distribution, they kept things local. And as such, there was no reason to make their loyal customer base pay the extra tax for a Ikkyu or Tokkyu stamp on the label.

The loyal locals knew what was good, so the smaller brewers would not even bother with submitting sake for certification, and simply sell their fine brews as Second Class sake, saving their fans that extra cost. This tendency gathered momentum that lead to critical mass, and was a big factor in the elimination of the system.

Certainly there were more reasons. The fact that the curently-used system developed and came into use, albeit with no legal base but a strong de facto significance, had much to do with the change as well. There were also reasons that were related to how imports of other premium alcoholic beverages were taxed, somewhat unfairly due to the former system, and some say Japan was pressured externally as well.

Another problem was that since the judges were all looking for the same thing – a lack of flaws – that many brewers sacrificed some character and uniqueness that could conceivably be perceived as idiosyncrasies for which the sake could be faulted. As such what came to be known as premium sake was less character-laden and more homegeneously predictable.

For a combination of the above reasons, the Kyubetsu Seido was eliminated in 1989, being phased out so brewers could use up their stocks of Ikkyu and Tokkyu sake, and was subsequently replaced by the current system, replete with its own shortcomings.

While it may seem we just exchanged one imperfect system for another, that is likely best in the end, since we all need to make our own decisiosn anyway. If they were made for us, the fun would be taken out of sake, now wouldn’t it? 😉

酒 酒 酒

JG_SPC-18The next Sake Professional Course will take place in San Francisco on December 8 to 10. Learn more here.

Meanwhile, the next Sake Professional Course in Japan will take place January 26 to 30, 2015. Learn more here.

Feel free to email me with questions about either!



Yields from Fields: How much sake from a parcel of land?

chikurin20080711_1Have you ever looked over a golden brocade of ready-for-harvest rice andand wonder how many bottles of sake could be made from it? Maybe not. Regardless, it is not an easy question to answer, because there are so many variables involved.

The first of these variables is the typical yields a given strain of rice will provide versus another. Some varieties might yield only 450 kilograms of rice per hundred-square meters, whereas another might yields as much as 600 kg or more. That alone is a 33 percent difference.

Next consider milling. If a sake is made with rice milled down to only 88 percent, i.e. discarding but 22 percent of the rice, it has a big-ass head start on yields over a sake made with rice milled down to 35 percent, wherein 65 percent of the raw material is cast aside.

Then there are the steps of the brewing process. For example, how far is fermentation allowed to proceed? Fermenting until every last starch molecule has been converted to sugar, and that subsequently to alcohol, will lead to much more sake for a given amount of rice than stopping fermentation earlier. Furthermore, we need to ask how hard was the fermenting mash compressed to squeeze out the resulting sake after fermentation.

toji-mixing-it-upFermenting further and pressing it harder will lead to more sake! But fermenting to the bitter end and then squeezing out every last drop of yield takes a huge toll on quality. Also, whether or not alcohol is added – and if added, how much – has a huge affect well. Yields for cheap sake in which copious amounts of alcohol are added can be double what they are for premium sake.

With all this compounding error, it is very difficult to say how much sake can be brewed from, say, a ton of rice. Still, it’s an interesting question. So let’s see . . .

To do this, we have to set up a few boundary conditions. Let’s say the size of the batch is one metric ton of rice, and that we are brewing junmaishu, so no alcohol has been added. Let’s also say that the seimai-buai is 60 percent, so that the outer 40 percent of the rice has been ground away.

Finally, let’s assume (huge jump in the analytic process here) that the moromi (the fermenting mash, one ton of rice) was allowed to ferment to the extent that, when the sake was separated from the leftover rice solids, there were 2200 bottles of sake. (A number supplied by a brewer as typical.)

Now, on to the land. Rice is sold by farmers in 60-kg units called hyo. A basic unit of farming land is 10 meters by 100 meters, and is known as a tan.

Since every rice strain is different, and since things vary from place to place due to weather conditions, we are starting to compound errors again. But for much good sake rice, like Yamada Nishiki, one tan yields eight hyo of rice. (Got that?) In other words, you can get about 480 kg of Yamada Nishiki from a plot of land ten meters by one hundred meters.

But wait! Keep in mind that this is brown rice, and we are using rice milled to 60 percent. So, to get one ton of our polished rice, we need to start with 1.66 tons of brown rice.

YamadaFiring up the calculator again, we see that we need about 3.5 tan to yield the 1.66 tons of brown rice. So, in the end, an area of 35 x 100 meters (about the size of a football field) will yield about 2,200 wine-bottle-size bottles of sake. But note that this is genshu, i.e. undiluted. So adding a bit of water to lower the alcohol content from 18 or 19 down to 15 or 16 will bring it to about 2500 bottles of sake, 720 ml each, from our one ton of polished rice that came from a field the size of a football field. About.

Please allow me to reiterate that the assumed degrees of accuracy throughout these calculations is appalling from an engineering standpoint. But still, it’s kind of neat to be able to glance out over a golden field of rice, and think, “Now let’s see . . .”

* * * * * * * * *

3For those that are interested, rice fields in Japan are measured in traditional units of area with unique names. And they are very close to metric measurements. Interestingly, this ties in to room measurement sizes, which in turn ties into tatami mat sizes.

Two tatami mats together measure 3.3058 square meters.

P1020588-99This unit is one tsubo. Three hundred tsubo is (300 x 3.3058) about 1000 square meters, which is also equal to one tan (10m x 100m). Ten tan, or a 100 x 100-meter plot, make up one cho. One cho is very close to one hectare. LIke, within one percent. Now you know.


JG_SPC-18The next Sake Professional Course will take place in San Francisco on December 8 to 10. Learn more here.

Meanwhile, the next Sake Professional Course in Japan will take place January 26 to 30, 2015. Learn more here.

Feel free to email me with questions about either!