Great moments in sake brewing: how ginjo got to be ginjo

funnelAlthough brewers have been working on making better and better sake for, heck, 900 years or so, the last century or so has been fairly exponential in terms of gains in sake-brewing methods and technology.

Even though we can say that, for many centuries, sake-brewing has remained basically the same, in fact there have been many changes. From just about 100 years ago, technology and science began to augment the well-entrenched experience and traditions of brewers.

Often, we hear that ginjo sake is leaps and bounds better than the sake of yesteryear, replete with complexity of flavor and fragrance that allow it to be appreciated as a such a premium beverage. Let’s look at some of the more significant contributions over the last century to what has become today’s sake.

1568: Brewers in Nara began to heat sake up to about 65C to “remove the evil humours,” thus pasteurizing and providing stability to sake. Louis Pasteur lent his name to this process centuries later, and he got all the credit.

1895: Sake yeast was first isolated. Until this time, yeast cells were allowed to simply fall into the vat Yeast cellsfrom the ambient environment. Finally, brewers were able to see just what the yeast cells looked like, and to study their life cycle.

1904: The Ministry of Finance forms the National Sake Brewing Research Center. Here, research geared toward helping producers make better sake continues to this day.

1910: Sokujo moto, the fast-starting yeast starter, is developed. Until this point, creating the moto yeast starter was a long, exhausting process and an extremely labor intensive part of sake brewing. When it is discovered that the result of the techniques was to create a bit of lactic acid, researchers found that putting a bit of pure lactic acid in at the beginning accomplished the same thing, saving significant labor and time.

1911: The first Shinshu Kanpyoukai, or New Sake Tasting Competition, was held. The longest-running competition of its kind in the world, this yearly tasting continues today and has driven major advances and trends in sake profiles over the years.

1923: Stainless steel tanks begin to replace traditional cedar tanks. As the woody flavor imparted by cedar tanks can be strong, sake brewed in stainless steel tanks is now free to express a myriad of new and delicate flavors, fragrances and nuances. This was huge.

1933: Modern vertical rice milling machines are introduced. The condition of the rice after milling “how Rice floweringmuch it has been milled, how much heat was generated during milling, how many of the rice grains fractured or broke” affects every single step on down the line. With this major advance, rice could be polished more accurately, carefully, and efficiently. This was also extremely huge; it eventually led to the era of ginjo.

1936: The mighty Yamada Nishiki, the king of sake rice strains, is born. It is created as a cross breed between two other sake rice strains, Yamadaho and Wataribune. Although expensive and relatively hard to grow, Yamada Nishiki is the most widely used sake rice, especially when brewing ginjo-shu. There are other rice strains that make character-laden and wonderful sake, but Yamada has yet to be dethroned.

1943: The sake classification system of Special Class, First Class, and Second Class is created by the Yeast starter - another shotMinistry of Finance. All sake is designated as one of these three, with First and Special classes requiring government tasting and certification, and (of course) higher taxes. This system is later abolished in 1989 for several reasons, one of them being that many brewers simply did not submit their sake for certification, thereby keeping prices of great sake lower. As such, the system lost much of its meaning.

Also in 1943, it became obligatory to add distilled alcohol to sake at the end of the brewing process. The obligation was removed in 1946, but brewers were not forced to stop this practice. This can enhance flavor and fragrance and stabilize the brew, but can also be used to simply produce cheaper sake.

1946: Yeast Number 7 is discovered and isolated by Masumi Brewery ofNagano. This yeast is still today the most used yeast in the country. That year, Masumi sake wins every single award in sight for their sake.

1953: Yeast Number 9 is discovered in Kumamoto Prefecture, by the brewers of Koro sake. Yeast Number 9 produces fragrant and fruity sake, with a decent acidity. It is today the most widely used yeast for ginjo-shu, although it has a lot of competition these days. A biggie on the flavor and fragrance fronts.

1968: The first post-war junmai-shu (sake brewed with no added distilled alcohol, nor any additives of any kind) is brewed. Although two brewers, one in Kyoto and one in Kumamoto, claim to have done it first, it marks a move of great significance (i.e. a biggie) by members of the brewing world toward quality and better sake, and profit margins be damned.

1974: National sake production hits an all-time high. Unfortunately, since that point it has been mostly downhill, with production volume decreasing almost every year since then.

1975: The Jizake boom begins. Jizake is a vague term that means sake from smaller brewers in the countryside, or at least sake not from large national brands. Such sake began to gain popularity for its supposed character and regional distinction.

1981: The Ginjo boom begins. Premium sake begins to increase in both popularity and production from this point. Even today, while overall sake production declines, ginjo-shu production increases, albeit by very little.

1989-2015: Dozens of new strains of yeast and new sake rice strains are developed and come into use in sake brewing. Many of these are proprietary, and many are kept within the prefecture of origin. These factors alone contribute to a new and wide range of sake profiles.

All of the above have built upon each other to create sake as it is today. But modern equipment and microbiology alone could not have led to the ambrosia that is the sake of this era. Just as much credit must be given to the craftsmen and craftswomen, and their decades of accumulated skill and refined senses. Indeed, their craft deserves much appreciation!

CIMG7247Only about five seats remain open for Sake Professional Course Chicago 2016, March 28~30. Learn more here, and contact me if you are interested in attending.

How old is the sake industry, and who are its oldest members?

CIMG1932Sake has a long and storied history, going back centuries and centuries. Just how many centuries is a matter of interpretation: exactly when did the rice-based mash look and taste enough like today’s brew to call it sake? The answer likely depends on who is trying to convince whom of what.

But most agree that sake brewing goes back some 1700 years, based on archeological finds that show that the locals were deliberately making an alcoholic beverage from rice. It hardly resembled the glorified ambrosia we take for granted today, but if you want to trace the history of sake, that is where it leads.

We also hear from time to time about kami-kuchi sake. This was made by folks chewing rice a bit and spitting it into a vat around which they stood. The enzymes in their saliva converted the starch into sugar, after which yeast in the air took things from there and converted that into alcohol. Appetizing, iddn’t it?

But really: this is cave-man stuff. There was never a commercial product. No one really made proper sake in this way f’gad’s sake. Nor do any of Japan’s written histories or sake-brewing records mention tanksany such a method. Yet so many writers likes to latch on to it and open stories about sake with references to it. It just makes for good article content fodder, at least the first thousand times you read it; then it just gets old and annoying. But I digress.

Lots of progress was made in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries in Buddhist temples in and about Nara, and that transitioned into the current method of making sake, which has remarkably remained pretty much the same, at least in terms of principles and objectives. Sure, modern machines save labor and cost. And very cheap sake is indeed made using methods that are far from traditional methods that yield stuff that does remarkably resemble sake.

But most premium sake is made in old, hassle-laden methods that have been around for centuries. Modern machines can help avert labor by moving heavy things around. But the assessments at each stage and the on-the-fly tweaking are performed in traditional painstaking methods.

ShizukuMost breweries are owned and run by families (way over 90 percent are family owned operations) that were once aristocratic and can trace their lineage back sometimes tens of generations. As such, many kura today have long, long traceable histories.

In fact, there are still about 300 sake companies in Japan that were founded before 1800, in other words, that many have an over-200 year history!

Here is a list of Japan’s oldest sake breweries and the area in which they are located. Note, the top ten alone are all more than 458 years old!

10. Ueda Shuzo in Nara, brewers of Kicho, founded in 1558

9. Konishi Shuzo in Hyogo, brewers of Shirayuki, founded in 1550

8. Yoshinogawa Shuzo in Niigata, brewers of Yoshinogawa sake, founded in 1548

7. Shusenkurano in Nagano, brewers of Genbu, founded in 1540

6. Tomita Shuzo in Shiga, brewers of Shichiyonyari, founded in 1543

5. Yamaji Shuzo in Shiga, brewers of Kuwazake, founded in 1532

4. Kenbishi Shuzo in Hyogo, brewers of Kenbishi, founded in 1505

3. Hiraizumi Shuzo in Akita, brewers of Hiraizumi, founded in 1487

2. Sudo Honke in Ibaraki, brewers of Sato no Homare, founded before 1141

1. Imanishi Shuzo in Nara, brewers of Mimuro Sugi, estimated to be over 900 years old.

Currently there are less than 1200 brewers that continue to sell sake, Old Kura

although several hundred more have retained their licenses to do so. There were as many as ten thousand at one point in the early twentieth century. While it may be tempting to focus on how many have disappeared, it is amazing to see that such a traditional industry has survived more or less intact, and is now after decades of decline beginning to turn around gradually.

Let us all do our part! Enjoy some sake tonight with a heartfelt “kampai!” for the history of sake and its oldest members.

CIMG7247Only about five seats remain open for Sake Professional Course Chicago 2016, March 28~30. Learn more here, and contact me if you are interested in attending.