Non-junmai Types: An Interesting Idea

From whence does the added alcohol come?

Yeast cellsIn recent years, the line between junmai-types vs. non-junnmai-types divide seems to be strengthening, in many senses. One such sense is sake style. Brewers that focus on junmai seem, at least to me, to be making the richer and fuller styles that junmai types can be, and those that make non-junmai, i.e. added-added alcohol types, seem to be making lighter, more aromatic and seamless sake styles that added alcohol affords.

While there is a lot of information out there on these two divisions of the sake market, here is a semi-brief synopsis. About 80 percent of all sake has pure distilled alcohol added to it just after fermentation. Water is later added to bring the alcohol back down, so it is not really fortified. When alcohol is not added the term junmai is put on the label.

So junmai-shu, junmai ginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu are the three premium types of rice-only sake. Honjozo-shu, ginjo-shu and daiginjgo-shu are the three types of added alcohol premium sake. For the 65 percent of the market that is non-premium sake, this addition of alcohol done for economic reasons. For the 15 percent of the market that is premium and non-junmai (honjozo, ginjo-shu and daiginjgo-shu), this added alcohol is done for good technical reasons: it helps extract flavor and aromas, and predisposes the sake to time in the bottle.

In recent years, the junmai types have grown in popularity, but the non-junmai types have been a bit maligned, unfairly so in the opinion of many, myself included. Those that are anti-added-alcohol say they can taste it, it gives them a hangover, it is somehow cheating, and other unfounded arguments. While a rant is not the aim of this article, the topic is one about which many in Japan feel passionate.

However, interestingly, in blind tastings many ostensibly dedicated junmai fans will choose non-junmai sake over junmai sake. This I have seen again and again. But like I said, this is not intended to be a rant.

Rice only sake = junmai-shuBeyond the untenable arguments above, though, there are a couple of valid positions. Namely, whether or not sake is made from rice, and whether or not the ingredients are domestically sourced. For example, brewers must list on the label the source of rice. They are permitted to use imported rice (very, very few do, and only for very, very cheap sake), but in the ingredients list it must say “domestic rice” or “imported rice.” The same stipulation is not, however, applied to added alcohol.

Almost without exception, the alcohol used when making non-junmai sake is roughly distilled from sugar cane, imported into Japan, and then distilled again for purity. By the time it gets to the brewers it is pure ethyl alcohol, blended with water for safety reasons. So it is not made from rice, and it is not from Japan. To have a product like sake – the national drink of Japan – which is known as a rice-based product – be made with something other than rice, and other than Japan-based ingredients can be a sore point with some folks.

Again; not me. I enjoy sake completely unfettered from such concerns. Perhaps I am just a hedonistic simpleton. But I digress.

So yes, junmai types are growing in popularity in Japan, but so is an understanding of the very positive aspects of added alcohol sake.

And related to all of this: I recently saw in an industry publication a very interesting idea that has arisen of late.

In order to make premium sake, inspected rice must be used. Inspection ensures certain levels of quality in the rice, which will vary from rice to rice. And in any event, rice in general is just expensive in Japan.

But what if the alcohol used for making non-junmai were to be distilled from really, really cheap rice – broken stuff or rice that did not pass inspection. Again, since it is taken down to being pure ethyl alcohol, the quality of the original rice should not matter.

Surely this is more expensive than sugar-cane based alcohol. But the other side of the coin is that by using this, the entire product can be rice based, and one hundred percent domestic. Surely this will help the agricultural sector as well, since even schlock rice has a use.

What I am curious about is, if premium sake were to be made using added alcohol, but that alcohol was tobinirimade from domestic rice, would the junmai jihadists concur on its validity as sake? Certainly the quality would be there, or at least, there is no technical reason it would not be so. If so, the idea holds potential for the sake world in bringing non-junmai types back to the fold, and the rice-growing industry would benefit as well.

Making non-junmai using alcohol distilled from domestic rice, even domestic schlock rice, would not be cheap. Surely it would be more expensive than using imported sugar-cane based alcohol. But just as surely there is a market for such products.

And, equally as surely, there is a sector of the market that does not care, only cares about price, enjoys cheap sake – and deserves to have it. So to insist all sake be made in that way would not be fair to all brewers or all consumers. But I see a compromise.

What if cheap sake were to continue to use imported ethyl alcohol and premium sake, i.e. honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo, were to be limited to added alcohol made from domestic rice? This could be indicated on the label, just like the source of the rice.

While I think this is a great idea, it is clear there would be humongous challenges. It would be hard to Fermenting mash ("moromi")regulate or enforce. Brewers might be reticent to try this for a handful of reasons, from technical to image-related to economic. Many consumers might not be convinced, won over, or trusting. They may choose to stick with their junmai-only mentality – which of course is their prerogative.

Furthermore, sake brewers are – for the most part – an intelligent lot. Something tells me that someone somewhere along the line has thought of this. If it has not been realized, there must be a good reason. As an indication of this, there are a few brewers that distill their own junmai-shu and use that as the alcohol they add to their sake. So some experimentation has taken place, but nothing remotely resembling widespread adoption.

Finally, as almost all premium sake that is exported is of the junmai varieties, this is not a problem that will resonate with many. It is not exactly rocking the sake world. It is, however, an interesting potential solution that may present opportunities to a handful of challenges at once. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next few years.

Sake Industry Snapshot

How many producers, how much sake?

chartAs interest in sake grows around the world, naturally enough more and more people express curiosity about the sake industry at its source and origin: Japan.

There are many angles from which the industry can be viewed and analyzed. Certainly sales growth and production numbers are one such metric. And as important as they are, those numbers are in constant flux these days. Sales of premium sake grows but overall production still drops as the older generation that was the main market for inexpensive sake gradually passes on. Certainly the growth of premium sake is a more appealing number, and surely it is a better indicator of what to expect in the future.

Another metric, one that is more tied to the traditional infrastructure of sake brewing, is the number of brewers active in the industry. And even these numbers can be confusing and open to interpretation.

DSC02231For example, one survey on sake exports mentioned that of 1613 companies surveyed, 1526 responded. However, there certainly are not 1613 active sake brewers. It makes more sense when we realize that some companies that just bottle product also need licenses. Furthermore, there are a good-sized handful of kura that are no longer brewing, but refuse to throw in the towel, and so are “taking a break” from sake-producing activities. And, there are some companies – I would estimate ten percent – that have more than one facility, each calling for a separate license. So bundle all those together and perhaps we will get to 1613 or so.

Another survey by the National Tax Administration determined that during the brewing season that ended in July of 2015, there were 1225 sake-brewing facilities, down 11 from the previous year. However: there are breweries in existence that do not actually brew themselves, for any one of a myriad of reasons. They instead outsource it from factories that are under-capacity, and bottle it and sell it as their own. Some do this with only part of their lineup, others do it for all the sake they sell.

Practices like this are good for small companies with a local market but that might not have the manpower or capital to actually produce it anymore. It can also be helpful to the outsourcing company as well. So while not everyone would enthusiastically support this sector, it fills a need.

When I arrived in Japan in 1988, there were 2055 kura selling sake. Now there are 1225. So we are down 830 sakagura in 28 years.

Based on estimates from traveling the country, working in the industry, and actually counting breweries all around the country (I have a lot of time on my hands…), all observations indicate that there are probably close to 1000 sake companies actually making sake. And that may be a high-end estimate.

So, how many sake breweries are there in Japan? About 1600 with licenses, about 1200 selling product, and about 1000 actually brewing the stuff.

3 chokko smallAmongst those thousand, how much sake is being made? About 550 thousand kiloliters a year (of recent). Let that number sink in: over half a million kiloliters. Of that, 13 percent is ginjo (including its four subclasses), and 12 percent is junmai-shu. Interestingly, just a scant 20 years ago, both ginjo and junmai were but four percent of production each.

How much rice did the industry use last year? About 250 thousand tons of genmai (unmilled rice), or 164 thousand tons of milled rice. Let that number sink in too. The average seimai-buai (milling rate) was 65 percent.

Of the 1225 kura out there, 41 are considered large, i.e. 1300kl or more. All 41 of these companies export sake. Of the small companies, the tiny craft brewers sector, 93 percent export sake. But still, 70 percent of all sake exports come from the big 41 kura. Indeed, the polarization of the sake industry is very interesting.

In spite of all this, only three percent of all sake brewed is exported. Only. Three. Compare that with the Koji Makingtwenty to thirty percent of French and Italian wines that are exported from those respective countires. Or, compare that with scotch whiskey, for which 90 percent of all production is exported. Wow. Either we have a lot of catching up to do (the sake glass is half empty!) or the sake future is so bright, we gotta wear shades when we drink it (the sake glass is half full!).

Either way you look at it, start by filling the sake glass up back to the brim, and enjoy it. If everyone does that, the sake future is indeed a bright one.



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