Sparkling Sake Assocation: awa Sake Kyokai

Announcing the establishment of the “awa Sake Kyokai”

On November 1 of last year, eight sake brewing companies formed the “ awa Sake Kyokai,” or the “Sparkling Sake Association.” On April 14, 2017, the awa Sake Kyokai had increased its membership to nine, and held its inaugural event in Tokyo.

With respect to the name: the word awa means foam, or bubbles. The official Japanese same keeps the word awa in English, with sake and kyoukai in Japanese. Furthermore the word awa is not capitalized. (Explaining this seemed better than just writing (sic) after the word awa. But I digress.)

The purpose of the group is to produce and promote high quality sparkling nihonshu. With the Olympics coming to Tokyo in a scant three years, the member brewers decided it would be good to have a type of sake that can be enjoyed in a toast much like a sparkling wine or Champagne.

Let us briefly look at the sparkling sake market as a whole, and then at the awa Sake Kyokai in more detail.

I have not found accurate numbers of how many sparkling sake products there are in awa sake kyokai certification mark

Japan right now, so the below is my own estimate. In truth, I doubt there are any hard stats, since sparkling sake is classified as sake, i.e. as far as the government is concerned, it is the same stuff. Still, I do have confidence in the numbers here, even if they are my own approximation.

There are 1200 breweries in Japan (1241 this year, to be exact.) Let’s say they average 20 to 25 products each, including seasonal variations. That is about 25,000 sake products in Japan. I think there are significantly less than 200 sparkling sake products on the market. So that means that sparkling sake, in terms of number of products, is less than one percent of the market. In terms of volume produced, it is way, way less than one percent.

The point is not to trivialize it; on the contrary, I do want to support the development of this sector of the sake world. However, it is important to point out that sparkling sake is not to the sake world what sparkling wine and champagne are to the wine world. Not even close.

Also, note that there are a handful of ways to make sparkling sake. It is legal to just pump regular sake with carbon dioxide, and fast and easy as well. As such, a good number of sparkling sake products are made in this way. It is also common to leave some sugar in the sake after pressing, and add a bit of the yeast-laden foam back into the bottle to do a secondary fermentation in the bottle, trapping the gas inside. There are variations and other methods as well.

Back to the awa Sake Kyokai, even though there are plenty of producers making sparkling sake, there are only nine members. While there are likely several reasons for this (some of which are beyond the scope of this newsletter), certainly one is the strict set of conditions to which sake made under this banner must comply.

Those conditions are:

1. Made with rice, rice koji, and water, and conforming to the legal definition of nihonshu.
2. Made with rice that has passed legal quality inspection.
3. Contains only naturally occurring carbon dioxide resulting from fermentation.
4. Transparent in appearance, with visible bubbles when poured.
5. Minimum ten percent alcohol.
6. Minimum pressure of 3.5 bar at 20C

Also, a further stipulation is that the flavors and aromas must remain stable for at leaest three months in the bottle.

So many products on the market do not meet one or more of the specifications above an so will not be marketed under the awa Sake Kyoukai organization’s efforts. It might be alcohol that is not high enough, cheap rice, methods that do not comply, or added fruit flavors (legally rendering them something other than sake) or more. In fact, there are many well known, well marketed and very visible sparkling sake that are not a part of this organization. Which is fine.

The nine breweries are: Tenzan, Hakkaisan, Chiyomusubi, Shichiken, Nanbu Bijin, Mizubasho, Kikuizumi, Fukumitsuya and Dewatsuru. The current chairman is Noriyoshi Nagai, president of Mizubasho. Some of these breweries have more than one conforming product available, while two do not yet even have a conforming product on the market. More members as well as more products from those members can be expected.

While there are various opinions on sparkling sake overall, it is a real and fast growing sector of the sake market and should be encouraged. Note, too, that relatively little sparkling sake is being exported. A bit is, to be sure, and that bit is growing. Certainly the efforts of the awa Sake Kyokai will help that.

While it may or may not rival champagne in the future, the sparking sake sector is bubbling up, and likely to come to a head at some point in time. At least, it is certainly moving in a positive direction.

The End of the 2016 – 2017 Brewing Season: Koshiki-daoshi and Kaizo

It was well into the evening when the phone rang, but my caller i.d. told me the call was from the cell phone of the owner and presidente-for life of a kura with which I work closely. Since he fits into both the friend and business associate categories, I happily answered.

He began the conversation with the Japanese-language equivalent of, “Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty ha-a-a-a-mmered.” Not your typical call from the owner of a prestigious sake brewery, to say the least.

And to what do I owe this honor? Surely there must be a reason you have called at this hour and in this, er, state?

“Indeed, indeed. Today was ‘kaizo.’ It’s over. We are done for this season. That’s it. Owari! All we have to do is clean up and we are so outta here until the fall.” He seemed to momentarily forget he lived in the old house attached to the kura. “And, thanks to your support,” he continued with typical Japanese uber-humility, “we managed to finish the brewing season this year without any major difficulties.” I was fairly sure I had nothing to do with that, and of course politely deferred.

“Wow,” I responded. “That’s great. Congratulations. Another season down! I am sure you are relieved, and I am just as sure your sake will be great again this year.”

“Hold on. There is someone here that wants to talk to you.” The cell
phone got dropped at least twice and bashed into something made of glass on its way to whomever it was destined. Things like that happen in a room full of happy, buzzed sake brewers. Actually, I knew who it was going to be before I even heard the familiar voice.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty hammered too-hu-hu-hu.” It was the relatively young toji (master brewer). “We made it through yet another season. And thanks to your support, we finished without a hitch.” Yeah, yeah.

The true reason behind their call, driven though it was by the unbridled exuberance of the evening’s “kaizo” celebration, party, was to thank me for a positive assessment of a new sake they came out with that I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste several days earlier. I had coincidentally ran into the two of them, armed with a bottle, at a sake pub the night before a big Tokyo tasting. Regardless, it was great fun to hear from them, and congratulate them on completing the season.

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As many readers certainly recall, sake brewing runs roughly from the fall It all starts when this is harvested

until the spring. Just when a kura begins to brew sake and when they finish for the year depends on a number of factors, including of course how much they brew. On top of this, dynamics including the number of people actively working in the brewery, the number of tanks, size of the batches, how old or new their equipment is, and how often they start a batch will all combine to determine just when they start and end. But typically it runs from mid-October to mid-April.

As the season draws to a close, there are two significant days that the people in the brewery owners and brewers together will celebrate. One is called “koshiki-daoshi,” the other is “kaizou.”

“Koshiki-taoshi” refers to overturning the rice-steaming vat. The koshiki is the large vat in which rice is steamed every morning or so. Traditionally these were wooden, but rarely does one see that anymore. Most are steel these days, and in fact, many are fully automatic. Long ago, when the last vat of rice had been steamed, the koshiki would be turned on to its side, cleaned thoroughly, and left to dry and be put into storage until the next brewing season begins the next fall.

When the last batch of rice has been steamed for the year, and the koshiki has been knocked over for that final thorough cleaning, the brewers can see the light at the end of the brewing-season’s tunnel. Hence the the celebratory nature of the day.

Of course, that last day’s vat of rice will then be put into the last tank that is still fermenting, and after that there are still three weeks or more of waiting for that tank, and others still bubbling along, to finish fermenting, and then be pressed, filtered, pasteurized and sent to mature for a while. So even after koshiki-daoshi their work is far from done. Still, they know they are getting close to the end of six months or more of long, hard days.

“Kaizo,” on the other hand, is written with characters that mean “all (has been) made,” and naturally enough indicates the day on which the last tank has been completely finished, and therefore all the sake for the year has been brewed. All there is left to do is to sweep up, tidy up, and pack up.

Pour sakeAfter koshiki-daoshi, typically, the brewers and other employees of a sake brewery will often have a little bash in or nearby the kura. A nice dinner, warm toasts to each other, and plenty of sake. While, from what I have heard, it is more common to have this little party after koshiki-taoshi, obviously the folks at some places – such as those that called me in the story above – wait until kaizo, when presumably they can sleep late the next day.

Much has changed in the sake-brewing society, and while long ago the entire brewing staff lived in the brewery for the whole brewing season, which was six months or longer. Today, however, many (if not most) brewing personnel live close to the kura and commute. The significance of koshiki-daoshi and kaizo must have been much greater back then.
Nevertheless, both koshiki-daoshi and kaizo are culturally and historically important milestones in each kura’s brewing season.