Search Results for: ginjo

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!

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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.

Junmai Ginjo does not really exist, they told me.

While visiting an old, very prestigious brewer, I was looking at their lineup. There was no junmai amongst their ginjo offerings. While they had their share of junmai-shu itself, once you got into their ginjo world, there was only non-junmai ginjo products.

I inquired as to why this might be, since it was clearly not just a coincidence. I actually sorta knew, but wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And since no reason was being openly offered, I dared to ask.

I promptly got torn a new… well, let’s just say I was instructed as to the nature of my misperceptions.

By the way, Ginjo, in this usage refers to all types of ginjo, i.e. including daiginjo manifestations (basically, ginjo to dai for, so to speak!). And non-junmai here refers to types of sake to which a li’l bit of pure ethyl alcohol (most often distilled from sugar cane) has been added after fermentation, not for economical reasons, but for sound technical reasons. These include, but are not limited to, drawing out more flavors and aromas, and improved shelf life.

Back to their retooling of my perceptions, I was told: “There is no such thing as junmai-ginjo. Not here anyway. Never has been. And those that make it do not really understand what ginjo is all about. Nor do we care what the Ministry of Taxation says on the issue; their priorities are different than ours.” They expounded a bit, but the point was well taken.

And that point is that super premium sake like ginjo and its to-die-for manifestation daiginjo were developed with the addition of alcohol as an integrated and necessary step. The whole “junmai” version came later, and this particular brewer’s point is that the whole hullabaloo about junmai being more pure came later, and is actually not so traditional, as far as the brewing industry itself is concerned. And who’s to argue with them?

Certainly not I.

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The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here: http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html
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I am definitely not anti junmai at all. Far from it; very far from it. Nor do I question the

A traditional white-walled sake brewery, or "sakagura"

Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery)

validity of junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. I’m just sayin’…you know. I’m just sayin’ that non-junmai types – those made with a bit of pure, distilled alcohol added during the process – are not only valid, not only worthy of our support, but as far as ginjo is concerned, one could say that they are even more traditional. Or at least hold some brewers.

I dunno… I guess it seems to me that, in the sake brewing process, yeast makes alcohol. And some brewers, for some sake, will then add alcohol. It does not fortify the product, as just a little bit is added, and more water is added later to bring the alcohol content back down to “normal” levels. And what is added is pure ethyl alcohol. It’s the same stuff that is already in there. They just add a bit to temporarily (remember that!) raise the overall alcohol content for technical reasons. Just because it was made outside of the process and brought in does not make it unsavory. And no matter what some folks insist, no one can really tell the difference, at least not in premium sake (remember that too!).

So, I am, if anything, anti-anti-junmai, and double negatives notwithstanding, that almost means pro-added-alcohol.

Why? Because very often it makes the sake better – better flavor, better aromas, better shelf life, and very often, a better value. What’s to diss?

All I am saying is give non-junmai a chance; especially in the realm of ginjo.

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The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here: http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html
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Hiroshima is “The Birthplace of Ginjo”

Senzaburo MiuraOr so say some…

Ginjo sake, with all four of its sub-classes, is but seven percent of all sake brewed. Legally, it is defined by nothing more significant than how much the rice was milled before brewing. But technically, it calls for longer-term, lower-temperature fermentation.

How long and how low? Oh, perhaps 35 days fermenting in the tank for ginjo, versus about 20 days for lower grades, and perhaps 8C to 10C for ginjo versus 15C to 17C for regular sake.

But there are those (not surprisingly, the Hiroshima brewing community most prominent among them) that say ginjo brewing developed in Hiroshima. Why and how might this be?

They have Senzaburo Miura to thank for that.

 
 
Mr. Miura lived from 1847 to 1908, and had a challenging, yet varied and interesting life. In truth, while intending to just check a couple of facts for this article, I stumbled upon a veritable bottomless chasm of fascinating information that begs to shaped into a story. Just not this month…

In short, Senzaburo Miura came from a family running a very successful “general store” kind of business, which led to him starting a sake brewery. He went to Nada (which is partly in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, near Kyoto and Osaka), to learn from the masters in the center of the sake-brewing universe.

But across four years, his sake kept spoiling. This drove the sake-brewing part of the family enterprise out of business. As a side note, Imada Shuzo, brewers of the above-introduced Fukucho, bought some of their brewing equipment and tools when they ceased operations. What a small sake world!

Eventually, Mr. Miura’s search for better sake took him to Fushimi (in Kyoto city), where he first learned that brewing sake with hard water (like that in Nada) and brewing it with soft water (like that in Kyoto, and Hiroshima!) call for significantly different approaches. So he took this newfound knowledge back to Hiroshima, figured out how to adjust techniques to Hiroshima’s very soft water, and taught the brewing community in Hiroshima.

From which point sake in Hiroshima took off in quality and popularity, winning every prize in sight for a while. This is the short version of a long, fascinating story.

In any event, Hiroshima water is soft, which dictates slow fermentation, which calls for lower temperatures to chemically facilitate tasty, desirable results. And that calls for more time, since the whole process moves more slowly. This is what Senzaburo figured out: how to brew sake at lower temperatures over a longer period of time.

And this is how ginjo is brewed: at lower temperatures over a longer period of time. Hence, brewers in Hiroshima insist that, via the auspices of Senzaburo Miura, ginjo-shu brewing was developed in Hiroshima.

But there are likely other interpretations…

 

One Percent Seimai Buai Attained!

Tatenokawa Shuzo in Yamagata Prefecture has produced a sake with a one percent seimai buai. One. Percent.

The product is named Komyo. Only 1500 bottles (720ml) were made, and they went on sale for 100,000 yen (circa US$960) each on Sake Day, October 1. See the Tatenokawa website for information on the retail outlets handling it.

They used a Yamagata rice called Dewa Sansan, which is known to be harder than most i.e. will stand up to more milling without cracking or breaking. Still, they must have done something to specifically select the grains that went into this, since they would need to be relative large to begin with. In order to achieve the one percent, the milling machines ran for two and a half months straight, for a total of about 1800 hours. For a daiginjo milled to 35 percent, this usually takes about 72 hours.

I do not currently have any more detailed information than the above. If that comes my way I will share it in time. Also, I do not expect to be able to taste it, with only 150 bottles made. I’m OK with that.

As a quick review that may be superfluous, the seimai buai refers to how much the rice was milled before brewing. The number expressed refers to the percentage of the rice grain by weight that remains after milling. So a 70 percent seimai buai means that the outer 30 percent was milled away, leaving the inner 70 percent remaining. A 40 percent seimai buai means that after milling only 40 percent of the original grain remains. And, of course, a one percent seimai buai means that a ridiculously whopping 99 percent of the grain was milled away, leaving only the inner one percent of each grain of rice remaining.

Why is the rice milled? Because fat and protein that can inhibit fermentation and lead to rough flavors resides in the outer portion of the grains of rice, and milling more and more removes those offending compounds. Of course, this can go too far in the opinion of many, and milling too much can potentially strip the resulting sake of character. Not necessarily, mind you; just potentially.

While surely most readers recall, to qualify for daiginjo the rice must be milled to a seimai buai of 50 percent. It can be taken further, of course. The erstwhile maximum was 35 percent, but from a several years ago a few producers pushed that envelope. We saw sake made with a 23 percent seimai buai, then 18 percent seimai buai. Until October 1, though, the maximum on the market was seven percent, of which there were three (Tatenokawa, Raifuku of Ibaraki, and Hakurakusei of Miyagi).

Keep in mind more milling is not better. Sure, it makes the sake lighter and more refined. But that might not be what one wants to drink. And even if your preference is lighter, more refined sake, more milling will lead to that to a certain degree. But once a certain threshold is crossed, milling beyond that will not make the sake any lighter or more refined.

While plenty of 35 percent sake exist, many folks in the industry say going beyond 40 percent is meaningless. Furthermore, if a brewer uses a method of milling rice in such a way that it maintains the original oblong shape of each grain (rather than rounding them out), then a higher percentage of fat is removed with less milling. In that case, going much beyond 60 is moot, say some. (Such methods are called henpei seimai, or cho-henpai seimai, and were made well-known by Daishichi.)

Regardless, going to one percent seimai buai has no real technical merit. So, why do it?

Because it’s something to talk about. It is newsworthy. It is good marketing. People will remember your brand. In that sense, it is brilliant.

And, at one percent, you cannot be outdone. Or so you’d think. But never say never in the sake world.

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Interested in learning much MUCH more about sake? Enroll in the Sake Professional Course in Las Vegas, December 4 – 6

I will run the last Sake Professional Course of 2017 in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Hotel from Monday, December 4, through Wednesday December 6.

The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries. The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.

The cost for the three-day class, including all materials and sake for tasting, is US$899. Participation is limited and reservations can be made now to secure a seat; full payment is requested by November 15. You can read Testimonials from past participants here. You can see this information online here, and download it here. For reservations or inquiries, please send an email to sakeguy@gol.com.

 

“No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”

 

Breathe the Air from the Kura

At a recent event celebrating the 100th anniversary of a particular brewer, I found myself sitting across from another brewer. As we chatted, it became clear to me that he was a particularly clever marketing person. His sake has an aura of exclusivity to it, no doubt fueled by the owner’s crafty ideas – one of which he shared with me.

“Lemme show you something; didja ever try this?” he began. He pointed one of the several bottles sitting on the table that awaited consumption. The official “kanpai” had not yet been offered, so we had to resign ourselves to just looking for the time being.I was at first just a bit patronizing. But he soon had my attention.

“What do you see here, just above the sake, in the very top of this bottle?”

“Uh, air?,” I replied, genuinely confused at where he was heading.

“That’s right,” he shot back, putting my mind at ease. “That little bit of air is from the inside of the kura in which this sake was brewed. So, just upon opening a bottle of sake, before pouring it out, if you smell that and breathe it in, you are literally breathing and tasting the air of the kura itself. Trust me: doing that will really enhance the experience with that sake.”

This seemed genuinely interesting to me, its lack of scientific grounding notwithstanding. And so I tried it, a bit selfishly, on all the bottles on our table within my reach. No one noticed what I was doing but him, so no harm done.

Not surprisingly, it smelled like air. It smelled too like sake, especially the daiginjo bottles I opened. But I do admit there was something else, some vibe or feeling that consciously breathing in the air of kura evoked. And I also admit that the sake seemed to resonate with me more from the bottles on which I tried this. Imagination? Certainly, to some degree. But that’s cool.

There are of course downsides to this practice. Only one person gets to breathe in that kura-air. How does a group of drinkers decide this? Also, a couple of breweries put in nitrogen at the top to stave off any vestiges of oxidation. So that would mean we are breathing in the nitrogen from a gas factory in Saitama, then, right? But I digress.

Give it a try. Next time you open a bottle of sake, surreptitiously breathe in the air from a kura that has been making that sake for a long, long time. Odds are the sake will actually taste better

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The next Sake Professional Course will be held in Las Vegas on December 4 – 6. Click here for more information.

 

2017 National New Sake Tasting Competition Report

2017 National New Sake Compeition Report

In May, the 105th Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai was held in Japan. The official English name for this contest is the Japan Sake Awards, but the literal translation is much more descriptive if slightly unwieldy: the National New Sake Tasting Competition. It is the longest running competition of its kind anywhere in the world. Those interested can find more information in the archives of this newsletter (which go back to 1999!), in particular in the June or July editions for each year.

But to save you the hassle, here is a summary of the main points of this prestigious competition.

The sake submitted is not stuff you can normally buy, but rather daiginjo or junmai daiginjo made specifically for this contest. It is brewed to have a minimum of faults, but still seem unique and special. I often refer to it as “daiginjo on steroids.”

This year, 860 of Japan’s 1200 sakagura submitted an entry to the contest. Each company is allowed to submit one sake per brewing license, i.e. one per brewing facility owned. Some big companies own more than one facility so they would be permitted one for each.

Almost all of it is not junmai because using the added-alcohol step brings out more aromas and flavors. But this year, 156 of the 860 submissions were junmai, up from 139 a year ago. Clearly more brewers are interested in trying to win with junmai sake.

Koji baskets

Koji being cultivated in small trays

Sake is tasted blind in round one, and about half (this year, 437 to be exact) make it to round two. They are then tasted blind again, and about half (this year, 242 to be exact) of these will be designated as gold, the rest that made it into the second round are designated as prize-winners (the term “silver” is not used, although the gist is the same).

This year, 242 won gold, and 215 won silver. While prestigious within the sake industry, it is not that commonly used in marketing as the average consumer has no idea this contest even exists.

For the seventh time in eleven years, and fifth in a row, Fukushima Prefecture won more golds than any other prefecture, and as has been the case for the past decade, the entire Tohoku region did very, very well. In fact, much more interesting than Fukushima – with all due respect to their accomplishments – was Miyagi, where 20 sake out of the 23 total submitted got gold! Two more got silver as well. This was an unprecedented result.

This year, brewers were whining that the Yamada Nishiki rice that is most commonly used for contest sake like this was not dissolving easily in the fermenting mash. This means tight flavor profiles with little flavor expressed. But this proved to not be too much of a problem, although flavor profiles seemed to vary quite a bit from region to region.

Much winning sake was on the sweet side, with extra glucose to balance out bitterness contributed by yeasts that give fruity aromas. This seemed especially true in Fukushima, and only slightly less so in Miyagi.

While the sake submitted is not usually sake desitned for the market, the flavors, aromas, styles and leading prefectures are a harbinger of where sake is currently headed. Therein lies the contest’s appeal.

There is so much to be said about this competition: the changes over the years, the remarkably-few-yet-still-there-to-some-degree politics, the history, the records, the reasons it came to be. Much of that can be dug up in the archives of this newsletter, (see the end of the newsletter for more on that) but more importantly it seems as though amidst today’s sake popularity, more brewers and consumers as well are showing an interest in this historically and culturally significant competition.

You can see the results in Japanese here and in English here .

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Sake Professional Course  in Denver, Colorado
August 28-30, 2017

From Monday August 28 to Wednesday August 30, 2017, I will hold the 27th North American running of the Sake Professional Course at the University of Denver, (Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality, Daniels College of Business) in Denver, Colorado. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries.
The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.

You can learn more about the course here, see the daily syllabus here,and download a pdf here. If you are interested in being in the mailing list for direct course announcements, please send me an email to that purport.

Testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well.

Good News and Bad News from the sake industry

Recent stats in the sake world

We all like to talk about how rosy things are in the sake world these days. It continues to grow in popularity and consumption (with caveats as below) both in Japan and around the world. But if we look at some industry statistics, there are plenty of mixed signals.

For example: In a recent one-year period, a whopping 45 percent of all sake breweries did not make money. More correctly, though, they did not make money on selling sake alone. Often, family-owned brewing companies have other sources of income, like real estate or shops selling other products, or entire other business operations. As one brewer explained it to me, “our sake brewery is hundreds of years old, so even if it makes no money it functions as a calling-card, a marketing presence for our main business. People want to work with us because we are ‘that old sake-brewing family.’”

So while it is surely not optimal for any enterprise to be in the red, it does not mean that 45 percent are about to disappear.

Next, dig this: sake shipments last year were the lowest since 1955. This one shocked me, actually. Sake shipments peaked in 1973 and have been dropping ever since. But to have reached the lowest level in 61 years sounds heavy.

And it is heavy. But check out these facts too. One, futsuu-shu (non-premium sake) comprises about 65 percent of the market. And two, honjozo-shu (barely premium, but good, and actually just suffers from an image problem) is another ten percent. So between these two we have 75 percent of the market, and these two categories are the ones that are dropping. When 75 percent of the market drops at five to seven percent a year, overall numbers head south as well.

However, clearly premium sake, i.e. junmai and the four types of ginjo-shu, are all growing healthily. Very healthily, in fact, to the tune of six to thirteen percent a year. Naturally, the companies that focus on less expensive non premium sake are more concerned about this reality than those that focus on craft sake. The surge in public popularity of expressive and character-laden premium sake is palpable indeed.

I recently was chatting with a fairly large and traditional distributor in Tokyo about this current state of affairs. The numbers keep going down, I pointed out. “Surely you sell a ton of cheap sake as well as all this premium stuff here in this great shop of yours. Are those numbers not cause for concern?”

He waved that suggestion off with a slow, dismissing shake of the head and pursed lips. “Nah. Junmai-shu and the ginjo types are much more expensive, so the average price per unit is way up. Things continue to head in a positive direction for us,” he asserted. It is all a matter of perspective.

And then there are exports. It was recently reported that last year, sake exports grew yet again, setting a new record for the seventh year in a row. While just over three percent of sake is exported, that small market seems to be growing quite steadily at an average of about ten percent a year.

Finally, there was this positive piece of news. The number of active breweries actually grew last year by sixteen, to 1241. In my 24 years in this industry I have never seen the number of breweries actually increase. Of course, I could have just missed it, but to my recall each and every year they have been slowly dropping.

As usual, there is a bit more to the story. There are between 1600 and 1800 brewing licenses out there. Some belong places that do not brew but require license, such as bottling companies and some sake warehouses. So let us say 1700 or so.

And many of these that are actual breweries just ceased operations, yet held on to the hope they could start up again. This could be for any number of reasons, like gathering capital or waiting for the owner inherit to get a bit older, to just waiting for the market to bounce back. But for whatever reason, sixteen breweries restarted operations last year. This, to me, is very encouraging and positive. It made my day, in fact.

So things look good for sake in the years to come, even after wading through the quagmire of statistics that come out almost daily. Indeed, there has never been a better time to get into good sake.

Sake Rice Reality

What it is, and how much it’s used

If you have gotten this far – getting to this blog – then you surely know that sake is made from rice. So let’s start with that base assumption. No other fermentable material is used: no sugar, no grains. But much changes in the sake world, which is not always so proactive in presenting information to begin with. So let’s look at a handful of fun and interesting observations about rice and how it is used in the sake world.

First of all, there is sake rice and then there is everything else, rice-wise. Sake rice is known as shuzo koteki-mai, or less officially, sakamai. Often, regular rice is referred to as table rice. Shuzo Koteki-mai is a legal definition, i.e. there are officially registered sake rice varieties; not just any rice that aspires to it can in fact be a sake rice. There are physical differences.

Just about four percent of all rice grown in Japan is sake rice. And this is split across about one hundred varieties. About. It goes up and down a bit each year as new ones are tried and old ones fall off the list. And, much like grapes, if you know about a dozen, you are amongst most cognoscenti. But in truth, knowing about half that number will serve you well in eighty percent of premium sake situations you encounter.

But here is the thing: most sake is actually not made from proper sake rice.

Looking at the breakdown of the sake market, about 35 percent is considered premium, which means it qualifies for a special designation. What special designations would those be? Honjozo, junmai-shu, and the four types of ginjo. The remaining 65 percent does not qualify for those terms, and that 65 percent is considered just regular sake. Note, much of it is very enjoyable! ‘Tis not to be dissed, at least not outright. But the point here is that this 65 percent of all sake produced is not made with sake rice, but rather run-of-the-mill table rice.

However, almost all premium sake is made using sake rice. Doing so leads to much better sake with much less effort. Note, however, that this is not a law or even a rule. It is not at all obligatory to use sake rice for any sake, not even lofty daiginjo.

Why would a brewer not do so? Simple: cost. Sake rice is two to three times more expensive than normal rice, especially after some special rice-pricing breaks the distribution system allows sake brewers to utilize. So cost is huge. Another reason could be availability. In a low-yield year, there just might not be enough good sake rice to go around.

But for all intents and purposes, premium sake is in fact made using proper sake rice, whereas cheap sake generally is not.

As mentioned above, sake rice and table rice are physically different. Sake rice is larger: the grains themselves and the plants as well. Sake rice has more starch, and less fat and protein. Starch becomes sugar; sugar becomes alcohol. So more starch is good. You can eat sake rice, but that extra fat and protein make table rice taste better.

Sake rice also has those desirable starches physically located in the center of the grains, with fat and protein around that, near the surface. This makes it easy to mill away the outside of the grain and take that fat and protein away, leaving starch behind.

It is harder to grow, or at least to grow well. It calls for more effort and specific climactic conditions. And all these factors combine to make sake rice more expensive as well.

As mentioned above, there are about 100 varieties of sake rice registered. About. The most commonly encountered – and widely considered the best – is Yamada Nishiki. Other names to learn and remember are Gohyakumangoku, Miyama Nishiki, Omachi, and Hattan Nishiki. There are many more, but this small sampling will be found in much of the sake you enjoy. Still, you will encounter dozens of others if you pay attention to such things.

Rarely are they blended. Most often a given sake is made with one rice only. There are, of course, exceptions. One such exception is that sometimes Yamada Nishiki is used for the koji (the 20 percent of all the rice in a given batch that has enzyme-producing mold propagated onto it) since koji exerts the most leverage on the nature of the sake. A less expensive sake rice can be used for the remaining 80 percent, onto which the mold is not grown.

This method walks that fine line of quality and cost control, and walks it nicely. But again, it is not so commonly done. You could say that those that do it are going “against the grain.” (Sorry.)

An important concept related to sake and rice is that the choice of rice does not affect the final flavor and nature of the sake in quite the same way that the choice of grape might affect the nature and flavors of a wine. Yes, the choice of rice is very important. And yes, different rice varieties do lead to flavor profiles that can be associated with them – in general. But two toji (master brewers) can take the same rice, milled to the same degree, and make totally different sake in every way.

How? By creating the koji differently, or through the choice of yeast, or fermentation temperature or time in the tank. There are dozens of options at every step of the brewing process, and those choices hugely affect the nature of the sake. More so than the choice of rice? Perhaps; perhaps not. It depends on who you ask.

But using proper sake rice – and carefully selecting the right one for the job – is still a massively leveraging and important aspect of making great sake. Why? Because good sake rice allows a toji to express his or her skills through the sake. Proper sake rice lets the toji do his or her best work. It is predictable in how it behaves, and just which one is best depends on the style of sake, the region, and the experience of those that will handle it.

There is much, much more to be said about sake rice. There are trends, economics, politics, developments, history, culture and climate changes. Nothing ever sits still in the sake world.

But we can. We can sit still and enjoy the sake in front of us. That’s all we really need to do: enjoy sake. However, should it interest us, we can also begin to pay attention and take notes about rice types and the lore that surrounds each. It certainly enhances sake enjoyment.

Sake Professional Course in San Francisco, April 3 ~ 5, 2017

From Monday, April 3 until Wednesday April 5, I will hold the first Sake Professional Course of 2017 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco. If interested, for more information please send me an email at sakeguy@gol.com. “No sake stone remains left unturned” in this very comprehensive course. Learn more here.

Recent Industry News and Events

What’s Happening in the Sake World in Japan

 
Sake Tax Down, Wine Tax Up

Some fairly significant alcohol tax changes are afoot in Japan. And they will benefit sake domestic consumers in a good way. Sure, the savings to us that result from these changes will be moderate. And in fact, they will likely be offset by inflation, especially since they will kick in slowly over the next few years. But still, we’ll take what we can get.

In short, alcohol tax that the brewer pays to the government is going down for sake, but up for wine. When all is said and done, the tax will be the same on both beverages.

The tax on sake is the same for all grades of sake. While this was not the case before 1989, when higher grades commanded higher taxes, currently, the tax on all sake irrespective of grade or anything else is 120 yen a liter. On wine, however, it is 80 yen a liter. In the fall of 2020 this will change to 110 and 90 respectively, and from the fall of 2023 both sake and wine will be taxed at 100 yen a liter.

Admittedly, this is way out on the time horizon. And furthermore, it is about a 14 yen decrease on a 720ml bottle. By that time, much will have changed and the gains may be absorbed by inflation or a myriad of other influences. But hopefully it will benefit the industry at least a little bit.

One final note: sake that is exported is not subject to that alcohol beverage tax. So sake fans outside of Japan would never see what little benefits there might be.

 
Kaganoi Brewery Burns Down

On December 22nd of last year, there was a massive fire in the city of Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture. In total, 144 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Miraculously, no one died, although 11 were injured. It was a reminder of just how devastating fire can be in small village towns comprised of many old wooden buildings.

One sake brewery, Kaganoi Shuzo, brewers of Kaganoi sake, was severely damaged. All the employees were safe, but the kura building and its 350-year history were irreperably destroyed.

However, the company itself is part of a group of breweries operated by a stable umbrella company that operates several other sake breweries. Soon after the fire, it was announced that the brewers from Kaganoi would spend this season making sake at a sister company, the brewers of Ginban in nearby Toyama Prefecture. They plan to as soon as possible rebuild the kura in Itoigawa and return to brewing sake there.

It is very bold and courageous, and I want to support them as much as possible. If you see Kaganoi sake, express your support by buying a bottle!

Yamada Nishiki Piling Up

The rumor is that Yamada Nishiki rice is in excess these days.
A few years ago, due to the increase in popularity of premium sake, there was a shortage of Yamada Nishiki. Actually, there was more to the story than just ginjo’s rising popularity.

There is in Japan a government policy of “encouraging” rice farmers to decrease their production by paying stipends to those that stay within specified limits. This keeps the rice market stable since demand is going down and too much rice would lower prices to the point that rice farming becomes even more unprofitable.

While there are politics and more behind all of that, in short, when limits went down, rice farmers tended to axe sake rice first, as it is harder – or at least more hassle-laden – to grow and distribute. Also, they thought sake consumption was declining. It was, but only the cheap stuff. In short, there was a lack of communication between the sake industry and the rice farming industry.

A genuinely clever win-win solution was devised in which rice limits remained in place but orders for sake rice could be accepted and that sake rice grown, yet outside of the frame of any imposed limits. Bingo!

However, for a handful of reasons, Yamada Nishiki production has increased to the point where there is too much on the market now. This is not yet to the degree that it is a huge problem, and there are ways such as discounting to make that excess go away. But it is, in the end, an indication of just how complex and challenging balancing the needs and realities of both the sake industry and the rice farming industry can be.

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Sake Professional Course in San Francisco, April 3 ~ 5, 2017

From Monday, April 3 until Wednesday April 5, I will hold the first Sake Professional Course of 2017 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco. If interested, for more information please send me an email at sakeguy@gol.com. “No sake stone remains left unturned” in this very comprehensive course. Learn more here.

 

Yamagata Sake gets Geographical Indication

Note to readers: Just a few days after this newsletter was sent out, the government finished its open hearing, and it became official: Yamagata Sake has been granted bona fide Geographical Indication, the first entire prefecture to do that in the sake world. Congratulations to them!

The Sake of Yamagata Prefecture
…and its move toward bona fide Geographical Indication

Several years ago, in July of 2014, the Yamagata Prefecture Sake Brewers’ Association began the process of securing a designation of their sake as a Geographical Indication recognized by the World Trade Organization and various international treaties. In order to qualify for something like this, a product (any product applying for a GI) must possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. Securing such a designation gives the region and its producers the exclusive right to an appropriate indication on the label.

Japan’s National Tax Administration (“NTA”), the branch of the government overseeing sake, opened a Rice paddy sunsetpublic hearing on the topic on October 19 of this year. It was not made clear how long this stage will take, but assuming it does pass smoothly, Yamagata Sake will come into existence as a bona fide Geographical Indication (GI) for sake. One more region in Japan, the city of Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture, has qualified for a GI for the sake of that region. However, it only applies to the five breweries in city of Hakusan; the rest of the breweries in Ishikawa Prefecture are unaffected. Yamagata Prefecture will be the first entire prefecture to secure this distinction.

This will follow the NTA’s designation of “Japanese Sake” and “Nihonshu” for sake brewed in Japan, which were recognized December 25, 2015. In total, there are currently seven alcoholic beverage GI designations in Japan, other five applying to wine or shochu. Yamagata would be the eighth.

Once complete, the Yamagata Brewers’ Association will oversee things, and indications are that they will create a graphic image indicating the Yamagata GI for use by the 51 brewers in the prefecture.

Here is a bit more about the sake of this great region.

Yamagata prefecture lies packaged at a somewhat awkward angle in the lower left-hand corner of the Tohoku region. Surrounded by mountains but with a stretch open to the Japan Sea, it looks like it was designed specifically to absorb the cold and snow.

There are at present 51 sakagura brewing in Yamagata. The oldest of these dates back to the Japanese “Warring States” era of long civil war, while the youngest can trace their roots to the beginning of the Edo period. Even the new kid in town is an old and dignified character.

Most of these are smallish, traditional kura. While there are a couple of large-ish brewres, automation and computers, for all their cons, pros, advocates and foes in the brewing world, are certainly not unheard of up here, but they seem to be the exception and not the rule.

Those mountains and that big pond seem to have kept things all in the family for a good number of centuries. A great deal of the sake consumed in Yamagata is made there, and a comparatively small amount of what is brewed there leaves the prefecture, oh pity of pities.

To the southwest lies Niigata in all its brewing glory, and not too far to the northeast sits Iwate. Both prefectures are the home of a “toji ryuha,” or guild of master brewers, known as the Echigo Toji and Nanbu Toji respectively.

Despite this proximity to easily accessible experience, Yamagata has long handled things by themselves. In other words, the master brewer at most of the kura inYamagata are not from the major guilds in the nearby regions, but rather were “raised” inside the prefecture.

There is great cooperation amongst the kura in Yamagata with respect to education and training of these “home-grown toji.” In an interesting contrast to the sake-brewing sphere of most prefectures, ninety percent of the “kurabito” (brewery workers) are indigenous Yamagata locals. This spares them the long winters far from home historically so common among the brewing staff of the sake industry. Furthermore, there are a great number of kura not even adhering to the semi-feudal toji system.

The climate is ideal (read: cold and snowy) for brewing. Sake-slaying bacteria don’t exactly thrive at these temperatures. What does thrive, however, are several strains of wonderful sake rice that almost seems to challenge and sneer at the harshly cold weather. Much of the sake brewed here is made with such fine sake rice strains. These include Miyama Nishiki, Kame no O, Dewa Sansan, Dewa no Sato, and a handful of other Yamagata-only sake rice types as well.

The type of sake found here is in general relatively light and clean, often (but not always) with a good sturdy acid presence. But perhaps more than any other prefecture, much of the sake here seems to have an abundance of personal character and individuality. There seems to be plenty of uniquely distinct yet almost magically balanced sake. Having said that, the term that the prefecture promoted and that the NTA embraced in defining the qualities associated with the sake of the region was やわらかくて透明感のある酒質, yawarakakute tomeikan no aru shushitsu, or “sake with softness and clarity.”

The Brewers’ Association web page, found here and only in Japanese, refers to the region as “Ginjo Okoku,” or “The Empire of Ginjo-shu,” alluding to the extremely high ratio of sake brewed there that is ginjo-shu, especially when compared to that of other prefectures.

On the whole, the prefecture is active in continuing to improve their skills and the quality of their product. There are several strains of Yamagata-only yeast, as well as a special strain of koji developed in the region as well.

All of this combines to make Yamagata Prefecture a leader amongst the six prefectures of the Tohoku region, the northeastern part of Japan that has garnered great attention in the sake world over the last decade or so.

The granting of Yamagata Sake as a bona fide GI will certainly further the region’s efforts to convey to the rest of the world just how good their sake is.

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Sake Professional Course in San Francisco, April 3 ~ 5, 2017

From Monday, April 3 until Wednesday April 5, I will hold the first Sake Professional Course of 2017 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco. If interested, for more information please send me an email at sakeguy@gol.com.