How Old is Old?

Longevity in the Sake Brewing World

The sake industry is an old one, to be sure. But just how old is old?

First consider that there are about 1240 breweries currently active. There were 2500 in 1988, about 5000 in the mid-seventies, and as many as 10,000 (although many of them miniscule in scale) in the 1930s. So there is no way of knowing how old many of the now long-gone sakagura may have been.

However, of the 1240 active right now, about 300 of them are over 200 years old. Check that fact: one fourth of the sake industry is over 200 years old. Wow. That is some serious longevity, serious history, and serious tradition. Almost all sakagura are family businesses, handed down from father to son – or recently, to daughter as well – a point that may encourage continuity across generations. Then again, maybe not.

Very few breweries are less than a century old, and perhaps ten are less than fifty years old. The Ministry of Taxation is loathe to give out new licenses in what has been a declining industry.

While one fourth are over 200 years old, many, many are much older than that. How long have the oldest of the old been around? Let us look at that list.

The oldest active sake brewery is Imanishi Shuzo in Nara, with records going back more than 900 years, making a sake called Mimurosugi. That means they were already around in 1117. Next is Sudo Honke, making Sato no Homare, with a 874 year history based on records from 1141.

It is hard to comprehend all that has happened in Japan, as well as in the world, during the last 874 to 900 years. Perhaps one of the few constants is that these two companies have been making sake.

Next is Hiraizumi Shuzo in Akita, making Hiraizumi sake since 1487, followed by Kenbishi Shuzo in Hyogo making the eponymous sake Kenbishi since 1505.

A quick tangent: In 1701 there was an incident in Japan known as the Old tanks at an old kura

Akao-jiken, in which 47 samurai avenged their master after a complicated plan spanning a year, and then took their own lives via ritual suicide at a temple in Edo (modern day Tokyo). Historical drawings show them drinking Kenbishi before setting out that fateful evening.

Fifth and sixth on the list are both from Shiga Prefecture, Yamaji Shuzo making Kitaguni Kaido since 1532, and Tomita Shuzo making Shichihonyari since 1534. Next at seventh is Shusen Kurano in Nagano making Kawanakajima since 1540, followed by Yoshinogawa in Niigata making Yoshinogawa since 1548 as the eight oldest brewery.

Ninth is Konishi Shuzo in Hyogo, where Shirayuki hs been brewed since 1550. And tenth is Ueda Shuzo in Nara making Seicho and Kicho since 1558.

Amongst these, some are big (Kenbishi, Shirayuki), some are medium-sized (Yoshinogawa) but the rest are small. Not surprisingly, all but two (Yoshinogawa and Hiraizumi) are located in western Japan, in the Kansai region, to which the roots of sake brewing can be traced.

So, yeah: sake brewing has been around for a while. And beyond the longest running ten listed here, there are many with three hundred and four hundred year histories. While this does not guaranteed their sake will be what you want to drink, knowing it has been going on for umpteen generations somehow makes it all that more appealing.

Why would any brewer use a foaming yeast?

Why make it harder than it needs to be?

There are countless varieties of yeast used in sake brewing today. Yeast converts sugar (that has been created when enzymes in the koji break down starch in the rice) into alcohol. So, no yeast, no sake. But it does much, much more. But the most evident expression of yeast in sake is aroma. Basically, yeast yields aromas.

If you smell banana and melon in your sake, that comes from the yeast. If you smell apple and anise, that comes from the yeast. If you smell bacon and smoke, that comes from bad yeast.

Almost all brewers select and manually add the yeast of their choice for each sake. And, in a very few cases, yeast can drop in from the air and naturally occur. These can be categorized in a handful of ways, most usefully perhaps in terms of “classic” yeasts and “modern” yeasts, with the former giving more overall balance and the latter being more aromatic.

But another way to categorize yeast is “foaming” and “non-foaming.” The difference is just as the terms imply: foaming yeast froths up on the top of the fermenting mash, whereas non-foaming yeast does not. Other than that, they are pretty much the same.

Foaming yeast are much, much more common and were in fact the standard for centuries. Why are the foamless ones foamless? What happens, it seems, is that most yeast cells will cling to bubbles of carbon dioxide that are created and then rise to the surface. Foamless yeast cells, on the other hand, for whatever reason do not cling to these bubbles and so are not carried up, up, and away. Since the bubbles are unencumbered, they pop, and there is no foam rising high above the mash.

Many yeasts have both foaming and non-foaming manifestations. An organization called the Nihon Jozo Kyokai (Brewing society of Japan) distributes the lion’s share of sake yeast to the industry. The yeast varieties they distribute are numbered, as in number 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, and 18. These are the most commonly seen, although there are others. When a -01 is added, that indicates a foamless version. So 601 is a foamless 6, 701 is a foamless 7, and 901 is a foamless 9.

During production, the two types of yeast behave very differently.

For instance, since the foam rises in great swaths during fermentation, brewers cannot fill a fermentation tank to the top with ingredients when using a foaming yeast. If they did, the foam would overflow, taking yeast with it, and fermentation would peter out. Using a foamless yeast eliminates this problem, since there is no foam to overflow. So the brewers can fill the tank to the top from the beginning, and this means brewers can get about 25 percent more sake from each tank. That is significant.

Also, when foam does rise and fall, the remains that cling to the side of the tank are a veritable hotbed of bacterial activity, an orgy of undesirable microorganisms just hankerin’ to drop back in and do damage to the unsuspecting ambrosia-in-waiting below. So this must be assiduously cleaned off by the brewers. Not only is this hard and time consuming work, it can be dangerous. So by eliminating the foamy remains, time, labor, and risk are spared. Yet one more advantage of foamless yeast is that the yeast cells move and work a bit more freely, so that fermentation proceeds a smidgeon faster and can finish a day or two earlier.

So foamless yeast is faster, easier, and increases per-tank yields significantly. This naturally begs the question: why in the world would a brewer not use a foamless yeast?

In a word (or two): sensory input. Visual data. Insights that chemical measurements cannot provide.

I recently visited the brewer of Matsuo, Ryuta Tanaka, deep in the backwoods of mountainous Nagano prefecture. As we meandered through his kura, we eventually made it to the moto room, where all the yeast starters are created. Most sake here is made using a yeast known as Number 14, the non-foaming counterpart of which is 14-01.

“All of our sake is made using foaming yeast; 14-01 is fine, but I gotta have the foam,” he began. “Sure, I give up yields. Sure, it is more of a hassle. But this sake stuff has a life of its own; it doesn’t always proceed as expected. So the more info I can get, the better I can roll with it and guide it to end up as tasty.”

During the 20 to 35 day fermentation period, the surface of the mash will change daily. After a few days, the foam will appear, peaking at about the tenth to the twelfth day, and then slowly collapse and contract into a skin-like surface. Experience and intuition let a master brewer look at the foam on any day and know how healthy the yeast is, and what the sake will end up tasting like when done. Foamless yeasts, for all their benefits, do not offer nearly as much visual feedback as to how the fermentation is proceeding.

Tanaka-san continued. “With experience, it is amazing what I can tell from the appearance of the foam. F’rinstance, I can look at the foam on any given day and tell you what the nihonshu-do will be on the next day!” The nihonshu-do is the specific gravity, and it will tell the brewer how fast sugar is being produced and how fast it is being fermented. So it is a seminally important measurement to sake brewing.

“Usually, we have to measure that daily with a hydrometer; but I can eyeball it based on the foam,” he stated, obviously pleased with this. “That’s the way sake has always been made; brewers used their five senses to get the job done. They didn’t need no stinkin’ hydrometers!” While I admittedly took a bit of liberty with that translation, the gist was certainly the same.

Last month in this space we talked about sadistic sake fans. While their counterparts may exist in masochistic brewers, often the older, hassle-laden ways are, indeed, better. While there are certainly many opinions, increased sensory data is one reason for that.

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.

Sadistic Sake Fans

Suffering does not (always) equal better sake

Sake sadists. They’re out there. You may be one of them. In truth, “sake romanticists” might be just as applicable a term, although it garners less attention. “Sake sadists” makes a better eye-grabbing headline.

To what does that refer? There are many people out there – inside Japan and out, Japanese and not, some that know their sake well and some that do not – that seem to like a sake better if they are led to believe that the brewing staff suffered more when brewing it.

Let’s sake that two glasses of sake were put before someone of this bent. And let us say that for the one on the right, he or she was told that, in order to make this level of quality, the koji was made in such a labor intensive way, and with so much more attention to detail, that the toji (master brewer) had to get up every 90 minutes to check on the moisture and temperature, every day for five months of the year. (Such sake exist!) And let us tell him or her that the one on the left was made using modern equipment that accomplished the same thing, without the koji-person needing to even get out of bed.

I can all but guarantee that if these two sake were placed before a sake sadist, he or she would like the one on the right. Deprival. Discomfort. Fatigue. Angst. These are sometimes mistakenly considered to be connected to craftsmanship and quality.

And in truth, sometimes they are. Very commonly the old ways do, in fact, lead to better sake. That is why they have been doing it that way for centuries upon centuries. But not always. Sometimes the ease and comfort that modern technology affords is, actually, just as good as the labor intensive ways, or even better.

Sometimes technology can in fact augment craftsmanship. Not replace it, mind you, but seriously augment it.

An example of this arose when visiting a brewery in Shimane (Ok, it was Rihaku) with a handful of visitors from the US. The president and toji-for-now was explaining how they made their koji. Let me preface this by saying that the company is now transitioning from having an old, experienced toji who could make do with a minimum of modern conveniences like thermometers and scales, and who still cranked out consistently great sake, to young staff that are far less experienced.

He led a dozen of us into his koji-making room. Therein, steamed rice with a mold sprinkled on it would spend 48 hours or so of pampering and tweaking, permitting the mold to grow into the rice, giving off the enzymes that will liquefy the rice, and convert its starch to sugar. Koji making: the heart of the sake brewing process.

He tapped the thigh-high stainless steel table with the heel of his palm as he spoke. “This entire table sits on a scale. We can see the weight of the rice that sits upon it,” he explained as he pointed to a red LED display in the corner.

“Moisture content is everything in completed koji. It guides the mold, and also affects how fast things dissolve. And we know for each batch of koji precisely what we want that moisture content to be.

“And, because we know how much dry rice we started with, once we load it up here and weigh it we know what the moisture content is at that point. Naturally, that means we know how much moisture we need the rice to give up through evaporation.”

He continued, obviously pleased with his new toy.

“By spreading the rice out over a larger and larger area of the table, we can create more surface area, and blow off less or more moisture, as needed. We adjust that moisture content during the first 24 hours of the koji-making process.”

He walked over to the corner of the table, and showed us what is basically a ruler along the edge of the table that indicates the distance from the edge. He then showed us a large, laminated card with a graph printed on it.

“Like I said, we know what we want the moisture to be when our koji is completed. And we know what the moisture content is when the rice comes into this room. So we know how much we need it to give off. And, finally, for a given thickness of the layer of rice sitting on this table, we know how much it will blow off, the speed at which it will dry out.
“So by looking at this graph, we can see that if the rice on the table weighs X kilos, then we spread the rice out on the table as far as point Y. If that is done properly, the perfect amount of moisture will evaporate, and we will have perfect moisture in the rice as we go into the crucial second day of koji making.

“If we set it up this way, with just one experienced person in here, heck, even you guys could make good sake.” This was immediately followed by a surely unintentionally condescending snort.

“But,” he continued, “consumers these days do not want to hear that. No one wants to hear how modern technology and clever ideas makes sake brewing easier. They want to hear how much effort and angst and hard work we had to do. They want to hear how we suffered to achieve that attention to detail.” He smiled wryly as he slowly shook his head.

“Somehow, people think that the more the brewer had to suffer, the better the sake. Of course, there are steps of the process in which that is close to true. But there are also plenty of clever tricks and modern tools that make sake that is just as good, with less effort.”

He then went on (and on) about how the old toji who had retired a few years ago made do with so much less. He was able to do much of his work without entire tables on scales or graphs. He was so experienced in his craft that he was able to do almost everything by observation, experience and intuition honed through years of dedication to his craft.

Surely there are still toji like that. But not many. As the industry changes, and the brewing staff at more and more kura change from old gnarly guys from the boonies to local youths enjoying a newfound passion, impossibly accurate intuition and modern tools will continue to coexist.

And it will therefore become increasingly important to rein in “sake sadism” and even “sake romanticism”. As long as it tastes and smells good to us, it matters not how it got there.

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.

Some Sake Market Numbers: the reality as it is

Sake is booming
Sake Warming Ultimate ToySake is booming; it is growing strongly in popularity both inside Japan and around the world. And while this is true, we still have a long way to go. In an effort to curb I.S.E. (irrational sake exuberance), here are some sobering statistics that will encourage us to drink more sake and to promote it actively.

Yes, it is beginning to grow in every metric. Exports grow at an average of over ten percent a year. The domestic premium sake market grows at closer to fifteen percent a year. The domestic non-premium contracts about seven percent a year, but that rate of contraction is decreasing, which is mumbo jumbo for saying that the cheap sake market too looks poised to grow soon. But here are some other statistics.

Sake is only 6.9 percent of all alcohol consumed in Japan.
Sure, this is growing slightly as well. But when a product in a market drops below ten percent it is considered an insignificant part of the market. ‘Course, it depends on how you define the relevant sectors. But the truth is that sake has dropped way down and is only starting to pull out of the quagmire of near-extinction.

Pour sakeOnly 3.2 percent of all sake made is exported
Yep. That is all. The silver lining is that this is up from less than two percent a scant three years ago. But with France and Italy exporting more than thirty percent of their wine, sake has a lot of potential for growth.

Sake is but 0.1 percent of all alcohol consumed in the US
This is not meant to be a US-centric newsletter! But the US imports more sake than any other country (with Korea very close behind), about 35 percent of all exported from Japan. And still, sake is only one tenth of one percent of all alcohol consumed in the US. It is likely this dismally low number is similar in other countries as well.

Sake Brewing is a Tough Business
tobiniri
Sixty percent of all sake breweries are small to mid-sized companies, of which half are either losing money or barely (i.e. insignificantly) profitable.

As the boom in sake is poised to help the craft sake industry more than the large-scale end of the industry, this will likely improve too. But for now, the reality is lots of red ink for about half the sake breweries in existence, in particular (but not limited to) the small family enterprises that comprise 60 percent of the industry.

A Quarter Million Tons of Rice
Last year, a quarter of a million tons of rice were used in sake brewing. Of that, about 90 thousand tons, or 36 percent, were proper sake rice (shuzo kouteki-mai).

chikurin20080711_1A quarter of a million tons. The fact that only thirty six percent was proper sake rice is not disconcerting at all, since so much non premium sake is made – it is still 65 percent of the market. So the numbers are just about right, even if a bit inconceivably large in scale.

Japan’s agricultural sector, and rice farming in particular, are hardly thriving. Rice is of huge significance to Japan’s agricultural industry, its history and its culture. Sake’s growth really does have the potential to help local communities and the agriculture industry overall. And it all ties in to you and I enjoying it more, where ever we are.

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Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.

This Year’s Rice Solubility – and how it affects sake

13withtweaksSake is, as we all know, brewed from rice. Rice, in turn, is a very focused expression of soil, climate, and each year’s weather conditions such as sunshine, rain and typhoons. Every growing season is different, and there are good years for sake rice and bad years for sake rice.

In most breweries, the toji (master brewer) will begin the brewing season with lower grades of sake. One goal in doing that is to be able to feel out the rice, to test it, to see how easily (or not) it will absorb water and, ultimately, dissolve into components while fermenting in the mash. The more easily it dissolves, the more flavor it will impart to the resulting sake. The less easily it dissolves, the lighter and more insipid the resulting sake will be. Finding the middle ground is key.

One great thing about sake brewing is that brewers can do a handful of things that can help the rice behave the way they want it to behave. In other words, they can make up for a bad year of rice and help the sake taste great again this year, at least to a certain degree. And naturally it helps tremendously if they know what is coming, and how to expect to have to deal with it.

 
riceWouldn’t it be great if someone analyzed it for them? Sure, brewers might know the weather of their immediate vicinity. But since rice can be brought in from other regions, wouldn’t it be great if the brewers could learn what to expect from each season’s rice, each of the main varieties of rice, from each region of Japan? Then they could use such data to determine how to tweak their brewing methods to adapt to each year’s and each region’s rice.

 

OK: Done.

The National Research Institute of Brewing is a research organization that has over its 110-year history been under the wing of multiple branches of the government of Japan, and also semi-privatized. Much could be written about this significant organization and what they do, and you can learn for yourself at www.nrib.go.jp if you like. But one thing they do each October is prepare a report for the brewing industry called the “Expected Suitability of This Year’s Rice to the Brewing Process.” (清酒原料米の酒造適性予測)

The short, four-page report talk firstly about its aim, which is explained above. It then runs down the average temperature in Japan for each ten day period in the two months of the growing season after the ears of rice appear, August and September, which are the key months related to the maturing of the grains. It briefly compares these to historical averages.

Next, the report runs down the eight major regions from northeast to southwest, commenting on the solubility of the rice for each, compared to both an average year, and to the previous year in particular

smallf chikurin 200801003_1Then, it waxes technical. It explains in excruciating detail how higher averages temperatures lead to longer Amylopectin (one of the two components of starch) chains. This means that the starches will dissolve very easily in the moromi (fermenting mash), which means more flavorful sake if controlled, but big-assed sloppy flavors if not reined in. It also accordingly means that resulting sake will be more susceptible to aging the adverse effects of aging.

Conversely, lower temperatures lead to shorter Amylopectin chains, meaning the starches will not dissolve very quickly or easily in the moromi, leading to lighter sake if done right, but tighter, shallower and less flavorful sake if its idiosyncrasies are not compensated for properly. Colder temperatures also lead to sake that will mature much more slowly, being reticent to give it up to the passage of time.

Curiously, one would think that the average reader of this report would not need to bone up on this stuff, so they must have had the intention of broadening the appeal of sake when they determined the content.

chikurin 20080902_3Summer in Japan this year was again hot, just about as hot as last year was. The warmer temperatures of the past decade and then some have continued. Furthermore, the islands of Japan were pummeled with typhoons this fall, meaning lots and lots of rain. Factoring in all that and more, the prognosis was that this year’s rice will be not dissolve very well; not too bad, mind you. Just not so well.

What does this mean in more concrete terms? It means that the brewers will need to do things like help the rice absorb a bit more water than usual so that it dissolves a bit more easily. This will ensure that sufficient flavor presents itself.

However, fear not! All is not lost! So much is involved in the complex sake-brewing process that a skillful brewer can often make up for a bad rice crop with effort, experience and intuition. In fact, what brewers strive for year after year is consistency in their main products out on the market. Naturally, there are inevitable changes each year, but a truly skillful toji will minimize these.

Fermenting mash ("moromi")That’s the cool thing about sake: in making it, we can meet nature half-way. What will most noticeably suffer are the highest grades of sake, contest sake especially. But for most of us, what we will be drinking will be as good as it usually is; but we should not forget that added burden that will be on rice farmers and brewers to make it that way. Sake, like wine, remains an integral expression of nature.

 

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Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.

Sake Confidential

 

 

Significance of Shinpaku

amanoto_dsc3593The main raw materials of sake are rice and water, and rice is the only fermentable material used in its production. And just as the grapes used to make good wine are significantly different from those bought at the supermarket, the rice used to make premium sake is significantly different from that which we find sitting under the fish in sushi, or in bowls in meals.

In truth, most sake – perhaps 75 percent of all produced – is actually made from regular table rice. And a lot of this is perfectly tasty sake. But when we meander into the realm of premium sake, especially ginjo, almost always it is made with proper sake rice, which is significantly different from regular table rice.

While there are many ways that sake rice differs from other types (size of the stalk, size of the grains, more starch, less fat and protein), the most talked about of them is surely the presence of a shinpaku.

kome-shimpakuIn proper sake rice, the higher-than-normal starch content is mostly concentrated in the center of the grains. Why is this so heart-warmingly special? Because we want to get at the starch, which will be converted to sugar and then into alcohol. But we don’t want the fat and protein, which would lead to off-flavors and contribute rough elements to the sake. So with the starch neatly concentrated in the center, all we need to do is to mill away more and more of the outside of the grain, and by doing that we remove the fat and protein and leave only the starchy goodies behind.

That packet of starch in the center is called the shinpaku. The word itself is written with the characters for “heart” and “white,” and not surprisingly, when one looks at sake rice, you can clearly see that the heart of the grain is an opaque white, with everything around that being somewhat translucent. In regular rice, however, the color is uniform throughout since the starch, fat and protein are more mixed up and uniformly distributed.

rices2Why does sake rice have the starch in the center, and fat and protein around that? Part of it is just the nature of those strains. But it also has to do with climate and growing conditions. Regions with hot days and cold nights are best for sake rice production, as the cold nights coerce the plant to send the starch to the center of the grains. In “bad years” for rice, seasons being too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, or when the night and day temperatures had less variance, fewer grains will have a decent shinpaku.

What is interesting is that it is not the starch itself that makes the center of the grains white. What happens is that the starch molecules are round at the ends, and as they rush to get to the middle they don’t interlock well, and they leave tiny air pockets between their ends. These diffuse light passing through, giving the opaque appearance we see.

Beyond different varieties or strains of rice, within each type there are grades based upon how well it was grown. This is a function of locale, climate, and skill of the producer. And one of the big points of assessment is the percentage of grains with a visible shinpaku. This is also one of the standards in the official assessment of sake rice versus table rice in general.

There are many more factors beyond the shinpaku and its size that are involved in qualifying good sake rice. But the shinpaku is the most visible, if not the most talked about.

kome-kurabeNote, too, that one can make decent-to-good sake from regular rice. It takes a good toji and good tools, but just a few of the many examples of table rice from which decent sake is brewed are Koshihikari, Sasanishiki, the illustrious Kame no O. So one can indeed make decent sake from table rice. It’s just easier to do so with real sake rice.

Finally, the question often arises, if a brewer is using table rice, why do they bother to mill down to 70, 60 or even 50 percent of the original size? If table rice has no shinpaku, isn’t that meaningless and wasteful?

The answer lies in the fact that in truth, all rice to some degree has more starch in the center and more fat and protein near the surface, whether or not this is manifested in a visible shinpaku. It is just that this is all more distinct in sake rice; much more starch is in the center, and much more of the fat and protein is near the outside of the grains.

So more milling will have a positive effect on table rice as well when it is used in sake brewing, just not as pronounced as with good sake rice. As usual with sake-related things, it’s all a tad vague.

 

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Sake Professional Course
in Japan 

Tuesday, January 10 ~ Saturday, January 14, 2017
Recognized by the Sake Education Council

No sake stone remains left unturned

“Quite simply, the best and most thorough sake education on the planet.”

From Tuesday, January 10 to Saturday, January 14,  I will hold the 14th  running (and 38th overall) of the Sake Professional Course in Japan.

SPC 1The Sake Professional Course in Japan is far and away the best possible sake education in existence. Three days of lecture and tasting, each evening capped off with dinner and fine, fine sake, followed by two days spent visiting four sake breweries of different size and scale – punctuated again with fine sake and a great meal each evening make this course as comprehensive as it could be. If you are serious about sake, and especially about working with sake, there is no other course for you; this is it. Satisfaction is guaranteed.

The course is recognized by the not-for-profit organization The Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered near the end of the week.

Flavor ElementsThe course will be held from the morning of Tuesday, January 10 to the evening of Saturday, January 14,2017, and will be focused in Tokyo, but with a two- day excursion to the Osaka – Kyoto – Kobe area to visit four sake breweries of various scale. Geared toward professionals, but open to anyone with an interest in sake, this course will begin with the basics, and will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. It will consist of classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions, four sake brewery visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food. Participants will stay together at hotels in Tokyo and Osaka. Lectures will take place in a comfortable classroom, and evening meals will be off-site at various sake- related establishments.

The goal of this course is that “no sake stone remains left unturned,” and the motto is “exceed expectations.”

During the three classroom days, we will discuss various aspects of sake and the sake world, including grades, production, rice, yeast, koji, water and more. Tastings specific to the just-discussed topics follow each lecture, thereby allowing participants to understand with their senses the theory just presented. Participants will not simply hear about differences based on rice types or yeast types, they will taste and smell them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and regionality, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well.

Food and sake, the state of the sake-brewing industry, the culture and history suffusing sake are regionality are just a few more of the wide range of topics to be covered. Every conceivable sake-related topic will be touched upon, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting session.

Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

The Tokyo classroom venue is the Japan Sake and Shochu Producers Association in the Shimbashi area.

Yeast cellsThe cost for this five-day educational experience is ¥190,000. This includes all instruction and materials, as well as evening meals with plenty of sake each night. Other meals, transportation to and from as well as within Japan, and hotel are not included in the tuition. To make a reservation or if you have any questions at all, please send an email to John Gauntner at sakeguy@gol.com .

For more information, a downloadable pdf announcement and a view of the daily syllabus, please go here . Testimonials from past participants can be found here as well.