Some Guys Just Don’t Know When to Quit

…or maybe they can’t.

Some guys just don’t know when to quit – or can’t quit – making sake.

Mr. Naohiko Noguchi is one of the most decorated, respected, accomplished and famous toji (master brewers) in the history of the sake brewing industry. And at 84 years of age, he is coming out of retirement for the fourth time to brew sake at a new brewery starting up next month. At 84. That’s eighty-four. As in LXXXIV. As in “hachijuyon.” One would think enough is enough; not for some folks.

He does have people running the financial and business side of things. According to some sources, the details are a bit murky in a way that is beyond the scope of this newsletter. But the point is that he has most things taken care of, all he has to do is concentrate on brewing sake. And that is certainly plenty.

But this all begs the question, why? Quite simply, he loves the work. He cannot imagine himself not doing it. It is such a part of his being that if he is not brewing sake, he gets sick. Literally.

A bit more about this illustrious toji: He started brewing at age 16, and worked his way up the ranks for a few years at a handful of kura. He joined Kikuhime in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1961 and brewed sake there for 36 years. He retired from that company, and came out of retirement down the street (figuratively) a few days later at the brewery making Jokigen, also in Ishikawa. After a decade and a half there, he retired again, and this time he probably meant it. But he resurfaced after taking one season off, to make sake at the eponymous Noguchi Shuzo. One year there, two more off, and he is back at it again.

He is famously known as one of the four “Noto Toji no Shiten-o,” or “Four Guardians of Heaven of the Noto Toji Guild,” along with three others. Across his tenure at the first two kura, he won 27 gold medals at the annual National New Sake Tasting Competition, and was designated as a “contemporary master craftsman” by the Japanese government. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and verified he was sharp as a tack, and not nearly as scary as I had expected. You can read about that here.

He was not likely the easiest guy to work for. Not that I would know. But one does not get that good at a craft like sake brewing by being laid back and lackadaisical. He was surely particular about his ways. An attitude of, “Ah, that’s likely good enough…” is neither part nor parcel of sake brewing at that level.

In fact, a friend of mine actually worked under him for twelve years at Kikuhime. But it was another ten years after the time that Noguchi-san retired (uh, the first time) that he could actually speak directly to him. Even while toiling under his direction, their difference in hierarchical rank was so great that all communication had to go through someone else. Wow. (Nowadays, they actually hang out from time to time.)

Back to the question of why: he has gone on record saying that he wants to spend the rest of his life doing what he loves best. Furthermore, he is convinced it is actually better for his health – even at age 84 – to continue brewing sake.

His body concurs. He has become ill, including a bout with cancer, when not brewing. His family has naturally expressed concern with his plans to keep at it, but he has expressed that “Continuing to brew sake will actually keep me healthy. I will be satisfied if I can die brewing sake,” he said.

Mr. Noguchi’s trademark style of sake is not for the light-hearted. He excels at making yamahai, but not just any yamahai, what I like to call “two-by-four-upside-the-head” yamahai. Very rich, full, with oodles of umami and the acidity to drive it home. It laughs in the face of maturity, and in fact revels in aging. The color is inevitably a gorgeous golden. He cannot even spell “charcoal filtration.” It is, ultimately exquisitely balanced and delicious. But light and fruity it ain’t.

Of course, he may change all that this coming season when he starts again. But at 84, probably not.

Rumor has it that Mr. Noguchi will make a limited amount of sake at his new brewery. It will certainly be hard to score some. But I will certainly at least try, of course.

You can read an interview (in Japanese) of Mr. Noguchi here .

The website (in Japanese) for the new brewing venture is here .

Pilfering Yeast

Yeast StarterBrewer Number One stood up and faced the crowd. And he talked about his sake. Its lively yet balanced nature is the result of a family of yeasts, one of which was discovered at his brewery several decades ago, he explains. It has contributed to – if not created – the high reputation enjoyed by all of the sake in that region, which only came into sake prominence about 30 years ago.

Brewer Number Two spoke next. While several years younger than Number One, they are friends (or were, anyway) and both went to Tokyo Agricultural University, the “UC Davis of the sake world.” With his typically dry sense of humor, he jokingly (or so we thought) explained how Number One’s father actually stole that yeast from his brewery to get it all started.

Several days later, Brewer Number One send Brewer Number Two an email that basically e-tore him a new e-asshole. “You should not be saying groundless and untrue things like that; you will confuse and mislead people.”

While it was an email between the two of them, I know Number Two well enough that later, he told me about it, and even showed me the e-tearing email. “I actually thought it was a true story, but it seems I was confusing my anecdotes. I have cleared that up now, but not before Number One laid into me about it.”

What is this all about, this stealing of yeast? How does one steal a naturally occurring micro-organism, and why would one if it is just floating around in the air? I mean, you can’t just stuff it in your pocket and walk out the door, can you? And is it illegal?

Yeast CellsYeast is massively important to the making of great sake. While they contribute to aromas more than anything else, good yeasts will also ferment strongly and not peter out too early, tolerate high levels of alcohol, yield appropriate levels of acidity that are not too high nor low, and much more.

While long ago all yeast was naturally occurring, dropping in from the ambient environment, these days brewers get yeast from a few supply chains. These often include local research centers as well. Sometimes, as in the case of Brewer Number One, these yeasts never officially leave the prefecture. And there are those brewers that still use proprietary yeasts, stuff they found in their brewery that does not get released, which is how it all used to be.

And so, if you could get your grubby little paws on the yeast from a great brewery, you could often use it yourself, transposing its main characteristics onto those of your own brewery and sake. And doing so surely would not be illegal, provided that something like “breaking and entering” was not involved.

Nothing like this takes place these days, of course. With so many great yeast strains so easily available, there is no reason to do so. But in the not too distant past, it did happen from time to time.

How does one steal micro-organisms that one cannot see?

Oh, let’s say you visit a brewery whose sake you respect. You just want to pass through, see their setup, ask a question or two and see if you can learn a thing or two from the venerable toji. And as you look down into a tank of fermenting mash and its rising swaths of foam, you smell the aromatic goodness and note how vigorously it is fermenting. Just before you move on to the next tank you let your hand nonchalantly drop down near the surface and scoop up a fingerful of foam. And as you turn to walk away, you casually wipe that off on the underside of the brim of your baseball cap. You just stole their yeast.

When you get back to your own kura, you wash off that area of your cap or sleeve and do what you need to do to revive and let multiply the yeast you know is in that slightly grimy discoloration on your cap. If you do it properly, you will be able to propagate that and eventually use it in your own sake.

While surely not simple, it is far from impossible, and happened often enough that many kura were loathe to let brewing personnel from other companies visit them. Or so I have heard.

Foam on the top of a fermenting mashAgain, this really does not happen anymore; nor was it ever a huge industry problem. But I have heard about it from several brewers, elevating it above simple legend. Also, just getting a good yeast is not the end of the challenge. A brewer with any new yeast needs to learn its idiosyncrasies during preparation, throughout fermentation, and beyond.

Furthermore, they would not be able to talk about it, and brag how it was painstakingly isolated over several years from amongst ten thousand others by the prefectural research center, or any other such romantic story. Nope.

Nor would it have roots or traceability. All they could really do is call it, “proprietary.” So there are no huge advantage to doing this, nor any real need anymore. It’s a bit like stealing sand from the beach.

But back to our true story, enter Brewer Number Three, nicknamed Mr. Unabashedly Unscrupulous. Apparently, he did in fact visit Brewer Number Two years ago and did in fact steal their yeast. However, he was not able to successfully reconstitute it, and as such it was all for naught. In time, he ‘fessed up about it; no harm done. But wow. Such audacity.

And, when Brewery Number Two chided Brewer Number One about his father’s supposed heist, it seems he was crossing his wires.

“Yeah, I mixed up my yeast-thievery stories and characters,” he admitted to me later. “I suppose I should check my facts before saying things like that in public…” he conciliatorily conceded.

Again, to be clear: this is not something that happens anymore, and is certainly not a problem in the industry. It is nothing more than a fun little anecdote that goes far to convey the important role that yeast plays in making great sake.

The only thing that we need to remember is that the gift of aromas you enjoy in your sake tonight are driven by the choice of yeast.

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SPC DenverInterested in learning more about sake? There are just about seven seats remaining open for Sake Professional Course in Denver, August 28 to 30. Learn more here .

Ten Reasons to be in Denver

The next Sake Professional Course will take place in Denver, August 28, 29 and 30, 2017. Here are ten reasons you really want to be in one of the ten remaining seats.

10. No sake stone remains left unturned. Every single aspect of the sake world is covered in excruciating detail.

9. Certification: you can become a Certified Sake Professional as recognized by the Sake Education Council.

8. Just one more reason to spend three days in Denver in early autumn!

7. You have been working hard, and deserve a break that is only three days, fun and educational, and that will serve you for a lifetime. 

6. The 1500 or so folks that have already taken the course across the past 11 years have good things to say about it.

5. It is organized, flows logically, and manages to get a massive amount of sake information internalized in three short days.

4. You’ll learn about koji, toji, yamahai, kimoto and muroku nama genshu – and taste them all! (Well, not the toji…)

3. You will become eligible for the Level II Course, with Advanced Sake Professional certification testing, held in Japan in February of each year, from which only about 220 people have graduated.

2. This course opens the door to a lifelong romance with what is easily the world’s most interesting and steeped-in-culture drink.

1. You will taste upwards of 90 (count ‘em!) sake across three days. Nowhere else can you get exposed to so many in a focused environment.

 

Learn more about the course here

Read testimonials from those that have taken in in the past here

To sign up, or if you have any questions, please send an email to sakeguy@gol.com .

 

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.

Repudiate Nothing in the Sake World

Old and new can co-exist

I recently shared a glass of sake or three with a brewer that is half my age. That itself ain’t saying much, getting up there as I am, but my real point is that he is clearly of the “changing of the guard” group of brewers in the industry. In other words, he is of the generation that has recently taken over that is chock full of new ideas.

And one of those is pasteurization. More specifically, there is a solid trend of pasteurizing sake only one time amongst many (young) sake brewers these days. To summarize the issue, sake is pasteurized by heating it to 65C or so to stabilize it. Leaving it unpasteurized (nama) leaves it susceptible to going bad. Pasteurizing it kills any suspect bacteria and deactivates the enzymes that would help feed them. If it is not pasteurized, it needs to be kept refrigerated to prevent the offending chemical reactions from taking place.

Usually this is done twice, once after brewing and before maturing for a few months, and once again after the maturing period is finished, just before bottling. However, either the first or the second can be avoided – and stability can be ensured – by either maturing in bottles so as to spare the sake exposure to the air, or keeping the sake cold during that maturation period. Either will work; so will both together.

Why bother? Because pasteurizing can in fact strip some character from the sake. The less you have to mess with it, the fresher it will be.

Basically. Yet, the other side of the pasteurization coin is that pasteurized sake can have more depth and resonance than nama (unpasteurized) sake. Some nama tastes and smells like nama – and not much else.

However, undoubtedly there is a trend toward pasteurizing only once rather than twice. And it seems more common in sake made by younger brewers with the willingness to try new things.

Still, the half-my-age-brewer in question is perhaps a bit more traditional than most. He is also technically very adept via both education at the Tokyo Agricultural University Brewing Studies department, and experience, having worked in a brewery his whole (short) life. He still pasteurizes his sake twice, knowing well that it does not need to detract at all from quality or liveliness if done properly. Also, his sake is a bit more solid and earthy than most, and therefore more tolerant of such handling. Or so I think.

And so, Half-my-age was at a conference of brewers, discussing quality and trends, run by a distributor of an outstanding lineup of sake that is not the least bit shy about sharing his opinions of how things should be, reality be damned. When Half-my-age described how he still pasteurized twice, Not-the-least-bit-shy retorted, “Hm. I didn’t know there were any sake brewers at all that still pasteurize twice!”

That must have smarted. Or rather, that would have smarted a bit to most, but Half-my-age has a temperament that lets it all roll off his back, and the confidence of one who with education and experience to know better. Not-the-least-bit-shy has neither.

His reply was, “If you keep the sake appropriately chilled for the months between pasteurizations, character and quality are one hundred percent maintained.” And he added, “one should repudiate nothing” in the sake world.

“Repudiate nothing.” That is something we would all do well to remember as we trek through the world of sake.

The above example with Half-my-age and Not-the-least-bit-shy is but one example about one small step of the brewing process. “Repudiate nothing” applies to any step in the process: new yeast versus old yeast, scales of operation, automation in brewing. It also applies to marketing methods as well. When something new comes along that holds promise, that does not automatically negate something old.

Of course, this goes both ways. Just because things have been done one way for a thousand years does not mean that a new way could not possibly better. Repudiate not the modern methods either.

Also, things cycle. What was old becomes new again. New ideas get tried, and reborn after some adjustment. Everything is valid; nothing should be discounted or rejected.

This is not a philosophical exercise; it is a very worthy effort. If we think that because a sake is made a particular way, be it yamahai or by a large brewer or using modern yeast, then it cannot possibly be good, or as good, or definitely taste a particular way, then we rob ourselves of potentially enjoying something special.

Certainly, not everyone will agree. There are those that will insist that only the old traditional ways, methods and styles are proper. And there will likewise be those that disdain anything older than a decade or so. But heed them not. Like all things sake, balance is the key. Nevertheless, to “repudiate nothing” will surely make sake more enjoyable for you.

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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.

 

Sparkling Sake Assocation: awa Sake Kyokai

Announcing the establishment of the “awa Sake Kyokai”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those conditions are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.