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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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. “No sake stone remains left unturned” in this very comprehensive course. Learn more here.
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.
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 email@example.com. “No sake stone remains left unturned” in this very comprehensive course. Learn more here.
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 public 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sake is booming
Sake 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.
Only 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
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).
A 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.
Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.
Sake 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.
Wouldn’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.
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
Then, 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.
Summer 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.
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.
Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.
The 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.
In 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.
Why 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.
Note, 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.
Sake Professional Course
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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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 email@example.com .
In the April issue of blog, archived here, I wrote comprehensively and effusively about Yamada Nishiki, the current king of sake rice varieties. It is the most widely grown, and – amongst the 100 or so sake rice varieties in use today – it most easily lets brewers make the best sake they can.
Note the choice of wording. That diction was chosen to represent what most brewers and sake professionals try to convey. Yamada Nishiki itself does not necessarily lead to great sake; however, in the hands of a good toji, it is much easier to make great sake using that rice than any other. While certainly there are many opinions, most would agree on this, methinks.
What that really implies is, in the end, the skill, intention and techniques employed by a brewer contribute more to the final nature of a sake than the choice of rice. But the rice is also an extremely important factor, as that allows the brewer to work his or her craft to the utmost.
Curiously, many a toji (master brewer) will insist that it is his or her main role is to create a good environment for the koji and yeast so as to allow the sake to brew itself, and then basically get out of the way. But even through that interpretation, great rice like Yamada Nishiki makes that job easier.
As much adulation as I lavished upon it a few months ago, there is more to say that is historically quite interesting. Let us look at that here.
Before launching into its history and roots, let’s quickly review why it is significantly easier to make good sake using Yamada Nishiki. The grains are large, which means more potential for fermentable starch inside. The starches are concentrated in a ball of starch in the middle, and well centered, meaning it is easy to mill the outer fat and protein away, revealing only the starch. And, that protein and fat are at low levels to begin with, lowering the potential for off-flavors.
And again: it is favored by brewers less for how it ends up tasting than for how it behaves and how it can be handled in the fermenting mash. For example, it dissolves at an ideal, manageable speed. If the rice breaks down and dissolves and ferments too quickly, it can lead to a lot of off-flavors. But if it does not dissolve fast enough, the flavor has no character, or breadth or depth. Neither extreme is good, and Yamada Nishiki walks that fine line.
Looking back, there are a number of events and political changes that brought about the phenomenon of Yamada Nishiki.
The first big change was in 1874, six years after the Meiji Restoration, when the government changed the way rice growers were taxed. Until that time, rice farmers paid taxes with rice itself; a certain chunk of all that one grew was shipped off to the government for their use.
But after that change, tax was due in money based on the amount of land they owned. This means that all of a sudden rice was a commodity, a product to be sold on the marketplace that would lead to revenue to pay such taxes and cover living expenses and savings. As such, the more one grew the more one made, and farmers were all of a sudden very motivated to maximize yields and to do that by growing high-yield rice varieties. Sake rice varieties are decidedly not that kind of rice. So, even though demand for rice was increasing, the production of sake rice with its low yields began do prodigiously drop.
Then, in 1893, the government undertook research to identify and develop strains of rice more conducive to modern times and cultivation methods.
They formed a national agricultural research center and gathered all the rice types from all the localities they could, selected from amongst them a lineup that was particularly good, and got going with the research. The next year, Hyogo Prefecture started their own version of that research center that aligned their work with that of the national government. They then started looking for varieties that would be suitable to be selected as main ones to be used in a wider expansion that would benefit Hyogo’s agricultural economy.
Still, as mentioned above, sake rice production was on the decline. Compared to the easy to sell table rice, sake rice was hard to grow, it is quite tall and therefore falls over easily, and yields per field are much lower. It therefore costs farmers more to grow it, and there is less of a market for it. So in order to secure the high quality sake rice they needed, the brewers of Nada (modern day Kobe and Nishinomiya cities in the same prefecture, Hyogo, where the largest breweries have been for 250 years) created a contractual system with the farmers in the region (then known as the Harima region, now just a part of Hyogo) to secure a stable supply at a price that made it worth it to the farming community.
From about 1897, farmers and Nada brewers worked back and forth and hammered out these agreements that led to an system called muramai seido, which still exists to some degree today. It identified the best rice fields in Harima and set relative prices on rice from the surrounding fields as well. Once this was established, rice producing towns and villages or Harima began to sell their rice as a group, and the big brewers of Nada would purchase rice from those villages. This close cooperation helped the sake brewers to train and raise great rice farmers nearby. Note, though, that this all began even before Yamada Nishiki was created, and the rice from the Harima region was not as valued as it would later become.
Next, in 1912, the first rice varieties suitable for sake brewing that would promoted by the government as suitable for both large-scale cultivation and good for sake brewing (i.e. “sake rice”) were selected: Yamadaho and Wataribune. (Remember those names!)
Then in 1923, they manually crossbred Yamadaho and a version of Wataribune called Tankan Wataribune (“short-stalk” Wataribune) to create one strain that would be used for research. It was given the unglamorous name of Yama-watari 50-7 during that research stage. It did in fact get selected for as a rice the government would promote, and was in 1932 certified as a bona fide new rice type. Next it went into feasibility testing to assess its suitability to large scale production. Obviously, it passed, and was finally christened Yamada Nishiki in 1936.
However, it was not immediately recognized for its greatness and languished for a few years.
This is because the Nada brewers strongly preferred to use rice from what was then called the Hokusetsu region, which is now the northern part of neighboring Osaka Prefecture. They insisted it was softer and that it was easy to make koji using it. It was also considered to be fragrant and encouraged vigorous fermentation.
While this also may have been true, the truth is that they were very accustomed to the rice they had been using, and they were concerned that if they tried a new rice, it might be hard to get it to behave as they wanted to. It was easier to stick with what they knew. The risk of sake spoiling during fermentation, rendering the entire tank wasted, was higher in those days, and throwing another variable into the mix only increased the possibility of that happening.
Yamada Nishiki’s big break, so to speak, came in 1942, when the war necessitated rationing of rice. The rules surrounding this dictated that the brewers were not allowed to bring in rice from other prefectures, and had to use rice grown in their own prefecture. This seems natural considering the circumstances of the day.
So that meant that Nada brewers (remember, Nada is in Hyogo Prefecture, the next prefecture westward from Osaka) had to use Hyogo rice, not Osaka rice. And this meant that the brewers had no choice but to try this new Yamada Nishiki stuff from Hyogo.
Once they began to use it, though, they be like, “whoa, this stuff is good!” Using it, they found it was even easier to make good sake, and so turned their attention toward using increasingly more Yamada Nishiki. While it can be expensive, and while there are other great rice types, Hyogo-grown Yamada is still most brewers’ choice for at least their most extravagant sake.It has gradually grown in usage, but has always remained comparatively expensive. Although it is now the most widely grown sake rice, but it only took this lead in the mid-90s. Currently in Hyogo alone there are 5500 people growing it.
One reason it remains so good is that Hyogo growers take very good care of the DNA, so to speak. If one grows any rice and just haphazardly uses last year’s seeds to grow this year’s rice, pollen et al from other rice types will naturally get mixed in and the sake will lose its purity and its erstwhile main characteristics will become diluted. So at the sake rice research center in Hyoto, each and every seedling is inspected one at a time to be sure it has has maintained the original and necessary characteristics of Yamada Nishiki.
These are then grown to yield more seeds, which are then grown to yield even more seeds, that are then distributed to seed cooperatives, who then distribute the seeds to the farmers to use to grow the rice. So count ‘em: that is only three generations from purity each year, no seeds are any more than three generations from individually inspected and assessed purity. Dig that.
Of the myriad ways to enjoy sake, of course appreciating its flavors and aromas and its relaxing benefits are the most accessible. But the behind-the-scenes history, anecdotes and conversation fodder equally enjoyable. Well; almost.
Remember the roots of the rice the next time you enjoy Yamada Nishiki in a cup.
Sake Professional Course in Japan
From Tuesday, January 10 through Saturday, January 14, I will hold the annual Japan-based running of the Sake Professional Course in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. For more information and/or to make a reservation, please send me an email to that purport.
More information about the course, the schedule, the syllabus and the fun is available here, with a downloadable pdf there as well, and testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day courses wrap up with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation for a future course, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me.
The government in Japan, in particular the National Tax Administration, monitors trends in sake preferences amongst consumers, as expressed by trends in sake production. The results of the analysis of data from last year’s sake was released a short while ago. While it is nothing shocking, it is interesting to see how things change. Here are a couple of tendencies culled from that slurry of data.
- Drier junmai-shu
Junmai-shu continues to grow in popularity, although not as fast as a few years ago. But it has also continued to become drier on the average.
- Richer sake
Junmai-shu also has a higher amino acid content than other types, not surprisingly. But all sake in general is getting richer, as measured by a higher average amino acid content.
- Increased levels of ethyl caproate
Again, hardly surprising, but the level of the ester ethyl caproate, which leads to aromas like ripe apple, tropical fruit and licorice or anise, has been on the increase. Curse it. This is hardly surprising considering that ginjo and daiginjo continue to grow very strongly in popularity.
- Decreasing alcohol content in futsuu-shu
Non-premium sake has seen a decrease in alcohol content overall. Ginjo et cetera has seen alcohol levels stay fairly high, likely for increased impact, but in non-premium futsuu-shu alcohol has dropped a bit on the average. I am not sure what the significance of this point is, though, nor was it elucidated upon in the government report.
While most of these mini-trends are predicitble extensions of sake’s growth and popularity these days, it is fun to check the pulse of sake from time to time.