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.

Sadistic Sake Fans

Suffering does not (always) equal better sake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continued, obviously pleased with his new toy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sake Rice Reality

What it is, and how much it’s used

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Industry News and Events

What’s Happening in the Sake World in Japan

 
Sake Tax Down, Wine Tax Up

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

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

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

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

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

 
Kaganoi Brewery Burns Down

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

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

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

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

Yamada Nishiki Piling Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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