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Certainly, change pretty much defines our world today, and the sake brewing world is not excepted from that truth. In particular, the changes within the sake world over the last 30 years in who actually does the brewing are pretty astounding.
There is one master brewer per brewery, and that person is called the toji. Almost always this was – and is – man, but currently perhaps 40 or 50 out of the 1100 or 1200 active kura have a toji that is a woman.
But long ago – and not so long ago – the toji in any given brewery was dispatched from his guild in the countryside. There were about 30 to 35 toji guilds across Japan long ago, although many of them are now defunct as their membership declined along with the number of breweries.
But back in the day, the toji was a seasonal employee. He may have worked at the same brewery every year for decades and decades, but each year was a new, one-year contract. Originally, the toji would receive a chunk of money from the brewery owner, and he would hire and pay everyone else, buy the rice, and just get the job done. That was not really a hard and fast rule, but even as recently as 30 years ago, most breweries in the industry were run by seasonally employed toji.
Slowly things changed. The need for year-round employment led to changes that included toji and brewing staff more commonly becoming year-round employees of the brewing company, replete with the benefits, like a paycheck in twelve rather than only six months of the year. When not brewing, other tasks could be handled, or hours could be seasonally juggled.
Another change included members of the brewery-owning family to take over the brewing themselves. Sometimes this was out of interest and passion, other times out of necessity. It is hard to run a small family business when all of the technical skill for creating your product is in the hands of someone that is but a seasonal hire, and not even a member of the family.
So what this led to is basically three genre of toji: those there are only seasonally employed toji from one of the guilds, toji that are year-round company employees, and toji that are family members. Note, too, that there is some overlap. Toji coming in from the countryside can be from the traditional guilds, but still be full-time employees (not just seasonal employees). And conversely, family members and local hires can be associated with one of the guilds in the boonies, for educational and informational exchange and support.
With that as the background, let us look at some very interesting numbers.
Thirty-two years ago, in 1986, 74 percent of the toji in the (then, much larger) industry were seasonal hires, not full-time employees. In 1996, a scant 10 years hence, that number had dropped to 62 percent. In 2006 it had dropped to 35.5 percent, and in 2016 it was down to only 16 percent of all breweries in the industry that had seasonally employed toji from the traditional guilds. Wow.
Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing; it is just … different. The industry is half the size of what it was back then, and the percentage of toji that are seasonal employees is a quarter of what it used to be. And whether or not a toji is seasonally hired or not has no direct influence on his or her skills, nor the quality of the sake. I’m just sayin’.
Looking at the other side of the toji coin, in 1986 only 12 percent of the toji in the industry had secure, year-round employment with the company. Sparing you the gory details of the decades in between, toji that are year-round full time employees went from that to 38 percent in 2016. And toji that are a member of the owning family went from a mere 14 percent in ’86 to a whopping 47 percent in 2016.
What this means, at a glance, is that almost half of the 1100 to 1200 sake breweries active today have family members in charge of the brewing operations.
Again, bear in mind there are several dynamics at work simultaneously, and that looking at the above number alone will not lead to any firm conclusion. One thing that has led to this is a very positive thing: the availability of reference material, education opportunities, and the infrastructure that allows almost instant communication. No longer does a brewery-owning family need to rely on an old codger from the boonies with a thick country accent. Just send the kids to brewing school, and keep in touch with friends running other breweries. That flow of information, and lots of patience and experience, is very commonly how sake is brewed in this modern era.
Nevertheless, it is interesting, and surely, there are at least a few out there that will feel a nostalgic pang at the decline and loss of the tradition-laden historical guilds, myself included.
Learn much, much more about toji guilds here.
For those that are interested, the brewery workers under the toji are called kurabito, the brewery-owning family and family members are called kuramoto, and the brewery itself is a kura or sakagura.
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The Sake Professional Course scheduled for April 23 to 25 in Brooklyn New York is full. Thanks to all those that signed up! The next one will be in Miami in September. If interested, please send an email to that purport to sakeguy @ gol.com. Learn more about the Sake Professional Course here.
Bad puns notwithstanding, readers may recall that when making sake, after the typically three-to-five week long fermentation period during which rice is dissolving in the tank, and the resulting sugar is converted to alcohol, the sake at that point will be a white liquid, basically pure sake and rice solids remaining from the process. The remaining rice solids, lees as it were, need to be filtered out before the sake is bottled.
This is, clearly, a filtration. But since there are other filtration steps later that remove color and rough flavors, many refer to this step as “pressing.” So the just fermented mash is pressed through a mesh to yield clear, fresh sake.
But in short, the machine does a great job, and easily more than 99 percent of all sake made is pressed using a machine. The box press takes more time and effort, and the drip press takes even more.
In short, as one goes from machine to box to drip, the intensity and expressiveness of flavors and aromas of the resulting sake increase. So does cost, appropriately so. But yields, however, decrease, which is also hardly surprising.
So going from machine to box to drip, the whole thing gets more extravagant. Based on this, one would naturally think that box pressed sake will in general be better than machine pressed sake, and drip pressed sake would in general be better than box pressed sake. So one would think that going from machine to box to drip is always better. But it ain’t.
Why not? Because things are never that simple in the sake world. Never.
In spite of the above caveat, yes, most of the time drip-pressed sake – called shizuku – is the best stuff available. Wastefully extravagant and quite impactful (sometimes even downright intense) in flavors and aromas. This is usually what is sent to contests.
And the box-pressed stuff, pressed by laying meter-long tubular bags of filled with fermented mash into a wooden box and pressing the lid into that box, is next best. But this method too takes a lot of effort. Machine pressed sake is by far the most efficient to make – just plug and play. And while this is simplest, it tends to be the most staid.
The two “better” methods take longer than the machine. And that means that oxygen has more time to interact with the sake.
However, in recent years, the use of modern yeasts that create highly volatile aromatics have skewed this logic, at least in the opinion of some brewers. One such brewer is the energetic and animated (read: study-in-contstant-motion) Kosuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin in Iwate Prefecture.
Kuji-san uses a wide range of yeasts, but many of his sake make the most out of families of yeast that yield sake that are full of prominent apple, pineapple and licorice notes. These “modern yeasts” lead to sake that is full of esters which are quite volatile, in other words, they evaporate and disappear quickly in the presence of oxygen.
As Kuji-san puts it, “If you are going to use a modern yeast, sake like that is as good as it is going to get right out of the press. From that moment on, it begins to degrade in a long, slow downhill slide. So for sake like that, a machine is best, as it gets the job done quickly and with a minimum of oxidation. One can get it into a bottle quickly, and lock all that great aroma inside.”
He continues on to explain that more traditional yeasts, like No. 7 and No. 9, have less capricious and more placid aromatic compositions. They are less sensitive to oxidation, but at the same time extravagant methods like box or drip pressing sharpen and brighten the flavors and aromas created by the those more traditional yeasts.
“The more classic yeasts,” he expounds, “lead to sake that has fewer ostentatious aromas to lose initially, and unlike sake made using modern yeasts, they get better after just a little time has passed. So for those, the box and drip offer something tangible.”
Certainly this is just one brewer’s opinion. A very accomplished and experienced brewer to be sure! But of course there are those in the industry, just as accomplished and experienced, that may completely disagree. Who knows?
There is a bit of a spin-doctor inside every good sake brewer. And any given spin-sensei may simply not want to bother with a hassle-laden method, and so spins a reason why it is not as good as the easy method. Happens all the time. In truth, it isprobably not the case in this particulr case here, but even in a 1000 year-old craft like sake brewing, there are marketers and spin doctors.
More importantly, though, among the three main methods of separating the sake lees from the completed ambrosia, dripping is usually the best, box-pressing next, and the machine press does a fine, fine job as well. But there are various opinions. Pressing matters, indeed.
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The Sake Professional Course scheduled for April 23 to 25 in Brooklyn New York is full. Thanks to all those that signed up! The next one will be in Miami in September. If interested, please send an email to that purport to sakeguy @ gol.com. Learn more about the Sake Professional Course here.
For the most part, this is a good thing. But not everyone in Tokyo – or Japan – will wholeheartedly agree. And, I can in fact understand and sympathize with those that see more hassle than opportunity. Not everyone wants to deal with the entire world at the doorstep, and that is their prerogative.
At the same time, interest in sake is exploding. It’s kind of nuts, actually, and is decidedly a good thing. And about time, too.
So, naturally, many visitors to Japan will want to check out sake breweries when they are here. Shochu distilleries as well will be interesting to many, but the majority of those are in southern Japan, not in the Tokyo area.
And in concert with this, the government in Japan is promoting “Sakagura Tourism” to both domestic and international audiences. This, too is a cool thing, as it develops interest in sake (and shochu, of course) that will lead to more growth. Amongst their many efforts in this area is the creation of sakagura tourism maps, which I introduced in Issue #199 of this newsletter, two months ago. These do not yet exist for all regions in Japan, and those that have been released are not all at the same level of comprehensiveness. But at least one region, the Kanto Shinetsu region, which includes the areas around Tokyo, also has a column for each sakagura that lists whether or not they allow visitors.
But in truth, this has presented problems for many sakagura. With but one very small column on the map to say “possible” or “not possible,” they had no room to qualify the response. And so “visits possible” gets taken as “hey, man, just drop in any time with as many of your friends as you like! We’ll happily drop everything and attend to you!” Conversely, “visits not possible” ends up sounding like “we are dour and arrogant bastards who do not appreciate our customers; stay away!”
Of course, neither of those extremes is at all the truth. But amongst those sakagura that said visits are possible, there are those that are already finding themselves overwhelmed, or at least see the potential of that happening in the future. So some are taking reasonable measures to make sure they can focus on what is most important.
So, in fairly stark contrast to much of the modern wine world, the sake industry and most of the sakagura themselves that comprise it were not – and are not – set up for tourism. That does not mean that they do not allow or do not want visitors. Most of them are, in fact, open to that. They fully understand the marketing benefits of having people feel close to the source and understanding more about sake. That is all fine.
Let’s look at the realities here. Consider most sake breweries in Japan: of the 1200 remaining, about 1000 are very small operations, family owned and run. Such places were never set up for visitors, especially not touristic visitors. In fact, there were never considered appealing tourism-wise.
They might have a staff of ten, five of which brew, two of which run the front office, and a couple more that sell or drive trucks. Perhaps these numbers are doubled; regardless, almost none have dedicated tour guide staff. So when people come knocking for tours, most of the staff are busy actually making the sake itself. It is not realistic to expect them to be able to stop something like the super timing sensitive craft of sake brewing to give tours on anything remotely resembling a regular basis.
Furthermore the inside of sakagura are not exactly set up for us normal folks. Kura are cramped, dark, wet, cold, slippery, often with makeshift scaffolding and ladders here and there, with absurdly steep stairs and other less than fully safe environments.
And that is just the consumer side of the issue. The sake itself is a delicate balance of micro-organisms that are very much affected by other micro-organisms. Sanitation is paramount. That’s why they have you change shoes sixty-five times, wash your hands often and often even squirt alcohol on your hands. Yes, they want to share their craft and creation with you. But they need to maintain standards to be sure it stays consistent and good. And the more people that go traipsing through the kura, the harder that is.
As alluded to above, one brewery in the Kanto area, about two or three hours north of Tokyo, put a notice on their web page that set limitations on visitations. In short, they very politely stated that, as much as they would love to remain as accessible and open as possible, that brewery visits would be limited to groups that do so with either a distributor or another sake industry person or company. They referenced as reasons much of what is outlined above, and expressed reticence at needing to do it this way. But in the end, they are just protecting their company and the quality of their brew.
While it was only one brewery in the Kanto area that posted this, other are expected to follow that example. I think it will continue along those lines, and in the end, I think it would be great if the government body promoting sakagura tourism, or some other such body, steps in and addresses this in a way that is helpful to everyone.
Let us see what unfolds.
Bear in mind there are, in fact, many breweries that are set up for tourism; some have gift shops and even restaurants. And many others are open to it as well. But being busy with skeleton crews, and not necessarily having language support may hamper their best efforts. So by all means, try to visit a brewery when you come to Japan. But be understanding, considerate and reasonable as well.
The product is named Komyo. Only 1500 bottles (720ml) were made, and they went on sale for 100,000 yen (circa US$960) each on Sake Day, October 1. See the Tatenokawa website for information on the retail outlets handling it.
They used a Yamagata rice called Dewa Sansan, which is known to be harder than most i.e. will stand up to more milling without cracking or breaking. Still, they must have done something to specifically select the grains that went into this, since they would need to be relative large to begin with. In order to achieve the one percent, the milling machines ran for two and a half months straight, for a total of about 1800 hours. For a daiginjo milled to 35 percent, this usually takes about 72 hours.
I do not currently have any more detailed information than the above. If that comes my way I will share it in time. Also, I do not expect to be able to taste it, with only 150 bottles made. I’m OK with that.
As a quick review that may be superfluous, the seimai buai refers to how much the rice was milled before brewing. The number expressed refers to the percentage of the rice grain by weight that remains after milling. So a 70 percent seimai buai means that the outer 30 percent was milled away, leaving the inner 70 percent remaining. A 40 percent seimai buai means that after milling only 40 percent of the original grain remains. And, of course, a one percent seimai buai means that a ridiculously whopping 99 percent of the grain was milled away, leaving only the inner one percent of each grain of rice remaining.
Why is the rice milled? Because fat and protein that can inhibit fermentation and lead to rough flavors resides in the outer portion of the grains of rice, and milling more and more removes those offending compounds. Of course, this can go too far in the opinion of many, and milling too much can potentially strip the resulting sake of character. Not necessarily, mind you; just potentially.
While surely most readers recall, to qualify for daiginjo the rice must be milled to a seimai buai of 50 percent. It can be taken further, of course. The erstwhile maximum was 35 percent, but from a several years ago a few producers pushed that envelope. We saw sake made with a 23 percent seimai buai, then 18 percent seimai buai. Until October 1, though, the maximum on the market was seven percent, of which there were three (Tatenokawa, Raifuku of Ibaraki, and Hakurakusei of Miyagi).
Keep in mind more milling is not better. Sure, it makes the sake lighter and more refined. But that might not be what one wants to drink. And even if your preference is lighter, more refined sake, more milling will lead to that to a certain degree. But once a certain threshold is crossed, milling beyond that will not make the sake any lighter or more refined.
While plenty of 35 percent sake exist, many folks in the industry say going beyond 40 percent is meaningless. Furthermore, if a brewer uses a method of milling rice in such a way that it maintains the original oblong shape of each grain (rather than rounding them out), then a higher percentage of fat is removed with less milling. In that case, going much beyond 60 is moot, say some. (Such methods are called henpei seimai, or cho-henpai seimai, and were made well-known by Daishichi.)
Regardless, going to one percent seimai buai has no real technical merit. So, why do it?
Because it’s something to talk about. It is newsworthy. It is good marketing. People will remember your brand. In that sense, it is brilliant.
And, at one percent, you cannot be outdone. Or so you’d think. But never say never in the sake world.
Interested in learning much MUCH more about sake? Enroll in the Sake Professional Course in Las Vegas, December 4 – 6
The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries. The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.
The cost for the three-day class, including all materials and sake for tasting, is US$899. Participation is limited and reservations can be made now to secure a seat; full payment is requested by November 15. You can read Testimonials from past participants here. You can see this information online here, and download it here. For reservations or inquiries, please send an email to email@example.com.
“No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”
At a recent event celebrating the 100th anniversary of a particular brewer, I found myself sitting across from another brewer. As we chatted, it became clear to me that he was a particularly clever marketing person. His sake has an aura of exclusivity to it, no doubt fueled by the owner’s crafty ideas – one of which he shared with me.
“Lemme show you something; didja ever try this?” he began. He pointed one of the several bottles sitting on the table that awaited consumption. The official “kanpai” had not yet been offered, so we had to resign ourselves to just looking for the time being.I was at first just a bit patronizing. But he soon had my attention.
“What do you see here, just above the sake, in the very top of this bottle?”
“Uh, air?,” I replied, genuinely confused at where he was heading.
“That’s right,” he shot back, putting my mind at ease. “That little bit of air is from the inside of the kura in which this sake was brewed. So, just upon opening a bottle of sake, before pouring it out, if you smell that and breathe it in, you are literally breathing and tasting the air of the kura itself. Trust me: doing that will really enhance the experience with that sake.”
This seemed genuinely interesting to me, its lack of scientific grounding notwithstanding. And so I tried it, a bit selfishly, on all the bottles on our table within my reach. No one noticed what I was doing but him, so no harm done.
Not surprisingly, it smelled like air. It smelled too like sake, especially the daiginjo bottles I opened. But I do admit there was something else, some vibe or feeling that consciously breathing in the air of kura evoked. And I also admit that the sake seemed to resonate with me more from the bottles on which I tried this. Imagination? Certainly, to some degree. But that’s cool.
There are of course downsides to this practice. Only one person gets to breathe in that kura-air. How does a group of drinkers decide this? Also, a couple of breweries put in nitrogen at the top to stave off any vestiges of oxidation. So that would mean we are breathing in the nitrogen from a gas factory in Saitama, then, right? But I digress.
Give it a try. Next time you open a bottle of sake, surreptitiously breathe in the air from a kura that has been making that sake for a long, long time. Odds are the sake will actually taste better
The next Sake Professional Course will be held in Las Vegas on December 4 – 6. Click here for more information.
Al Gizzi likely never thought his legacy would live on in quite this way. And he surely never considered that he would be associated with sake. Al Gizzi does not even likely remember me.
Al Gizzi, or “Gizz-balls” as he was known behind his back in his less popular moments, was my high school football coach. He was also an English teacher, and his love for literature lent him a leaning toward alliteration that bled into his coaching efforts.
On that high school team, I was fortunate enough to have played offensive guard, where protecting the quarterback is paramount. When he drops back for a pass, we offensive linemen were taught by Coach Gizzi to take the impact of the defensive rush, and “give ground grudgingly,” referring to how we would slowly yield petite portions of the pitch, backing up to form a pocket from which the quarterback could find his receiver way down field. Give ground grudgingly. Succinct yet thorough, these words described our ideal movements perfectly.
Our team never went anywhere, although we did manage to finish a respectable 7-3, and my football career came to an abrupt if predictable halt upon my graduation from that esteemed institution. But Gizz-balls’ words have remained with me over the years.
What, pray tell, does this have to do with sake? By all means, read on.
As sake continues to grow in popularity, a handful of hitherto peripheral types of sake are getting dragged into the fringes of our collective attention. I am referring to things like sparkling sake, low alcohol sake, and even high alcohol sake. Then there are things like aged sake, kijoushu, taru-zake, and red sake. And, of course, there is that bane of my existence, sake cocktails. (It hurts my fingers to type those two words on the same page, much less in the same sentence.)
But, alas, when confronted with these less-than-orthodox types of sake out there, the handful of funky variations made using one whacky ingredient or method that surely has the toji of bygone years spinning in their graves, I have come to the realization that it is time to “Give Ground Grudgingly.”
Yes, it may be time for me to acknowledge that these types are out there, and that there may even be people that like them and want to drink them. With just a vestigial hint of a Grudge remaining, the time has come to Give Ground, recognize and even endorse these for the benefit of those that do or might enjoy them.
Why have I been so reticent to do this until now? A number of reasons, most of them centered around my intention to convey good, useful information about sake.
I am personally most fond of “orthodox” styles of sake. What is orthodox? Like, you know, regular stuff.
Fairly youthful, not sparkling, not cloudy, not red, not unusually high or low in alcohol, and not mixed with anything else. And there are plenty of these, from all walks of sake, including dry, heavy, sweet, light, aromatic, subdued, subtle, lively, soft, tart, thick, airy, smooth, textured and including every permutation of these and everything in between. There is such diversity within this realm of “normality” that it could never come to be considered mundane.
But as I pointed out, it is much, much more than just a matter of my personal preferences. It seems best to convey to those interested in sake just where the best of sake is to be found. And it tends to be more in standard sake than in the fringe-dweller sake.
Not that I am dissing these novel types. Not at all; really. It is all about enjoyment in the end, and if you like them, end of story. But if you want to know where the best of sake is to be found, the culmination of centuries of honed skills combined with modern technology, unique, artisanal sake, and if you want to enjoy sake that you know will be a viable product and part of the market as well as a dependable connoisseur product for years to come, drink the afore-defined orthodox stuff.
Actually, anomalies and variations are good, fine and useful. They keep the category interesting, let brewers push the envelope a bit, and ensure that in the sake world there is a little something for everyone out there. But it is important to have a firm grounding in orthodox stuff too. And it is important to keep such diversions just that: paths off of the main road of premium sake.
So indeed, creativity and innovation are cool and to be respected, and in fact are indispensable to the survival of anything. Which is one of the reasons I am giving ground grudgingly to their admittedly rightful place in the market.
Here is a rundown of the rogue types; hitherto offenders, henceforth contenders.
Perhaps the fastest growing of these new types, there are two main types of sparkling sake out there. One, like champagne, sees a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Another is made by jacking sake with carbon dioxide. Everything in the Universe has a price, and this includes bubbles in your sake. That price is paid from the coffers of flavor. Much of this sparkling sake has an alcohol content of about eight percent, yet others are up around 14 percent. To me, it generally tastes like spiked cream soda; it is just the size of the spike that differs. But admittedly cream soda has its appeal too, and sparkling sake can be very drinkable.
There are several ways to make sake that is reddish in tint, a pigment that often approaches rose wine. Most common among the few of these that is exist is using red rice strains.
Low alcohol sake
A few brewers have come out with sake that is only eight to 12 percent alcohol, jacking up the acidity quite a bit to provide punch. The thinking is that some folks cannot handle a full 16 percent, so these products would appeal to them. The ones that are out there are, for the most part, balanced and enjoyable, if different from regular sake.
High alcohol sake
The newest of the brat pack here, there are a couple of sake with an alcohol content of 25 percent or more, even one at 38 percent. Note, these are NOT distilled. However, yeast cannot survive above 20 percent alcohol or so. So how do they do it? They freeze it, using one method or another, and take out the ice, effectively removing water and increasing the final alcohol content.
This type of sake is made with some of the brewing water replaced by already-brewed sake. Often, kijoushu is also aged for several years. While enjoyable, it is markedly different from orthodox sake, and very little of it is made.
Known as koshu (old sake), or more formally and eloquently as choki-jukusei-shu (long term matured sake), something about saying that old sake is new smacks of an oxymoron. Aged sake is a topic that deserves much more attention that just these scant few lines here. Nevertheless, very little is made and available, hence its relegation to outlier status. It can, in fact, be delicious and interesting.
Taru-zake is sake that has spent a bit of time (from hours to weeks or longer) in a wooden cask made of cryptomeria, or sugi, also called Japanese cedar. This gives it a very pronounced woodiness to the aromas and flavors, to the degree that often that is all one can perceive. Which is great, if you like it.
Nigori-zake is in fact filtered, even though many like to call it “unfiltered sake.” But it is filtered with a coarser mesh that lets some of the rice solids through. Chewy and rich, but hardly refined, it is much more popular overseas than in Japan.
There are those in the mixology trade that insist that sake is a great cocktail ingredient. I wouldn’t know. ‘Nuff said.
This is just a handful of the myriad variations out there. Heck, I just had a kijoushu taruzake the other day that was outstanding. So, let me reiterate that I am not anti- anything. I am more simply for good sake and its spreading popularity. And with sake just starting to really catch on outside of Japan, it seems best to remember where the essence great sake can be found; this makes the variations that much more enjoyable.
And so, from here on out, the time has come to Give Ground Grudgingly to the various manifestations of sake that are out there. Hopefully this will help to form a pocket from which that diversely talented quarterback of the sake world, orthodox premium sake, can launch a perfectly timed and placed touchdown pass and win over the world.
Al Gizzi would be proud.
…or maybe they can’t.
Some guys just don’t know when to quit – or can’t quit – making sake.
Mr. Naohiko Noguchi is one of the most decorated, respected, accomplished and famous toji (master brewers) in the history of the sake brewing industry. And at 84 years of age, he is coming out of retirement for the fourth time to brew sake at a new brewery starting up next month. At 84. That’s eighty-four. As in LXXXIV. As in “hachijuyon.” One would think enough is enough; not for some folks.
He does have people running the financial and business side of things. According to some sources, the details are a bit murky in a way that is beyond the scope of this newsletter. But the point is that he has most things taken care of, all he has to do is concentrate on brewing sake. And that is certainly plenty.
But this all begs the question, why? Quite simply, he loves the work. He cannot imagine himself not doing it. It is such a part of his being that if he is not brewing sake, he gets sick. Literally.
A bit more about this illustrious toji: He started brewing at age 16, and worked his way up the ranks for a few years at a handful of kura. He joined Kikuhime in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1961 and brewed sake there for 36 years. He retired from that company, and came out of retirement down the street (figuratively) a few days later at the brewery making Jokigen, also in Ishikawa. After a decade and a half there, he retired again, and this time he probably meant it. But he resurfaced after taking one season off, to make sake at the eponymous Noguchi Shuzo. One year there, two more off, and he is back at it again.
He is famously known as one of the four “Noto Toji no Shiten-o,” or “Four Guardians of Heaven of the Noto Toji Guild,” along with three others. Across his tenure at the first two kura, he won 27 gold medals at the annual National New Sake Tasting Competition, and was designated as a “contemporary master craftsman” by the Japanese government. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and verified he was sharp as a tack, and not nearly as scary as I had expected. You can read about that here.
He was not likely the easiest guy to work for. Not that I would know. But one does not get that good at a craft like sake brewing by being laid back and lackadaisical. He was surely particular about his ways. An attitude of, “Ah, that’s likely good enough…” is neither part nor parcel of sake brewing at that level.
In fact, a friend of mine actually worked under him for twelve years at Kikuhime. But it was another ten years after the time that Noguchi-san retired (uh, the first time) that he could actually speak directly to him. Even while toiling under his direction, their difference in hierarchical rank was so great that all communication had to go through someone else. Wow. (Nowadays, they actually hang out from time to time.)
Back to the question of why: he has gone on record saying that he wants to spend the rest of his life doing what he loves best. Furthermore, he is convinced it is actually better for his health – even at age 84 – to continue brewing sake.
His body concurs. He has become ill, including a bout with cancer, when not brewing. His family has naturally expressed concern with his plans to keep at it, but he has expressed that “Continuing to brew sake will actually keep me healthy. I will be satisfied if I can die brewing sake,” he said.
Mr. Noguchi’s trademark style of sake is not for the light-hearted. He excels at making yamahai, but not just any yamahai, what I like to call “two-by-four-upside-the-head” yamahai. Very rich, full, with oodles of umami and the acidity to drive it home. It laughs in the face of maturity, and in fact revels in aging. The color is inevitably a gorgeous golden. He cannot even spell “charcoal filtration.” It is, ultimately exquisitely balanced and delicious. But light and fruity it ain’t.
Of course, he may change all that this coming season when he starts again. But at 84, probably not.
Rumor has it that Mr. Noguchi will make a limited amount of sake at his new brewery. It will certainly be hard to score some. But I will certainly at least try, of course.
You can read an interview (in Japanese) of Mr. Noguchi here .
The website (in Japanese) for the new brewing venture is here .
Brewer Number One stood up and faced the crowd. And he talked about his sake. Its lively yet balanced nature is the result of a family of yeasts, one of which was discovered at his brewery several decades ago, he explains. It has contributed to – if not created – the high reputation enjoyed by all of the sake in that region, which only came into sake prominence about 30 years ago.
Brewer Number Two spoke next. While several years younger than Number One, they are friends (or were, anyway) and both went to Tokyo Agricultural University, the “UC Davis of the sake world.” With his typically dry sense of humor, he jokingly (or so we thought) explained how Number One’s father actually stole that yeast from his brewery to get it all started.
Several days later, Brewer Number One send Brewer Number Two an email that basically e-tore him a new e-asshole. “You should not be saying groundless and untrue things like that; you will confuse and mislead people.”
While it was an email between the two of them, I know Number Two well enough that later, he told me about it, and even showed me the e-tearing email. “I actually thought it was a true story, but it seems I was confusing my anecdotes. I have cleared that up now, but not before Number One laid into me about it.”
What is this all about, this stealing of yeast? How does one steal a naturally occurring micro-organism, and why would one if it is just floating around in the air? I mean, you can’t just stuff it in your pocket and walk out the door, can you? And is it illegal?
Yeast is massively important to the making of great sake. While they contribute to aromas more than anything else, good yeasts will also ferment strongly and not peter out too early, tolerate high levels of alcohol, yield appropriate levels of acidity that are not too high nor low, and much more.
While long ago all yeast was naturally occurring, dropping in from the ambient environment, these days brewers get yeast from a few supply chains. These often include local research centers as well. Sometimes, as in the case of Brewer Number One, these yeasts never officially leave the prefecture. And there are those brewers that still use proprietary yeasts, stuff they found in their brewery that does not get released, which is how it all used to be.
And so, if you could get your grubby little paws on the yeast from a great brewery, you could often use it yourself, transposing its main characteristics onto those of your own brewery and sake. And doing so surely would not be illegal, provided that something like “breaking and entering” was not involved.
Nothing like this takes place these days, of course. With so many great yeast strains so easily available, there is no reason to do so. But in the not too distant past, it did happen from time to time.
How does one steal micro-organisms that one cannot see?
Oh, let’s say you visit a brewery whose sake you respect. You just want to pass through, see their setup, ask a question or two and see if you can learn a thing or two from the venerable toji. And as you look down into a tank of fermenting mash and its rising swaths of foam, you smell the aromatic goodness and note how vigorously it is fermenting. Just before you move on to the next tank you let your hand nonchalantly drop down near the surface and scoop up a fingerful of foam. And as you turn to walk away, you casually wipe that off on the underside of the brim of your baseball cap. You just stole their yeast.
When you get back to your own kura, you wash off that area of your cap or sleeve and do what you need to do to revive and let multiply the yeast you know is in that slightly grimy discoloration on your cap. If you do it properly, you will be able to propagate that and eventually use it in your own sake.
While surely not simple, it is far from impossible, and happened often enough that many kura were loathe to let brewing personnel from other companies visit them. Or so I have heard.
Again, this really does not happen anymore; nor was it ever a huge industry problem. But I have heard about it from several brewers, elevating it above simple legend. Also, just getting a good yeast is not the end of the challenge. A brewer with any new yeast needs to learn its idiosyncrasies during preparation, throughout fermentation, and beyond.
Furthermore, they would not be able to talk about it, and brag how it was painstakingly isolated over several years from amongst ten thousand others by the prefectural research center, or any other such romantic story. Nope.
Nor would it have roots or traceability. All they could really do is call it, “proprietary.” So there are no huge advantage to doing this, nor any real need anymore. It’s a bit like stealing sand from the beach.
But back to our true story, enter Brewer Number Three, nicknamed Mr. Unabashedly Unscrupulous. Apparently, he did in fact visit Brewer Number Two years ago and did in fact steal their yeast. However, he was not able to successfully reconstitute it, and as such it was all for naught. In time, he ‘fessed up about it; no harm done. But wow. Such audacity.
And, when Brewery Number Two chided Brewer Number One about his father’s supposed heist, it seems he was crossing his wires.
“Yeah, I mixed up my yeast-thievery stories and characters,” he admitted to me later. “I suppose I should check my facts before saying things like that in public…” he conciliatorily conceded.
Again, to be clear: this is not something that happens anymore, and is certainly not a problem in the industry. It is nothing more than a fun little anecdote that goes far to convey the important role that yeast plays in making great sake.
The only thing that we need to remember is that the gift of aromas you enjoy in your sake tonight are driven by the choice of yeast.
Interested in learning more about sake? There are just about seven seats remaining open for Sake Professional Course in Denver, August 28 to 30. Learn more here .
The next Sake Professional Course will take place in Denver, August 28, 29 and 30, 2017. Here are ten reasons you really want to be in one of the ten remaining seats.
10. No sake stone remains left unturned. Every single aspect of the sake world is covered in excruciating detail.
9. Certification: you can become a Certified Sake Professional as recognized by the Sake Education Council.
8. Just one more reason to spend three days in Denver in early autumn!
7. You have been working hard, and deserve a break that is only three days, fun and educational, and that will serve you for a lifetime.
6. The 1500 or so folks that have already taken the course across the past 11 years have good things to say about it.
5. It is organized, flows logically, and manages to get a massive amount of sake information internalized in three short days.
4. You’ll learn about koji, toji, yamahai, kimoto and muroku nama genshu – and taste them all! (Well, not the toji…)
3. You will become eligible for the Level II Course, with Advanced Sake Professional certification testing, held in Japan in February of each year, from which only about 220 people have graduated.
2. This course opens the door to a lifelong romance with what is easily the world’s most interesting and steeped-in-culture drink.
1. You will taste upwards of 90 (count ‘em!) sake across three days. Nowhere else can you get exposed to so many in a focused environment.
Learn more about the course here
Read testimonials from those that have taken in in the past here
To sign up, or if you have any questions, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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.
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.
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.