Hasegawa Saketen “Sake Competition” results: Surprisingly Not Surprising

This past Sunday, the well-known sake uber distributor Hasagawa Saketen held their yearly “Kuramoto wo Kakomu-kai,” or “Hanging out with Sake Brewers” evening. Loose translations notwithstanding, it is a party that follows a tasting contest.

Hasegawa-san is a distributor with perhaps a half-dozen retail shops selling an outstanding lineup of sake in the Tokyo area. Their stores are all in very well-trodden places: Tokyo Station, Omotesando, Roppongi, Palace Hotel, Tokyo Sky Tree – basically places with foot traffic that makes Times Square look like the Death Valley in terms of numbers of visitors. Every year, they have a tasting competition judged by a conglomeration of brewery owners, master brewers, industry professionals and (occasionally) dorks like me. In the past years in which I have participated, we would taste from like 8am to 2pm, then be expected to show up in the several-hundred-in-attendance party from six. The second half of that day is, to say the least, overwhelming.

After tasting so many sake, spitting of course, but absorbing through the tongue and aromas, I am way too hammered to think about setting foot in a party.

I have judged before in the one-day event, but this time only judged in the finals – along Sake Competition 2012with 200 sake brewers. Which is what makes this event so cool, in my opinion. (More about that later.) The prelims were held the day before, when the poor bastards that were judges on that day cut 790 sake down to the 420 we had to taste.

So, we had to taste and score 420 sake in one day. Nay, belay that: in four friggin’ hours. That’s why I was too hammered to think about setting foot in a party, or drinking more sake. But I digress.

To me, it was an outstanding tasting with cool results. There were 200 judges. All gave a 1 to a 5 – that is it. All were experienced. They make the stuff, for gad’s sake. It was totally blind: we had no idea what anything was that we were tasting. It was all done in white kikichoko and separated only by grade.

The group of judges was great, I think. Sure, international panels are great for getting sake to be more appreciated overseas. And pro judges are great for finding flaws. But a large group of mostly younger folks that make it and sell it to me is a great statement of reality about what is good these days.
So, I have taken a long time to get to the point here, but the results of this tasting were totally shocking. Why? Because the winners were sake that are massively popular these days. Maybe this is an indication of how little faith I have in the average consumer. But too often things sell on name alone. Consumers order a handful of brands cuz they have heard, over and over, that they are good. And those of us that like to think we are not slaves to marketing tend to flee from those brands at high speed, hoping to be immune from hype.

But all too often we forget that there is a reason famous brands are famous. There is a reason everyone loves the same few brands. They’re good. And those of us that avoid them because they are simply what everyone else professes to like, well, we may lose out…

And that is what blind tasting solves.

In any event, the winners of the four categories (junmai-shu, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo and yamahai/kimoto) were surprisingly unsurprising. They are all hyper famous, very well selling brands. And remember: the tasting was blind, and by 200 of their peers, i.e. dudes and dude-esses that make the stuff. You’d think these folks if anyone would have their own opinions about what is good and not side with the masses. And you’d be right: they do, and they don’t. Which is why to me, what is surprising about them is that it’s no surprise. The very famous brands of late are very famous because anyone – first time consumers and brewing world colleagues alike – think it tastes damn good.

Note this is NOT a license for you to not bother to develop your own tastes but just drink what is famous. No! Do develop your own preferences, for sure. And do so with confidence. But at the same time, do not flee from famous brands just cuz everyone else likes them!
A short list of the winners is below. In truth, they could not have been scripted better. I mean, look at it. Best junmai daiginjo? Juyondai. Best junmai ginjo? Isojiman. Best junmai? Hiroki.

However, the one thing I am not sure of is how many sake outside of the Hasegawa lineup were involved. Had I been there in the evening, I would know, but I could not hold out that long. Still, while it might have been heavy toward that distributor’s lineup, there were 790 the first day and 420 the second. So regardless, the winners have showed there mettle for sure.

The results can be seen (in Japanese) here: http://www.hasegawasaketen.com/news/

With no further ado:

Junmai Daiginjgo
1. Juyondai “Ryugetsu” (Yamagata)
2. Ugonotsuki (Hiroshima)
3. Ho-o Biden (Tochigi)
4. Juyondai (a different junmai daiginjo)
5. Ugonotsuki (a different junmai daiginjo)

Junmai Ginjo
1. Isojiman (Shizuoka)
2. Hiroki (Fukushima)
3. Isojiman (a different junmai ginjo) (Shizuoka)
4. Kyokko (Tochigi)
5. Zaku (Mie)

Junmai-shu
1. Hiroki (Fukushima)
2. Zaku (Mie)
3. Aramasa (Akita)
4. Sharaku (Fukushima)
5. Meikyoshisui (Nagano)

Yamahai / Kimoto
1. Toyo Bijin Yamahai Junmai (Yamaguchi)
2. Yamagata Masamune Junmai Kimoto (Yamagata9
3. Hayaseura Yamahai Junmai (Fukui)
4. Ichinotani Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai (Fukui)
5. Matsu no Tsukasa Kimoto Junmai (Shiga)

Hatsu-nomikiri: the First Tasting of the Season at any Brewery

The first taste of the previous season’s brew

Glasses like this will be used in hatsunomikiri
Kikizake-joko – Official Tasting Glasses

 

Sake breweries are usually fairly quiet in the summer. Except for the few large breweries where brewing continues all year, most places are dark and quiet and empty, as the brewers themselves have gone home for the summer. Traditionally, the kurabito (brewers) traveled great distances from their rural farmland homes to work at the kura (brewery), although today many places employ local people.

There is one yearly event, however, that livens the whole place up: hatsu-nomikiri. Held sometime between June and September, this is an event in which the condition of each tank of sake brewed the previous season is sampled and checked.

Until about 100 years ago, sake was brewed in cedar tanks with bamboo bindings. Gorgeous though they may be, such tanks are significantly less airtight than the solid stainless steel tanks used today, there was a greater possibility that the sake had “gone south.”

This might mean one of several types of contamination, with the most common being “hi-ochi,” a condition that can arise in unpasteurized sake. Sake suffering the dreaded hi-ochi becomes cloudy and yeasty, with the various flavors going haywire to the extreme.

And, so, each summer, most commonly just after the rainy season, the toji would trek back to the brewery. In front of a small gathering of insiders, the valve at the bottom of a tank would be opened, and a small stream of sake would be guided into a special tasting glass that allowed the fragrance to spread. This would first be offered to the owner of the brewery. After he gave the nod, the toji himself would sniff and assess. They would then proceed to the other tanks one by one, checking the condition of each in the kura.

This is precisely the situation, by the way, in which a traditional tasting cup, a 180 cc white porcelain tumbler with two blue concentric circles on the bottom, would be used. The blue circles on the white background allow one to easily assess the clarity of the sake.

Each tank brewed throughout the season will take on a short life of its own, and the way each matures in the tank over the several-month aging period will be slightly different. Some will seem more well-rounded and balanced, others more brash and immature. The flavor and fragrance will of course be slightly different for each as well.  So one other reason for tasting from each tank is to determine in which order the tanks will be bottled and shipped, with the more mature-tasting tanks going first.

These days, ceramic or glass-lined stainless steel tanks are the norm, so that the worries of the past are not as much of a concern today. Still, the event takes place, with the toji and owner being joined by perhaps a few important sake dealers, and several “kanteikan”(professional tasters) from the prefecture’s sake research center, or similar such organization. These sensei will record their opinions in detail, to be used by the brewery for internal reference only.

Things proceed much in the same way as the old days, with sake being drawn off from a valve at the bottom of the tank. The temperature is recorded, sometimes written in chalk on the ground or tank. The number of the tank is recorded, and the sake brought to another room for a formal tasting in a more official setting.

The results of this exercise will also help determine how the blending of the various tanks will proceed. For example, blending tank #4 with tank #21 may create precisely the type of sake aimed for, based on the tasting notes. Other information, such as whether or not a sake will benefit from pasteurization or extended aging, can also be inferred.

Naturally, things are vastly different from kura to kura. For example, most places have already completed their hatsu-nomikiri by the end of July. Many kura in Akita Prefecture, however, gear up for the event in September. Also, as this is the 塗atsu・(first) nomikiri, traditionally kura would then check the condition of the sake several times after that.

However, this is not something to be done haphazardly. When the tank is opened and sake drawn off like that, there is the risk that this act in itself will allow contaminating bacteria into the tank. It must be performed carefully, with clean implements.

Today, however, there is great diversity in the methods of each brewery. Many places age their sake in bottles, not in tanks. Also, some breweries age their sake a full year or two (usually at low temperatures) before even considering shipping it. Although the condition of such sake will also be assessed from occasionally, the actual hatsu-nomikiri might not take place for a while.

Although the timing and logistics of the hatsu-nomikiri have evolved and are adapted to each brewery’s needs, the event takes place everywhere, with at least a bit of fanfare.