June 7, 2011
2011 National New Sake Appraisal Report
In a year of adversity and challenge

The 99th running of the National New Sake Appraisal, or “Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai,”CIMG4392 was held this past month. The results were announced on the morning of May 20, and a tasting for the industry was held May 25 in Hiroshima. As I do every year, I schlepped down there to do as much damage as possible in tasting the 875 entries – in six hours.

I have written about this prestigious contest each year, with each article focusing on a different historical, technical or political facet of the event. The methods of selecting gold prize winners, and the rules of “the game” are covered in these articles as well. You can read those in the June or July editions of past years archived here and here.

The sake brewed for these contests is not normal for-the-market sake. It is specially brewed just for this tasting and needs to be totally fault free and extremely precise in its flavors, aromas and balances. I like to call it “daiginjo on steroids.” It’s intense. This is why it is worth tasting each year: one can see much about how the weather really affected things, and what aromas and styles are developing behind the scenes.

So, how was it this year? Well, first of all, the lead-up was ominous. It was a dreadfully hot summer, which makes it really tough to get any flavor out of the rice. Expectations were low on the part of many industry experts. On top of that were the natural disasters that have hit Japan since March 11. These of course dampened the mood, but affected the sake of many brewers – or at least should have. More on that later.

To be sure, much of the sake was tight, astringent and with little breadth. But really, it was not that bad at all. Much was finely rich, aromas did not seem as wild-n-wooly as in past years, and those that won gold medals were invariably of finely-wrought balance. For those interested, you can read the results (in Japanese) here.

There is always a new twist or catch each year, and this time was no exception. About a decade ago, sake made with rice other than Yamada Nishiki were judged separately. The reasoning there was that the contest is intended to foster technical developments. No one was using rice other than Yamada Nishiki as it is so dependable and predictable. That defeats the purpose, so to encourage brewers to experiment with other rice types, they were judged separately.

Well, this year, that separation was eliminated. In other words, the brewing industry has gotten good enough at making contest sake with non-Yamada Nishiki rice types so that the separate category is no longer needed. The fear of failure based on rice choice is no longer a big issues. So this year, all sake were judged in one big category, as they used to be.

As the tasting is really crowded, and as it is a case of “so many sake, so little time” with only six hours, a strategy is vital. For instance, if you line up at the popular regions first (the sake is separated into long tables by prefecture and region), you waste a lot of time waiting to get to the table, then waiting between each sake. But if you blow those off for later, you risk the allotted few bottles running dry, or worse yet, total fatigue and the inevitably following apathy.

Not surprisingly, considering both the earthquake-tsunami as well as the fact that the region has been kicking sake ass these past few years, the lines for the Tohoku tables were very long from the start. I availed myself of that fact and made a bee-line for Niigata.

Yet, the best laid plans of mice and sakeguys aft gang astray, and Tohoku stayed crowded. And by the time I did finally get there, at least half of the sake were gone. That hurt. But it was not surprising considering how well the region did this year. In fact, it was nothing short of miraculous.

Most obviously so was Miyagi. Together with Iwate, this is the place where most of the earthquake-tsunami damage occurred. But check this out: of twenty submissions from breweries in Miyagi, a full 17 took gold, and one more took the equivalent of a silver. That means only two submissions from this prefecture did not get a prize! (One of those was severely damaged in the disasters.) This, amidst all that took place.

One might be tempted to think the judges had pity on the region, but not a chance. It is all blind; all regions are mixed up and the judges have no idea what they are tasting in either of the two rounds.

As is the case almost every year, Niigata took the most golds with 22, but they had 79 submitted sake. It’s kind of like, if you throw enough kasu on the wall, some of it is going to stick. That is a 28% gold-rate, versus a whopping 85% from Miyagi. I was shocked that I had never analyzed the results like this before.

Not to diss Niigata! Perish the thought! Year in and year out, in contest sake and in regular market sake, they consistently produce some of the best sake in Japan there. And they deserve their high reputation. But the accomplishments of the brewers from Miyagi were outstanding to me this year, and made more poignant by the hardships endured.

Iwate Prefecture also did very well, with eight out of 15 winning a  prize, six of which were gold. There, too, over half of the entries won a medal.

Another, tangential highlight was Kikumasamune from the Nada region of Hyogo. This company has long boycotted, or at least chosen not to participate, in the New Sake Competition. They are one of the most historically significant and stories brewing companies in the history of the industry, and one of the largest brewers as well. This year, after a decades-long hiatus, they submitted a sake – and won a gold! Not surprisingly, it was a stable, simple, Nada-esque sake that still managed enough ostentatious balance to do well.

Let’s all look forward to the 100th running of the event next year. Now that will be significant.

For those that are interested and that will be in Japan on June 15, you can taste all of the prize winners at the Sake Fair in Ikebukuro. See more details about that event below.

May 30, 2011
Thirty-eight Year Old Kaiun Daiginjo – same age as the groom

Last night I, along with 300 other guests, attended the wedding reception for Yasuichi Doi, the son of the inimitable Kiyoaki Doi, the owner of Doi Shuzo, producers of Kaiun and Takatenjin sake in Shizuoka. Man, what a grand affair! There had to be 30 young, up-n-coming sake brewers amongst the guests, as both Kaiun and Doi-san are popular and well respected.

After a short speech, Doi-san pulled out the kampai sake. It was a daiginjo brewed by their recently deceased former toji (master brewer), Shokichi Hase, one of the most skilled and respected toji ever to brew a batch.

The groom was born in 1973, as was the sake with which we toasted his nuptials. When he was born, the toji suggested to the owner they save a bunch of it for his wedding. It was a 38-year old plot that finally hatched.

Obviously, no matter what it really tasted like, we were bound to love it considering the time, place and occasion. But it proved quite easy to do that!

To be sure, it had a mature, sherry-like, caramel rich touch to the aromas and initial flavors, but the mid-palate and finish were remarkably clean. And it proved a great opening to an evening full of lots of Kaiun and Takatenjin sake.

Before the evening wrapped up we were treated to a dance put on by all the (buzzed) brewers
that had graduated from Tokyo Nougyou Daigaku, as Yasuichi had. Noh-Dai, as it is abbreviated, is like the “UC Davis of the sake world,” and many a brewer’s son or daughter goes there to study fermentation and sake brewing. But they are famous, I learned, for the “daikon dance,” a curious chant-driven dance that has the participants waving the long white radishes through the movements. It hovers between eerily haunting and downright weird.

Most importantly: Congratulations to the bride and groom!

May 24, 2011
The 99th Running of the National New Sake Tasting Appraisal
I leave the house at 4:30 tomorrow for a 6:50 flight to go down to Hiroshima for the 99th Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai. There are about 875 submissions, down maybe 100 from normal. While awards have already been assigned, tomorrow the industry can taste all 875 (time and liver function permitting) and see what aromas were in, which are out, and what the year’s rice harvest (predicted to be dismal) is really like.

While it is expected to be a subdued affair, based on results at it looks like the Tohoku region slew it. Sure, Niigata scored the most top prizes at 23, but Miyagi had 17. Niigata has about 98 kura, Miyagi 38. You do the math. Miyagi had an incredibly high rate of golds as a percentage of submissions. Yamagata fared mightily well too with 17.

Maybe some special consideration for Tohoku? Not a chance. The judges do  not know from whence the sake they taste has come.

Another new twist – or rather an “un”-twist – this year: No longer are sake made with rice other than Yamada Nishiki judged separately. Enough progress was made with new rice strains to remove the handicap, and all are judged together again – as they used to be, and as they should.

Eikun of Kyoto tied the all time record for 14 golds in a row. Congrats to them. Amazing…

More about the contests in general and this one in particular when I return – and recover. Spittoons or no, 800-odd sake in six hour take a toll on one.

April 17, 2011
A Blind tasting for futsu-shu (non-premium sake)? See who won.

A group called the Zen Nihon Kokusai Shurui Shinkoukai recently held a blind tasting for futsu-shu, that run-of-the-mill stuff that occupies the bottom shelf, and what we usually find in tokkuri of hot sake at pubs. I’ve long held that a lot of that stuff is perfectly enjoyable (just like there is plenty of good table wine), and some of it is actually pretty good.

Much of that can be attributable to the fact that the bar for premium sake keeps getting raised. In other words, the average seimai-buai (milling percentage) of sake keeps going up. Sure, that means in part there is more ginjo being made, but the lower grades too are seeing lots more sake with higher-than-before milling rates, making them smoother and cleaner. And this applies to much futsu-shu as well. So neither the thinking behind the tasting nor the fact that attendees were happy with results is surprising to me.

So who won? A sake called Ofuku Masamune from Wakayama. Hakkaisan was fourth. Hikami Masamune from Shimane was fifth, Hitori Musume from Ibaraki was sixth, and Okunomatsu from Fukushima and Gokyo from Yamaguchi were tied for tenth. The others I had never heard of!

April 13, 2011
Hitakami Tasting Part II  Note: Part I is below this entry.

Although Hirai-san said that none of his family, or hisHitakami sake lined up at the tasting 4/6 brewing staff, or their families were injured, there were three of them that lost their homes. The “Disaster Sake” will ship in June, apparently, and all the proceeds will go to the city, Ishinomaki.

Hirai-san is one my better friends in the industry. I love his sake, we are the same age, and I have spent a good amount of time with him. On top of that, he has an incredibly good palate, for sure. Listening to him that day, he got a bit emotional as he continued.

“Immediately after the tsunami, I felt incredible gratitude. I felt, ‘I have been allowed to live!’ And after so much devastation, the immense gratitude we felt at just the electricity coming on, at water flowing again, at seeing acquaintances – is indescribable. ”

Some of the secondary, but truly impacting, problems that remain include stuff we might not thing of. For example, he has plenty of sake ready to ship. But the day of this tasting, April 6, was the first day that gas was back, and he needs gas to pasteurize and run his bottling line. So finally, after almost a month, he can start bottling product again.

The normal telephone line was fiber optic – not the highest priority amongst cabling to be repaired. So his cell phone works, but his landline does not. However, his fax line is fine as that was a normal telephone line. So he can at least take orders by cell or fax.

But the local branch of his shipping company, Nitsu, was totally obliterated. Gone. Not a trace remains. So he and all their former customers need to find another way to ship perfectly good product.

And indeed, product must move, or they are hosed. And this is how he ended his explanation of what is going on: “We have to sell sake. Onegai shimasu!”

All over Japan, people are showing restraint out of respect for those suffering in Tohoku. “Jishuku” is the word in Japanese. Somehow it just ain’t right to be frivolously partying when so many tens of thousands are suffering. But this beatitude can backfire, since if no one spends money, the economy and recovery grind to a halt. “And that is part of why I have come here today. To show that we are fine, and to convey just how important it is now more than ever to enjoy our products, to enjoy the sake of Tohoku.”

What of next year? “Well, the rice fields are trashed, and the soil is heavy with salt as well. But we can procure rice from elsewhere for sure. As for our kura? It remains to be seen. We want to brew again in the fall, for sure, and will do our best to make that happen…”

At the end of the evening, into the establishment walked Koichi Saura, the owner/president of the brewery making Urakasumi, located in Shiokama, another very hard hit town very close to Ishinomaki. Saura-san’s place suffered about the same: all people safe, waste-high water, plenty of damage to the kura, but still standing. The two know each other well, but had not seen each other since before the earthquake. Uncharacteristically, they embraced, a gesture not devoid of emotion either.

And this, needless to say, is but one kuramoto’s story. There are many that suffered in this way, and more that fared far worse. And this is just one industry, one group of people, and small cross-section of those that have lost so much.

Let us all do what we can. There are myriad ways to help. Prayers, positive energy, money, time, toil, and of course, enjoying the sake of Tohoku, the products of Tohoku, the sake of all of Japan, and the products of all of Japan. Please do not underestimate how much this can help.

April 7, 2011
Hitakami Tasting

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in what has always beenHirai-san of Hitakami explaining the sitch at his kura one my favorite tastings of the whole year. One brewer, Hitakami, held at their Tokyo distributor’s office. It is a small brewery, one of my favorites, with a subtle, soft, slightly restrained style. He shows about 40 sake, right from the tank, some pasteurized, some not. Some are going through growing pains, others are beyond the hump and maturing nicely. I contacted him two months ago to find out when it would be so that I could be sure I could make it. But all that was before the earthquake and tsunami.

Hitakami is from Ishinomaki in Miyagi; a very hard hit part of the region.

The brewery sits on the west side of a small mountain, so that when the tsunami came in, it did not hit the brewery directly. Instead, it washed around both sides of that mountain and filled in. The water rose to their knees, but the only thing that got totally ruined was one automobile.

Once the water receded, they walked in to the brewery to check on the tanks. The violent shaking had spilled the white moromi (mash) from all the tanks everywhere  in the brewery. “It was totally white, everywhere. And the sound of fermenting sake filled the air,” said Hirai-san, the owner. “Heck, we could not even go in there due to the carbon dioxide rising from the fermenting mash spilled all over.”

So he wrote off all 16 tanks, right there and then. He sent the brewing staff  home, to check on their families and property.

There were other priorities, in any case. Food. Water. Burglars at night. And the plight of the rest of the town. “Basically, Ishinomaki is gone between the mountain and the ocean. Gone. Nothing remains. I cannot tell you how appreciative I am to just be alive,” he said.

They were without electricity for ten days. That means no temperature control, no way to run the equipment to press the should-be-ready sake from the mash. After getting power back, the pumps short-circuited the instant the switch was turned on. Another day to fix that. However, all the brewing staff were at home with their families. Finally, fourteen days after the disaster struck, they were able to start to press the sake. Eight tanks were salvageable, but expectations were low.

“ByHirai-san with the eight miracle "Disaster Sake" this time, the amino acids should have been off the charts. But we decided to try anyway.” And Hirai-san actually had the guts to let us all taste this stuff. Eight bottles from eight tanks, tank numbers affixed, all of junmai-shu class, and labeled it “Hisai-shu,” or “Disaster Sake.”     (被災酒)

By miracle, this stuff pressed from mash that sat unattended for two weeks, was fine. Of course, it was plenty cold during that time, which arrested and stabilized things a bit. But it was not afforded the benefit of subtle decisions on timing of pressing it would normally have.

Sure, it was intense. Lots of fullness, body, acidity and umami. Very much like a lot of popular junmai-shu today. It was remarkably balanced. Admittedly, it was nothing like Hitakami’s usual style of sake. But there were no such claims.

(to be continued)

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