Compulsories of sake keeps brewers in top form
By JOHN GAUNTNER
Last month, I gave an overview of the Shinshu Kanpyokai, the national new-sake tasting competition held each spring, and its logistics. Here is a look at what kind of sake wins, and what the big deal is about anyway.
Sake submitted to this yearly contest (known as shuppin-shu, which merely means “submitted sake”) is very different from regular sake. It is made in small batches, with specially selected and prepared rice and yeast, fermented carefully. Although there is some flexibility in flavor and fragrance profiles, an incredible balance and precise set of qualities are sought.
Rarely, if ever, is junmai-shu submitted, as the tiny bit of added brewers alcohol permitted in nonjunmai sake allows the flavors and fragrances to become even more pronounced.
The final alcohol content is deliberately about 2 percent higher, 17 to 18 percent total. This gives the sake a bit more impact, but could also potentially make the finish more harsh. But keep in mind that the judges don’t actually drink this sake, they spit it out. As such, the finish is not as noticeable.
In short, this kind of sake, while elegant, pure and incredibly balanced, can be a bit in your face, to say the least. It often seems cloying and in general is not nearly as enjoyable as the less exaggerated, more relaxed sake we enjoy most of the time.
In the opinion of some, the relevance of this event could easily be called into question. For example, since sake submitted to such tastings is a far cry from most sake we can buy in the store, what is the point? What difference does it make if a kura won a gold if the standard sake is still slobber?
Conversely, sake well known for its fine flavor profile and loved by the masses will often not win a gold. This makes one wonder whether or not the Shinshu Kanpyokai deserves much attention at all.
Still, there are important, if less apparent, reasons. One brewer, Kosuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin in Iwate (whose sake wins golds with regularity, but had to settle for silver this year), expressed the significance of this yearly event quite well:
“The Shinshu Kanpyokai is like the compulsories of an ice skating competition. Most people would rather watch the freestyle skating, with its fast and freewheeling action. But the compulsories, which call for the ability to exhibit complete control over things, are just as important and valid an expression of skill.
“This is what brewing sake for the Shinshu Kanpyokai is all about. There are very specifically delineated fine lines that need to be meticulously traced to do well. It may not be half as interesting or as drinkable as a kura’s regular sake, but it is just as important as a reliable indicator of a brewer’s skill, especially when considered together with the standard sake of a brewery.”
Beyond this, the existence of these contests also raises the sake’s overall level of quality (which was the original objective anyway). As brewers try their best, a lot of things happen. Their skills improve, which leads to improved sake in general. Moreover, the quest for gold has helped give birth to many yeast strains.
Now, with modern methods, new yeast strains are common. Everybody’s got one, and often it is more a matter of tweaking your water, rice and yeast to work best with each other. Long ago, new yeast discoveries were few and far between.
The downside, although it cannot be entirely blamed on these events, is that much sake has lost its regional distinction. Many breweries have forsaken the styles that made them unique and gave a region a reputation for a more homogenized style that attracts attention and, well, sells better.
There is a large footnote to all of this: This may be the last year that this contest is held. This is because the National Research Institute of Brewing is being downgraded, and will be receiving less funding from next April. As such, this was the last year for this event in its present form.
What will happen? Will the event take place at all? Will it move back to Tokyo, or stay in Hiroshima? Will the judging and assessment methods remain the same? There are a lot of rumors, but until the transfer of power is complete, no one knows for sure.
It is unlikely that the industry will allow the event to die out completely. It may come to be funded by the brewers themselves. There have even been rumors to the effect that the fall event featuring mature sake will be brought back. At present, no one knows.
Consumers can, with effort, find a gold-prize sake in some stores or sake pubs. It will be expensive, but the search may be worth it for the experience, at least once. If both you and your browser read Japanese, you can find a full list of this year’s gold-prize winners at www.fullnet.co.jp/ kinshou/2000kinjushoukura. htm.
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Shishi no Sato (Ishikawa Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 50 percent
Shishi no Sato is a tiny brewery, and finding this sake may be a bit difficult; it is at least available at Koyama Shoten near Hachioji, at (0423) 75-7026, who delivers. They call it a junmai shoku-chu-shu, a sake made for having with food. Indeed, it is gentle and unobtrusive, but with a smooth umami and solid undercurrent of flavor. Do not be afraid of the -7 nihonshu-do; it is not nearly that sweet in actuality. Unique and subtle, and highly recommended.
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