A taste of brewers’ best
By JOHN GAUNTNER
The 88th New-Sake Tasting Competitions were held in Hiroshima May 16. This government-run yearly tasting, the only one of its kind in the entire world, is an important part of sake history and culture, and extremely interesting in many ways.
Over the past 90 years, it has been held every year, with two exceptions: 1945, due to the war, and 1995, when the National Research Institute of Brewing (part of the Tax Bureau) was moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima.
Long ago, it seems, there was a legitimate problem with batches of sake gone bad. The tax revenue from the sake of alcoholic beverages has always been significant, and so it behooved the government to check to see that the source of that revenue was drinkable. The first of these new-sake tasting competitions was held in 1911.
Three years before that, another national contest had begun. Held every second year in the fall, it was supposedly a competition of sake that had been allowed to mature, and sake that was actually destined for the market. At one point there were over 5,000 breweries participating in this biennial event.
Eventually, though, many large brewers in the main regions of Nada (in Hyogo) and Fushimi (in Kyoto) began to boycott the biennial, on the probably valid grounds that most breweries were in essence cheating by brewing very special sake for the competition, and that the judging process itself left much to be desired.
Many brewers also were perturbed that the contest was held in Tokyo, while the lion’s share of sake was brewed in Kansai and Hiroshima. The biennial contest was interrupted by the war, and never regained much steam. In 1951 it ceased altogether.
Back to the New-Sake Tasting. The first year it was held, in 1911, only 17 kura participated. Slowly that grew, to the point where now almost everyone gives it a shot.
There are, in all, about 1,600 entries at first. Each kura submits 60 500-ml green-glass, unmarked bottles of specially brewed sake to the closest of 11 designated tax offices around Japan.
Although at this level, the point system and awards system differ slightly from region to region, in the end, about half of these sake are deemed delicious enough to go on to the main event in Hiroshima.
In Hiroshima, a preliminary round is held over three days (this year, April 19-21), in which the submissions (this year, 879) are assessed very thoroughly. The 429 survivors were tasted one more time May 9, with 219 receiving Gold Medals. The remaining 210 receive Silver Medals.
For the preliminary round, each shinsain (taster) rates each sake with a score of one to five in each of four categories: fragrance, flavor, balance between fragrance and flavor, and overall assessment. One is the high score; five is the lowest. The judges indicate all of these by filling in boxes on a card to be read by computer later.
When all is said and done, those sake with a score lower than a set threshold make it to the finals held three weeks later. There are also seven positive attributes and seven negative attributes that can be checked off for both the flavor and the fragrance. These, while not going into the actual calculation, are important because this information is fed back to the actual brewers, allowing them to see clearly what the shinsain thought of their sake.
Things are slightly different in the finals. Each sake is tasted, and given only an overall score of one to three. If it is wonderful it gets a one. If something is off, a three is assigned. Anything in between gets a two. When all is tallied, any sake with a score below that of the predetermined threshold receives a Gold Medal.
The tasters at the national tasting, besides having one of the best jobs on the planet, are highly trained and experienced. There were 39 shinsain for the preliminaries, and 23 for the finals. Most of these are bureau chiefs of the local brewing research and sake-related tax offices from around the country. Rank has its privileges.
Note that the number of golds is theoretically not limited. It is determined purely by how many sake score well enough to qualify. Although the 219 of this year is down from 233 last year, the number is fairly consistent, averaging 244 over the last decade.
The shinsain are not told what kind of sake to look for or favor. It is not suggested that a sake should be light or heavy or dry or sweet. It is simply a matter of personal appeal related to fragrance, flavor and (most importantly) balance among a few dozen highly trained palates. As such, winning flavor profiles follow trends and change over time.
Next month, we will look at what kind of sake is submitted to this contest, what the significance behind the contest is, and what the future holds. In the meantime, search out some kinsho jushoshu (gold-prize-winning sake) and sample its delights. It’s worth the extra yen, at least once.
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Tenzan (Saga Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 45 percent
Tenzan sake in general has a fuller than average flavor, and a strong presence with a richness that stops just short of being cloying. Faint peaches in the nose fade into a drier than expected flavor that strikes the palate softly, with a buttery essence rising up later. Very pleasant and interesting overall. Good at room temperature or slightly chilled. Be open, however, to experimentation.
For what it’s worth, Tenzan was the first sake from Saga Prefecture ever to win a gold prize in the above-described contests.
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There are still just a couple of spots open for the Sake and Pottery Seminar at Mushu this Saturday as well as the blind tasting on the afternoon of June 17 at The Japan Times.
There will be a sake tasting in Hachioji June 18, sponsored by Hachioji Meishu Suishinkai and other groups. The cost is 10,000 yen, but this includes food and 150 excellent sake for tasting. If interested in any of the above, contact me for details.
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