Silly Regulations (Part 2)
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
March 15, 2000
IN THIS ISSUE:
More Silly Regulations
US Hakushika closes its doors
Sake to look for
Sake-related events (US, Japan)
More Silly Regulations…
There is almost a constant stream of questions from North America- based readers on how and where they can obtain premium, imported sake. In many cases, obtaining even decent US-brewed sake can be difficult; sake imported from Japan is even more of a challenge. It is hard to be of help to such readers, unless they live in one of several cities with well-known, well-stocked liquor shops carrying premium sake.
As mentioned last time, the closest thing at present to a US directory is the book Sake: Pure & Simple, which lists places that sell and serve sake all over North America. Yet, as things are changing and growing all the time, this book is not a complete or fully up-to-date reference.
Several issues back, we looked at some laws and regulations that clearly inhibit the ability of consumers to purchase good sake. One can read all the books and email newsletters in the world, but if you can’t get sake and taste it, the exercise is fairly futile.
In a nutshell, sake must first physically pass through the hands of an importer, a distributor, and a retailer or restaurant before arriving into the hands and palate of a consumer. Each, naturally enough, adds their margin on top. Also, with the exception of 13 or so states, sake can not be shipped to a consumer or retailer in another state; it has to pass through an in-state distributor first.
Distributors and importers are often not willing to give a product shelf space unless some justifiable volume is being moved. This is of course just proper business, but the laws of the industry combined with such proper business practices hinder the consumer in his or her efforts to expand their sake horizons. The relative isolation of the three tiers makes it hard for the voice of the consumer to be heard at the levels that shake and move the industry.
Many industry voices collectively clamor that these laws ensure that all taxes are properly paid, and that alcohol does not get into the hands of minors. I agree 100 percent, and am in full support of taxes being paid and minors being protected. This does not, however, detract from the point that the system as it exists is also a barrier to both the enjoyment of sake and the growth of the market. Certainly, if a little creative thought were to be applied to the issue, the powers that be could come up with win-win solutions. It only calls for a bit of willingness.
There are two other issues that seem to be adding to the inability of consumers to obtain a wider variety of premium sake.
One such issue is that imported sake can only go through one importing company. This importing company needs to be specified on paperwork submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms prior to importing. What this means is that if a producer or exporter would like to put more of an effort into distributing their sake, they may be limited by the willingness of their specified importer to cooperate. If it is not in the best business interests of the importer to, for example, carry a certain level of inventory, a sake may not see an improvement in distribution, or reach markets aimed at by the producer, exporter or related organization. Also, if the designated importer does not have the necessary business relationships in certain states or regions, it may be difficult for sake to flow, so to speak.
Actually, the importer can be changed, but it is even more work than the original registration procedure. A letter is needed from the original importer, and the entire process must be redone. Often, then, when a bottleneck is reached, or if business relationships sour, breweries submit a separate but similar product for import registration. This, in my opinion, creates too many products and too much confusion to allow learning about sake to be enjoyable. It becomes a hassle to remember so many products and their subtle differences.
It seems that if multiple importing channels were permissible, product could flow more easily and more economically, and a healthy competitive environment would be the positive result.
At the same time, I must admit that there may be a lot more behind this particular regulation than I know; the issue may be more complex and the present structure serve more of a function than I understand. Still, on the surface it seems like a little creativity and a willingness on the part of the BATF would go a long way.
Next is the issue of adding alcohol to sake.
Sake, as we know, is brewed from rice, with the help of koji, an enzyme-creating mold that breaks starches into sugars that can be fermented by the yeast. Much sake also has some straight ethyl alcohol added to it for one reason or another.
In cheap sake, this alcohol is added so that the sake can be made more cheaply. It basically thins our the product, and sometimes other flavorings are added to keep things in line. Note, however (and this is key), that before shipping water is again added to bring the alcohol level down to 15 to 16 percent, so that such sake does not have any higher of an alcohol content in the end. In that sense, it is not a fortified beverage.
In premium sake, a very small amount of alcohol is added to the fermenting mash a few hours before pressing. This serves the purpose of pulling out significantly more fragrant and flavorful components from the mash that are soluble in alcohol by temporarily increasing the alcohol content. Again, after all is said and done, water is added to bring the alcohol content down to the same level as other sake.
The US government, however, applies a different tax structure to these types of sake. In fact, the tax on sake with added alcohol is similar to that for alcohol-fortified beverages, which amounts to almost ten times the tax for sake with no added alcohol.
In Japan, more than 90 percent of all sake brewed has some added alcohol to it. More than half of all sake considered premium sake also has a tad of alcohol added. By keeping this tax structure in place, the US sake-appreciating public is being deprived of quite a chunk of the premium sake market.
Since the overall alcohol content is no higher than sake with no added alcohol, why does the tax need to be different at all, much less ten times higher? Would it not make more sense to allow all sake to be taxed equally, as either a wine or a beer, and encourage its proliferation and popularity? This would certainly lead to greater revenues in the long run.
There have been rumors that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has plans to change this, but just when and how is not clear.
With all due respect to the need to collect taxes, and the need to protect minors, let’s hope some progress is made in opening the doors to sake appreciation across North America.
US Hakushika Ceases Brewing
Hakushika of Golden, Colorado, will cease sake brewing in the US this month, it was announced. Hakushika was one of seven sake breweries in existence on US soil; six remain. According to a report in the Joukai Times, a sake-brewing industry newspaper, Hakushika brewed over 4860 kiloliters of sake since the brewery was completed in 1992. Sake brewed here was exported to Europe as well.
Hakushika in Japan (or more correctly, Kuromatsu Hakushika, since they lost a court battle years ago with a tiny brewery that had the Hakushika name first, which by the way makes a brilliant second brand called Tsukuba) had suffered from the decreased demand for sake within Japan, and their plant in Nishinomiya was not brewing to full capacity. Nishinomiya is a section of Nada, the ward of Kobe from which about 1/3 of all the sake brewed in Japan is brewed. Many of the largest brewers in Japan are here.
Hakushika therefore decided to maximize their efficiency and brew sake for the US market back in Japan, utilizing their existing Japan-based facilities more effectively. As they are the ninth largest brewer in Japan (and the world, for that matter), a few more kiloliters would not likely be a burden. Hakushika sake will continue to be available in the US, but will now be imported from Japan.
Sake to look for…
1. Ama no To, “Umashine” Junmai-ginjo-shu, Akita
The name Amo no To means “Heaven’s Door.” Very well constructed sake, delicately put together, and with incredible balance amongst the flavors. Overall, a young feel, which begins with mild green apples in the nose, and continues into the refreshing but settled flavor which comes knock, knock, knocking on your palate. Soon to be available in the US. Rating: 90
2. Ayagiku, Junmai-ginjo-shu, Kagawa
All Ayakiku sake shares a very strong thread of distinction, which likely comes from the fact that all sake here is made with the same rice, Oseto, which is not all that commonly used. A flowery and citrus-laced nose opens up into a solid flavor with comparatively strong bitter and tart elements, and definite earthy undertones. Rating: 84
3. Echigo Tsurukame, Tokubetsu junmai-shu, Niigata
Light and crisp, with a fairly sharp, clean edge to the flavor. More of a rice nose than much of a fruit essence. Slightly fuller body than most Niigata sake, which are usually more slender and drier. Very solidly constructed and well brewed; this sake will stand up to most lighter fare and maintains its presence.
The brewer of this sake also obtained the first license in Japan to brew micro-brewed beer. Rating: 83
4. Eisen, Junmai-shu, Fukushima
Eisen is, relative to the rest of the sake in this region, a bit dry. It has a settled and balanced aspect to its overall mellowness that is relaxing. It strikes the palate softly and smoothly. Strawberries and apples mingle in the nose, which is faint but therefore in equilibrium with the flavor. There is a junmai-like acidity too that helps to spread the flavor out well.
Higher grades of Eisen sake become somewhat lighter and fruitier, but maintain the same basic essence and almost non-distinctive mellowness. Works well with food with not-so-strong flavors. Available as the in-flight sake for All Nippon Airways, should you choose to fly with them.Rating: 85
5. Fukunishiki, Junmai-shu, Hyogo
Nose is just a tad astringent with evident acidity, not much flower or fruit (somewhat typical of Hyogo sake). Good impact on the palate, with a full richness that goes diving into nooks and crannies. Mellow rice-like flavor overall. Acidity comes roaring back pleasantly to get you at the end. Rating: 85
6. Hitori Musume “Sayaka” Ginjo-shu
A sake for fans of dry sake. Clean and crisp from beginning to end, and a good acidity. The nose is understandably faint, as too much would not jibe with the bone-dry flavor well. Would likely be better cool than warmed. Nice sake to match with food of a slightly stronger character. Quite readily available in the US, with good distribution. Rating: 83
7. Kenbishi, Kuromatsu Kenbishi , (no designation), Hyogo
One of the most famous sake in Japan, long a famous name, and more famous is the symol: two black diamond-like shapes. The kura and its brewing are very traditional, almost shrouded in secrecy. The sake is mellow and confident; rather sweet for the Nada region from which it comes, although relatively dry overall. Slightly tart nose, good acidity to liven things up. A good example of a huge brewer that makes surprisingly good sake. All too often it is all too easy to wave off the larger brewers as not producing any sake with character; it is simply not always true. Kenbishi and several others make consistently good sake. Rating: 82
Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, March 25, at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). The topic of this seminar will be nigori-zake (white, cloudy sake). After an informative lecture, there will be seven or eight nigori-zake available for tasting. Although the seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san’s level of knowledge and experience are incredible. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen for lecture, sake and meal. Those interested can make a reservation through me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Gauntner will be giving a series of four presentations on sake, all to be followed by a tasting of a half dozen sake. Information for each of these events is below.
April 18 – “The Culture of Sake: Lecture & Sake Tasting” at Columbia
University, sponsored by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture,
Columbia University. Lecture begins at 5:30pm in the Satow Room, Lerner Hall. (Broadway & 115th St.) Call 212-854-5036.
April 20:– Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
“The World of Sake: Lecture & Tasting” — Sponsored by the Japan Society
of Boston (617-451-0726) and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese
Studies at Harvard Univ. (617-495-3220). Lecture begins at 6:00pm at the
Harvard Faculty Club, 20 Quincy Street, Cambridge. Admission: $28
(Japan Society members) and $35 (non-members). Interested parties can call one of the above numbers for more information.
April 22 — Cleveland, Ohio, Japan America Society of Northeast Ohio (JASNO)
Lecture on sake and tasting to follow, to be held at a room in the Asia Plaza, near downtown Cleveland. Lecture begins at 7:00 pm, with appetizers and sake tasting to follow. Interested parties should contact JASNO Vice Chairperson Kei McMillin at (216) 795-1604 or fax (216) 721-3743.
April 24 — Sponsored by the Japan Society of Northern
California, San Francisco. Lecture and tasting to follow. Program begins at 6:00 pm. Contact Corey Oser, Program Officer for the Japan Society in San Francisco, email@example.com
All these programs are open to the public. As alcohol will be
served, minimum age is 21.
In the next issue (scheduled for April 15, 2000):
-Sake brewing process: a closer look at one step
-Umami: the sixth taste?
-Sake to look for
-Sake-related events (Japan)
-Reader Feedback and Q&A
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