National Tasting Contest, Niigata Revisited
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
June 1, 2004
In this issue:
-The National New Sake Tasting
Contest for 2004
-Niigata Sake Revisited
-Good Sake To Look For
-Good Sake Recommendations
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The National New Sake Tasting Contest
This past May, the “Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyokai,” or “National Newly Brewed Sake Tasting Competition” was held in Hiroshima. As usual, I made the trip down on May 27th to attend
the public tasting, where we can taste all 1049 of this year’s entries, and see which won gold, which won silver, and which were also-rans.
I have written about this contest in depth over the past
few years, and instead of rehashing all that, I will refer readers to the archived newsletters of June 2001, June 2002, June 2003. There you can read about the history, various judging procedures, and politics
over the years of this dubiously prestigious event. Those newsletters are archived here:
Here, I will just touch upon a few highlights, some of them
admittedly repeated points, yet highlights just the same.
-The event is sponsored by the National Institute of Brewing, whose mission and purpose you can check out at http://www.nrib.go.jp (click on the
English button). Known now in Japanese as the “Shurui Sougo Kenkyujo,” it is an “independent administrative institution” (read: semi-private) that is the seamless successor to what was a
totally government run organization until a few years ago.
-This was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the institution. Over the decades they have done much with research into yeast and other
micro organisms as well as general sake brewing practices that have made sake into the fine stuff it is. Unglamorously enough, however, they were founded to ensure that brewers could brew sake without screwing
it up, as sake was back then the source of about a third of all tax revenue, and the largest single source of such revenue. At the time (the very late 1800s), Japan was at war with Russia, and needed those
-This historically and culturally significant contest has been running every year since 1910 (with one year off for war, and one for moving from Tokyo to Hiroshima), this year being the 92nd
running of the event. Japan is the only country in the world that runs such a competition for its indigenous alcoholic beverages.
-The judging method is brilliant in its simplicity. Up to 40 judges taste
blindly from identical tumblers, and a score of 1 (excellent!), 2 (good) or 3 (something is a tad off) are assigned. That’s it. No notes, musings, ponderings or whining. A bell-curve like line is used as a
cut-off, and then the process is repeated. Those sake that are above that vaguely defined bell-curve demarcation win gold.
-Until a few years ago, all the sake was tasted together, with regions mixed up.
While the sake of different regions are still tasted side by side, a few years ago they began separating the sake into two categories: one made with Yamada Nishiki rice, and one made with anything else. Why?
Because it was thought that Yamada Nishiki is so superior that no other rice stands much of a chance. Therefore, no one will try to use anything else, which would stifle the willingness of brewers to experiment,
develop and expand their brewing horizons, which is the true point of this whole exercise.
-A new twist in judging was thrown in this year, with interesting results. With the proliferation of yeasts
yielding yodellingly wild aromatics over the past few years, the judges found it increasingly difficult to give a fair sniff to a sake that came after a super fragrant one. So this year, they took the time to
separate them into groups of increasingly aromatic sake. This was done by measuring the parts per million of various aromatic-inducing acids and such for each of the submissions, a relatively simple process, I
was told. Both judges and industry gurus seemed to think in hindsight that this worked well.
-For only the fourth time in the last 12 years, Niigata Prefecture did *not* take the most golds; that honor
went to Yamagata Prefecture with a whopping 24 golds. Niigata was second, though, with 20, which is nothing to shake a rice stalk at. Yamagata has been working hard over the last few years on rice, yeast and
technique, and it has indeed been paying off.
-Although not all the 1600-odd sakagura (breweries) in the country submitted sake to the tasting, over 1049 of them did this year. Of those, 978 used Yamada
Nishiki rice, and only 71used something else. In the end, there were 278 golds, and 251 silvers.
-What were the winners like this year? What did the judges seem to favor? It was very clear that
they were shying away from ostentatious, highly aromatic and overly full-flavored sake. Most of the winners seemed ever-so-slightly restrained, subdued, and controlled, with the necessarily pronounced flavors
and aromas of contest sake just slightly muted compared to past years. All in all, very well done, I must say.
-Finally, keep in mind that the results of this contest are …well, dubious at best. Why?
Because the sake submitted is specially brewed for these contests and does not resemble a kura’s regular on-the-market sake. It is more like daiginjo on steroids; very focused and precipitously balanced. For
this contest, the brewers attempt to create a sake free of any and all flaws while maintaining some semblance of uniqueness; no simple task by any means. Yet, if we cannot buy it, and it does not resemble at all
their regular sake, what is the point? This contest, and others like it, are an indication of a brewer’s skill in being able to conform to a very constricted profile, to exude absolute control over the
processes. And, this is most impressive when accomplished with consistency, winning a gold with regularity.
-Check for your favourites (in Japanese only) on the NRIB’s website, at www.nrib.go.jp.
Niigata Sake Revisited
In light of last month’s article discussing sake regionality and quantum mechanics, let us look at the sake of
various regions, beginning with Niigata. Readers may recall that the point was that, while different regions of Japan have strikingly different styles of sake (the waves), these days there are many breweries in
each region whose sake is unique (the particles), often markedly different from the perceived regional style. In recent years, perhaps more attention has been focused on individual kura than on regions. In the
admittedly shaky-if-fun parallel to quantum mechanics, we could say that this indicates that the energy of the sake world has been manifesting itself in particles more than waves. But I digress. Back to sake.
Should you find yourself motivated to study sake and regionality, it makes the most sense to start with the sake of Niigata. It’s not that Niigata is *universally* regarded as the best, although it
certainly is by many connoisseurs. Nor has Niigata always donned this crown; Akita once held sway over this domain, and before that Hiroshima, Hyogo and Kyoto. But based on any one of several current yardsticks
the sake of Niigata comes out near the top in the opinion of many, and in the end is great by any standard.
When did this first come about? About 25 years ago, when the “jizake boom” began,
Tokyo tipplers developed a fondness for small brewers from the countryside, rather than the stable if fine product offered by large national brewers. A few now-famous Niigata sake, like Koshi no Kanbai and
Kubota, were recognized for the pristine quality, and became instant hits. This opened the door for the rest of the country to discover that a whole lot of Niigata sake was of this level.
But to their
credit, it was much more than a matter of being in the right place at the right time and being picked up by the right media in the right way. Niigata followed through. Some brewers expanded and grew to fill
demand, others did not. But one thing they all did was to continue to doggedly pursue quality and better and better sake.
In fact, it was really after that jizake boom that the true quality of Niigata
sake began to shine through. While their reputation was already sterling, the brewers of Niigata hardly rested on their laurels. Both as a group and as individual producers, Niigata worked hard to make better
and better sake. And this showed ? and continues to show ? in their success in national tasting competitions.
As mentioned in the preceding article, over the last 12 years in the “New Sake Tasting
Competition,” Niigata has won more gold medals than any other prefecture nine times, and was second the other four; nothing short of amazing consistency.
What makes it so good? In short: a great
natural environment, including cold winters, clean air, ideal, slightly soft water for brewing, and an abundance of good sake rice. There are currently 97 breweries there now, and the majority of these are very
small. Although Niigata is 3rd in terms of sake production volume behind Hyogo and Kyoto, unlike these other two major sake regions, most Niigata sake comes from such tiny kura.
Beyond the natural
environment prerequisites, great technical brewing skill coupled with a willingness to try new things has helped Niigata to excel. Niigata was one of the first places to push the limits of rice milling and to
incorporate expensive modern milling machines to achieve more highly milled rice, and hence more highly refined sake. They were the first to incorporate charcoal filtering on an advanced and minutely precise
level. And they were one of the first places to embrace enamel-lined stainless steel tanks instead of traditional cedar.
Niigata is also the home of one of the largest and most skillful group of toji,
the Echigo Toji. The mark of this guild of master brewers is left all over Japan, not only back home in Niigata, as Echigo toji can be found all over. Although the toji system is rapidly modernizing and
changing, the Echigo Toji have always been one of the top three guilds.
There are other, less tangible points. When visiting Niigata breweries one thing has always amazed me: they are all spotless. All
of them. It’s almost cultish. Since sake is brewed using an open-tank fermentation, sanitation is paramount, and all sake breweries are generally clean and neat. But Niigata kura take this to a new level,
being pristine, gleaming and anally orderly, and it reflects itself in the sake. It is almost as if “a clean environment leads to clean-flavored sake.”
Indeed, most sake devotees agree Niigata
sake is great. But there is a caveat: It is not always what everyone wants to drink. Overall, Niigata sake is “tanrei karakuchi,” or very refined, light and dry. While this quality is very respected in
a sake, many people have come to prefer sake with a bit more flavor and weight to it, especially lately, as consumer preferences are making a knee-jerk, pendulum-like swing to big flavored sake.
admittedly, so has the sake of Niigata. While it is still refined and dry, it has packed a bit more meat onto its bones than it has donned in the past. Be it a conscious decision on the part of the brewers (who
are a fairly tight bunch, as far as brewers of a given prefecture go), or a natural swing of preferences, it is to me a welcomed shift.
Overall, the subtle, refined nature of most Niigata sake arguably
offers infinitely more potential for understanding the finer points of sake, and is very much worth the effort to check out. Do yourself a favor, and explore not only the well known, sterling names, but as many
of the smaller brewers’ sake as you can. You will not be disappointed.
Good Sake To Look For
Kirin Junmai Daiginjo
While almost everyone knows of the beer by the same name, too few know of this excellent sake that takes its name from a nearby castle, which took its name from a nearby mountain. This kura has been
brewing since 1880, but certainly must be making their best sake now. The current president worked for a while as a government taster (in contests like that described above), as did his father before him. He
also doubles as a professor at The Japan Brewing Society for aspiring young brewers. Suffice it to say he knows his sake. Not surprisingly this year Kirin also won a gold medal in Hiroshima.
like most Niigata sake, clean and dry and light. It is generally less crisp and a bit more soft and approachable then most Niigata sake. However, this is one of those sake that has thickened out gradually and
tastefully into something truly sterling. Kirin has become, over the past couple of years, a bit more solid and tightly structured. Kirin is available in the US, as well as in Europe; however, as you might
imagine, they need to go by a different name. In the US, that is “Koshi Hikari Daiginjo.”
Kiyoizumi Junmai-shu (Niigata)
Kame no O Junmai Daiginjo (Niigata)
Back in 1982, Mr. Kusumi, the
current president-owner of this kura, found about 1100 grains of an old, all but forgotten rice called Kame no O, or “the tail of the turtle.” He worked hard to reconstitute enough to make a batch of
sake, and things grew from there. Now, there are over 50 breweries using this fine rice to make character-laden sake all over Japan.
The sake they make from this rice is also called “Kame no
O,” albeit using different written characters. Just a tad hard to find, and only in Japan, it is slightly full, peppery, herbal and citrus-laced, yet soft around the edges. Worth searching for while in
Their other products, which go by the brand name Kiyoizumi, include the above-mentioned junmai-shu. Solid and clean with a hovering subtle sweetness in the background, the structure and feel are
Niigata all the way.
Kikusui Junmai Ginjo (Niigata)
Light and refreshing, yet not as crisp or ultra-refined as most famous Niigata sake (of which this is actually one), opting rather for a
gentler, softer and fuller profile. Mildly aromatic, albeit more flowery than fruity. Note there are other brands called Kikusui (although the written characters are different), but only this one from Niigata.
*Other well-known Niigata sake easily findable outside of Japan include the several grades and manifestations of Kubota, Koshi no Kanbai, Shimeharitsuru, and Hakkaisan. Some are pricey, others less so,
but all are worth trying at least once or twice.
Sake Events and Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, June 26, from 6:00 to about
9:00, I will hold a sake seminar at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The sake topic will be government tasting contest. We will discuss the national, local and toji-guild-sponsored events, and what is fun and
important about them. We will also be tasting one or two special “contest” sake.
The cost for the evening – half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and
printed material – will be 7000 yen.
Those interested can reserve a spot
by sending me an email. No deposit is required.
Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention
center just outside Yurakucho Station. More
detailed instructions for
getting there will follow with the confirmation email.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of
formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs
in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a
romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake
production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the
labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan
is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly
recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO HANASHI, published by Shogakkan
This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from
a foreigner’s point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in
Also worth searching for:
-SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket
sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a
mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at email@example.com. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable
home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one
in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several
brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb.
Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs,
the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: firstname.lastname@example.org, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word “subscribe” without the quotes to email@example.com . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake
events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.
NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and
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Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in
their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to www.sake-world.com, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that
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Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at the email address above.
Copyright 2004, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003