Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
July 1, 2005
IN THIS ISSUE:
– Oke-uri and Oke-gai: Sake Outsourcing
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events/Announcements
– In the Archives
Oke-uri and Oke-gai: Sake Outsourcing
Just like any industry, the sake brewing world has a couple of dubious practices that – while neither wrong nor even detrimental – they would prefer not to advertise. Still, less-than-savory though they may be, they are still a valid and even very interesting part of the culture and history of sake. Oke-uri and oke-gai, or “selling tanks” and “buying tanks” fall into that category.
In short, what these in-the-shadow workings are all about is simply large brewers that can sell more than they can make will buy in bulk from small brewers, bringing it to their own factories (somehow the word brewery does not quite fit here), and bottling it and selling it as their own. So, they are in effect buying whole tanks of sake at once.
This is known as “oke-gai,” or “tank buying” (oke means tank, -gai is from kai meaning buy), at least to those that do the buying. It’s alter ego is “oke-uri,” and as “uri” means sell, this is “tank selling,” and is obviously the same practice as viewed by those that do the selling. It began long ago, soon after the war, when the large brewers came into the dubiously enviable position of being able to sell more sake than they could make. The well-oiled sales machines of such companies had the resources to drum up more and more clients, but there was not enough sake to go around, at least not from their own factory. This problem was solved by approaching smaller brewers in the nearby countryside and offering to buy entire tanks of sake. “Just brew it like this, and we will buy almost everything you make.”
These large brewing companies would buy lots of sake from various nearby small brewers, tweak it for consistency of flavor (more on this later), put their well-known brand name label on it, and sell is as their own. This symbiotic relationship worked (and works) quite well in many senses. The large brewers get their sake, and the smaller brewers get hassle-free revenue: no bottling, no marketing, no sales. Just brew and screw.
One small brewer in Tochigi, just north of Tokyo, told me that as a small boy they were brewing roughly four times what they now make. “Each week during the brewing season,” he explained, “a big tanker truck would pull up, and we would fill it with the contents of the tanks we had finished, and off it would go to be sold as someone else’s. It was a good and stable business.” Like most of these smaller suppliers, they no long engage in oke-uri.
Eventually, however, things got almost out of control, and at the peak of sake production and consumption (about 1973), it has been estimated that a whopping 50 to 80 percent of the sake of the large national-brand brewers was actually made by someone else. Naturally, eventually the media and consuming public caught on, and they were none too pleased.
But again, in a very real sense (read: economic), it was beneficial for both sides. There was no way the little guys could sell by themselves the volume they were brewing under these arrangements, and there was no way the big heavies could make enough to satiate the sales force – or the management behind them. Still, then and now, it somehow smacks of something inappropriate to many people.
In truth, however, the sake sold in this way was for the most part cheap sake. Like, very cheap sake. This was all before the days when premium ginjo was considered economically viable, and a huge portion of all sake sold was in fact less than premium. And obviously, character-laden premium sake could not be contracted out like this if consistency and character were to remain even remotely intact.
With all these little brewers making sake that was later sold under one label, obviously something had to be done to ensure that it all tasted at least reasonably similar, if not identical, both within a given year, and from year to year. A company cannot market the quality of the sake when each bottle tastes different. That surely won’t fly. Of course, the large companies stipulated just how the sake was to be brewed, guiding and instructing the smaller suppliers, But still, there were sure to be some differences from brewery to brewery. How did they create this consistency of style and flavor?
By blending and the aforementioned “tweaking.” Tanks from various suppliers were blended, and flavors adjusted by adding copious amounts of pure distilled alcohol (this was very cheap sake, remember), and adding things like sugars, organic acids, and even MSG. Then they charcoal-filtered the bejeezus out of it, eventually arriving at a drinkable product that balanced some consistency with some character.
But again, perhaps because sake is supposed to a connoisseur beverage brewed by master craftsmen with time-honed skills and intuitions, oke-gai/oke-uri practices seem to feel a bit tainted. So much so that there are a couple of euphuisms used within the industry to describe such activity.
Since the small brewer making the sake and selling it to a large brewer does not pay alcohol tax to the government (that tax is paid by the purchasing brewery when the sake is sold to the distribution channel), such sake came to be known as “minouzei,” or “non-taxable.” So a brewer might be heard to say “we make a bout 100 kiloliters a year, and about half of that is non-taxable.” Indeed, somehow this sounds a bit more tactful.
While minouzei practices did (and do) take place all over Japan, they were most common in western Japan, near the yin and yang brewing behemoths of Nada (Kobe) and Fushimi (Kyoto). Countless breweries in those two prefectures, as well as the surrounding prefectures like Nara, Shiga and Wakayama, that are filled with tiny neighborhood breweries saw their sake industry supported through the sale of sake to the large brewing companies in Nada and Fushimi. In fact, many small to medium sized breweries with very reputable names and very fine sake did (and do) sell a bit of “minouzei” on the side; it provides a bit of additional revenue, and helps the big brewers to boot.
While visiting one such brewer, actually on a little island near Kobe, I inquired about how much they were brewing each year. I received an honest answer, similar to the example given above. I was told they make about 800 kiloliters, with about 20 percent of that being “minouzei.” It was the first time I had heard the term, and surmised it might mean what it does, but asked to confirm my suspicion.
“Minouzei… do you mean oke-uri?” I asked innocently.
Our host looked at me with a humorless, wry smile that clearly stated “OK, smarty-pants, you’ve proven you’re cool by showing you know the crasser term.” His voice, however, merely stated the truth. “Uh, yes. Oke-uri.” Actually, that was not at all my intention. But I did come to realize the stigma attached to some terminology.
When all of this naturally enough met with public disapproval, many brewers sought to distance themselves from image of minouzei sake. And so, a type of sake known as “Ki-ippon” was born. When Ki-ippon is on the bottle, it indicates that all of the sake therein was brewed at one and only one place. It may seem like a superfluous term to have to put on a label, but keep in mind the purpose was to go out of their way to show the contents were not outsourced. These days, that term is rarely seen, and even more rarely does it retain its original meaning, having transformed itself into an indicator of overall quality.
Also, things are changing, mightily and fast. Breweries engaging in minouzei buying and selling have dwindled in numbers, and there are many reasons for that. Most significantly, consumption of cheap sake is dropping fast. This in turn means large brewing factories can handle it themselves. Also, many of the smaller brewers that formerly survived on minouzei sake are now brewing their own brands and styles with a renewed sense of pride and plenty of vigor. This, in turn, gives us consumers a few more fine brands to seek out and enjoy.
So, does it still take place? Yes, to some degree. But it is not likely anyone you know. And in an interesting twist to it all, in recent years, the process has been reversing itself in some isolated instances. There are a few tiny breweries that, for example, saw their brewing staff retire before securing their replacements, but who still have a dedicated customer base of locals. These places might then buy sake from a large brewery that is chugging along below full capacity, slap their own labels on it, and voila! Product! While situations like this are admittedly not that common, one does hear of them from time to time.
Also, there are some more positive examples of outsourcing as well. Take, for example, Kenbishi, the 11th largest brewer in the country, and to me the most mysterious of sake companies. The brand itself is centuries and centuries old, and has been selling on its fine reputation for like 300 years. They employ – get this – no sales staff! They do not allow visitors to see their breweries. They do not export, nor do they seem interested in entertaining such a concept. Their sake is chewy, flavorful, and downright appealing on several levels.
And their brewing methods are amazingly labor intensive for a large brewery. Very, very natural, hands-on, and traditional. Kenbishi is famous for buying tanks of sake from smaller “minouzei” producers, too. But to their massive credit, they fostered relationships with their supplying breweries, ensuring they brewed their minouzei sake to Kenbishi’s exacting standards, and using the same attention to detail. This kept the sake tasty, which in turn kept their reputation intact. And the icing on the cake is that the suppliers learn well how to brew fine sake, which can only serve them in brewing their own stuff. So it ain’t all bad.
So, less-than-savory though some may perceive them to be, these practices are still a valid part of the culture and history. And as I said, while they still do happen to some degree, it is not likely anyone you know – or would likely be drinking. And in any event, like anything else, they are neither good nor bad in and of themselves.
Good Sake to Look For
● Dewatsuru “Gin-Ippon” Junmai Ginjo
Dewatsuru is a quintessential representative of sake from Akita Prefecture, with its streamlined, fine-grained package. Softer fruit tones like peach and even citrus notes float throughout the slightly dry and straightforward profile. The aroma is more herbal and rice-tinged than fruity, but maintains nice consistency with the flavors that follow.
● Kariho “Namahage” Junmai-shu
Actually, the mother company brewing Kariho is the same mother company that brews Dewatsuru above. The two breweries are about half an hour apart, but bottling is done at the same location for both. More significantly, the water sources are totally different. Kariho is made with some of the hardest water in Akita Prefecture, whereas Dewatsuru above is made with relatively soft water. Namahage are demons with nasty masks that visit and torment children, new brides, and the “new kids in town.” They are the fun stuff of festivals and parades these days, and are very local to the Tohoku region and Akita in particular. Apparently, the name originally comes form the an Akita-only word for a blister one gets from sitting too long under a heated table known as a kotatsu, combined the word for “peel.” Hmm. Somehow, the demon connection is more appealing. But I digress. The sake itself if fairly light in flavor with a rather subdued aroma, with an almost barley-grainy sweetness slowly revealing itself at room temperature or so. A very crisp feel overall and a very clean finish make for a fine “session sake.”
● Hakurosuishu Junmai Ginjo
The main brand name coming out of this brewery is Take no Tsuru, or “Dew of the Bamboo,” with Hakurosuishu being a recently-adopted second brand. The brewery and its products are getting better all the time; they have won two consecutive gold medals in national competition with a relatively new rice called Dewasansan, and *not* Yamada Nishiki. Very impressive. This junmai ginjo is in one sense simple, demure and soft, without an excessive number of elements running through it. Yet, the fewer perceivable elements are clear and lively, including concord grapes, pears, and nuts in the center, with a enveloped in a gentle, alluring melting quality.
● Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
While I have mentioned Hakkaisan in passing before in this newsletter, I was surprised when I realized I have not reviewed it in detail. This sake seems to be growing in the collective unconscious of popular sake, meaning it seems to be even more ubiquitous then it was, and it surely seems to be tasting better and better. While it is very clean and dry, and in that way quite representative of Niigata sake, it also has a fullness and roundness filling it out, and actually a fairly prominent acidity too. Pristine yet with a fullness, lightness swaddled in softness.
● Hakkaisan Honjozo
Hakkaisan’s honjozo class sake is a much more reasonably priced way to learn of the fundamental nature of this brewery’s sake. Again, while dry and clean, this more chewy manifestation of Hakkaisan has a bit more grains and nuts in the flavor, and is just slightly sweeter overall. Still, very smooth and at an excellent price point.
Note, all of the above sake are available in the US at least, and some other countries as well.
Sake Events and Announcements
Nihonshu Festival 2005, aka “The Kawashima Sake Tasting”
On Monday, July 18, 2005 (a national holiday in Japan, “Ocean Day,” by the way), there will be a large scale sake tasting – party – bash held in Tokyo, in the Yupohto Building in Gotanda. It is sponsored by the Kawashima Shu-en no Kai, behind which is the funky little sake pub Kawashima. They are supported in this endeavor by the “Passing-on Sake Traditions Club” and the “Organization for the Promotion of Warmed Sake.” Sincere apologies for the unwieldy translations. There will be 70 sake breweries, and about 55 of those brewers will themselves be there. All told there will be upwards of 300 sake. Note, many of these are small, unknown but super brewers dug up by Kawashima. There is quite a bit of discovering and learning to take place here. This tasting rocks, folks, no mistake about it. And, to boot, there is food. Not sure why one would want to waste time dallying about the nibbles with all that good sake to taste, though.
There are two sessions, one from 1 pm to 4 pm, the second from 5 pm to 8 pm. The cost for the event is 7000 yen in advance for one session, 10,000 yen in advance for both sessions, or 9000 yen day of show for one session, 12,000 yen day of show for both sessions. Everything on this day will be in Japanese, but anyone is of course very welcome to attend. I myself will most unfortunately not be around that day. Bummer, that.
Those that are interested in attending will find information in Japanese on the location, brewers attending, and the several ways to purchase tickets at the link below. A good time will indeed be had by all. It would be advisable to write off the rest of the day, as they can’t even *spell* the word spittoon at this event.
* * *
Sake Seminar at Takara, July 2, 2005.
On the evening of Saturday, August 27, I will hold the next sake seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. 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: inhouse, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
In the Archives
At the risk of shameless self promotion, I want to encourage readers to scour the archives of this newsletter at:
The archives go back to August 1999. Within them are covered just about anything related to sake, from what it actually is (8/99, 6/03) to how it is made (9/99, 4/00, 7/04) to what makes for good ingredients (water: 2/01, 6/03, rice: 11/02, 3/03, and yeast: 10/99, 12/02). The topic of sake and region is covered, with articles on the sake of Niigata, Shimane, Fukui, Yamagata, Nara, Fukuoka, Ishikawa and Hyogo Prefectures. There are many more regions to be covered, but these are certainly worth knowing. More focused, less general topics like un-pasteurized sake (11/99, 5/00, 7/03 and 12/04) and nigori-zake (10/03) are there, as are culturally supplanting topics like history (11/00, 7/02) and official government sponsored tasting contests (June or July of each year). Detailed (overly so?) discussions of processes like the yeast starter (8/00, 10/00) and its more interesting manifestations like yamahai (3/04) and kimoto (12/04) and pressing sake from the dregs after fermentation (4/01) along with discussions on aging sake (8/03) and warming sake (11/99, 10/03). And much more. And while shameless self promotion is not usually my bag, being useful and informative is. I simply want readers to know the information is out there. Please check it all out at your leisure.
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner.
All material Copyright 2005, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003