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Sake Regionality Part 2:
Vague, Evasive, Yet Real

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #85
December 1, 2006

IN THIS ISSUE
– Sake Regionality Part 2
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events & Announcement
– Calling All Sake Homebrewers
– Tokyo Sake Pub Book Now Available Directly

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Sake Regionality: The Few Defined Systems
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Last month, we looked at regionality in sake, and the fine line of vagary versus validity upon which it treads, descriptions of what contribute to regional distinction in sake, as well as what detracts from it. As mentioned at the end of that article, there are a handful (currently five) prefectures that have defined sets of rules to which local brewers must adhere to qualify for the equivalent of a proper designation of appellation.

This “designation” in the end amounts to a sticker on the bottle, although what that represents can be significant. So let us now look at these several systems, their pros and cons, their strengths and their (where applicable) silliness. Remember that with one (vague) exception, these are not law, but are mutually agreed upon rules decided upon by the local brewers’ associations, and are followed only by those brewers wishing to participate – and only for those products within their lineup that they choose to submit to the process. More on this later, but let us now look at the regions and respective rules.

1. Nagano Prefecture
Almost four years ago, in 2002, Nagano Prefecture was the first to begin a “Genchisan Koshou Kanri Seido, ” or “Local Product Control System.” The qualifications are actually pretty strict. The sake must be brewed with Nagano-grown rice, and be one of four sake specified rice types that grow there. It must be milled down to at least 70%, and must be either junmai, junmai ginjo, or junmai daiginjo (i.e. special designation sake, and no added alcohol). The water as well must be from Nagano. On top of that, it must past a series of blind tastings without getting dinged for flaws. There are tastings in January for just-made sake, again in May, and September. If a brewer sells the sake while still quite young (say in March or so, although this would be unlikely for premium grades) that is fine, but if it is still around in May, it needs to be tasted again, and if it is still around in September (which, again, is very likely for premium sake as it needs to be matured at least a bit), it must undergo the ritual a third time. This ensures it is both cared for properly, and also that it has not been brewed in a way that leads to instability. After this, it is good to go for a year, but if it still has not been sold, it must be subject to the tasting gauntlet yet again. Pretty strict. However, one very fair aspect of the tasting is that the sake is divided into groups of flavor profiles, such as “general,” “ginjo aroma,” “sweet, ” “higher-than-usual acidity,” “kimoto type” and “other.” This prevents a sake with a different but valid flavor and aroma profile from getting whacked when tasted after a sake of significantly different style. Pretty fair, methinks.

2. Saga Prefecture
Two years ago, in 2004, Saga Prefecture in the southern-western part of Japan began a system modeled after that in Nagano. The rice must be Saga-grown rice, but can be any variety. There is no minimum milling requirement, but the degree of milling must be listed on the bottle. The water must be Saga water, and the entire brewing process including bottling must take place there too. Furthermore, the amount of koji must be at least 15% of the total volume of rice, and no liquid enzymes (to replace the starch-to-sugar conversion function of koji) can be used. (In truth, there is not much of a need in my opinion for the last two requirements since it would be difficult to make sake good enough to pass the tastings if one forewent proper koji making for industrial enzymes.) Saga sake is then judged twice, in March and September, and the certification is good for one year. The sake is divided for the judges by grade, not profile, and the four are junmai-shu, tokubetsu junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo. Furthermore, while the judges do not know the brand of sake, they are given information like alcohol content, acidity, whether or not it has been pasteurized, and whether or not a special method like kimoto or aging has been employed. This allows them to assess it for what it is given those conditions, and serves the same purpose as dividing the sake up by flavor profile as they do in Nagano. An equally fair system, methinks.

3. Hokkaido
Way up north, Hokkaido has a system in place not only for sake but for a wide range of local products including meat, cheese, salmon, soba, miso, salmon roe and even ice cream. The sake requirements include locally grown rice milled to at least 70%, local water, and junmai, junmai-ginjo or junmai daiginjo only. Sake here goes through a tasting ordeal too, but only one time, and here the sake is tasted by both a panel of pros and a panel of non-professionals, whose opinion is also taken into consideration. Hokkaido is not the best place for growing any rice, much less sake rice, and only three types grow there. Brewers must use one of these to qualify. As such, only six sake breweries (out of the 17 there) have qualified – or cared to try.

4. Ishikawa Prefecture
This is the only place where there is government approval and involvement in the appellation designation system. But I dunno; this one is a bit weird to me. Of the 41 breweries in Ishikawa, only five are even allowed to participate. All are in the city of Hakusan, near the historically important mountain of the same name. About 700 years ago, sake from this region near that mountain was prized and known as “Kikusake,” or “Chrysanthemum Sake.” So there is a historical precedent to all of this. The five brands are Tengumai, Kikuhime, Tedorigawa, Manzairaku and Takasago. So the five breweries still there are allowed to call their sake “Hakusan Kikusake,” and put that on their labels, by almighty decree of the Ministry of Taxation, the ministry in charge of sake-related issues. No other brewers in the country are permitted to do that. Not sure why they would want to, though. I have trouble imagining why a brewer from, say, Miyagi would want to put “Hakusan Kikusake” on their label. But still, if they did want to, well now they can’t. So there. Also, in terms of rules and regulations, while the rice used does have to at least 70%, it does not have to be local Ishikawa Prefecture rice (go figure!), nor does it have to be a junmai style. Kikusake that does not use Ishikawa rice seems like a big chink in the ole’ armor there, or so methinks. And while there is a tasting involved, the rules and judges are a bit unclear, and it seems a tad incestuous to me. But I could be wrong about that. Hmm. I know four of the five breweries very well, and they all make some of the best sake in the country. (The fifth may as well; I just am not as familiar with it!) And in fact, I just visited two of them last month, so I feel a pang of slight disloyalty stirring in my solar plexus as I write this. But there are too many ironies in the fire for this designation to be taken seriously, in my opinion. I wonder how necessary it is. Going off for a moment on a tangent, and in what actually amounts to somewhat of a defense of the above system, bear in mind that the nature of the raw material of sake, rice, is such that it can be stored for months and transported easily with no threat to quality. This is quite different from grapes (at least before modern infrastructures et al), and in truth the nature of the raw materials of any product should be a huge factor in determining rules governing quality. So there is, actually, nothing too odd about a brewery using rice from another prefecture, especially when one considers that so much is done to the rice once it is inside the brewery that it does not hold as much sway over the final product as does, say, grapes in wine, since so much is left up to the skill of the toji (brewmaster) and his henchmen.

5. Niigata: Niigata O C
Niigata has a less strict system involved in that there is no judging involved. But the prefecture as a whole probably has more pride in their sake than anywhere, and a rep to go with it, so I do not foresee any big problems with this. The requirements are, for the most part, the usual suspects. The rice must be grown in Niigata (but can be any variety), and must be milled to at least 60%, which is higher than any of the other systems. Local water and the vaguely defined local traditional techniques must also be part of the equation. Currently, 39 out of the 97 breweries in Niigata participate.

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The above five locales have the most meaningful and organized systems. There are at least two others worth mentioning, though. Yamagata Prefecture has what amounts to a single brand name shared by all the brewers in making a super premium sake that meets a number of requirements. Those requirements are using Dewa Sansan rice, using Yamagata Yeast, Yamagata koji mold, and passing multiple very strict tasting tests. They then get to call this resulting daiginjo “Dewa Sansan,” although the written characters are different from those used in the rice name. While all of this sake is indeed sterling, personally I would rather see the individual brewing company names and arm myself with expectations and anticipation. For me, that is half the fun.

Finally, there is the “Uchu-shu” of Kochi Prefecture, written about in this newsletter several months ago. While for this the brewers of Kochi (all 17 of them) must use one of two specified Kochi sake rice types, they also use one of five yeast types that spent time in space aboard the Soyuz space station. So they are defining their regionality through the cosmos. Yeppir. You read that right. Still, as the yeasts were all very interesting strains before their foray into the heavens, the Uchu-shu sake is for the most part quite tasty, and quality is very high overall. And it certainly is a unique and powerful marketing concept.

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So, as you can see, the systems have their ups and downs, their good points and their holes. To me, regionality in sake is extremely interesting, but partly because of its vagary, exceptions, and frailness of uniformity within a region. Systematically defining it is therefore inherently laden with challenges.

While some feel it will lead toward increased international recognition of sake, I am not so sure. The rules are different for each prefecture, and understanding what is behind them takes some study too. If things get too complex, people will avoid getting too close, leading to the opposite of the objective. Also, if only some of the brewers and some of the sake of these respective regions choose to play the game, I wonder how much authenticity and credibility can be generated by these efforts.

And in the end, sake has its regionality, with the array of supporting and detracting factors that make it all so appealing. Whether regions will continue to try to systematize it remains to be seen.

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Good Sake to Look For
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Let’s look at a representative of each the appellation-defined regions above.

Masumi “Nana-go” (Nagano Prefecture). Junmai Daiginjo. Nana-go means “Number 7,” and refers to the yeast of the same name, discovered here at the Masumi Brewery back in 1946. Naotaka Miyasaka, director of the brewery, once commented, “Dr. Yamada from the Brewers’ Association bent over that tank on that fateful day in 1946, and said, ‘You’ve got something good here.’ Then he scooped some of the foam out and went back to his office. While we won all honors in all competitions that year and the next, we never made a yen off that yeast, but they sure did!” The interesting thing is, while Number 7 is a vigorous fermenter and very clean, it is not very ostentatious at all, and not usually considered a ginjo yeast. But Miyasaka-san decided it was a waste for the discoverer of that yeast to not make the most of it, and several years ago they began brewing this daiginjo using it. Not surprisingly, the sake is very restrained, subtle, and reserved. (Very Japanese, in that sense.) While clean, lively, focused, with a touch of pineapple and pear, it is tight and compact overall. It is also brewed using the yamahai method, but is ever so subtle in its manifestation of the gamey, smoky idiosyncrasies associated with that style.

Tenzan “Hotarugawa” (Saga Prefecture). Junmai Daiginjo. A wonderful blend of several “faces” of sake: the aromas are fruity if grounded, apples and chestnuts dancing together. The weight and texture are on the heavy side, even more so for a diaginjo, and in that sense very representative of sake from far western Japan. Fruity tones that tie into the aromas arise, as do nuts and figs and steamed rice and more, reaching deep into recesses that open up with time and temperature. These all fade into a much drier-than-expected flavor that strikes the palate softly, with a buttery essence rising up later. This is a beautiful example of a daiginjo sake that is much better closer to room temperature than chilled. But definitely try it at several temperatures and watch it change as it warms up.

Chitose Tsuru (Hokkaido). Junmai-shu. Chitose Tsuru is the largest brewer in the largest prefecture, Hokkaido. A fairly classic example of dry junmai-shu, this sake is full and billowing with rice flavors, yet a round, mellow earthiness suffuses that, and a moderate acidity drives it from behind.

Tengumai (Ishikawa Prefecture). Yamahai Junmai Ginjo. An interesting and doubtlessly difficult to achieve blend of richness and cleanness define this product, as do an almost maple-tinged sweet touch surrounded by tarter elements and a smoky suffusing quality (compliments of the yamahai methods used). Plenty of umami richness in the recesses, with a palate-cleansing acidity rising up at the end to bid it all farewell.

Kikuhime “BY” (Ishikawa Prefecture). Daiginjo. Kikuhime is a very prestigious brewery, and while not huge, their reputation precedes them. They use a remarkable one thirtieth of all the Special Designation A (i.e. the best) Yamada Nishiki grown in the country, or at least they did as of a few years ago. BY is short for brewing year, and this fairly expensive sake is one that has been aged a year at low temperatures resulting in an incredibly well harmonized flavor profile. It is one of three or four *very* expensive daiginjo put out by this brewery, and while it is the cheapest of these, it is by far the best to me (and the one closest to be being worth the cost, I daresay). Lots of light yet mature fruit essences tightly bound together, exquisite texture, weight and balance, a firm structure with nothing at all wasted, and a remarkably clean finish considering all that flavor. ‘Nuff said.

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Sake Events and Announcements
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Announcing the Fourth Annual Sake Professional Course
January 22 to 26, 2007, in Tokyo, with a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. While there are but one or two spaced yet available, it seems worth it to announce this one last time. The Sake Professional Course is a five-day intensive immersion into sake and the sake world, replete with plenty of classroom instruction followed by relevant tasting, four sakagura (brewery) visits. Naturally, the evenings will be filled with more merry tasting along with great local cuisine. While the course is focused on those that plan to use the information professionally, anyone is of course welcome to attend. My objective is that, after completing the course and taking the time to absorb the material, no one out there will be able to tell you anything about sake that you do not already know. In this, I have great confidence. It will be thorough. The tasting sessions that follow each classroom session ensure that participants will understand the material on a deeper and more permanent level than would be the case from book-study alone. For more details, and some testimonials (more to be posted soon), see http://www.sake-world.com/html/consulting-pro-course.html.

Sake and Pottery Seminar
February 3, 2007. While it is still a bit out, the next sake seminar at Takara is scheduled for Saturday, February 3, 2007. It will be the yearly seminar on sake basics. Also in attendance to provide a basic seminar on Japanese pottery will ceramics luminary Rob Yellin. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing John Gaunter from his web site at www.sake-world.com.

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Calling All Active Sake Homebrewers
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I know you are out there and I want to put you together. From time to time I get requests from those interested in home-brewing sake, and/or those actually doing it that are looking for others with which to share notes and ideas. The sake home brewing mailing list I used to mention on this site seems no longer active, but I would still like to help put together those trying their hand at making sake themselves so as to help you share info on koji mold suppliers, yeast, tricks ‘o da trade, and whatever else. So, if you have emailed me in the past about sake home-brewing, or are interested in this, and want to be put in touch with others doing the same, please email me and I will do what I can to put you all in touch with each other. It can only lead to good things, methinks.

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New Sake Pub Book Available Directly From SAKE-WORLD.COM
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My most recent book, the “Tokyo Sake Pub Guide,” is now available directly from www.sake-world.com. Entitled NIHONSHU NO UMAI OTONA NO IZAKAYA” (Sake Pubs with Good Sake for Grown-ups), or the “Tokyo Sake Pub Guide. ” Written by myself (the English bits) and Akihiro Yorimitsu (the Japanese parts), introduces in depth 40 sake pubs all over Tokyo. All 40 pubs were selected by myself based on various parameters, including food, reasonable prices, the sake list (of course), and that all-important ambiance. Convenience of access was also taken into consideration. The selection runs the gamut from old and traditional to modern and funky, but with a bit of a lean toward the former.  If you visit Tokyo even once in a while and enjoy sake, this little handbook will prove indispensable. Most of the text is in Japanese, as the book is geared toward Japanese people wanting to take overseas customers and guests out drinking sake. However, there is enough English in it to ensure those that do not read Japanese can find and enjoy all 40 pubs. The book is chock-full of revealing photos that speak a thousand words each, showing the nature and feel of each place introduced. It also includes an English chapter on what is what in Japanese sake pubs, in terms of both food and sake. If you regularly visit Tokyo or plan to, and have an interest in sake, this is the guide for you. To order, send a check or money order for US $15.00 or JPY1000 to:

John Gauntner
1 – 4 – 4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi
Japan 248-0003

Include your name and address, and it will ship directly to you, from me, with an author’s signature and date. Make your next trip to Tokyo that much better.