Toji Trials and Tribulations;
Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part III)
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
May 1, 2006
INSIDE THIS ISSUE
– Toji Trials and Tribulations
– Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part III)
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events/Announcements
Toji Trials and Tribulations
I recently spent an evening drinking with a toji, and it was an enlightening experience to say the least. As most readers surely know, a toji is a master-brewer, and there is but one designated toji at each kura. Oh, there may be an example here and there where no one goes by the title of toji in maybe one or two breweries around the country, but the traditional and de facto reality is that one person (with but a handful of exceptions, a man) at each brewery has ultimate responsibility for the quality of the sake brewed within, and calls most of the shots to get it there. While he gets a ton of respect, he carries several tons more around in the weight of responsibility.
A lot more about the history, culture, and responsibilities of a toji, as well as their guilds, can be found in the article linked here: http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2005_6.html, but for now, I want to talk about some of the less tangible issues a toji might have to deal with. Often these are far from such things like rice quality and contests, but can be just as important when it comes to final sake quality.
The gent I was so privileged to be sipping with that night is the toji at what I like to refer to as a “blue chip” sakagura (brewery). By “blue chip” I mean great reputation, quality and distinction of product, thorough distribution (and therefore brand recognition), a long and prestigious history, and stably big but decidedly *not* a mass-producer. He had, in fact, taken over as toji at the beginning of the just-ended brewing season (i.e. last fall). The previous toji had been around since the ice age, and had done much to contribute to the reputation of this particular kura.
For better or for worse, this company is implementing about a gazillion sweeping changes all at once. Several other good ole’ boys of brewing retired with the toji, and this was the chance to put in more machinery to reduce labor costs, a path onto which treading is but a question of time. Indeed, it is inevitable, and it was determined there that this was as good a time as any to put in machines to handle the difficult, tedious yet simple manual labor and let the intuitive human touch focus where it is most effective.
Needless to say this involves a hefty investment, and it can also massively impact the quality of the sake for years to come. If the implemented contraptions suit the nature and style of the toji, brewing style and sake itself, bliss will ensue, followed by great sake. But if however there is some incompatibility, be it physical or mental, real or imagined, between the holy triumvirate of man, machine and micro-organism, disharmony will ensue, and ultimately get transferred to the sake. (Do not underestimate this!)
So the first thing my toji friend had to do in the off season last year was go shopping for lots of expensive equipment and basically retool the place to meet needs for a changing future. Apparently, it was no fun. “It was a drag,” he lamented. “None of the well-known equipment brands seemed right to me,” he continued as he led me around the brewery earlier that day. “But just when I was about to give up, I found this. He explained the pros (but no cons!) of his new koji-making machine, a full room wide and two floors high, as well as the really wild (read: borderline over-engineered) machine for washing and soaking the rice. These two steps alone will carry major sway with how the sake will taste. So after his shopping spree ordeal, it seems he felt like he got what he wanted and needed.
But as our evening wore on, and as the sake wore in, he began to indicate he was a tad worn out. At that stage, they were just about done for the year. And he began to indicate that some of the biggest challenges and hassles he faced were far less physical.
Sure, he was the toji; he was in charge, and he called all the shots. But it seemed like the ghost of his predecessor still lurked about, at least in the mind of his erstwhile coworkers, presently underlings. Along with new equipment came some new ways of doing things. And in some cases, these changes were implemented simply because the new toji felt them to be better. But change is rarely warmly embraced in these more feudal artisan crafts, and often his directions were met with unbridled reticence.
During the various steps of the process, he would provide instructions and direction at each juncture. But apparently, from time to time the other brewers would stand, pause for a moment with their hands on their hips, and look around almost defiantly. “But the old toji had us do it this other way.” They would grumble.
“Yeah, well, dammit, I am different from him, now aren’t I,” the current toji would think. While I am sure his actual response in those situations was much more diplomatic and explanatory, as the sake wore in to his worn-out mind on that worn-on eve, the above was how he expressed it to me.
“It’s not like I am trying to make my mark, or make my presence known, or change the style of our sake or anything like that. It’s just that I have reasons and see benefits to doing it in ways that are sometimes different from those of my esteemed predecessor. And if I do not have the cooperation of my current staff, things will be so much more difficult.”
There is a proverb in the sake world, perhaps more of a gimmicky one than a bona fide maxim, but commonly heard nonetheless: Wa-jou-ryou-shu. The four characters mean “harmony-brew-good-sake.”
The implication should be close to obvious (as it usually is in these four-character proverbs): if the sake is brewed amidst warm-n-fuzzy harmonious feelings circulating throughout the kura, it is going to be good sake.
The thinking is that sake is a living thing as it brews, and that the countless micro-organisms are affected by a lot more than tangibles like temperature and pH. While this may hardly be soundly scientific in its nature, many brewers swear by it, and without a doubt it seems to prevail at kura whose sake is great. Which is not to say that there are not exceptions. But that is for another column.
As one more practical example of a “human resources” challenge a toji may face, another toji at another kura once complained to me (again, after a bit o’ sake, surprise surprise) that one of the older clowns at his place had a penchant for bad, bad, jokes and a never-ending stream of bad, bad puns. It was driving the other brewing staff bonkers and batty, so much so that they had to approach the toji and request intervention.
What a hassle, seemingly so far and away from the sake brewing he loves so much. “Dude: your puns suck. For the sake of the sake, put a lid on it.” But in the spirit of Wa-jou-ryou-shu, he deemed it necessary.
For the record, the gent at the first place above finished with a great season, their sake not missing a beat. And he beamed confidence that heading into next year, harmony would be the way of the kura. And as his sure-to-be long and prestigious career as a toji moves into year two, all his challenges – be the rice-related or less concrete – will surely be overcome one at a time.
Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part III)
I know what you’re thinking. “Yet another article on things from which to drink sake? The Sake Guy? More like the “milk-a-topic-for-all-it’s-worth-guy” if you ask me! Indeed, I understand these concerns. It was never my intention to spread this topic over three newsletters. It was supposed to be just one article, but all sorts of “must tell em” information kept presenting itself.
So let’s wrap up the discussion of sake vessels with the below. Last month, we finished with discussing wooden boxes and pours of munificence. Let us now go from ultra-traditional to uber-modern, and look for a moment at some proprietary sake glass designs, including the Riedel daiginjo glass.
As many readers surely know, Riedel is an Austrian company that makes some of the finest glassware in the world. (For the record, I am in no way affiliated with them.) Several years ago they “designed” a glass specifically for daiginjo sake that I must say is a wonderful glass.
I say “designed” because Riedel doesn’t design glasses as much as they let those that know the beverage best do the designing by guiding them through a very thorough and exhaustive iterative process of tasting several examples of the beverage amongst several groups of people several times in several regions. They use a range of glasses with varying dimensions, shapes, sizes and more, eventually minutely fine tuning those to find one that stands out amongst those that produce and/or assess the beverage for which it is being designed.
Together with the cooperation of 15 or so prestigious sake breweries, they managed to develop a daiginjo glass that, to the naked eye, looks much like a white wine glass. But the diameter, shape, and contours are such that it does a wonderful job of maximizing the enjoyment of daiginjo sake. Note, it is specifically for characteristically aromatic and lively daiginjo, and might not be the best glass for a sturdier type of sake. But then again, nor was it intended to be.
One bummer for them was that no one here in Japan uses stemware for sake. But a couple of years ago they came out with the “O” series, which is simply a stem-less version of some of their glasses, rendering them tumbler-like. Actually, I like this glass a lot, much more than the stemmed version, but that’s just me.
Both their daiginjo glass and the “O” series stemless version are here, although you may need to click through the frames a bit (Check the Vinum series and the “O” series):
Let me reiterate that while this is a cool glass that does improve the enjoyment of lively, aromatic sake like daiginjo, it is not the be-all-end-all sake glass. Such an animal does not exist.
Above and beyond the Riedel glass, there are a handful of other “sake glasses” designed by other industry luminaries, most of them loosely based on one concept or another. While many if not most of these have one or more merits, none of them remotely resemble the ideal or perfect sake glass.
But try to tell that to their esteemed designers! I have heard one brewer openly diss the big R, saying no glass can be all things to all sake, then pull out his flute-like stemware, saying “now *this* is a great sake glass!” Oh-oh-oh-kay!
I recently received as a gift a daiginjo glass that had this phallic like protuberance in the center of the bowl that I am quite sure has no business being in my sake glass. It’s a tad distracting, if not disturbing. More relevantly, I have no idea how this was supposed to make the sake taste or smell any better. For a shot of this oddity, see http://www.sake-world.com/html/curiousprotuberance.html
And then, of course, there is traditional Japanese pottery. Japan has one of the richest ceramics cultures in the world, with styles running the gamut from rough, unglazed and earthy to shiny, glazed and elegant. Each piece begs a season and a sake style. There is no end to this world, and for those more interested in studying and buying these fine works of art, you need to get to Robert Yellin’s two sites:
www.japanesepottery.com and www.eyakimono.net.
Mr. Yellin is the foremost non-Japanese authority on Japanese ceramics, and his sites are massively informative and useful.
Now, admittedly, pottery might not focus the aromas and flavors in the same way as some eruditely designed shi-shi glass. But the tactile, visual and cultural aspects of enjoying fine sake in fine Japanese pottery undoubtedly enhance the experience immensely. Who cares if it doesn’t focus the aromas and flavors el perfecto mundo? The other beauties involved more than make up for it.
Personally, I prefer cups of the Bizen school, as do other sake fans, with its dark, earthy tones and unglazed feel. But there is so much more out there of beauty and grace…
* * *
So, after three article of pontificating about what your options are for drinking implements, what do I use at home? Well, for fun drinking, indeed I use something from my very modest collection of Japanese pottery, generally something rustic and earthy. But for serious tasting, for note-taking, gotta-provide-feedback, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ tasting, I tend to gravitate for the “official” kikichokko described in last month’s diatribe. Why? I dunno. All I know is that my body prefers that, and I just find myself naturally reaching out for that puppy when I need to be serious about my tasting. But hey; that’s just me.
And, once again going back to the beginning: wine glasses, sherry glasses and the like work absolutely wonderfully as sake vessels. I would not want anyone avoiding the enjoyment of sake simply because they do not have the “right” glass !
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar, June 3, at Takara
On the evening of Saturday, June 3, from 6pm until 9pm, the above-mentioned Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at the sake pub Takara in Yurakucho. The sake topic will be sake rice. While many folks may think that rice is rice, and it all pretty much is the same, when it comes to sake, nothing could be further from the truth. The cost for the evening, with two lectures, six sake, dinner, lecture materials, and plenty of pottery for fondling, is \7000. Those interested in attending can make a reservation with John Guantner from his site at www.sake-world.com. 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.
Good Sake to Look For
Yuki no Bosha
Saiya Shuzo is a modestly sized kura up in Akita that is, to me, very representative of all that fine Akita sake can be. They are one of the most awarded kura in the country, almost annually winning a gold medal in the yearly “national new sake tasting competition,” this year’s version of which is about to be announced. But more than their contest sake, their daily off-the-shelf stuff has become some of the most dependable I know, and definitely one of my favorites. Overall it has body, feel, depth and structure, with enough of all of those to taste best ever-so-slightly below room temperature. I alluded to them in the February 06 newsletter in an article about genshu. I explained there that the toji here is so skilled that every drop of their special designation sake (i.e. honjozo, junmai-shu and all types of ginjo-shu) is genshu at 16 percent alcohol. There, I wrote, “This means he hits his target mark each time, never adding water to bring it back down. On top of this, amazingly, they never do any mixing up of the mash in their tanks. ‘Once fermentation starts, we really shouldn’t be messing with it,’ he says. ‘It’ll brew itself if we set it all up properly.’ In other words, he gets each batch up and running so perfectly that it all tapers to 16 percent alcohol bearing the perfect balance of aromas and flavors. Every time. In every tank. This, to me, is simply wild. And, now, several Yuki no Bosha (“Cabin in the Snow”) products are available in the US. All have a wonderful thread of consistency running through them in the form of a subtle, elegant richness. The Limited Release Junmai Ginjo has this and plenty of autumnal fruit suffusing the aromas and flavors. The Akita Komachi (an Akita sake rice) has a characteristic spicyness that is both focused and balanced. And their junmai daiginjo is both elegant, fruity, and memorable, with a combo of dried fruit and little green apples leading to a full package for a junmai daiginjo, but a characteristically elegant one as well.
Tsukasa Botan (Kochi Pref.)
It has been years and years since I have mentioned anything about this sake, and that is a shame. Very representative of all things Kochi Prefecture, both in style and in the suffusing culture made evident in labels, names and feeling. Their overall style is dry, but with a backbone to it, much more so than dry and light sake from other regions. Lately I have come to realize that a lot of this backbone is due to a higher acidity in sake from Kochi as compared to other dry regions, such as Niigata. Being a good-sized brewery they naturally have a wide range of products. Anything with the name Tsukasa Botan will be of excellent quality, and almost anything will be quite dry. Perhaps the most visible of their products (in several senses of the word) is their Senchu Hassaku Junmai Ginjo. It has a bright orange fluorescent label that makes it easy to spot, is dry as a bone, clean, yet with vestiges of wilder berry fruit. Senchu Hassaku refers to a very important document signed on a ship just off the coast in Kochi that was instrumental in overthrowing the Shogunate and reinstating the Emperor in 1868. There is also a junmai-shu being exported that, while characteristically dry, has a much creamier texture to it, filling out its bones quite nicely. Both the Senchu Hassaku and the junmai-shu are exported and well distributed.
Gokyo (Yamaguchi Pref.)
Gokyo refers to a gorgeous landmark, a five-sectioned arching bridge located nearby. Back in 1947, when the national sake contests were held twice a year (spring and fall) and awards were for first, second, third et cetera (as opposed to a bunch of golds and a bunch of silvers), Gokyo won gold in the spring, and proved it was no fluke by storming back for a silver in the fall. In something so subjective as a tasting contest like that, this is nothing short of astounding. And yet, to me, their “lower” grades of premium sake, like their honjozo and their junmai-shu, are such sterling examples of those grades and of just good sake overall that I rarely give their ginjo its “props.” I know it is great, but I like their junmai-shu so much for what it is that I tend to hang out with that more often. I find it very well crafted, with lots of textured, flavors reminiscent of rice and malted barley, yet with some floral and citrus notes in the aromas as well. Clean and tight, its fullness is tapered in the end by a focusing acidity. Gokyo Junmai-shu is, fortunately, exported.
Yorokobi no Izumi (Okayama Pref.)
In contrast to the above selection, while Yorokobi no Izumi (“The Fountain of Happiness”) lower grades of sake are fine, I quite enjoy their more extravagant manifestations. What the brewer brings to them in the juxtaposing combination of elegance, refinement, yet full delicious flavor in spades is quite impressive to me. Here is another place where I have recently had a chance to chat at length with the toji, and learned there he fled from kura in Niigata and other places after falling in love with the massive presence of the sake here. Easiest to recommend is their “Kyokushi” Daiginjo, in both of its rice manifestations, those being Yamada Nishiki and Omachi. While Omachi is quintessential Okayama Prefecture, the Yamada Nishiki is from nearby as well. Both are smooth at first, opening up hugely in the middle, and tightening up while leaving enough “flavor for thought” behind. The Yamada version is much more billowing, the Omachi much more prickly, as you might expect from these two. To my knowledge, these sake are not exported.