Nat’l New Sake Contest: “Last Waltz”
Three Stages of Sake Pressing
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
June 1, 2006
INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
– National New Sake Contest: “The Last Waltz”
– Three Stages of Sake Pressing (“Hey, buy our dregs!”)
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events/Announcements
The National New Sake Contest: “The Last Waltz”
Last May 25, the public tasting version of the 94th National New Sake Competition was held in Hiroshima. By that time, the 997 sake submitted this year had already been judged, and 253 gold medals had already been awarded. This public tasting is a chance for us to taste the entries ourselves, and enables us to see what won, what didn’t, and why.
While the sake submitted to these events is not sake sold on the market but rather brewed specially for this event, it still is very revealing and worthwhile in many ways. It tells a lot about the condition of the rice in the just-finished season, and also can be a harbinger of where sake styles, flavors and aromas may be headed in the near future. This year was particularly interesting in several ways, not the least of which being it was the final time the contest will be held under its current official auspices.
The past articles I have written on this cover everything from the mechanics of the judging and scoring to the history and politics of the event, from the type of sake that gets submitted to the philosophy of specially brewing sake just for this event, and from the rice used to how such sake actually tastes. These articles can be found in the newsletter archives here: (http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-archives.html), and are the June issues for 2001 through 2005.
As I alluded to, this past contest was the last one. The competition began in 1910, and during its 96 year history was only skipped twice (once during the war and once when the research center moved). Japan was the only place in the world where the government took part in official assessment of the country’s traditional alcoholic beverage. But somewhere, some politician decided that this is not something the government should be doing, and the event became an easy target for the budget-cut axe when it came a-swingin’. While I do not presume to know the priorities of any government, it still seems a bit of a shame. So this was it, the last waltz.
Actually, there are rumors that next year the event will move back to Tokyo and be run by the Japan Central Brewers’ Association, known as JCBA or “Chuo-kai.” The problem is that JCBA is not a third party, and furthermore there are some inter-industry politics that might affect things. So even if they do take over the contest from next year, there is some doubt as to how it will turn out, and how much prestige the results will carry. In short, more than likely, it just won’t be the same.
So, as I waltzed through the 997 sake for sampling something became very clear to me. For the public tasting, the sakes that won medals are labeled as such. And when one runs through them, it seems to me that 10 to 20 percent of them are “mislabeled.” In other words, I will taste some adorned with a gold medal and think, “Whoa! How in the world did this one win?” And, I will also taste from some bottles some whose neck is conspicuously bare of recognition and think, “Man, this one is *fine*. How on earth did this *not* get a medal?”
But from amongst the lion’s share of the entries, there was a significant thread of consistency: this year, the winners were more about flavor than aroma, which is a marked difference from the trend over the last decade. This is of course only my opinion, but it seemed to be validated by most I spoke to that day.
These sake were plenty aromatic, that’s for sure. But over the last ten years or so, things have often gotten out of control, with strawberries, bananas, and licorice blasting out of some sake. This is fine provided it is all balanced with flavor, but still, a lot of the sake was like daiginjo on serious steroids.
But not this year. Aromas were overall less prominent, and supported with deep flavors. In fact, if a sake did not have some depth and complexity to the flavor, it did not seem to be one of the winners. That was clear.
And, I might add, I thought it was great.
A week later, I became privy to what might have been a big influence on all of this flavor when I was privileged enough to sit next to Takashi Aoshima at the after-bash of a distributor tasting. Aoshima-san is the toji (master brewer) at an excellent brewery making a sake called Kikuyoi in Shizuoka. He also happens to be the son of the owner, so he’ll take over the business reigns in time as well. His story is fascinating, having originally had no interest in taking over the brewery, preferring instead to manage a gargantuan fund for a well known brokerage. In time he had a huge change of heart and came back to the family biz with a mighty vengeance.
At 42 or so he is fairly young as toji go, but still he commands a healthy dollop of respect in the industry. He was first asked to be a judge in the Shizuoka prefecture tasting, and reports of his stance and abilities must have traveled on high, since he was also asked to be a judge for the national contest later.
In short, he is more into flavors than wild aromas. That is the kind of sake he makes, and the kind of sake he feels is best. It’s not that he is an aroma nazi or anything; he simply feels strongly and confidently about what belongs in a glass of sake and what does not.
“I was the youngest judge, by far,” he commented, “and they asked me to participate because they know my stance, and they felt they needed me to balance them out, to bring them back in line, ” he grins.
Judges in these contests give the sake a score of one to five. One is the best, five means something is way off. “The other codgers averaged three or so. My tallies were down closer to four and a half!” It was almost as if he was proud of this.
“We tasted over four days, a thousand sake and then a second round,” he said, describing the judging methods. “Any wild aromas got dinged. They knew I would do this when they brought me in, and I did not disappoint them.”
It all makes me wonder whether one judge could have so much of an influence that the scales were tipped in favor of flavor. While it certainly is, in my humble opinion, a good direction, the mechanics of it all are food for thought.
One of the great ironies about all this is that his brewery does not even submit sake to the contest! He is not against it, not at all. It is just that the sake he wants to focus on making (read more about it below) is so different from “contest sake” that he cannot justify the resources to make one tank for that sole purpose.
* * *
And so that was it: The Last Waltz. Surely the event or something like it will reincarnate in some fashion, run by some group. Who knows; it may be even better. But 96 years of sake-contest history ended with a big whump. At least it went out on a fine note.
The Three Stages of a Sake Pressing (“Hey, buy our dregs!”)
There are three terms referring to sake that are mutually exclusive of grade but can still give you an indication of some aspects of the nature of the sake. These three – arabashiri, nakadare, and seme – refer to the stage of pressing that the sake came out of the box-style press (called a fune). The first third or so that comes out is called arabashiri, the middle third is known as nakadare, and the final stuff is referred to as seme.
That right there is the executive summary. But there’s a bit more background to it all as well.
After the 20 to 40 day fermentation period is completed, sake must be passed through a mesh to hold back the lees and let the ambrosia through. Perhaps 90 percent or more of all the sake out there is made using a machine at this stage called an assaku-ki, but more often referred to by the brand name that dominates the market, Yabuta. (Kinda like Xerox machine, Band-aid and Kleenex, Yabuta is not the only producer, and maybe not even the best, but most folks most of the time end up calling ‘em that.) And this is what they look like: www.sake-world.com/html/assakuki.html
These contraptions move like large accordions, and the way they work is that sake is pumped between the many mesh panels and balloon-like membranes inside that “accordion,” then the membranes are inflated, sending the sake through the mesh, but holding the lees (called kasu) behind. Very efficient. And they do a fine job. But…
Very, very often, the best sake of a brewery is made using a more delicate pressing process in which the moromi (fermented mash) is poured into meter-long cotton bags which are then laid down into a large box traditionally made of wood (although other materials are commonly used today). From there, after a spell during which the sake will run out of its own accord thanks to gravity, a lid is cranked down into the box, gently at first, and later with mind-boggling pressure. The sake is squeezed from the bags, running out through a hole in the bottom of the box, while the lees remain cleanly in the bags. Those that clean the bags later might argue with my choice of adverbs there, but let’s save that for another discussion.
Here is what a fune looks like: www.sake-world.com/html/fune.html
As you might imagine, the stuff that runs out of the box freely will be significantly different from that that comes out under intense, lid-cranked pressure. And that is why these three runoffs are essentially separated and often handled differently.
So, the first third is called “arabashiri,” which means “rough run.” Some compare this to free run, a comparison that is not perfect but not totally off either. As the term implies, it can be a bit rough, but is usually lively, fresh and enjoyably brash. There are many sake on the market with “arabashiri” on the label. Usually, but not always, these are seen in the springtime (just after the brewing season finishes) as they are best enjoyed before maturity mellows them out. But there are exceptions.
The middle part, “nakadori,” or “taken from the middle,” is generally considered the best of the pressing. The rough stuff is gone, and smoother aspects of the sake prevail. Nakadori is also seen on labels from time to time, if not as commonly as arabashiri.
Finally, they lift the lid, rearrange things to be able to maximize yields, then squeeze the dickens out of the bags to extract every last drop. This third, known as “seme,” is usually then mixed in with less expensive sake. It is usually only about five percent of the batch. No one would likely market their seme. That would be, like, “Hey, buy our dregs!”
Or so you’d think. Nor had I ever seen that. Not, that is, until about a month ago. Two brewers came out with seasonal small production products marketed as their seme. What they seem to be saying is, “hey, our sake is so darn good that we can even confidently sell our *seme* and have you like it.”
One of these two is Jokigen of Yamagata Prefecture. One of the first owner-toji out there, and a very small kura at that, they have over the last decade become famous for sterling, consistent quality with plenty of regional distinction too. They are marketing several of their junmai daiginjo seme sakes. These taste much lighter and fine-grained than most of the tightly-woven, full-flavored Jokigen sake, but are indeed premium and enjoyable brews.
Another is a Ryusei in Hiroshima. Here they did something even more interesting. They took the seme from three different batches, all with different rices (full Yamada Nishiki, herbal Omachi, and astringent Hattan) and different yeasts as well and mixed it all together. Wild. It’s like this no-man’s land of sake flavors and aromas, with every sip differing as the mixing with air and changing temperature taking it off in different directions.
Both of these sake were miniscule production, first-time experiments that are long gone. Nor could we count on anything remotely resembling consistency should they choose to produce them next year. But they were tremendously interesting sake to taste.
And, at the end of the day, the more practical terms to remember would be arabashiri and nakadori. Note, however, that these are not legally defined terms, and there exists vagary aplenty. A brewer could ostensibly apply these terms to machine-pressed sake (and in fact some places do), but usually they are reserved for sake pressed with a fune.
Good Sake to Look For
Kasumi Tsuru (Hyogo Prefecture). Kasumi Tsuru is produced in the far western reaches of Hyogo Prefecture, the eastern side of which holds Kobe, the largest producing neighborhood in the country. The brewery is smack in the middle of the region from which the Tanba school of toji (master brewers) hail, and is famous for its crab in the winter, so much so that there are 180 traditional inns in the area that exist for no other reason than serving fine crab cuisine at the large, scrumptious, and extravagant evening meal. The brewery focuses mainly on kimoto and yamahai styles, which are characterized by deep, rich, fine-grained and sometimes gamy flavor profiles resulting from a unique way of preparing the yeast starter. (Both yamahai and kimoto utilize natural lactic bacteria, and while they are different in method and style, they share some similarities.) Since this brewery serves so much of the countryside in that part of the country, it is actually a bit harder to find in the big cities. Fortunately, their sake is now being actively exported to at least the US.
Kasumi Tsuru (Yamahai) Ginjo. A fine example of what premium and somewhat restrained yamahai sake can be. Often, brewers run wild with yamahai styles, ending up with puckering, cheek-slapping sake. But here, the results are more reigned in, with touches of smoky earth intertwining with some pure sweetness and some autumnal fruit tones. Layered, deep and complex, it is fine chilled, but comes dancingly alive closer to room temperature, methinks.
Kasumi Tsuru (Kimoto) Junmai Ginjo. Characterized by slightly sweet barley and other grains wafting across its rich, soft profile, with a touch of honey and a pleasing acidity to tie the whole thing together. Both of the above sake, and at least two other Kasumi Tsuru products as well, are available in the US.
Kikuyoi (Shizuoka Prefecture). Kikuyoi is brewed by Takashi Aoshima, mentioned above. His story is long and interesting, and one thing I have learned about him is that he does things his way. His sake is wonderful, and surely some of my favorite, but it is nothing even remotely resembling ostentatious. In fact, it’s anything but. Far from it. Fuhgedaboudit. Drinking Kikuyoi is more like hanging out with a old friend. Mellow, gentle, alluring, and balanced. Unfortunately, none of his sake is exported, as its all he can do to make enough for to meet domestic demand. But surely, all that will change in time, and the name and style are worth remembering.
Kikuyoi Junmai Ginjo. Broad and deep, with bread-like grain facets and decent citrus-touched fruit in the aromas and piercing through the flavor as well. The breadth and depth come out more as it closes in on room temperature, even if it may be a tad more refreshing a bit more chilled.
Kikuyoi “Matsushita Mai” Junmai Daiginj. Matsushita Mai means Matsushita rice, and it is Yamada Nishiki locally grown very locally (like down the street from the kura) by a wild young rice farmer (named Matsushita, obviously that focuses on de facto if not certified organic rice growing. eighboring rice farmers have complained that the bugs from his paddy leap over into theirs, so he should start using pesticides too. But he is not swayed. And his philosophy is in line with Aoshima-san’s. Aromatically, it is a smidgeon lively for Kikuyoi, touched with tangerines, and the flavor is an exquisite balance of bread-like grains and a simplifying acidity, tinged with softer notes of fruit and nuts here and there. It is both settled and settling to drink, which may be its greatest appeal.
Ryusei (Hiroshima). Ryusei, and it sister brand Hoju, are also sake that are coming back to more stable, traditional flavor-based sake. In fact, they limit themselves here to yeast number 6 and 7, with their higher acidity and more vigorous fermentations. While some would argue this robs the sake of a chance to exhibit more fruit and liveliness, they are not swayed here, preferring the immovable-object balance they contribute to the flavor. As both Ryusei and Hoju are exported to the US and elsewhere, you have a chance to see for yourself. When recently I visited them I tasted through the newly pressed sake, not yet matured, blended or otherwise prepared for the market. They focus on three rice types there: Yamada Nishiki, Omachi and Hattan. I was perhaps most impressed with the differences between the flavor profiles: they really bring out the individual characteristics of the rice here. Overall I found their Omachi sake fruity and herbal, with a meaty finish. The Yamada Nishiki sake was tighter and more straightforward, but certainly too young, and will broaden with age into the buxom l’ll thing Yamada ought to be. The Hattan was much slimmer, more solid and clean, with a long, long finish. I am not, however, sure which rice types are used in the products that are exported. But as I said, you do have a chance to see for yourself.
Jokigen. Also mentioned above is Jokigen. However, I have reviewed Jokigen many times in this newsletter. Should you seek those past reviews, searching for this brand using the search function at www.sake-world.com should do the trick.
Sake Events and Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, July 8, 2006, from 6 pm until 9 pm, Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at the sake pub Takara in Yurakucho. The sake subject will be koji and how it is made and used in sake brewing. This is the stuff that makes sake unique in the world. What is it, what is its role, why is it special and unique? As a special aspect of this evening, long time seminar attendee and potter Matt Allison will be making special sake cups for the first 40 attendees. These will be available for purchase at a reasonable price for those that are interested. 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 by emailing John from his web 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.