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Sake Regionality Part 1:
Vague, Evasive, Yet Real

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #84
November 1, 2006

IN THIS ISSUE:
– Sake Regionality Part 1
– Sake Events & Announcements
– 2007 Sake Professional Course
– Official Tasting Cups Available in the US
– Calling All Sake Homebrewers
– Tokyo Sake Pub Book Now Available Directly

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Sake Regionality: Vague, Evasive, Yet Real
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Disappointingly little has been written in this newsletter in the past about the general approach to sake and its regionality. I have written on the nature and style of sake from all of the major regions, as well as many of the less-major regions, but little on the topic of sake regionality overall. One notable exception is the tongue-in-cheek piece comparing sake regionality to quantum mechanics, readable here:
www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2004_4.html

It’s time to come back to this topic, looking at it from a fairly high vantage point. I have been inspired to do this by a conversation with a well-known chef in New York City who expressed to me that he felt a tad dismayed trying to study sake. “With wine,” he explained, “we naturally begin with the appellations. But I am told by my Japanese friends that you can’t really or can’t always do that with sake. It all seems a bit vague…”

It is vague; very much so. But that’s the fun of it, really. So let us look again at the topic of sake and its tie to region in Japan. First of all, does sake have regionality to it? In other words, does sake from one part of the country taste one way, and sake from another part of the country taste another way? Indeed it does. However, it is important to say that this tie is not nearly as absolute, unassailable, or sacrosanct as its parallel in the wine world. In other words, the connection between the flavors and aromas of a wine and its region of origin are much more clear and predictable in the world of grapes and wine. (We will look at the reasons for that shortly.) Still, many prefectures have very apparent styles – i.e. a thread of similarity running through them, while other prefectures have none to speak of – even if much of their sake is great in its own right! However, there are enough tendencies and general regional styles to make it interesting and worth studying.

So why then can we not just study those regions with those threads running through them? Because like all things sake, exceptions abound, and within any one region there will be plenty of sake that decidedly does not conform to the region’s basic style. Still: within a given region that exhibits a regional style – such as Niigata, Kyoto, or Hiroshima – perhaps 60 to 70 percent of the sake in that region will conform to that style, while the rest may be slightly different, or at times drastically so. Now, 60 percent is a passing grade, albeit barely. But it is not enough upon which to justify entirely basing one’s study of the sake world, as is often the case when studying wine, and it leaves the door open for massive vagary, making it all so very interesting. For more specifics on the styles of the various brewing regions of Japan, please scan the archives of this newsletter, looking for headlines such as “The Sake of Kyoto” or “The Sake of Niigata.”

Let us look, firstly, at those things that do support the connection between sake and region. First, foremost and not surprisingly are the raw materials, namely, rice and water. There are countless varieties of rice, and perhaps about 100 proper sake rice types. Each will, to some extent, present its own flavors, aromas, textures and other nature in a sake. Each will also behave differently during fermentation. And historically, brewers naturally used rice from the fields around the kura (brewery). Since most if not all of the brewers in a given area would be using similar if not identical rice, it has always contributed hugely to the local nature of sake.

Next is water. All sake breweries exist where they do because they are near a source of good water. That is how important it is. In the end, sake is 80 percent water, and the mineral content (or lack thereof) of a water source exerts huge leverage over the nature of the final product. In other words, within the realm of what constitutes good water for sake brewing there is hard water and soft water, and each of these will lead to drastically different styles of sake.

The catch here, though, is that not all regions have a consistent source of water across the land. Some do. For example, the Nada area of Hyogo (hard), the Fushimi area of Kyoto (soft), most of Hiroshima Prefecture (soft) and most of Ishiawa Prefecture (hard) all have similar water throughout most of their region. But go north to Akita, as one example, and some places get water from springs and wells fed by mountain ranges, yet others have underground rivers originating far, far away. Not surprisingly, the nature of the water sources are totally different. So it is precarious at best to try to tie water to region and regionality.

Climate is another influencing factor, since what folks like to drink in butt-cold areas is different from what they prefer in warmer regions. And, naturally, cuisine played a huge if largely intuitive role in determining regional sake styles. Folks in one of Japan’s many mountainous regions were not exactly feasting on sashimi every day, and those living near fishing ports probably enjoyed little preserved food, with its intense and saltier flavors. And of course, the sake that complements these vastly dissimilar cuisines was quite different too.

And not to be forgotten nor underestimated is the brewing methodologies of the various guilds of toji (master brewers). Historically, they were more or less limited to regions near their hometowns, and since the congregated and taught each other (to some degree) in the off season, they developed styles associated with their guilds, and therefore regions.

Now, let us look at what has broken down these regional differences over the years, allowing (forcing?) sake profiles to somewhat homogenize. And it ain’t rocket science, folks. With our modern infrastructure, people are not limited to eating what they ate 100 years ago. One can and goes get fresh sashimi – or anything else for that matter – in the middle of the mountains. Seaside dwellers likewise enjoy more than just fresh fish. And the customers of any given kura are also no longer only local folk, but those in the big cities or potentially all over the world, so sake is sometimes brewed to appeal to a much larger udience.

Then there is that accursed ginjo. Wonderful as it is, much of it ends up tasting more like typical ginjo than the sake of the brewery from which it hails. The longer I spend wading through the sake world, the more I find myself preferring the less-than-super-premium sake of my favorite kura, since that is where I find more character that is readily identifiable with those respective kura. Not to diss ginjo – don’t get me wrong! It’s just that a lot of it has less regional character and more ginjo character. And even having said that, it is a tenuous observation.

But wait; there’s more, dammit! As the industry contracts, and many of the old toji guilds diminish or disappear, the toji from those that remain strong (like the near-omnipotent Nanbu guild) move further away from their traditional strongholds, so that their brewing “styles” become diffused across the land. Not that this is bad, it’s actually good, not to mention unavoidable, but it does kinda dilute regional concentrations.

Also, in Japan, there have never been any INAO-like organizations within the government, or AOC-like appellation laws put in place to control the use of noteworthy regional names and delimit the geographical areas entitled to use them. While this may not have diddly to do with the nature of a region’s sake itself, it sure would have affected the awareness of a locale’s quality.

And, finally, there is the biggie: the fact that rice can be shipped all over the country for use in sake brewing that is far from the region where it was grown. As a parallel example, one would never take grapes from one appellation in France, and ship it to another to make wine. It is not only illegal, but makes no sense either. Well, it happens all the time in the sake world. Sake rice (most typically Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo) is very commonly sold to brewers all over Japan for use in brewing their best sake.

But doesn’t this go right into the face of the whole concept of regional distinction in a sake? Indeed it does. It is hard to brag about being a great sake of a particular region when the main raw material has been brought in from somewhere else. Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time. Probably less than half the time. But it is – and has long been – a common practice.

But when you think about it, there is nothing odd about this. Consider the nature of the raw materials. Unlike grapes, rice can be easily stored for months and shipped, so there has never been a reason not to allow it to happen. Still, long ago, no one would have considered using the rice of another region as the infrastructure just would not have supported that. But these days, that is not a problem.

Over the past few years, many prefectures have begun to try to re-establish a local nature to their sake. While it might not be necessarily similar to that of old, many prefectures have rice that is grown and used only within their borders, and strains of yeast that are kept local as well. While they may use some non-local rice in some of their products, others will be kept as regionally focused as possible.

So this, then, is the current scene related to regional character and sake. Some places have it, some do not. And amongst those that do, about 60 to 70 percent of the kura in that region will fall within that perceived local style. In the end, it all makes for fascinating and worthwhile – if less than simple – study.

One final note: five regions have begun to define a set of rules to which local brewers need to adhere in order to qualify for a “label” (a sticker on the label, really) identifying them as being from that “appellation,” so to speak. Next month, we will look at these few systems, their pros and cons, the strong points and, where applicable, their ludicrous facets.

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Sake Events & Announcements
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** “Bonenkai” (End of Year Party) at Takara, Saturday, December 2, 2006. On the evening of Saturday, December 2, from 6:00 pm until 9:00 pm, there will be my yearly “Bonenkai,” or traditional end of the year party at Takara. The illustrious pottery dude Rob Yellin will also be there. There will be no seminar to speak of, but there will be a couple of activities and items (like sake) to be raffled off. The cost for the evening, including dinner and half a dozen sake is \7000. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at www.sake-world.com.

** Announcing the Fourth Annual Sake Professional Course. January 22 to 26, 2007, in Tokyo, with a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. 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.

** Official Sake Tasting Cups Available in US. Since mentioning a few months back how fond I personally am of the Official Sake Tasting Cups, and warning folks to “fuhgeddaboudit” when it came to getting them in the states, well, I must apologize. I was wrong. They are indeed available! You can purchase them directly from True Sake in San Francisco (www.truesake.com) at their store, or ship them provided the order accompanies an order of sake, or from the importer, Kotobuki Trading, at www.kotobukitrading.com/. I most recently mentioned these in the April 2006 edition of this newsletter, found here: www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2006_2.html. Also, a photo of these official tasting glasses can be found at www.sake-world.com/html/kikichoko.html for those that are interested. A longer description of them – replete with historical and cultural references and tidbits – can be found at www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2005_0.html.

** Calling All Active Sake Homebrewers. 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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Sake Pub Book Available Directly From This Site.
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My most recent book, the “Tokyo Sake Pub Guide,” is now available directly from www.sake-world.com. “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.