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The Thing That Wouldn’t Die

#91

June 2007

The Thing That Wouldn’t Die

For the 8-odd years I have been writing this newsletter, I have written about the National New Sake Tasting Competition almost every year. The topics have run the gamut from why the contest exists, the logic behind using sake specially brewed for the event (rather than market sake), how the sake are scored, judged, and assessed, as well as the history, politics and “dark side” of the event. These articles can be found in the newsletter archives in the June issues for 2001 through 2006.

Last year (2006), however, was supposed to have been the swan song article, because the event was supposedly to be discontinued, having been off-ed by the budget police as a less than optimal use of taxpayers’ money. As if a government would know anything about that?but I digress.

So, the limbo we were left in last year was that it would not be happening again, at least not in the place and format it had up until then. But wouldn’t ya know it, it refused to go gentle into that good night, and the event took place again this year. It wasn’t until just before the event that I bothered to ask anyone how or why or under what auspices, and I was stunned to find out that no one really had a clue.

Brewers, industry types, and tasting experts were all nonplussed. “I dunno,” shrugged one. “You know how it is; sometimes the government says one thing and another happens.” Well, sure, but who has paid for it? Who dealt with the hassles and arranged it all and spelled out this year’s minor rule changes? “Ya got me!” chirped in a brewer, not the least bit concerned about trivia like this. “I think it just snuck through again, that’s all.” Hmm. I think not.

But in truth, it does not matter, and for all its ups and downs, significances and paradoxes, this year saw the 95th running of the National New Sake Tasting Competition. I finally hunted down someone who was able to explain it to me. Speaking on condition of anonymity (I am, for the record, being facetious), it was explained thusly:
“The National Research Institute of Brewing was, until a few years ago, a part of the Ministry of Taxation. But a few years back it began a slow trek toward privatization. It continues in that direction today, and will likely be totally privatized in about five years. In any event, from last year, the government decided to pull all financial support from this event.”
My mole, a brewer that moves in many administrative and government-esque circles, continued. “Then there is the Japan Sake Brewers’ Association (referred to as JSBA, or “Chuo-kai” in Japanese). They, too, are about half private and half government, although more the former than the latter. The simplified version, stripped down of politics, is that support from JSBA and private money helped the event to continue today. But the Tokyo tasting of the gold- and silver-medal winners (see the “events” section below) is the JSBA’s doing.”

Before giving a rundown of the results, let us look at a list of handy factoids about the contest, culled from the articles I have written in the past. -The sake submitted to these contests is (with a few exceptions) not sake normally available on the market, but is instead brewed especially for these contests. Since the parameters for winning are tight, it shows how much control brewers have over their processes. But a gold prize is no *guarantee* that the off-the-shelf stuff for that same brewer is anything to write home about.
The sake are tasted blind, by up to 30 judges, and assessed on aroma, flavor and balance, using either a five-point or a three-point system.

Tasting is done in two rounds, over two days. Those above a certain level in the first round advance to the second. Those above a certain level in the second get gold, with the remainder of the second round sake relegated to silver.

The type of sake that seems in favor with the judges changes from year to year. Sometimes its aromatic sake, sometimes it is pristinely clean sake, sometimes it is rich, full, and deep sake. While there are no official guidelines to this, various profiles seem to cycle in and back out.

The sake itself submitted to these events is a little bit like daiginjo on steroids. It’s intense. The alcohol is higher, the aromas are piled high, and the flavor is bold, yet excessive character is eschewed. The first sip makes you say, “Wow!” The second sip makes you edgy. The third leaves you hankerin’ for something more drinkable.
The industry-focused public tasting for the event, held in Hiroshima, was a tad toned down this year. There were perhaps a little over half of the normal number of participants lined up from eight in the morning to taste the 981 entries, 16 less than last year, amongst them the 252 gold prize winners and 230 silver prize winners.

What is so interesting about this contest is that it is here, in the extreme manifestations of the sake world, where things like the effects of weather over the last year – and its effects on both rice and brewing – are most evident. It is also where trends in yeast strains and other things first pop up.

Winning a gold can be difficult, but on top of that, since sake is so narrow and subtle, the difference between winning and not is but a gossamer thread. So one could cynically say that any given gold could be taken as a one-off fluke. And this is precisely why it is so impressive to study the handful of breweries that win almost every year. There are few of these, but they are out there, and to me it calls for a mix of technical skill and e.s.p. to pull that off.

This year, most of the usual suspects (but not all) walked away with their standard accolades. But even more interestingly, I discovered that one brewery I know that had never ever won a gold medal in the 95 years of the competition that finally shattered that jinx this year. Hurray!

This past winter in Japan was warm (surprise, surprise!), and as such the comparatively warmer regions had much heavier flavors; the point being that this weather led to much more clear-cut regional distinctions. Also, overall, sake with a deeply embedded sweetness, rather than an overtly dry character, seemed to be the style winning the most this year. Aromas were toned down even more than last year, in my opinion, especially in the sake of western Japan, although some I spoke with did not totally agree with me on this point.

By the way, while it might seem like great fun to be tasting as many of the almost 1000 sake submitted, perish the thought. Perish it now. It’s about as much fun as an ice pick in the forehead. It calls for unending, intense concentration, and while you don’t actually drink the stuff, the vapors hammer you. It *is* educational and interesting, and well worth the toll on one’s body for that one day. But “fun” is pretty low on the list of adjectives that presents itself as a descriptor.

In the end, the event was the usual snapshot of the cutting edge of sake production and the industry. And, this year, for the first time in history, the 482 prize winners (but not the ones that did not win) will be presented at a separate tasting in Tokyo on June 7, open to and geared toward the public. So should you be in Tokyo on June 7, by all means, avail yourself of the first-ever opportunity to taste the full array of winners in this year’s New Sake Tasting Competition. See the Events section below for details.

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Sake Bottle Colors
Shopping for sake reveals shelves lined with bottles of a surprising array of colors. From clear or frosted to black matte or even completely opaque, with blue, green and brown in between, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selection of bottle color.

Actually, sake is quite susceptible to the adverse affects of ultraviolet light, and will darken noticeably if exposed to an excessive mount of it. In fact, being practically transparent as it is, sake is arguably more susceptible to the potentially adverse market effects of color changes than say a darker beverage like red wine might be.

Naturally, glass, and in particular colored glass, will filter out ultraviolet light to varying degrees. This depends, not surprisingly, on the color.

Until about 1965, most of the sake bottles in use by the industry were blue. But it was then discovered that brown, rather than blue, provided significantly more protection from ultraviolet light, and it became the industry standard. The only thing better than brown, it seems, is totally opaque.

However, the problem with bottles that are too dark is that whiney consumers complain about not being able to see how much is left in the bottle. On top of that, from a product design perspective, different colors present different images and contribute to that all-important product differentiation. Furthermore, with the proliferation of things like smaller 720 milliliter bottles and refrigerators to better care for sake, light problems became perceived as less urgent, and appearance became more important. All of these issues combined to create the current situation in which there are many different kinds of bottle colors used for sake today.

However, above and beyond design issues and UV protection, bottle colors have no significance, and are totally unrelated to grade and/or quality. So be it black, brown, blue, green or clear, it’s almost completely a design issue.

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Sake Events and Announcements
NIHONSHU FAIR AND NATIONAL
NEW SAKE WINNERS’S TASTING
On Thursday, June 7, from 3pm until 8 pm, the Japan Sake Brewer’s Association and the National Research Institute of Brewing will sponsor the first public tasting of the gold and silver prize winners at this year’s National New Sake Tasting Competition geared exclusively toward consumers. The event will be held at the World Import Mart on the fourth floor (Hall A) of the Sunshine City building in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Together with this event, the JSBA will sponsor the National Nihonshu Fair, a tasting of “normal” sake (i.e. not contest sake) from all around Japan. Consumers can also purchase sake that has appealed to them. As this is the first time the event will take place, I personally have not much of an idea what to expect, but do have high hopes for its success. Tickets are available for 3000 yen or 3500 yen the day of show. You can take the tasting glass home with you as a present. Also, for those that attend just the medal-winners tasting, the cost is only 1000 yen. More information as well as advance sale tickets are available online at http://eplus.jp/sake, albeit in Japanese.

1ST STATESIDE SAKE PROFESSIONAL COURSE
New York City, August 27, 28, and 29, 2007
On August 27, 28 and 29, the first stateside version of the Sake Professional Course will be held in New York City. The content of this three-day intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, excepting of course the sake brewery visits and evening meals. The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore necessarily be fairly technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. But the course is open to anyone with an interest in sake, and it will certainly be fun! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days. Each day will provide the environment for a focused, intense and concerted training period, and will consist of classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions. The goal of this course is that no sake stone will be left unturned. Every conceivable sake-related topic will be covered, and each lecture will be complimented and supplanted by a relevant tasting. Participants won’t simply hear about rice type differences and yeast type differences, they will taste them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and region-related difference, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well. Like its counterpart held in Japan each winter, it will be quite simply the most thorough English-language sake education in existence. The cost for the three-day class, including all materials and all sake for tasting, is US $750. Participation is limited, and reservations can be made now to secure a seat, with a deposit of half the above amount being due July 15. For a view of the syllabus, please see www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html. For reservations or inquiries, please send an email to SakeCourseStateside@sake-world.com.

TOTTE OKI NO KURAMOTO-TACHI TASTING
On Monday, June 4, from 4:30 until 7:30, the sake from a group of 64 small, kick-ass brewers will be available for tasting at an event known as the “Totte-oki no kuramoto-tachi” event. It will be held on the 12th floor of the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan just outside of the central exit of JR Yurakucho Station. Day-of-event tickets are 1200 yen. No food, munchies or otherwise, will be available at the event. While some of the breweries at this event are miniscule and tucked way into the boonies, and almost unavailable, others are larger and well known. But the event does present an excellent cross section of the industry in terms of styles and scales, and the one thread of consistency running through everyone even remotely involved with the event is passion. I was told at the first one there would NOT be a second one as it was a huge hassle to pull off; but I guess it is back by popular demand. As it seems to be whipped together for reasons that are decidedly not practical or commercial, there is not even a website. If you are interested, just show up and enjoy. Should you have any more questions, or want to see a fax of the event, feel free to email me.

NIHONSHU FESTIVAL 2007:
THE KAWASHIMA SAKE TASTING EVENT
On Sunday, June 10, 2007, there will be an awesome tasting event, the annual shindig run by the owners of a tiny but wonderful sake pub, Kawashima. There will be no less than 72 brewers there, with the sake of yet another 23 present as well. There will also be a modest volume of sake nibbles from around the country brought in by the brewers from their respective corners of Japan. There will furthermore be a corner highlighting premium warm sake, should you seek enlightenment in that area of sake connoisseurship. There are two sessions that day, one from noon to 3:30, and another from 4:30 to 8:00. Tickets cost 7000 yen for one session, 10,000 yen for both, with day-of-event tickets being 2000 yen more for each type. The event will be held at Gajoen near Meguro Station. An announcement about the event (in Japanese) is here: www.kappore.co.jp/com/kawa-2007.html, and the button in the lower left corner will lead to the formidable list of the sake available that day. Tickets are available by calling and reserving them, then paying in advance through postal or bank transfer. Naturally, this will need to be done in Japanese, but if you are here and hopelessly linguistically challenged, email me and I will do what I can to help. (Geez?I hope I don’t regret that offer.) Trust me, this is always good event. Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html