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National Tasting Contest

#102

June 2008

INSIDE THIS ISSUE

New Sake Contest (National New Sake Tasting Appraisal)
Sake Nomi in Seattle
Sake of the Month Club (Japan only)
2008 Sake Professional Course in USA
Sake Educational Products
Sake Events
Odds-n-Ends

2008 National New Sake Contest

This Year’s New Sake Contest
At the end of May, the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB) held the 96th running of Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai, or National New Sake Tasting Appraisal. It is surely the most prestige-laden tasting competition in the industry, and I have written about it extensively every June since 2001. Those with the requisite interest and time need only go here to access the June issues (from 2001 through 2007). In those articles, I go into excruciating depth about all aspects of the contests and I heartily encourage those with the requisite interest to check it out.

But in order to keep you here, and not clicking away to said archives, the gist of the events is as follows. The National New Sake Tasting Appraisal is a contest of newly brewed sake that is not market sake but specially brewed for this contest. It was government run until two years ago but has now been semi-privatized. About 1000 (957 this year, to be precise) of Japan’s 1400-odd active breweries submit sake to the contest; others abstain for a variety of reason including everything from principle or impracticality to said company’s practice and tradition. Each brewery is allowed to submit one sake for every brewing license they have (i.e. one, unless they have more than one physical brewery).

The judging is brutally simple, with a one-to-five scale used the first round and a one-to-three scale the second. A “1″ is a top mark, by the way. The top half or so get from first round to second, and the top half of those getting to round two will then get a gold medal, with the remainder of those in round two getting silver.

There are 45 judges for the first round, and 30 for the second. The panel is comprised of brewers, toji (master brewers) NRIB folks, and official government tasters. For those that are interested, you can see the list of judges, but more interestingly the actual blank score sheets (in Japanese) are here (courtesy NRIB). The results are also there for those that can read them.

As mentioned, winning a gold is very prestigious, and doing it with regularity is massively so. Each year in Hiroshima, where the NRIB is currently located, a semi-public tasting is held for the industry to come in and sample da goods, after the awards have been assigned.

Beg inning last year, the event was then brought up to Tokyo, and the consuming public was given the chance to taste the prize winners as well. Last year it was a tad chaotic, but the promoters really learned wonderfully from the past and put on a great, smooth, educational event this year.

So what were things like this year? How was the sake overall? Hm. It depends on who you ask.

I personally found most brews to be reigned-in versions of past years, in a good way. Less wildly aromatic and hard-to-approach sake, more balanced and deep brews. However, in the Tokyo version of the event, many of the sake were over the hill and too matured. (More on this below.)

One industry professional was disappointed. “I dunno,” he mumbled, shaking his head slowly. “I think too many breweries are trying too hard now. There is no naturalness to this year’s sake; they are over-designed, so to speak.” I can surely understand his viewpoint, since these sake are like retouched photos in a sense, minutely tweaked to show zero flaws yet maintain uniqueness. But hey, that’s what contest sake is supposed to be like.

Other interesting notes include the fact that the two largest breweries, Gekkeikan and Hakutsuru, each won four golds, one for each of their breweries. It just goes to show how the larger breweries have the prowess and abil ity to make great, great sake. While their economic focus might be more mundane sake, one should not diss a sake simply because it was made by a large brewer. They all make great sake too.

Also, Philip Harper, the only non-Japanese master brewer in the history of the sake world, won a gold as well in his first season at his new brewery in western Kyoto, making as sake called Tamagawa. That is certainly a great start at a new place of employment!

As mentioned, winning a gold is hard, and it is as much about the skill in timing and preparing a sake for the tasting as it is in brewing it. Why? Because this kind of hyper-focused sake matures and changes incredibly fast, with mere weeks making a huge difference. So a brewer needs to anticipate the effects of the weeks between when the sake gets sent to the NRIB and when it gets tasted. He or she needs to know that regardless of how it tastes at the brewery, it will sit at 15C for two months or so and will then end up just what the judges want to smell and taste – hopefully.

And in fact, that is why much of the sake was over the hill at the Tokyo event, which was exactly a month after the original tasting. The peak for this kind of sake is about as wide as the head of a pin, and by the time these made it from Hiroshima to Tokyo, a large number were noticeably fuller, richer, grainer and even with some bitter touches in the recesses. Whaddya gonna do. While it may not have been as good as it was a month ago, the other sid e of the coin is that this phenomenon itself is wonderfully educational.

The head of a pin. That is how fast the peak of contest sake can seem. In comparison, much market sake might be at its peak for a year, if properly cared for, although this too is affected by preference and opinion. But that is how different contest sake and market sake can be.

Some of this contest sake does actually become available for purchase. Be warned, it ain’t cheap, and also it is not really quaffing material. As intense as the flavors and aromas are, a half-glass is way plenty. But I encourage you to seek it out, if only to know its idiosyncrasies, and its value.

Sake Nomi in Seattle
Of the several sake-centric retailers in the US, there is but one where you can also sit down and drink the stuff. (Well, legally, anyway.) And that would be Sake Nomi in Seattle.

Sake Nomi means… uh, a couple of things. First and foremost, it can mean “sake only,” which is what they sell, dammit. Sake only. No wine, no beer, no nuthin’ but sake. It can also mean a sake drinker, or “one who likes to drink.” Put those two terms and their overlapping nuances together and you have a place that sells great sake, at which you can also drink it.

Owner Johnnie Stroud, a gra duate of the 2006 Sake Professional Course, and his wife Taiko decided to take their passion for sake and all of the great things about Japan that it represents and bring them to Seattle. A rare example of a retailer that also functions as a bar, here you can sip-n-shop, or just hang out and drink. At any one time they have about eight to ten of their 160 selections open for tasting and drinking, and that list changes every Tuesday.

They also put a lot of effort into sake education, with regular sake seminars on premise, but a ton of effort into making it all fun too, with things like Japanese or martial arts film nights, Wii events, and even golf outings.

Above and beyond what happens in the store, they have just begun a “Sake of the Month Club,” that while at this nascent stage is for pick-up only, they are waiting on the legal greenlight to be able to ship all around the country.

Says Johnnie, “Sake Nomi is a place to learn about and explore premium Japanese sake, and its brewing culture and traditions, in a convivial, welcoming environment. We’re all about enthusiasts, not experts. Sake is supposed to fun, and we aim to keep it that way.  Most of the time, Taiko and I feel like we’re hosting an ongoing party with a really eclectic guest list.” Well said, indeed.

In an interesting full-circle kind of twist of fate, Johnnie taught English in Iwate Prefecture a full 20 years ago. One of his eighth grade students was Hiroko Yokosawa, the daughter of the owner of the brewer of Tsuki no Wa sake. Well, that erstwhile little girl is now the full-fledged toji of that kura, an extremely accomplished one at that, and Johnnie carries her sake.

They are just about to celebrate one full year of business, and when I was there in April I found the spacious, creatively laid out shop comfortable and appealing, and definitely conducive to enjoying sake. Their food is currently limited to snacks, but they are open to folks bringing stuff in.

For more information, and/or so sign up for their mailing list, go to:
www.sakenomi.us.

For Japan-based readers:
Meimon Shukai Sake of the Month Club

Interested in good sake but cannot decide on what to try? Or perhaps you don’t have the time to go out and chat up the local (or distant) retailers to see what you might want to taste? Then maybe a sake of the month club is for you. While there are many such clubs and services, provided you are now living in Japan, a reliable suggestion is the Meimon Shukai (known overseas as Japan Prestige Sake Association), who has regular sake of the month clubs with different themes. For their club beginning this summer, the sake each month comes from one of their 100-odd members, and you can get a large 1.8 liter bottle a month or two (different brands) smaller 720ml bottles. And you don’t have to think. Just drink – and enjoy. Some of the brands you can enjoy include Gozenshu, Sawanoi, Yonetsuru, Manzairaku, Hideyoshi, and more.

You do need to be able to either read Japanese or solicit the help of one that does to at least sign up, and more information can be found here (outside link).

In fact, there are several such clubs on the site, one that offers ten bottles of 180ml each from ten different breweries, maximizing your exposure to various styles. Another focuses only on junmai ginjo types but introduces in great depth the kuramoto behind the sake. NOTE: These clubs only ship within Japan.