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New Nat'l Tasting Competition

# 32

June 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #32
June 1, 2002


-The National New Sake Tasting Competition
-All Things Nama
-Good sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information


The National New Sake Tasting Competition
"Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai"

Although I recently have given several presentations on this topic, it is just too timely not to include again in written form, especially since I have just the other day returned from attending the event in Hiroshima.

The Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai, or National New Sake Tasting Competition, is pretty much just what it sounds like. It is a national tasting competition sponsored by the government for the just-brewed sake of the recently concluded brewing season. This historically and culturally significant event has been running since 1910, and Japan is the only country in the world that runs such a  competition for indigenous alcoholic beverages.

Although not all the 1600 sakagura (breweries, also known simply as kura) in the country submit sake to the tasting, over 1000 of them did this year. These are tasted blindly in simple, identical tumblers; the 40 or so judges have no idea what sake they are tasting.

The logistics and grading methodology have been described in detail in the June 2001 edition of this newsletter, located in the newsletter archives at for those with a deeper interest. And here is a simplified description.

These sake are judged through two rounds, some what like preliminaries and finals. In the second, final round, the top scorers are awarded gold medals. There are no top prizes nor ranking awards; all of the typically 250 gold prizes are deemed equal.

Note that almost a quarter of the entries win gold prizes; there is no minimum or maximum number of awards. The number simply reflects how many of the sake the judges scored as outstanding.

While it may seem less than thoroughly discerning to see one quarter of the sake submitted as outstanding, keep in mind that all of these sakes were specially brewed only for this contest. All were created using incredibly labor intensive techniques, in extravagant and seemingly wasteful ways with very low yields. All of these sakes, in other words, are already the best of the best of the best of the best. Or at least that good. Maybe better.

Having said that, sake like these gold prize winners is hardly the stuff you want to drink a lot of; usually a single, small glass is plenty. While fascinating, they are usually a bit extreme in their manifestations of flavor and aroma, kind of like premium sake on steroids. More than anything else, sake for this contest is brewed to exude an absolute minimum of flaws, and this is generally what you will find. It will conform to a very, very tight flavor profile with little deviation, be precisely balanced, and have an absolute minimum of off-flavors and fragrances.

Technically speaking, most submitted sake is not junmai, but has had a tiny amount of alcohol added before pressing to ensure the aromatic compound will not be left in the mash. Rarely is it nama-zake (read more below on this topic), as it needs to be pasteurized since it may sit around for a while, and experience adverse conditions on its way to Hiroshima.

Usually the alcohol is a bit higher, like 17 to 18 percent, to help boost impact. There is also a minimum acidity level to help ensure a somewhat even playing field.

For only the second year, there were two categories: one for sake brewed with Yamada Nishiki rice, and one for sake brewed with other rice strains. There were 1023 of the former, and but 71 entries in the latter category. And while about a quarter of the Yamada Nishiki sakes won gold, only nine of the non-Yamadas were deemed outstanding. Of course, this just adds to the legend that Yamada Nishiki is; as if it needed more accolades heaped upon it. But still, it is great to see kura trying with other rice as well.

There is a healthy sense of competition between the various prefectures each year for the number of secured golds, and there were a few surprises this year. For only the third time in the last 11 years, Niigata Prefecture did *not* take the most golds; neighbor Nagano, perennially breathing down Niigata's neck, overtook them with 26 to Niigata's 22. Also, Hiroshima came roaring back with 22 golds as well; last year they had a horrendous outing as they took some chances with a new yeast strain.

Overall, however, there was a bit of grumbling this year that the sake was not as fine as usual. Some curmudgeons felt that there was a bit too much flavor, a tad of a cloying nature to many of this year's submitted sake. (In truth, during the public tasting session, I too found many of the sake grainier and heavier than last year, at least.) These changes from year to year are what keeps things interesting.

Many people rightly point out that the significance of the contest is a tad dulled by the fact that this sake is *not* what is sold to consumers. What does it matter if kura win a gold, but their off-the-shelf sake is slobber? While this is rarely the case, it is a good point.

The true significance of contests like this is in the indication of the brewers' skill in being able to conform to a very constricted profile, to exude absolute control over their creations. And, in my mind, this is most impressive when accomplished with consistency, for years in succession.

While no kura wins absolutely every year, some have gotten quite good at it. In particular, Gekkeikan of Kyoto and Asabiraki of Iwate have won ten out of the last 11 years. A handful of others have won nine out of eleven, such as Hatsumago of Yamagata, Kawatsuru of Kagawa, Tosatsuru of Kochi, and Hakutsuru of Hyogo. With star-studded records like this, you can be sure their premium off-the-shelf sake will be of solid quality.

In fact, this is where the true importance of this competition comes in: when a kura sells great sake to consumers and consummates that with regular golds, we can be sure they know what they are doing, and can trust in the quality of their sake.


All Things Nama

Although more easily found within Japan than without, nama-zake is one of the  most easily enjoyable types of sake on the market.

In short, nama-zake is unpasteurized sake. Almost all sake (anything not labeled nama; probably 99% of all sake on the market) has been pasteurized twice; once just after brewing, and once again after a maturation period or before shipping. This is done by either running the sake through a pipe submerged in hot water (about 65C is the norm), or submerging already bottled sake in same.

Pasteurization is done to deactivate heat-sensitive enzymes and microorganisms left over from the koji and yeast cells, thus ensuring they will not kick in at higher temperatures (room temperature is enough to activate some of these) and send the sake flavors out of kilter.

On the other hand, sake that is not pasteurized - namazake - has a much fresher, livelier and zingier touch to the flavor, with usually a much more active aromatic aspect. Although care and refrigeration are needed to keep it fresh, and although the sake overall is much less stable, it often can be worth the hassle and effort.

Note, however, that there are several variations on leaving sake unpasteurized, and the handful of terms used to refer to these can be a tad confusing. In an attempt to eschew obfuscation, here is a lexicon of all things nama.

As mentioned above, most sake is pasteurized twice. When the need to differentiate arises, such fully pasteurized sake is referred to as hi-ire, or "put in the fire."

Full-fledged nama-zake, on the other hand, can also be referred to as nama-nama, or hon-nama; these are identical terms that indicate *totally* unpasteurized sake. Again, this would be used most often in comparisons to other types of nama.

One such other type would be nama-chozo. Chozo means store, although in this case it really refers to the typically six-month maturation period, and so nama-chozo is sake that has been "chozo-ed" in its unpasteurized form, and pasteurized one time only after maturation (usually a six month period) or just before shipping.

Then there is the opposite of this, nama-zume. This is sake that has been pasteurized once before storage, but *not* pasteurized before bottling (zume comes from tsumeru, meaning "to bottle."). When this is traditionally released in the fall, just as the weather begins to cool down, it can also be known as hiya-oroshi. Got all that?

But the difference between these two is very subtle and a bit gimmicky. Nama-chozo and nama-zume have simply both been pasteurized once only and not twice. This gives the sake stability and yet allows it to retain some of the nature of nama-zake. In theory, anyway. More often than not totally unpasteurized sake is what you want to drink.

For all its user-friendliness, however, nama-zake is not unequivocally better than pasteurized sake. On the contrary, often that lively zing imparted by omitting pasteurization can overpower more subtle aspects of the sake. All you can taste is its nama-ness, so to speak.

Yet, if meticulous care is taken by the brewer in terms of storage temperature and preventing oxidation, the lissome freshness is more often than not an enhancement. Just be aware that there are various opinions out there.
Fortunately, in the end, all you really need to remember is that nama-zake is *usually* fresher, livelier and more stimulatingly enjoyable than pasteurized sake. That's the raw truth about nama.

Nama-zake is great for hanami for several reasons. One reason is - like the beautiful, ephemeral sakura - nama-zake is short lived. Nama-zake must be kept quite cold, or there is a very high possibility it will undergo drastic changes.

When nama-zake goes bad, it becomes sweet and yeasty and quite funky in an unpleasant way, a condition known as hi-ochi. A white muck that floats suspended in the bottle (like lava in those old lava lamps) usually appears in bad nama-zake; that is your visual clue to steer clear.) Don't confuse this with nigori-zake, however, which is deliberately left cloudy with the remains of rice.)

Although available all year round to some degree, nama-zake is most commonly found in the spring, just when the traditional brewing season ends. Nama-zake and spring seem to go well as they share youth and newness on many levels.

Note, too, that whether or not a sake is pasteurized is independent of its grade. You can find nama-zake in almost all grades of sake. Whether or not it has been pasteurized does not inherently affect its grade, be in table sake, junmai-shu, ginjo or daiginjo. It is simply but one more dimension of potential enjoyment.


Good Sake to Look For

The Sake of Okayama Prefecture
Okayama is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful prefectures in Japan. The landscape along the train line that cuts through the pristine countryside between Okayama Station and Fukuyama Station is peaceful and tranquil, and the homes and farms spotting the gently rolling hills exude the warmth of traditional Japanese architecture. Proximity to the Seto Inland Bay keeps the air fresh and circulating. I am perhaps a bit inspired, as I passed through here on the way home from Hiroshima, and stopped to visit a kura and taste a range of Okayama sake.

Okayama sake covers a bit of a range in flavor, but one overall thread of consistency is a fullness of flavor. Traditionally, and still to some degree, sake from this region was sweeter than most sake. In this day and age where everyone insists on dry sake, not because it is better but because they have simply heard that it is popular, sweeter sake can fall a bit out of favor. That is a bit of a shame.

But sweet does not have to be cloying, nor is sweet sake necessarily rough or overly heavy. The traditional styles from this region, often brewed by a guild of master brewers known as Bichu Toji, are full and flavorful, tipped with a sweetness, but clean and focused.

There are dryer sake in Okayama as well, and often these are brewed to convey earthier, herbal flavors. As Okayama is where the best Omachi rice grows, and quite a bit of fine Yamada Nishiki as well, they have plenty of good raw materials to work with.

Let us look at a few fine Okayama sake.

Bizen Sake no Hitosuji
Some of the sake they brew here is fermented in wildly expensive tanks of local Bizen clay, the stuff of which some of Japan's best pottery is made. Much of what is brewed here uses Omachi rice. Earthy, dry and herbal overall. Much of what they brew is wonderful gently warmed, too.

The name means bamboo forest, and recently it has become very popular. Classically Okayama. The brewer has his own thoughts about what makes good rice, how to grow it, and how to brew with it. This all leads to a flavor profile that truly conveys the wonders of rice. Chikurin works well with a wide variety of simple food.

Like the above sake, this too is mildly sweet, but brewed very deliberately and carefully to convey the richness of the rice used in brewing. Another sake that works wonderfully well with food.

Not as rich or full-bodied as the above to sake, Gozenshu is instead defined by a very balanced acidity that propagates the flavors and aromas quite wonderfully. Although lighter overall, and therefore perhaps easier to drink in volume, the mellow flavor is still plentiful and satisfying.

Yorokobi no Izumi
An extremely clean and precisely brewed sake, that is never less than perfectly balanced. While perhaps the least indicative of sake from this region, it is on the other hand perhaps the most refined and elegant. Worth searching for.

Generally lively and a bit on the light side, with a comparatively low acidity. Most sake from this kura is a bit more fruity in its aroma than a lot of other sake from this region.


Sake events and other miscellany...

Sake World Website Updated
The Sake World website at (don't forget that hyphen!) has been updated. Of particular interest is the new, graphical, easy to understand version of Sake Types.


June and July are probably the quietest two months of the year in the sake brewing calendar year. As such, there is a dearth of sake events during this time. Things will certainly pick up in August, if not July. However, at least the one scheduled event is a good one.

June 15, 2002(Japanese)
Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, June 15, from 6:30 until the last train at Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho (a ten minute walk from Akebono-bashi station on the Shinjuku Line, or two minutes walk from Ushi-gome Yanagicho station on the O-Edo line). Seminars feature a short lecture in Japanese with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. This particular evening will focus on the Shinshu Kampyoukai, the yearly new sake tasting competitions (as written about above), and will feature several sake impossible to taste elsewhere. Not to be missed. The cost is 6000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at, or Matsuzaki-sensei directly at

Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.


Sake books:

The Sake Companion, published by Running Press

A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan.  Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember. (say again: A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

Also worth searching for:
-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.
-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Rikyubai in Osaka) in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


Home-Brewing Sake

If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing:, and see their site at

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word "subscribe" without the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to


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Publication Information
Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,
Copyright 2002 Sake World


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