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2003 Gold Awards; Water Revisited

# 44

June 2003

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #44
June 1, 2003

- Hiroshima New Sake Tasting Competition
- Water Revisited 
- New York Times June 1 Sake Article
- Sake Events/Announcements:

Gold Awards at Hiroshima Sake Tasting Competition
Last week, the 2003 Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai, or "National New Sake Tasting Competition" was held at the National Research Institute of Brewing (Shurui Sogo Kenkyusho) in Hiroshima.

While I have written much over the years about this annual contest, it is an important event, and it is always a very educational experience to go down and taste the entries after the judging has finished.

While many readers surely remember, the essence of this contest is as follows. Sake brewed in the just-ended season is submitted in late spring for a blind tasting on a national level. One of the catches here is that this is not normal on-the-market sake; it has been specially brewed for this contest. How is it different?

Top quality rice is milled way, way down, and very special yeasts are usually blended to arrive at a very precise flavor and aroma balance. The alcohol is a bit higher for impact, and  aromas are prominent and focused. It is all a bit like daiginjo on steroids. Sake like this is not all that enjoyable beyond the first sip, and is hard to make it work well with food. It is also very unstable, being made to peak just for the contest. It is so delicate that just a few weeks later it will begin to lose its coquettish appeal. The main goal is to be free of any flaws while maintaining some semblance of uniqueness; no simple task by any means.

But things vary from year to year, and the effect of weather on rice quality is most obvious in sake like this. Bad weather leading to less-than-optimum rice can be easily compensated for with a bit more effort when brewing regular sake or even regular ginjo sake. That is what great toji do: make sake with consistent quality year in and year out, regardless of the conditions of each changing brewing season. But it's not that easy with contest sake. Rain, heat, harvest times, and typhoons all make their mark on contest sake like this.

This was especially evident in much of this year's sake, and my comments to the effect that much of the sake was a bit sweeter and even tarter than I expected elicited a thorough elucidation from a famous retired government taster, Dr. Akira Totsuka.

"Last summer was quite hot, as you may recall," Totsuka-sensei explained. "And it did not get cold enough at night. When there is a big difference between the daytime and nighttime temperatures, the  starches are forced into the center of the rice grains as they grow. But since it stayed warm at night this past growing season, this did not happen. The starch was more diffused, taking up more space within the grains. This means the rice cannot be milled as much to remove fats and proteins. And that is what leads to the off-flavors like the sweetness and tartness you alluded to." The direct connection that can be drawn in that way is indeed quite interesting.

Having said that, overall things were great this year. I forgot how incredibly exhausting this event can be, tasting upwards of 500 sake (before throwing in the towel) with thorough concentration, and taking notes on each one. But it is a wonderful education, and it makes it very easy to see where things are moving in the sake-brewing world.

This year, Niigata sake was at its pristine best, and Niigata Prefecture regained the crown for the most gold prizes with 23. But a very pleasant surprise in second place was Yamagata, with 20 golds. In fact, all of the Tohoku region (Yamagata, Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Aomori and Miyagi Prefectures) was sterling; very tight, solid and balanced flavors and aromas. The more I taste, the more I like the sake of this region.

Again, this year, it was all about yeast strains. The trick seems to be blending them to get more and more interesting aromas (like fascinating and wild blends of lavender, anise and banana peel) from one yeast, and using another more orthodox yeast for a well-grounded, balanced flavor. It seems that many brewers have truly "got the hang" of this.

Out of 1065 entries, 286 were deemed good enough for gold in this, the 91st competition since 1911. Not surprisingly, of those entries only 84 brewers dared enter sake with rice other than Yamada Nishiki. It will be a while before any other rice catches up to what Yamada Nishiki can do (or rather, to what can be done with Yamada).

Of particular sterling quality this year were Dewazakura (Yamagata), Jokigen (Yamagata), Yuri Masamune (Akita), Tosatzuru (Kochi), and big player Hakutsuru (Hyogo).  Kokken (Fukushima), Asabiraki (Iwate) and Nanbu Bijin (Iwate) were also superb. Unfortunately, my palate perfectly petered before I could give Niigata a thorough run. (Note to self: as it is so subtle and refined, START with Niigata next year, NOT the fuller sake of western Japan.)

All in all, this year's contest sake lived up to expectations for the high level of skill and focus that has come to be demanded of today's masterful toji. In fact, brewers seem to be raising the bar incrementally higher each year. Let's hope it continues, and let's hope it does not get lost on consumers.

For more detail on topics like the actual judging and logistics of this contest and other related anecdotal musings see the June 1 '02 (#32) and July 7 '01 (#22) issues archived at

Water Revisited
Sakagura in Japan draw their water for brewing mostly from wells, but also from rivers and streams, and even lakes. In water, it is the mineral content that makes it good or bad for sake brewing. In short, iron and manganese are bad, adversely affecting both fermentation and flavor. Potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid are good and necessary to koji-making and fermentation.

But beyond these fundamentals, what is perhaps most obvious, most noted and most significant about water in sake brewing is its hardness or softness. While the hardness of a given water supply has its measurable criteria, it is very often something you can simply feel and taste. Soft water feels softer on the palate, almost absorbing into it; hard water feels crisper and firmer as it glides across. Admittedly, more often than not sake-brewing water is neither extremely hard nor extremely soft, and therefore not as easily identifiable as such. But ultimately this is what it is all about: how it tastes and feels. It is easy to imagine how much of an effect this will have on the overall presence and flavor profile of a sake.

Water in the Japanese archipelago is a little bit on the soft side compared to water around the world. While harder water is actually better for fermentation, sake in Japan developed the way it did - and has become what it is - due largely to the type of water that was available. In other words, even if sake is brewed on a large scale in other countries, if the water is too different, the final product will be of a different fundamental nature. It may be better in the opinion of the locals (and everyone else), but it would be different.

Even within Japan's overall soft water supplies, there are harder and softer water sources. Hard water is known as "kosui," and soft water is known as "nansui." Some more informative sake labels will list the water source (i.e. well water filtering down from a particular mountain range) and whether it is hard or soft.

What hardness and softness in  water all boils down to is the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water; the more of these that are present, the harder the water. Hard water leads to a good, vigorous ferment, whereas with soft water fermentation is more lackadaisical.

Unfortunately, there is no one world standard for measuring hardness and softness. England, Japan, France, Germany, and the US all use different standards measuring calcium (either as calcium carbonate or as calcium oxide) and magnesium. (Other countries may as well, but out of exasperation, I terminated my research at that point.) So it is hard to compare and directly correlate water hardness in Japan and elsewhere.

For example, in Japan and in the US, a hardness degree of 1 is assigned to water with 1mg of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) per liter. In England this number is 14.3mg, and in France it is 10 mg. In Germany, they measure Calcium Oxide (CaO) instead, and 10mg of this per liter is 1 degree of hardness. Originally it was the German scale that was used in Japan, and as such that is still sometimes seen.

Back-stepping gingerly away from that mess (of which I admittedly understand little), it is best to simply keep in mind that everything is relative, and the chemical-hardness numbers take a back seat to the flavor and feeling of the sake itself. More important and interesting are the regional distinctions that have arisen from water differences.

For example, soft-water regions like Kyoto and Hiroshima generally have sake that is elegant, absorbing and described as feminine, whereas hard-water regions like Kobe and Ishikawa have sake that is crisp and firm and often with a more compacted, strong flavor. But of course, it is not quite that cut-and-dried, and most regions are actually somewhere in between these extremes.

In the end, what is most important is what you can taste. With so much of the final product being water, it is a bit surprising that more information about water is not provided to sake consumers. Pure, fresh, proper water is indeed right up there with rice, yeast and technical prowess as one of the main pillars of what makes great sake.

For more on water in sake brewing, see the  January 20, 2001 (#17) issue of this newsletter, archived at

New York Times June 1 (2003) Sake Article
On June 1, there was an article in the New York Times by Howard W. French on the sad state of the sake industry. It was entitled "In Land of Sake, Brewers Suffer as a New Generation Sniffs Disdainfully." (A direct link can be found at the end of this article.)

The main gist of the article is that sake is no longer fashionable amongst young people in Japan, with a final allusion to fewer children of current brewery owners being willing to follow in the footsteps of their parents, the current kuramoto, and those of the brewers themselves. It pointed out the decreased consumption and how many kura have disappeared over the years.

While I wish I could refute it, I sadly cannot. Not a bit of it. It is all true. However - and this is important - it is not the whole story. There are definitely some bright facets to the overall balanced picture. All is *not* lost. Not even close, actually.

The article pointed out that consumption has dropped by 30% over twelve years. Indeed, it has. In fact, consumption of sake has been dropping every single year since it peaked in 1973, and production fell below the one million kiloliter mark for the first time ever about a year ago. Looks grim, indeed.

However, what is dropping off, more than anything, is cheap sake: table sake, run of the mill sake, sake with added alcohol and flavorings. That, and honjozo-shu, the lowest level of "premium sake." Sure, this is still a shame, and this is where profit margins are highest. But an interesting fact that deserves a bit more notice is that ginjo consumption is actually very stable, varying perhaps one tenth of one percent a year, and in most of the past few years, incrementally increasing.

No, this alone is not going to save the industry, but we can take heart in the fact that more people are drinking more better sake.

And, quite literally several sakagura go under every year. When I arrived in Japan in 1988, there were about 2500 kura here. Now, there are but 1500 kura brewing (a few more still hold licenses but are not actively making sake now). This shakeout is likely to continue for a while.

But there are sure signs that it will stabilize in time, when a few major upheavals finish taking their course. Sake brewing is centuries old, and changes within it have been too slow. It is only now that many kura are beginning to hire local people instead of the migrant craftsmen of olde, and innovating by incorporating machines that save labor while (hopefully) not sacrificing quality. It is a difficult balance to strike, but it is happening.

And for every young person disdaining their family brewing business, there are two that enthusiastically take the reigns and run with them, looking far into the future of sake.

In fact, right in the city of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, where two of the kura interviewed in the article are located, is a great example of good things happening in the sake world. Takejiro Tanaka, sixth generation president of the sterling Rihaku brewery, has just been joined by his young son, barely old enough to legally drink, freshly graduated from Tokyo Agriculture University's Fermentation Department. Tanaka's son is chomping at the bit to take over, and has prepared himself with better knowledge of the brewing process than his father has ever had. Over sake in Tokyo last month, he vehemently argued the pros and cons of various yeast strains with the president of Dewazakura sake from Yamagata as I listened and watched, clueless.

Also, Rihaku was one of two breweries to incorporate a fantastic koji making machine that mimics human fingers and senses better than any, saving massive labor and maintaining exacting standards needed for premium ginjo-shu.

Another example might be Kosuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin in Iwate. His eye on the future allowed him to develop (along with a few other young brewers) "zenkoji" sake, sake made with 100% koji rice (rice inoculated with starch-to-sugar-converting mold), instead of the usual 30% or so. It is heavier, sherry like, ages faster, but richer and more appealing with some western food. Innovation like this is important, and Kuji-san recognized that fact.

Then there is Takashi Aoshima of the Kikuyoi brewery in Shizuoka. He was in graduate school in New York, studying for a Wall Street career. His father had told him to do what he liked, don't worry about the brewery. Halfway through school, he realized he did not want to work on Wall Street, but wanted desperately to brew sake. So he flew home, and now brews like a maniac, with his sake rated  a well-deserved number one in a tasting by the gourmet magazine Dancyu last March.

Or how about Miho Imada of Fukucho brewery in Hiroshima? When there was no one else to take over the reigns from her father, she stepped very boldly into a man's world, and now brews elegant, aromatic, artisan sake of wonderful depth, and it's hugely popular. Her courage and genius are evident in her sake each and every season.

Not to be forgotten are people like Koichiro Aihara, the current toji (brewmaster) at a tiny kura in Kochi brewing a popular sake called Bijobu. He was a computer engineer in Kanagawa, got interested in sake, got a bit more into it, went over the edge, quit his job, joined the kura,and within a short time was a fully functioning toji of national recognition.

These are but a few examples of the people and ideas infusing the sake world with new blood.

Unfortunately, however, as the article so rightly pointed out, the industry is hopeless at appealing to younger people. They do not seem to grasp that to most young people "traditional" means "old-fashioned." Sake is rarely if ever presented as fashionable or chic. My personal take is that young Japanese people are simply to close to it; it is so tightly tied in with their culture that they cannot see it for the world-class artisan creation it is. But regardless, sake is simply considered a drink for the old folks by many young people.

Fortunately, this is changing too, especially for people in the their 30s or so, with many more tastings and sake clubs and pubs then ever before. But it is difficult to measure the impact of these, and whether or not it is too little too late.

So, what is the solution - if there is one? Again, as the article suggested (in the form of the opinion of one brewer), overseas popularity may be it. Indeed, I agree that the export market may be their only hope for survival - but not totally because of export sales themselves. If people here, especially younger people, see how esteemed sake can become overseas, it could very easily cause it to become very, very fashionable back home.

I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers, or any of them for that matter. But what I do know is that good sake is easily as good as anything on the planet, and with the background color, characters, history and culture to make it irresistibly interesting.

No, all is not lost yet. Far from it. There are plenty of good things happening in the sake world. You just have to look in the right places. It is all a matter of focus.

See the original article at:

Sake Events and Announcements
It appears your humble author has been mentioned in a brief article on sake in Newsweek Magazine. I actually have not seen the article myself yet, but any publicity on sake is good publicity on sake. Please take a moment to check it out, if even during a spare moment at a newsstand.

On the evening of Saturday, June 28, from 6:00 to about 9:00, Robert Yellin and I will host a joint seminar on sake and pottery. It will be the first such dual seminar at Takara. I will cover the ever-changing topic of sake yeasts ・which play in increasingly important yet increasingly nebulous role in the sake-brewing world.

The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing me at No deposit is required.

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.

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.

Copyright 2003 Sake World and


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