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2004 Tasting Contest; Niigata Sake

# 56

June 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #56
June 1, 2004

-- The National New Sake Tasting Contest for 2004
-- Niigata Sake Revisited
-- Good Sake To Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements
-- Publication information

The National New Sake Tasting Contest for 2004

This past May, the "Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyokai," or "National Newly Brewed Sake Tasting Competition" was held in Hiroshima. As usual, I made the trip down on May 27th to attend the public tasting, where we can taste all 1049 of this year's entries, and see which won gold, which won silver, and which were also-rans.

I have written about this contest in depth over the past few years, and instead of rehashing all that, I will refer readers to the archived newsletters of June 2001, June 2002, June 2003. There you can read about the history, various judging procedures, and politics over the years of this dubiously prestigious event. Those newsletters are archived here:

Here, I will just touch upon a few highlights, some of them admittedly repeated points, yet highlights just the same.

-- The event is sponsored by the National Institute of Brewing, whose mission and purpose you can check out at (click on the English button). Known now in Japanese as the "Shurui Sougo Kenkyujo," it is an "independent administrative institution" (read: semi-private) that is the seamless successor to what was a totally government run organization until a few years ago.

-- This was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the institution. Over the decades they have done much with research into yeast and other micro organisms as well as general sake brewing practices that have made sake into the fine stuff it is. Unglamorously enough, however, they were founded to ensure that brewers could brew sake without screwing it up, as sake was back then the source of about a third of all tax revenue, and the largest single source of such revenue. At the time (the very late 1800s), Japan was at war with Russia, and needed those taxes.

-- This historically and culturally significant contest has been running every year since 1910 (with one year off for war, and one for moving from Tokyo to Hiroshima), this year being the 92nd running of the event. Japan is the only country in the world that runs such a competition for its indigenous alcoholic beverages.

-- The judging method is brilliant in its simplicity. Up to 40 judges taste blindly from identical tumblers, and a score of 1 (excellent!), 2 (good) or 3 (something is a tad off) are assigned. That's it. No notes, musings, ponderings or whining. A bell-curve like line is used as a cut-off, and then the process is repeated. Those sake that are above that vaguely defined bell-curve demarcation win gold.

-- Until a few years ago, all the sake was tasted together, with regions mixed up. While the sake of different regions are still tasted side by side, a few years ago they began separating the sake into two categories: one made with Yamada Nishiki rice, and one made with anything else. Why? Because it was thought that Yamada Nishiki is so superior that no other rice stands much of a chance. Therefore, no one will try to use anything else, which would stifle the willingness of brewers to experiment, develop and expand their brewing horizons, which is the true point of this whole exercise.

-- A new twist in judging was thrown in this year, with interesting results. With the proliferation of yeasts yielding yodellingly wild aromatics over the past few years, the judges found it increasingly difficult to give a fair sniff to a sake that came after a super fragrant one. So this year, they took the time to separate them into groups of increasingly aromatic sake. This was done by measuring the parts per million of various aromatic-inducing acids and such for each of the submissions, a relatively simple process, I was told. Both judges and industry gurus seemed to think in hindsight that this worked well.

-- For only the fourth time in the last 12 years, Niigata Prefecture did *not* take the most golds; that honor went to Yamagata Prefecture with a whopping 24 golds. Niigata was second, though, with 20, which is nothing to shake a rice stalk at. Yamagata has been working hard over the last few years on rice, yeast and technique, and it has indeed been paying off.

-- Although not all the 1600-odd sakagura (breweries) in the country submitted sake to the tasting, over 1049 of them did this year. Of those, 978 used Yamada Nishiki rice, and only 71used something else.  In the end, there were 278 golds, and 251 silvers.

-- What were the winners like this year? What did the judges seem to favor? It was very clear that they were shying away from ostentatious, highly aromatic and overly full-flavored sake. Most of the winners seemed ever-so-slightly restrained, subdued, and controlled, with the necessarily pronounced flavors and aromas of contest sake just slightly muted compared to past years. All in all, very well done, I must say.

-- Finally, keep in mind that the results of this contest are ...well, dubious at best. Why? Because the sake submitted is specially brewed for these contests and does not resemble a kura's regular on-the-market sake. It is more like daiginjo on steroids; very focused and precipitously balanced. For this contest, the brewers attempt to create a sake free of any and all flaws while maintaining some semblance of uniqueness; no simple task by any means. Yet, if we cannot buy it, and it does not resemble at all their regular sake, what is the point? This contest, and others like it, are an indication of a brewer's skill in being able to conform to a very constricted profile, to exude absolute control over the processes. And, this is most impressive when accomplished with consistency, winning a gold with regularity.

-- Check for your favourites (in Japanese only) on the NRIB's website, at

Niigata Sake Revisited

In light of last month's article discussing sake regionality and quantum mechanics, let us look at the sake of various regions, beginning with Niigata. Readers may recall that the point was that, while different regions of Japan have strikingly different styles of sake (the waves), these days there are many breweries in each region whose sake is unique (the particles), often markedly different from the perceived regional style. In recent years, perhaps more attention has been focused on individual kura than on regions. In the admittedly shaky-if-fun parallel to quantum mechanics, we could say that this indicates that the energy of the sake world has been manifesting itself in particles more than waves. But I digress. Back to sake.

Should you find yourself motivated to study sake and regionality, it makes the most sense to start with the sake of Niigata. It's not that Niigata is *universally* regarded as the best, although it certainly is by many connoisseurs. Nor has Niigata always donned this crown; Akita once held sway over this domain, and before that Hiroshima, Hyogo and Kyoto. But based on any one of several current yardsticks the sake of Niigata comes out near the top in the opinion of many, and in the end is great by any standard.

When did this first come about? About 25 years ago, when the "jizake boom" began, Tokyo tipplers developed a fondness for small brewers from the countryside, rather than the stable if fine product offered by large national brewers. A few now-famous Niigata sake, like Koshi no Kanbai and Kubota, were recognized for the pristine quality, and became instant hits. This opened the door for the rest of the country to discover that a whole lot of Niigata sake was of this level.

But to their credit, it was much more than a matter of being in the right place at the right time and being picked up by the right media in the right way. Niigata followed through. Some brewers expanded and grew to fill demand, others did not. But one thing they all did was to continue to doggedly pursue quality and better and better sake.

In fact, it was really after that jizake boom that the true quality of Niigata sake began to shine through. While their reputation was already sterling, the brewers of Niigata hardly rested on their laurels. Both as a group and as individual producers, Niigata worked hard to make better and better sake. And this showed - and continues to show - in their success in national tasting competitions.

As mentioned in the preceding article, over the last 12 years in the "New Sake Tasting Competition," Niigata has won more gold medals than any other prefecture nine times, and was second the other four; nothing short of amazing consistency.

What makes it so good? In short: a great natural environment, including cold winters, clean air, ideal, slightly soft water for brewing, and an abundance of good sake rice. There are currently 97 breweries there now, and the majority of these are very small. Although Niigata is 3rd in terms of sake production volume behind Hyogo and Kyoto, unlike these other two major sake regions, most Niigata sake comes from such tiny kura.

Beyond the natural environment prerequisites, great technical brewing skill coupled with a willingness to try new things has helped Niigata to excel. Niigata was one of the first places to push the limits of rice milling and to incorporate expensive modern milling machines to achieve more highly milled rice, and hence more highly refined sake. They were the first to incorporate charcoal filtering on an advanced and minutely precise level. And they were one of the first places to embrace enamel-lined stainless steel tanks instead of traditional cedar.

Niigata is also the home of one of the largest and most skillful group of toji, the Echigo Toji. The mark of this guild of master brewers is left all over Japan, not only back home in Niigata, as Echigo toji can be found all over. Although the toji system is rapidly modernizing and changing, the Echigo Toji have always been one of the top three guilds.

There are other, less tangible points. When visiting Niigata breweries one thing has always amazed me: they are all spotless. All of them. It's almost cultish. Since sake is brewed using an open-tank fermentation, sanitation is paramount, and all sake breweries are generally clean and neat. But Niigata kura take this to a new level, being pristine, gleaming and anally orderly, and it reflects itself in the sake. It is almost as if "a clean environment leads to clean-flavored sake."

Indeed, most sake devotees agree Niigata sake is great. But there is a caveat: It is not always what everyone wants to drink. Overall, Niigata sake is "tanrei karakuchi," or very refined, light and dry. While this quality is very respected in a sake, many people have come to prefer sake with a bit more flavor and weight to it, especially lately, as consumer preferences are making a knee-jerk, pendulum-like swing to big flavored sake.

And, admittedly, so has the sake of Niigata. While it is still refined and dry, it has packed a bit more meat onto its bones than it has donned in the past. Be it a conscious decision on the part of the brewers (who are a fairly tight bunch, as far as brewers of a given prefecture go), or a natural swing of preferences, it is to me a welcomed shift.

Overall, the subtle, refined nature of most Niigata sake arguably offers infinitely more potential for understanding the finer points of sake, and is very much worth the effort to check out. Do yourself a favor, and explore not only the well known, sterling names, but as many of the smaller brewers' sake as you can. You will not be disappointed.

Good Sake To Look For

Kirin Junmai Daiginjo (Niigata)
While almost everyone knows of the beer by the same name, too few know of this excellent sake that takes its name from a nearby castle, which took its name from a nearby mountain. This kura has been brewing since 1880, but certainly must be making their best sake now. The current president worked for a while as a government taster (in contests like that described above), as did his father before him. He also doubles as a professor at The Japan Brewing Society for aspiring young brewers. Suffice it to say he knows his sake. Not surprisingly this year Kirin also won a gold medal in Hiroshima.

Kirin is, like most Niigata sake, clean and dry and light. It is generally less crisp and a bit more soft and approachable then most Niigata sake. However, this is one of those sake that has thickened out gradually and tastefully into something truly sterling. Kirin has become, over the past couple of years, a bit more solid and tightly structured. Kirin is available in the US, as well as in Europe; however, as you might imagine, they need to go by a different name. In the US, that is "Koshi Hikari Daiginjo."

Kiyoizumi Junmai-shu (Niigata)
Kame no O Junmai Daiginjo (Niigata)
Back in 1982, Mr. Kusumi, the current president-owner of this kura, found about 1100 grains of an old, all but forgotten rice called Kame no O, or "the tail of the turtle." He worked hard to reconstitute enough to make a batch of sake, and things grew from there. Now, there are over 50 breweries using this fine rice to make character-laden sake all over Japan.

The sake they make from this rice is also called "Kame no O," albeit using different written characters. Just a tad hard to find, and only in Japan, it is slightly full, peppery, herbal and citrus-laced, yet soft around the edges. Worth searching for while in Japan.

Their other products, which go by the brand name Kiyoizumi, include the above-mentioned junmai-shu. Solid and clean with a hovering subtle sweetness in the background, the structure and feel are Niigata all the way.

Kikusui Junmai Ginjo (Niigata)
 Light and refreshing, yet not as crisp or ultra-refined as most famous Niigata sake (of which this is actually one), opting rather for a gentler, softer and fuller profile. Mildly aromatic, albeit more flowery than fruity. Note there are other brands called Kikusui (although the written characters are different), but only this one from Niigata.

*Other well-known Niigata sake easily findable outside of Japan include the several grades and manifestations of Kubota, Koshi no Kanbai, Shimeharitsuru, and Hakkaisan. Some are pricey, others less so, but all are worth trying at least once or twice.

Sake Events and Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, June 26, from 6:00 to about 9:00, I will hold a sake seminar at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The sake topic will be government tasting contest. We will discuss the national, local and toji-guild-sponsored events, and what is fun and important about them. We will also be tasting one or two special "contest" sake.

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 sending me an email. 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.

Publication Information
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