2011 National New Sake Appraisal Report
In a year of adversity and challenge
The 99th running of the National New Sake Appraisal, or "Zenkoku Shinshu
Kampyoukai," was held this past month. The results were announced on the morning of May 20, and a tasting for the industry was held May 25 in Hiroshima. As I do every year, I schlepped down there to do as much
damage as possible in tasting the 875 entries - in six hours.
I have written about this prestigious contest each year, with each article focusing on a different historical, technical or political facet of the
event. The methods of selecting gold prize winners, and the rules of "the game" are covered in these articles as well. You can read those in the June editions for 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004.
The sake brewed for these contests is not
normal for-the-market sake. It is specially brewed just for this tasting and needs to be totally fault-free and extremely precise in its flavors, aromas and balances. I like to call it "daiginjo on
steroids." It's intense. This is why it is worth tasting each year: one can see much about how the weather really affected things, and what aromas and styles are developing behind the scenes.
So, how was
it this year? Well, first of all, the lead-up was ominous. It was a dreadfully hot summer, which makes it really tough to get any flavor out of the rice. Expectations were low on the part of many
experts. On top of that were the natural disasters that have hit Japan since March 11. These of course dampened the mood, but affected the sake of many brewers - or at least should have. More on that later.
To be sure, much of the sake was tight, astringent and with little breadth. But really, it was not that bad at all. Much was finely rich, aromas did not seem as wild-n-wooly as in past years, and those that won
gold medals were invariably of finely wrought balance. For those interested, you can read the results (in Japanese) here.
is always a new twist or catch each year, and this time was no exception. About a decade ago, sake made with rice other than Yamada Nishiki were judged separately. The reasoning there was that the contest is intended
to foster technical developments. No one was using rice other than Yamada Nishiki as it is so dependable and predictable. That defeats the purpose, so to encourage brewers to experiment with other rice types, they
were judged separately.
Well, this year, that separation was eliminated. In other words, the brewing industry has gotten good enough at making contest sake with non-Yamada Nishiki rice types so that the
separate category is no longer needed. The fear of failure based on rice choice is no longer a big issue. So this year, all sake were judged in one big category, as they used to be.
As the tasting is really
crowded, and as it is a case of "so many sake, so little time" with only six hours, a strategy is vital. For instance, if you line up at the popular regions first (the sake is separated into long tables by
prefecture and region), you waste a lot of time waiting to get to the table, then waiting between each sake. But if you blow those off for later, you risk the allotted few bottles running dry, or worse yet, total
fatigue and the inevitably following apathy.
Not surprisingly, considering both the earthquake-tsunami as well as the fact that the region has been kicking sake ass these past few years, the lines for the
Tohoku tables were very long from the start. I availed myself of that fact and made a bee-line for Niigata.
Yet, the best laid plans of mice and sakeguys oft go astray, and Tohoku stayed crowded. And by the
time I did finally get there, at least half of the sake were gone. That hurt. But it was not surprising considering how well the region did this year. In fact, it was nothing short of miraculous.
obviously so was Miyagi. Together with Iwate, this is the place where most of the earthquake-tsunami damage occurred. But check this out: of twenty submissions from breweries in Miyagi, a full 17 took gold, and one
more took the equivalent of a silver. That means only two submissions from this prefecture did not get a prize! (One of those was severely damaged in the disasters.) This, amidst all that took place.
be tempted to think the judges had pity on the region, but not a chance. It is all blind; all regions are mixed up and the judges have no idea what they are tasting in either of the two rounds.
As is the case
almost every year, Niigata took the most golds with 22, but they had 79 submitted sake. It's kind of like, if you throw enough kasu on the wall, some of it is going to stick. That is a 28% gold-rate, versus a whopping 85% from Miyagi. I was shocked that I had never analyzed the results like this before.
Not to diss Niigata! Perish the thought! Year in and year out, in contest sake and in regular-market sake, they consistently produce some of the best sake in Japan there. And they deserve their high
reputation. But the accomplishments of the brewers from Miyagi were outstanding to me this year, and made more poignant by the hardships endured.
Iwate Prefecture also did very well, with eight out of 15
winning a prize, six of which were gold. There, too, over half of the entries won a medal. Another, tangential highlight was Kikumasamune from the Nada region of Hyogo. This company has long boycotted, or at
least chosen not to participate, in the New Sake Competition. They are one of the most historically significant and stories brewing companies in the history of the industry, and one of the largest brewers as well.
This year, after a decades-long hiatus, they submitted a sake - and won a gold! Not surprisingly, it was a stable, simple, Nada-esque sake that still managed enough ostentatious balance to do well.
look forward to the 100th running of the event next year. Now that will be significant.
For those that are interested and that will be in Japan on June 15, you can taste all of the prize winners at the Sake
Fair in Ikebukuro. See more details about that event below.
Did You Know? Sake Kasu.
Sake kasu, usually just kasu in context, refers to the rice dregs, or lees that remain after fermentation is complete. Recall that rice dissolves in
the tank - its starches getting converted to sugar - while simultaneously the sugar is fermented to alcohol. So there is a mess of stuff that does not get converted or broken down enough, and is filtered out. (Since
most sake later goes through charcoal filtering, the word "pressing" is commonly used to refer to this initial filtration.) That mess, compacted, is kasu.
The amount of kasu that remains after fermentation is
a function of many things. How far did they allow the fermentation to go? In other words, did the brewer ferment to get maximum alcohol (less kasu) or a bit more quality (more kasu)? How tightly did they squeeze the
kasu during pressing? Did they want every last drop (less - or at least lighter - kasu), or did they squeeze less hard in hopes of leaving some rougher flavors behind (more kasu)? So in some situations, more kasu
indicates higher quality. The weather during the rice growing season has a big effect as well. Hotter temperatures make for less soluble rice, which naturally leads to more kasu when it is all said and done. In this
case, however, the sake would be less intense in flavor.
As is often the case with sake, several dynamics are in play at the same time, and it is difficult to say clearly what is better or worse. Suffice it to
say that, given a set of boundary conditions (i.e. known factors, such as the weather during the growing season, the grade aimed for, the number of days fermenting and the temperature) for a given batch, a brewer can
tell a LOT about a just-brewed sake by looking at the resulting kasu.
Also, see the December 2010 issue of this newsletter to see how sake kasu can be used with wonderful results in cooking. So, the next someone asks you, "Did You Know?" you can answer, "Why, yes, I did know."
Rice and Sake Flavors
Last month, we looked at how yeast is what is behind the myriad of fruity aromas that can be coaxed out of the rice and into your sake.
This would likely lead us to suspect that rice would contribute to flavor. And that suspicion would be correct. However, while rice does lead more than anything else to flavor, there are a dozen other things that
affect flavor too. The intent of the brewer, the way the koji mold is propagated, ambient temperature and much, much more. And of the hundred-odd sake rice strains out there, many do have very identifiable
characteristics that one can learn to taste with time. Yamada Nishiki is rich and full, Omachi is more astringent, Akita Sake Komachi and Aiyama both lead to a characteristic heavy-berry laced sake. However, the
connection between rice and the flavor of a sake is not nearly as tight as the connection between grapes and the flavor of a wine. Why not? Because of all the manhandling of the raw materials that go into sake
Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course 2011, New York City
From July 31 ~ August 2, 2011
"No sake stone remains left unturned." The next stateside running of the Sake Professional Course will be held at Astor Center in New York City on Sunday, July 31 through Tuesday, August 2, 2011. The course will run basically 9 to 5 all three days, and will conclude with certification testing for the Certified Sake Specialist, recognized by the Sake Education Council. For more information go here. Feel free to ask me any questions about the course, or make a reservation with an email to info ATMARK
Sake Education Council Website is Live!
Please take a moment to check out
the newly completed website for the Sake Education Council, the organization behind the Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional certifications. We plan to grow steadily, strongly and continually,
and we will need the support of all those that love sake to do so. Follow us through the "usual suspects" of social media.
2011 "Sake Fair" in Tokyo
Wednesdsay, June 15
On Wednesday, June 15, the sake industry will hold the 3rd annual Sake Fair on the 4th floor of the World Import
Building in Sunshine City, in Ikebukuro in Tokyo. There are two things happening more or less simultaneously on this day. One is a public tasting of the National New Sake award winners. There are two sessions,
10am to 1pm, and 4pm to 8pm. The other event, running from 11am to 8pm, is the All Japan Sake March, a large scale tasting with over 200 brewers present, and tasting booths from every sake-brewing prefecture in the
country. Not only can you taste, but you can buy. It really is a wonderful opportunity to taste a huge range of sake from all over the country. The seriousness of the tasting in the first event mentioned is countered
by the light-heartedness of the second. Both are worth checking out, so my advice is write off the day (and perhaps the next one as well) and check it all out thoroughly. Tickets are 3000 yen in advance, and 3500 at
the door, and will get you into both events. (You also get a take-home smile o-choko!) Not to be missed if you are anywhere close. A
bit more information is available here, including how to purchase tickets in advance.
SAKE EDUCATION CENTRAL
For Your iPhone & iPod: The Sake Dictionary App.
Newly improved, now with audio, and
drastically reduced in price to $0.99!
Get it here: http://itunes.com/apps/sakedictionary
There you are, perusing a menu, or standing in front of a shelf of great sake, or perhaps reading a sake newsletter… and up pops one of those hairy, pesky sake terms in Japanese. You know you have heard it many
times, but dammit, you just cannot remember what it means now…
No problem! Just whip out your iPhone or iPod and fire up your trusty old version of The Sake Dictionary. In a matter of seconds, you'll be
amongst the cognoscenti once again. But… if only you could pronounce it properly. Now that would really rock!
Done! Just tap on the term and you will hear a clear example of how to pronounce the term in
Japanese. Repeat it a couple of times and the term is yours for eternity, to toss about and impress your mates.
What's more, it's less! Less than what it cost before, much less. Like less than one-seventh
less. For a limited time only, the audio-enhanced version of The Sake Dictionary iPhone app is available for a mere $0.99.
The Sake Dictionary is a concise little package of all the terms you might ever come
across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in
sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well. And now,
with the new audio component, you can listen and learn just how to pronounce those terms properly.
Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity
hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!
Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms - or how to pronounce them - again.
Get it here: http://itunes.com/apps/sakedictionary
(Note if you have already purchased it, this upgrade to the audio version is free.
Just go to iTunes and get it!)
Sake's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased to announce the publication of my new ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories, subtitled The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew.
Sake's Hidden Stories ($14.99) will give you a view to what goes on in the sake
industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji
is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that
has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their
histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew.
For more information on content and get your copy, go here.As with any ebook or informational product I offer, satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. If you
don't like it or feel it was worth what you paid for it, I will cheerfully refund your money. Finally, for a nice third-party review of the book, check out this cool blog.
Sake Educational Products
Jump-start your sake savvy
Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake
enjoyment. We offer three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.
First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to
sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and
more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access
to a password protected area on www.sake-world.com known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's
personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing
process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.
Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.
More information on the following topics can be found at
- Sake Homebrewing
- Books on Sake
- Information on the archives of this newsletter
- General information related to this publication
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.