Greetings to all readers. I hope this finds you well. In spite of my assertion that May is a slow month in the sake world, a whole lot went down. The National New Sake Awards gave rise to some very interesting
results, and the IWC sake competition did as well. A cabinet minister went so far as to make policy-related statements and plans to promote sake both domestically and overseas. Dig that! And there was more, but a bit
too much to fill one month's newsletter. (Even I have better things to do than read a monthly sake newsletter all day!) Amidst the daily tumultuous happenings and news that pervade our lives, sake is proving more and
more to be a rock of repose, stillness and stability. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it sounded cool. Enjoy the newsletter, please. Warm regards in the nascent summer, John
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2012 National New Sake Awards
For the 2011-2012 Brewing Season
In late May, the 100th running of the National New Sake Awards took place in Hiroshima. I have, every year,
written a review of the event and its significance, and you can read those reviews in the June newsletter for the past ten years in the archives. The most
interesting and relevant of these can be found at the links at the end of this article.
In short, this year was interesting and significant for many reasons. Having said that, the sake itself was actually a
bit disappointing. It was fine, overall... just not so impressive. I could, in all likelihood, write on and on about it for pages and pages. But I suspect readers have at least one or two other things to read and as
such will present the "digest" version here.
This was the 100th running of the event. The organization behind it, the National Research Industry of Brewing, has actually been around 102 years. But
one year was taken off during World War II, and another in 1997 when the institute moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and coincidentally that year was the year of the Kobe earthqake, which ravaged the brewing industry,
centered in Kobe as it is. The NRIB has been passed back and forth between a couple of ministries over the decades, and was semi-privatized a few years ago. This is one tangent I could lead you down, but will back
gingerly away from it and proceed.
Long-time readers may recall that, out of 900 entries from amongst 1200 brewers, the number of gold and silver medals are not limited. It depends on much, such as the quality
of the rice each year. Usually, though, about 200 get gold, and about 200 get silver. Readers may also recall the sake submitted is always newly-made, and made just for this contest, i.e. not market sake. It is
intense, kind of like daiginjo on steroids. And the effects of weather on the rice and weather on the brewing are most evident in such sake, much more than in regular sake on the market.
As is the case almost
every year, Niigata Prefecture walked away with the most
golds. It does serve to justify the sterling reputation that region has earned and enjoys. But of even more significance to me was Fukushima Prefecture, which borders Niigata but is officially a part of the Tohoku region, and which has gained notoriety from the nuclear accident of last year. Fukushima was just behind Niigata in the number of golds won. However, Niigata has about 40% more breweries submitting to the competition. So in terms of the ratio of golds to entries, Fukushima wholloped the whole country's collective ass. How's that for a comeback?
Overall expectations were very high this year. The rice from last season was good. Not outta-this-world fantastic, but good. The winter was the coldest in 25 years, which helps keep unwanted micro-organisims
at bay, and also allows better temperature control. And many brewers have begun to move at least a little bit away from wild, unbalanced (the key point, really) sets of aromas that new-fangled yeasts can often
produce. The combination of all these things led to tough, tough competition, that actually saw some yearly shoo-ins not do as well as they usually do. (Read: there were some surprises in who did NOT win gold this
As readers that follow this article each year may recall, the actual judging is done by a couple dozen judges, mostly government employees (your taxes at work!) and a few brewers et al, in mid-May.
Then, near the end of May, there is a tasting open to the public. (Just the industry, really, but no one checks identification!) It is to that event I went and subjected myself to the yearly day of what sounds like
fun, but is far, far from it.
However, the event does keep getting better, often in little ways. This year, the l'il booklet listing all the sake by prefecture was especially helpful. For the first time, if
the rice used was not the almighty Yamada Nishiki, we were told what it was.
And if the sake was a junmai, we were told that as well. (Almost all of them are not junmai since the small amount of added alcohol
helps bring out aromas et al deemed necessary to compete at this level.)
This made the tasting infinitely more interesting, since we on that day could see the brand name, and whether or not it won a medal. And
knowing the rice and if it was junmai or not allowed us to understand more about the various rice types used and the styles as well. Indeed, as punishing as it can be to try to taste upwards of 900 sake between ten am
and 3 pm, it was a fascinating lesson and experience this year. Again.
However, as I alluded to above, the sake itself this year was actually not that impressive. It was fine. But I think that expectations
were high, based on good rice and a cold winter. And the results were a bit of a letdown. This may have been exacerbated by the fact that one year ago the rice was abominal, but the sake ended up surprisingly lively.
It just goes to show, as soon as you think you have sake figured out, it'll go and hose you.
One of the biggest bummers for me personally was that Eikun from Kyoto did NOT win a gold. They were on pace to set
a new record for consecutive golds at 15 this year, but only got silver. Hey, 14 golds in a row followed by one silver - and that is a feat only Eikun and one other brewery has accomplished - is nothing to shake a
stick at. But I think everyone was pulling for them, and it was not meant to be.
Finally, for those interested in just how this tasting looks and feels, you can see (and taste, of course) for yourself in Tokyo
on June 15 at the Nihonshu Fair. Not to be missed if you are anywhere near Japan on that day! Be sure to at least check out that link.
For a bit more about the particulars of the contest, and how the sake is judged, as well as how sensitive it can be, go here.
Those interested in more detail and depth on the National New Sake Tasting Competition will find the below articles from past issues of this newsletter interesting, in particular:
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We're From the Government, We're Here to Help
It's Official Now: Government is Behind Sake
Yeppir! Things are bound to get better from now on! The Japanese
government is now officially behind sake, moving toward support of improving the market for sake both domestically and overseas. In mid-April, the Mr. Motohisa Furukawa, State Minister for National Policy, designated sake as Japan's "National Alcoholic Beverage." What this means is that sake has hereby moved into the realm of official government policy. It is at least on the radar. Rock and Roll!
For the record, the full statement also reflected that not just sake, but also its distilled cousin, Japan's other indigenous beverage, shochu, are both to be designated as National Alcoholic Beverages. The
action was taken in part to boost the overseas market for sake, and also to "encourage the revitalization of local economies concerned and the expanding demand for rice."
The minister stated, "Sake is
part of the Japanese culture of taking pride in high-quality rice and water. I'm confident it can develop into an export industry capable of penetrating the global market."
In terms of actual activities
that might improve overseas sales, the government will address a range of things, such as enhancement of brand images and improvement of product designs. In addition, it will support information-gathering efforts by
producers for their marketing campaigns abroad.
Interestingly, however, the government receives no alcoholic beverage tax when sake is exported. Nor any consumption tax. Zero. The big goose egg. Yet they are
going out of their way to put efforts into its overseas promotion. Why?
Two reasons, at least as far as I can see. One, rice. Regardless of where Japan-brewed sake is consumed, the rice that goes into it
is Japan-grown rice. (Actually, there is a drop-in-the-bucket of exceptions, as always in the sake world...) So sake consumed anywhere will help Japan's agricultural situation, at least potentially. And reason number
two: even though less than two percent of all sake made in Japan is exported, it is thought and hoped that if sake becomes even more truly
appreciated overseas, the local market too will look at it anew, for
the incredibly diverse and deep world and connoisseur beverage that it is.
Why does the local market not do that now? Image; plain and simple Sake is not seen as fashionable, or sexy, but rather just plain
ole' sake. Folks here in Japan have simply been too close to it for too long to see it as special.
Hopefully, that will begin to change. Wherever we are, let us all do our part. And trust the government when
they say, "we have come to help." 'Cuz this time, it's official!
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Sake Basics: Other Contests
The National New Sake Awards competition written about above is not the only sake competition in town. Sure, it may be
the most prestigious, but there are other competitions on a national scale, a prefectural scale, a regional scale, and even the various toji (master brewer guilds) have their own tastings. And, there are international
ones as well. Surely, the venerable Joy of Sake, now in its 12th year, is very widely known and respected in the US at least. But for the past several years, the International Wine Challenge, held in London each year, has been running a sake competition as well. This past month I was privileged to have participated as a judge. There were about 40 judges assessing 689 sake in seven teams over two days. Each team was a mix of Japanese and overseas judges, assuring lively discussion and differing opinions and standards. Medals and commendations were awarded at the end, of course. The results were quite interesting, not surprisingly. In a nutshell, most of the non-Japanese judges leaned toward more ostentatious and aromatic sake, whereas most Japanese judges preferred more subtle, less showy sake. As one personal observation, I am quite sure that results would have been yet again quite different for any given sake if there were food on the table. As educational and significant as an event like this can be, enjoying sake with food is a whole 'nother ballgame. I expect the results will eventually be published in English (although they are not as of yet). The full results can be viewed here in Japanese.
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Did You Know? Miscellaneous and Sundry
- Interested in brewing sake at home? Check out Brewing Sake: Release the Toji Within, by Will Auld. Learn more here, or just buy it here.
- Want to help support Tohoku, and learn about Tohoku cuisine? Nothing goes better with Tohoku sake! Check out Elizabeth Andoh's ebook "Kibo" to do both!
- Ever hear of Hatsu-nomikiri? The first (internal) sake tasting in any brewery after a given brewing season. Read about it on my
Sake World blog here.
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Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course
July 18 to 20 in Chicago, Illinois
Sold Out! No Seats Remain!
The Sake Professional Course in Chicago in July filled up within two weeks. No seats remain, although I am accepting names for the waiting list, should there be any cancellations.
The one after Chicago is scheduled for San Francisco in October. Please email me if you are interested in the San Fancisco course. The below is left here for reference.
The next Sake Professional Course will
take place July 18 to 20, at the offices of Tenzing Wine and Spirits in downtown Chicago, Illinois.
The Sake Professional Course, with Sake Education Council-recognized Certified Sake Professional certification testing, is by far the most intensive, immersing, comprehensive sake educational program in existence. Three days of classroom lectures and tastings leave "no sake stone unturned." The tuition for the course is $799. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation. All marketing noise and shameless self-promotion aside, this course is already filling up quite fast. As such, interested parties should email me soon to make a reservation.
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Sake Education Council
Please take a moment to check out the 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.
Sake Homebrewer's Online Store
Please be sure to check out Homebrewsake.com for supplies, information and a forum, including lots of supporting information on everything from recipes to history. I have been meaning to mention this site and the gentleman behind it, Will Auld, but have repeatedly forgotten in past newsletters. The site is replete with instruction, augmented with videos, schedules, and more. If you are even remotely interested check this site out right away.
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.