The Basics: Beginners Guide to Sake Classifications (WK2)

The Basics:  Sake Classifications (WK2)

Understanding the world of wine can be a really complicated affair.  Aside from the obvious differences in colour, you have countless grape varieties, huge differences in sweetness and dryness, sparkling or non-sparkling types, the issue of finding suitable pairings with food etc etc.  Then you have the problem of navigating the differences between  “New World” and “Old World” wines.  The latter of course includes French wines which only display a region rather than a grape variety on the label.  As a result, they are notoriously difficult to understand without making a concerted effort to study each region.  Old World wines also have the extra complication of having not just specific regions to consider, but different vineyard classifications within that region.  From Gran Cru’s to Vin de Table’s,  it really can take a lifetime to fully understand them all.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the case of Sake, understanding at least the general classifications is in truth a much easier prospect.  Yet to a great many people, getting to grips with Japan’s nation beverage remains an even greater mystery.  When you considering the obvious language barrier between Japanese producers and most overseas consumers, it is understandable why many find it such a bewildering prospect.  The problem is compounded by the fact that in most countries outside of Japan there is a dearth of knowledgeable staff to make informed recommendations.

Speaking purely of my home country of Britain, when you do find a specialist shop dealing in Nihonshu, they are more than likely going to be some of the most knowledgeable, passionate and enthusiastic staff you will meet.  However, such stores are still few and far between and are mostly only found in the south around London.  Instead, the reality for most people involves standing in a Chinese supermarket staring at a pretty label wondering if it’s the wonderful stuff they hear about from hardened Sake fans, or the cheap plonk that has put so many people of it in the past.  You could call it a kind of label roulette.  Sometimes you win and get a great bottle, and sometimes it really wasn’t what you were expecting at all.

Therefore, the purpose of this blog is to provide a complete beginners guide to the main classifications that divide up Nihonshu and hopefully make the buying experience that little bit easier.  It should be pointed out that learning these will not be a sure-fire guarantee that you will pick out something you like every time.  However, it will at least provide you with the peace of mind that what you are buying belongs to a certain production method and standard of quality.  From this, you will be much better placed to begin learning about the more intricate aspects of this incredibly versatile drink, and can begin to figure out which particular styles you like and which you are not to your taste.

If you are inclined to study deeper beyond these general classifications, you will no-doubt notice that Sake labels often include some incredibly vague and confusing terminology.  Don’t worry, I will cover these in my next blog.  But before any of that will make sense, the best starting place is the seven basic classifications that form the Nihonshu family tree.  So without further ado, the following chart includes the names of the main classifications which I will cover in more detail below.

Sake Classification Table PDF

 

Premium

So the first thing that most people will have noticed is that there are in fact nine separate boxes rather than the seven I just mentioned.  However, the Tokubetsu variants, meaning special in Japanese, are merely sub-classifications of both Junmai and Honjōzō, and therefore are not generally considered classifications in their own right.  The finer details of what qualifies a Sake for the title of “Special” will unfortunately have to wait for another time.  However, these four categories collectively form the entry level of what is widely referred to as Premium Sake, or Tokuteimeishōshu (特定名称酒) in Japanese.  As is clear from the chart, the only thing that is separating the top classifications from the bottom is rice polishing.

Yes, when it comes to sake, it isn’t the type of raw ingredients that separate the top shelf stuff from the cheap plonk, it is simply how much of the original grain of rice is left over after polishing.  Nihonshu does technically have what could be considered a Gran Cru  equivalent, which would be those made using a rice variant known as Yamada-Nishiki (山田錦 ).  Specifically, the most famous example of Yamada rice is that harvested in the well known Sake producing region of Hyogo Prefecture in central Japan.  It is perhaps unsurprising then that the vast majority of Nihonshu produced to the highest classification of Daiginjō is made using Yamada-Nishiki.  However, a Sake brewed using nothing but this type affords it no advantage on the premium Nihonshu chart.  Therefore, unlike top Old World wines that place importance on a specific region and raw ingredients, in a nutshell,  Nihonshu classifications place more of an emphasis on the standard of production.

But before anyone starts thinking that Nihonshu production is some kind of anything goes routine, it should be pointed out that, with the exception of Futsū-shu at the bottom of the chart, premium varieties are by law only allowed to include the necessary ingredients needed to make Nihonshu.  In this respect Sake production shares allot in common with the strict rules governing the process of beer brewing found in Germany which only permits, by law, the use of hops, barley, water and yeast.  In the case of Sake, only kōji, water, yeast and distilled alcohol is allowed.  Nothing else can be added to the mash at any stage of the process.  In regards to the last ingredient, only a small amount of alcohol is allowed to be added.  This addition is not done to increase yields.  Rather it can draw out stronger flavours and aromas in the Sake.  Regardless, it is the only thing separating the left and right side of the chart, and an important point in understanding the premium classifications.

Yes, again we have another incredibly simple thing to remember when it comes to understanding Sake.  If it doesn’t say Junmai (純米) on the label, then it belongs somewhere or the right side of the chart, and means it has been made with the addition of a small amount of distilled alcohol.  If it does, then it’s simply brewed using just rice, water, yeast and Kōji, hence the name Junmai which means pure rice in Japanese.  I will stress now though, the addition of alcohol does not mean it is an inferior product to Junmai types.  Whether or not they are in-fact better than their alcohol added counterparts is a long running topic of contention amongst Sake drinkers, and in truth, it seems for now at least that the Junmai side are winning.  I will save the finer details of which characteristics each type often display for another blog.  However, in brief, those with added alcohol, sometimes referred to as Aru-Ten  (アル添), come with their own qualities and quirks, and writing them off would be a huge shame in my humble opinion at least.

Super Premium     

After the entry level variants we progress to the Ginjō-shu variants, often referred to as “Super Premium”.  These four classifications make up just 10% of all Sake produced, and with their often wine like aromas and delicate flavours, are what is driving up interest in Sake overseas.  Renowned Sake expert John Gauntner has written on several occasions that “If you remember one word about Sake, let that word be Ginjō“.  Its good advice if you are either new to Sake or someone trying to get over the trauma of a terrible experience you had with some nasty stuff you tried in the past (very common story).  Buying a Ginjō-shu variant is a pretty safe bet that you will be pleased with your purchase.  As I will get into next, everyone has different tastes and preferences.  However, as I mentioned previously, the Nihonshu family tree is separated by an increasingly higher standard of production technique.  Ginjō-shu is right at the pinnacle of this and virtually always made with the strictest of care and dedication.

However, John Gauntner is also quick to point out that not everyone will love Ginjō types all of the time.  They can be extremely rich, and sometimes a bit overpowering after a few glasses.  Yes they rarely disappoint in terms of quality, and can sometimes taste so similar to white wine that you could almost be hard pressed to tell the difference.  But not everyone wants to drink white wine when they are drinking Nihonshu.  In fact, speaking personally, having tasted some fantastic heated (熱燗) examples over the winter,  I have recently been finding my way back to good honest Honjōzō.  Again, in my own opinion of course, the lower classifications can often make much better session drinks.  Like anything, it usually comes down to what suits the occasion best, and of course, personal preference.

Everything Else

Perhaps it’s a bit strange to finish at the bottom, but I will end with the classification that has almost become a swear word in the overseas Sake community:  Futsū-shu.  The name roughly translates as “ordinary sake”, but in truth, this classification can be very different from the premium variants.  For example, Futsū-shu is not subject to the strict rules that apply to Tokuteimeishōshu, meaning the use of flavour enhancers like acids and sugars is permitted.  Furthermore, the limits on how much alcohol can be added are greatly increased for Futsū-shu, a fact that has probably done the most damage to its reputation amongst the modern more health conscious consumer.

However, in keeping with the recurring theme that is ever present when discussing Nihonshu, probably the biggest factor separating the top stuff from everything else that falls into this category is production method.  The most notable example of this is the lack of any restriction on the level of rice milling.  Other possible differences in production that can affect the quality include how it is pressed, filtered, stored and even bottled.   There are of course exceptions, but in general Futsū-shu is simply more often than not made with less care and attention than the premium categories.  That is the key difference.

Now I am not about to start pretending that in-fact Futsū-shu simply has an unfair reputation, and that really these differences don’t make that much difference.  They absolutely do!  However, ignoring the obvious differences people have in taste, all I will say is that there are some real hidden gems to be found within this classification.  Furthermore, these kinds of Sake are usually very cheap and therefore it’s not so much of a risk to by a small cup as a tester.  From within my home prefecture of Okayama, I can straight away think of those from 18 Zakari (my employer) and Tsuji-Honten.  Both produce a Futsū-shu  made by a method very close to that of premium Nihonshu, albeit with less expensive rice.  As these types of sake are often only available locally, I recommend that if you get the chance to travel throughout Japan, give them a try.  You may even uncover a hidden gem.

Conclusion

So that was my introduction to the Nihonshu family tree.  If you remember the very basic information included in this blog you should be better prepared when buying or ordering Nihonshu.  But more importantly, I hope that the message within this blog is clear.  Nihonshu classifications are really just an increasing scale of production method.  Yes the top classifications are more than likely going to be made with much better rice, and yes to most people they are going to be far more appealing, myself included.  However, don’t simply write-off everything at the bottom as cheap plonk.  There is much to be gained from trying out the lower classifications, including Futsū-shu.  Furthermore, Nihonshu is an incredibly versatile drink, and one of its best aspects is how it seemingly manages to have a variety that fits every time and occasion.

My First Day as a Kurabito: The joy of making Sake

A little over one month ago, I was lucky enough to be offered employment working in a Kura. My first thoughts were about how I was finally going to be doing a job that I actually had a personal interest in, and I soon began wondering if perhaps I could become one of those people who are genuinely happy in their work. However, as it often does in my case, my initial excitement and optimism soon turned to panic as the reality of the challenge ahead began to sink in. I was well warned beforehand from people who had experienced this type of work (and from those who had not) to expect a tough working environment that would put me to the test physically. Add to that the fact that my Japanese is still terrible going into a workplace where lots and lots of obscure vocabulary are used, and you have the mental challenge thrown in for good measure. With these anxieties rushing through my head, I set out for my first honest day’s work in a Kura. Here is how it unfolded…

6:00 AM

The people who make Sake are early risers. Despite it being cold enough to keep my bedside water chilled, I’m up and scrambling for my clothes before the sun has even come up. I had expected a cold working environment, so the day before I had went and bought warm clothing in preparation. Needless to say, the 5k bike ride to the Kura was still freezing but it certainly acted as a good body warm up. As is common within Japanese companies, the first action of the day is assembly (Chourei, 朝礼 ) when the Toji conveys the day’s plan of action. As it was my first day, I did a quick self introduction to the rest of the workers before everyone rushed to their stations.

8:05 AM

I really didn’t know what to expect from my first day working as a complete newcomer in an environment where mistakes have the potential to be very serious. Maybe they would have me sticking labels on bottles, or moving bags of rice from one place to another? As we stood in line to wash our hands before entering the Kura, for the first of what seemed like over a hundred times that day, I was expecting the Toji to take me aside and assign me such a job.   However, I soon found myself standing in the midst of a flurry of activity as the workers all dashed around preparing the first job of the day of steaming rice. As I had expected, the temperature in the Kura was very cold. However, seeing the massive rice steamer (Koshiki, 甑) belching out steam throughout the building seemed to somehow psychologically help in warming me up. Before I knew it, I was running up and down stairs with baskets of freshly steamed rice and had forgotten all about the cold.

10:15 AM

After a quick break, all of the staff who had been working together in perfect unison during the morning seemed to branch off into different parts of the Kura. To my surprise, I was told to scrub up again as me, the Toji of course, and two others were heading to the room where the real magic of Sake brewing happens: The Koji room (Koji-Muro, 麹室). This was when it really started to feel surreal. I am a huge fan of Nihonshu. I have read many books on the subject, watched documentaries, sourced countless articles for my dissertation. But here I was, standing in what is effectively a sauna helping the Toji to make the next batch of Koji.

Everything was as I had read and seen, right down to being told ”Don’t move and inch” once the Koji spores had been scattered across the rice. My body was also put to the test by being exposed to repeated changes in temperature. Sitting in virtual silence for 5 minutes in a temperature controlled room at a balmy 35 degrees, then immediately doing the same outside in the chilly temperature of the Kura. It really was a challenge working out how much clothes to leave on. Is it better to sweet in the Koji-Moro or freeze in the Kura. I still haven’t figures it out!

1:00 PM

With lunch finished, we all gather once more in the Kura for what feels like the shortest meeting in history. Before I even work out what was said, everyone is off again doing individual tasks. I am once more paired with the Toji, this time washing the rice in preparation for the next day’s steaming. If I am completely honest, my first reaction to hearing of this task was thinking it sounded boring and insignificant. Just shows how little I knew about Sake making. As it turns out, it is both critical to the outcome of the final brew and also extremely challenging work.

Luckily for my first day, it was a relatively small batch that was scheduled for steaming the following day, and the Toji was not quite ready to have me playing a crucial role in the task just yet. Essentially it entails washing and soaking rice for predetermined times that are monitored down to the second. Rice that has been polished so finely absorbs water at a very fast rate. Therefore, getting the timing right is essential for getting the desired consistency. If it over or under soaks it will not be as the Toji needs it to be for both making Koji and for adding to the mash.

No matter how I describe it, I will not be able to convey how much precision is needed to get it right. One mistake, and that batch of rice is basically ruined. To add a bit of pressure, on that first day we just happened to be using Yamada-Nishiki, which has a reputation as being the best rice in the business. However, I have been responsible for doing this task everyday since I started and I must admit, I now look forward to it. Working flat out without any slip ups, for sometimes up to ninety minutes without stopping, comes with it enormous satisfaction. It also certainly works the back muscles and helps you forgot about the cold.

4:00 PM

At this point in the day, the Kura had become pretty quite. There seemed to be an almost unspoken but universal agreement that the really difficult work was done for the day, and now was the time to ease into the close. With the Toji busy tending to the precious Koji and checking temperature levels on the tanks, the rest of us handled the job of packing and fixing labels onto bottles. It was probably just as well as my body was now starting to feel pretty tired and my concentration levels had dropped.

When I think back to the morning, it seemed a really long ago time ago, yet it also didn’t feel like the day had dragged on one bit. If I could try and explain it in the simplest term, it was like four sprints, rather than constantly rushing around. However, the variety of the jobs we had done made it seem all the more interesting. When 5:00 PM finally approached, in true Japanese style, everyone pitched in to get the place secured for the night and said their Otsukaresamas before vanishing for the day.

5:00 PM       

While cycling home for the return leg of my commute, my legs definitely felt heavier than they had in the morning. With the sun setting and the temperature dropping further, my only real thoughts were on having a hot meal and a warm bath. As I had been warned, the job was physically tough, and as I had thought, the language barrier was vast. However, the satisfaction of being involved in the making of something that I find so interesting more than made up for the fatigue and occasional frustration I had felt throughout the day. Furthermore, as I thought ahead to the challenges of the remaining weeks until the brewing season finishes, I didn’t fear them. Instead, in what was certainly a rare occasion in my working life, I actually felt a little excited about returning to work for the next day. Perhaps I will finally become one of the those people genuinely happy in their work…

Is Dassai becoming a bit Dasai?

 

Picture taken from www.asahishuzo.ne.jp

When people ask me about how I developed an interest in Sake I usually recall the time of my year abroad in Okayama when I attended a local Sake Festival. It is true that at this event I tried Sake so good that it finally knocked wine off the top spot as my drink of choice. However, in truth, the origins of my interest goes back much further to a very exclusive private tasting I somehow got invited to at the Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh’s private residence. At this event I tried several top quality Nihonshu that had all been picked from his private cellar. However, one stood out from the rest of them and was certainly the most talked about during the evening. That special Sake was of course Dassai 23 from Asahi Shuzo in Yamaguchi.

At the time of the event, Dassai (獺祭) was only just beginning to attract some of the hype and praise that would later be heaped on it from what felt like every wine author or general publication on Japanese culture. The common pattern for these articles would usually involve someone waxing-lyrical about how it had the lowest percentage of rice polishing (Seimaibuai, 精米歩合) of any commercially available Sake. People would talk about how “wine like” it was, and because of the high polishing percentage, so much better than regular sake. I must admit, when I tried it for the first time, I was blown away. Up until that point, I had never tried a Daiginjō grade Nihonshu before and therefore had nothing to gauge it against. To compound things, we were all given a brochure about the producer to take home which described the painstaking process that was involved in making such a premium Sake. I immediately became fixated with it and began reading as much information about Asahi Shuzo as I could find. For months, I wouldn’t shut up about the amazing, exclusive Sake I had tried, and would tell anyone that would listen that it was going to become really popular outside of Japan.

Fast forward to today, and I have reached the stage whereby I completely omit this chapter of my Sake journey for fear of being ostracised for even mentioning the name Dassai when I am chatting with any fellow Sake enthusiasts I happen to meet. In fact, on one occasion during my year abroad I befriended a Nihonshu exporter that openly laughed when I said that Dassai was one of the best Sake I had tried. He went on to explain that he and his friends often talked about how overpriced, overhyped, and even bland they all thought it was in comparison to other much cheaper varieties they knew. At that point I quickly realised two things. I really hadn’t tried enough of the good stuff yet, and that Dassai was no longer the coolest Sake in town.

Before I give my opinion on why I think Dassai has fallen from grace in the cool-books, I first just want to say that I absolutely respect what the company has achieved. Like it or not, Dassai is in truth still the main representative of Sake outside of Japan, and is more than likely responsible for attracting the attention of many a wine drinker to the delights of Nihonshu. I also love the back-story to how the brewery was saved from the brink of bankruptcy by ditching the old mentality of selling local and producing cheap lower quality Nihonshu, to one that only produces Junmai Daiginjō from Yamada Nishiki rice. I have always seen parallels in the company’s transformation with that of the stricken Bruichladdich whisky distillery that underwent a similar resurrection in 2000, going from bankruptcy to one of the coolest most progressive whisky brands in less than a decade. Company owner Sakurai Hiroshi seemed determined to tear up the rule book on Sake making and really shake up the industry. If anything, what Asahi Shuzo achieved with the Dassai line was for the first time to make a Sake that was considered trendy overseas, which no doubt has done the volume of exports no harm whatsoever.

However, on a recent trip to Tajima in Northern Hyogo I stumbled upon a special display of Dassai in the local supermarket which got me thinking. I remember when I first researched the brand after that first tasting back in Scotland and being secretly impressed by the slight arrogance of the message proudly displayed on the company’s home page, which reads “We brew Sake for sipping, not for drinking, nor for selling”. At that time I could not find anyone UK based that was selling it, and it really had the lure of being something truly exclusive. Now I was staring at it in a supermarket next to multipacks of beer. In the UK, it is now readily available from places like the Japan Centre and of course AMAZON. I even read somewhere that they are going to introduce it for sale on the Bullet Train shopping carts soon.

I have no problem with premium Nihonshu being readily available, and I am anything but a Sake snob that only drinks what’s not easily accessible. However, my problem comes from the fact that Asahi Shuzo seems to be playing both sides of game and is portraying Dassai as this premium, ultra niche brand while at the same time flogging it everywhere it can. I will admit that part of my early allure to the brand was how difficult it was to get. Back then it was being widely used in what was latter dubbed “Sake Diplomacy” by being handed out to world leaders and the like as gifts from Japan’s government. This exclusivity was one of the main reasons for its absolutely extortionate price tag. That and the fact that it had the highest rice polishing percentage, which as we know takes time and money to achieve. However, what I was staring at was Dassai 39, one of three in the standard line up, the other being Dassai 50. And yet, the price was still over 5000 yen (around £35). The original focus of all the hype, the 23, costs around twice as much as that still.

Now that I have been fortunate to try lots and lots of exquisite Nihonshu in many different varieties, I have come to realise why my friend reacted the way he did when I told him it was my favourite. Nihonshu costing a third of that price can easily be found throughout Japan that more than matches or exceeds those of Asahi Shuzo. As I said before, Dassai is a fantastic Nihonshu. However in my opinion, the price they are charging has demoted it to something that I now wonder why anyone would ever bother to pay the extortionate prices tag. For example, at the time of writing this article a bottle of 23 is listed on AMAZON for £68 next to an ignorant comment about how ALL good Nihonshu should be served chilled. I realise that the rice milling is costly, and that Sake is always more expensive overseas, but nobody will ever convince me that it should command the same price as a good Single Malt Whisky, or be more expensive that a decent Champagne.

No, what we have now is a company that is solely relying on its brands image to charge exuberant prices for its products. Nothing new nowadays, but it’s not something that gets my money when it comes to enjoying alcohol. In my opinion, Dassai has gone from a cool, sophisticated Ji-zake like product fit for the new age, to something resembling an overpriced, overproduced big brand product. Despite still insisting on its website that the company has no ambitions to mass-produce Dassai ,it seems evident it is eying further volume increases in the future and recently began operations at its large, frankly hideous looking new brewery. Judging by the scale of the new building in comparison to when Sakurai completely changed the direction of the brewery, it seems that the business is going from strength to strength.

However, I can’t help but think that the more it moves away from what made the brand so special in the first place, the more it loses its cool image. Perhaps even becoming un-cool (dasai,ダサい). When smaller, more traditional companies also start finding success overseas, which they will, what will happen to sales of this ultra premium priced, yet readily available brand? My guess is that eventually consumers will simply see beyond the big brand image and progress to more accessible, reasonably priced varieties. I hope at that time Dassai will have a re-think about how they price their products. Maybe then I will again be able to go full circle and revisit the drink that put me on my path to discovering Nihonshu.

Tedorigawa: The Birth of Sake

image-3image-1-copyimage-2-copy

Nihonshu abroad doesn’t really get much mainstream publicity. You might hear it fleetingly mentioned in a travel show or something, as it recently was during Joanna Lumley’s fantastic BBC travel documentary across Japan. I have often wondered how amazing the shows would be if Sake was more popular in the mainstream and given the limelight it deserves. Imagine something along the lines of Oz Clark and James May’s Sake Adventures. Unfortunately though, Sake simply doesn’t have the fan-base yet for it to be the main attraction in a series such as that. However, in 2015 I heard about a documentary being made called The Birth of Sake which would shadow the men of a Kura in Northern Japan throughout the harsh winter brewing season. After repeatedly watching the trailer before its release I got a sense that this was going to be a high quality production that would more than likely attract the attention of a wider audience than just existing Sake fans. I hoped that it would really showcase the hard-work and craftsmanship that goes into making Sake, perhaps even over-glamorise it a little, and therefore act as a starting point for many others to take an interest in this often misunderstood beverage. Now that I have watched it (several times) I’m delighted to say my hopes and predictions have been met.

In brief, The Birth of Sake is a beautifully filmed documentary that gets up close and personal with the brewery workers (Kurabito, 蔵人) of Yoshida Shuzo in Ishikawa Prefecture, makers of the Tedorigawa brand of Nihonshu. The Kura is notable for the fact that it is one of the few remaining that still follows the traditional system whereby workers live on site away from friends and family for the entire duration of the brewing season. However, this blog is not a review of the documentary, so all I will say is that whether or not you have an interest in Nihonshu, give it a watch. I doubt you will be disappointed, and just maybe you will catch the Sake bug as I have? Instead, what I will discuss in this blog is, in my own opinion of course, the vital role that a company such as Tedorigawa plays in securing the future of Nihonshu both abroad and domestically.

It is no secret that in recent years the industry has faced a pretty serious generational problem in as much as the key figures in the industry, such as the master brewers (Tōji, 杜氏), were aging rapidly, often without successors coming up through the ranks from within the younger generation. A company can have the best product in the world. However, it means nothing if there is nobody to continue to make it. As I was informed during my visit, in the case of Yoshida Shuzo, the Tōji there is fast approaching his seventies. Fortunately for Tedorigawa they have such a successor waiting in the wings.

If before reading this you have watched the documentary, you will no doubt know that the brewery owner’s son, dare I say the star of the documentary, is ready to take over the day that the Tōji decides he has finally made his last batch. At the time of filming, 6th generation heir Yoshida Yasuyuki, was only 27 years old. However, having been literally raised in the Kura, it is evident that he is already very experienced and is said to have decided early on that what he wanted to do was make Sake, rather than just fulfil the role of company president. I was lucky that for my visit, Yasuyuki-san was on hand to give me a personal tour of the kura along with a brilliantly paced explanation of the Sake making process. Being completely honest, if I try and imagine myself in his position, with some Sake geek turning up during the peak of brewing season, taking pictures and asking lots of silly questions in broken Japanese, I would probably not have been half as patient and accommodating as he was. However, this is just one of the reasons why I believe the future of the industry relies on people like him.

As industry legends such as John Gauntner and Philip Harper have both eluded to in the past, Nihonshu has previously suffered from an image as being a bit of an old man’s drink. Some industry commentators have also highlighted Japan’s ageing population as being potentially a serious problem in the future when that particular generation is no longer with us. However, looking at recent developments within segments of the industry, Sake now is anything but suffering from a image problem. In fact, these same people now talk of how cool it has become. I believe that at the heart of this are people like Yasayuki-san, who represent a new generation of brewers who can inject fresh ideas into the industry and better embrace modern media channels. For example, I couldn’t help but notice that on more than one occasion during my visit he referenced wine making when talking about the brewing process of Nihonshu. His appreciation and knowledge of wine is also evident during the documentary, not to mention on his personal Facebook timeline. At the time I wrote my dissertation, I was convinced that the more the Nihonshu industry latches on to the wine industry, the more popular it will become abroad. Perhaps since then, I have become a bit more optimistic about Nihonshu, and now feel that it can make its own stamp on foreign markets without having to piggyback on another industry. However, it’s great to see first-hand part of the new generation looking where perhaps those before them didn’t.

The lasting impression of my visit to Tedorigawa is that it seems to have achieved a healthy balance between modernity and tradition. The current Tōji has over 55 years of brewing experience to share with Yasuyuki-san. However, nearly everyone with an interest in the industry agrees that the future of these companies now relies on the younger generation to graciously and appreciatively take the reins in the very near future. Having now tasted Tedorigawa, I am happy to report that it is certainly a fantastic Sake that they are toiling to make each year. However, I will be as bold as to say that adding a face to the business, a front-man if you will, could equally be as important for the future, of not just Yoshida Shuzo, but of the industry as a whole.

Nihonshu is still just dipping its toes into the water of the global drinks market. It seems that nowadays, alcoholic drinks near to be more than enjoyable to drink. They also need to have a narrative or lifestyle to accompany them. Therefore, Yasuyuki-san and his fellow next generation brewers could serve to personalise their respective company’s products and make them stand out abroad. Philip Harper once said that he hopes that if Sake takes off overseas, it will have “a boomerang effect” domestically.  I would say that the fantastic back-story provided in The Birth of Sake will only help Sake find a wider audience overseas and help it on its way to doing so.

The Basics: A brief guide to Sake (WK1)

geisha-osaka-paradedotenbori

When most people think of Japan, they are likely to conjure up images of futuristic Tokyo set in a juxtaposition with the traditional temples and beautiful Geisha of Kyoto. However, it is also likely that many will think of Japan’s national drink, Sake. Unfortunately for the vast majority of people that have only tried it outside of Japan, the image they hold is probably that of a cheap, nasty hangover inducing beverage, more akin to a high in alcohol spirit that should be drunk quickly rather than savoured. Furthermore, it is highly likely that it was served to them hot, rather than from a number of possible temperatures that is one of the hallmarks of this surprisingly versatile drink. Indeed, Sake is perhaps one of the most well known by name, yet misunderstood, alcoholic drinks in the world. Therefore, hopefully this short article will act as a very, very rough guide on how to better appreciate and enjoy this fabulous under-appreciated piece of Japanese culture.
Let’s start with the name. In Japanese, Sake, pronounced Saa-keeh, is actually the word used to refer to alcohol in general. The specific name used in Japan is Nihonshu (日本酒), which ironically simply translates as Japanese sake! The very general name probably stems from the fact that Sake has been around in Japan for some 1700 years, and was at one point the only drink of choice before beer and wine found their ways to the shores of Japan. However, overseas it has come to take the name Sake and, even in Japan, if a foreigner was to ask for it in that way they would more than likely be served with Nihonshu. As slow as it has been to catch on overseas, I think the last thing that it needs is for industry insiders to be pushing for it to be referred to by its proper name. Therefore, it would seem destined to be referred to as Sake for the foreseeable future. I for one am absolutely fine with that.
Like the name, the ingredients are very simple. It is made from the four ingredients of rice, water, yeast and a mould known as Koji. No other grains or sugars are used. However, despite it often being referred to as “Rice Wine”, it actually shares much more in common with beer in that it is brewed rather than a simple fermentation. That and the fact it is of course made from a grain rather than a fruit. However, the brewing process is unique and will definitely feature more in future blogs. What is interesting though is that it is actually the strongest naturally fermented beverage in the world, and typically finishes at around 19-20% ABV before then being watered down to a more mellow level of around 15-16%. Whisky and the like rely on the process of distillation to take them up to the mid to high 40% mark. Therefore, it can be said that Nihonshu is truly unique in how it is made.
As for taste, Nihonshu has as wide a spectrum of possible flavours as any other alcoholic beverage I can think of. Indeed, in my personal opinion, the growth of Sake overseas will specifically rely on the growing comparisons that are being made with that of fine wines. “But good wine is never served hot??” I hear you ask. Yes, this tendency is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Sake abroad. Furthermore, it is this aspect in particular that makes it difficult for a huge fan of the drink such as myself to hear people regale their stories of how they drank really warm Sake at their local Japanese restaurant once, and then more than likely finish with some comment about how it was “bloody strong” or “Jeez, that had a kick”.  Very rarely do they say, “Wow, that tasted complex” or “It was surprisingly fruity”.

I am not suggesting everything heated is rubbish, cheap plonk. However, in very general terms, cheap poor quality Sake heated up will mask some of the bad tastes, and generally turn a very below-par beverage into a passable one. But definitely not a great one! I am also not suggesting that all Nihonshu served at restaurants outside of Japan is poor quality. However, speaking from experience in the UK, up until very recently, and really even now if you exclude expensive Japanese London eateries, the level of Nihonshu being served is extremely poor in comparison to the average wine list on offer in say, your average French or Italian restaurant.

daimaru-pic

 

The story is much the same at all but the most specialist of shops within the UK. Up until recently, the only Sake readily available has been that of the cheap, mass produced variety. Hence the reason most people’s only experience with it, at a restaurant or at home, has been a bad one. In fact, just recently on returning from a trip in Japan, I attempted to convince my sister to try some premium Nihonshu that I had brought home. Her immediate response was that she wouldn’t go near the stuff after the last time she had tried it. I suddenly remembered that years previously I had picked her up a bottle of cheap nasty stuff from my local Tesco as a gift.  At that time I did not know any different myself, but it was basically cooking Sake. Needless to say she was shocked when I finally let her try one that had been made with the care and passion that goes into making those widely available in Japan.
Contrary to what she was expecting, premium, or put simply, more expensive Sake often displays a very fruity taste. It is also often delicate rather than the sturdy, mostly bland, examples that are commonly found in one, maybe two, varieties in your local supermarket. Heating the vast majority of premium Sake is akin to putting a really nice full-bodied red wine in the fridge before serving. You just wouldn’t do it. I want to stress early though, this does not mean that all heated Sake is bad. If it is served in that way then it shouldn’t automatically be assumed that it was to hide the any bad flavours. Indeed, respected experts on the subject like John Gauntner vehemently dismiss the notion that all heated Sake is bad. However, the important thing to understand for now is that heated cheap Sake does not represent all Sake.
In future blogs I intend to delve deeper into the complex world of heating and chilling Sake. However for now, it is just good to know that there is an abundance of different flavours, varieties and styles out there. Thankfully, the market is slowly changing. Fantastic stores are popping up in the UK, like that of Tengu Sake for example, who import exceptionally good Nihonshu to these shores, not simply to satisfy the economic feasibility of a big chain supermarket, but for the quality of the product. Hopefully, through the hard work of the individuals behind these companies, the true talent and dedication of the producers of this fabulous drink will be better appreciated outside of Japan. Lastly, it is always important to point out that taste is of course subjective. What is good for one person, might not be good for another. As is the case with, for example wine, it’s just good to know that there is an abundance of choice out there waiting to be explored. Hopefully, Origin Sake can in some way help you in your own quest to uncover these in the coming future.

COMING UP NEXT WEEK

Following up on my first blog which touched upon the various different types of Nihonshu that exist, I will focus on providing a basic guide to the different classification that separate Nihonshu, and what they mean. This is not essential for enjoying Sake, but as the blog will hopefully reveal, it is nonetheless important in order to better appreciating the complexities of its different flavours.

My Graduation Dissertation on Sake, warts and all…

This was written in 2015 for my final year dissertation. It represents my first serious attempt at writing about Nihonshu. I am sure that the serious industry insiders will scoff at some of the inaccuracies or mistakes I have surely made. However, for me it will always be the result of around three months solid hard work, and the task that gave me the desire to continue writing and learning about this fascinating drink.

my-dissertation-on-nihonshu-2015

Direct from the Origin

Origin Sake is a blog dedicated to everything relating to the wonderful Japanese drink that is Sake.  Over the coming months and years, I will be peeking through the front door of the Sake industry in order to provide everything from reviews, recommendations, and general knowledge regarding this well known, but often misunderstood, piece of Japanese culture.  As regularly as possible, this blog will discuss such aspects as production methods, provide insight into the various breweries (Kura) currently making Sake, and introduce some of the wonderful places where one can enjoy and appreciate Japan’s national drink.  As I am myself both a brewer of Nihonshu and resident of Japan I am lucky enough to be able to visit some of the Kura, speak directly to the people responsible for making and promoting Sake, and visit the best eateries and drinking spots that are in abundance throughout Japan.  Therefore, this blog is for anyone with an interest in learning about Sake, directly from the Origin.