What does the date on a Sake label tell us?

“Tell me Sebastien, when was that Sake made?” I often get the question under one form or another. Most consumers will agree that many Sake names can be hard to decipher on traditional labels, especially if the “designer” used handwritten, poetic, unusual Chinese characters. The date on the label should be easy to read though! Well, as counterintuitive as it may seem, the numerals themselves and what they refer to can be hard to “interpret” or even “misleading” for non-specialists. Sakagura (Sake breweries) have to make an extra effort to provide detailed information to their retailers and clients, and it is not always simple or straightforward in a world where many continue to glue paper labels by hand on small series across many references. I definitely see some openings for modern information technology, from QR code stickers to blockchain. 

When was it brewed?

Like everything Sake, the rules for labels are set by the National Tax Administration. The mention of a “date” on the label is mandatory for Sake sold on the domestic market, and it makes such sake “taxable”. It is not mandatory to put a date on Sake aimed at export though, confirming that customer information was not NTA’s primary purpose.

The date field I am referring to reads  製造年月  (“Seizounengetsu”), i.e. “production” date (製造 Seizou is a word for production and 年月 means year & month) . The so-called production date, however, can be close to the date when the Sake mash was pressed or, as it is more often the case, close to the date when the Sake was shipped out of the Kura … an event that may take place months or even years after the Sake mash was pressed. In between, the Sake will have matured in tanks … or in bottles. Such bottles may sit in the Kura without a label on them until the last moment (so as not to attract taxation), or be labeled at some point, with a date put on them, and sit there for a few more months. Hard to read …

For matured Sake – or conversely for very fresh sake- Kuramoto (brewery owners) may often give additional information to their retailers and clients, creating additional fields on the label (sometimes a date is stamped by hand), or additional stickers on the bottle.

醸造年月 (“JouzouNenGestu”) refers to brewing month (it is not a legal mention). Sometimes a “vintage” such as “2018” is indicated for the Sake (not a legal mention either)… and/or for the rice!  In other cases, a shipping date may be clearly mentioned (蔵出年月 for example), a useful element of information for the consumer of aged sake: was it aged in the Kura’s cellars until recently, or did it sit in the shop for a long period of time?    

Not only is the “mandatory” date field ambiguous, the numerals can be hard to interpret for foreign readers. In fact, brewers may use different date formats: October 2018 may be written “2018-10” “18/10” (or a permutation of the numbers) as per the Gregorian calendar, or “H30/10” “30/10” or a permutation in the Japanese calendar following imperial eras (“H” stands for Heisei). Does “3/10” mean March 2010, or October 2021 (2021 is Year 3 of the Reiwa era)? It is not always easy to know, although experience and knowledge of the Kura will help dramatically. Another useful bit of information deals with vintage. “BY” in a date refers to “Brewing Year”, a period which by tradition starts July 1st of each year and runs until 30. June the following one. BY2018 will refer to the period between 1/7/2018 and 30/6/2019 … but it will often be written as “BY30”, referring to the Japanese calendar (for Brewing Year Heisei 30).

Enjoy your exploration of the idiosyncrasies of Japanese Sake!      

Disheartening Sake Stats … and the silver linings

Disheartening Sake Stats … and the silver linings

The National tax Administration (“NTA”) released shipment statistics for alcoholic beverages for 2019 across categories. Numbers continue to look disheartening for Japanese sake lovers. Over one generation (25 years), sake’s share declined from 13% to 5.3%. Meanwhile, beer as a category dipped from 70% to 38%. Beer shipments declined 50% in volume despite the active introduction from the late 90s of “ersatz” or alternative products in the market, which attract or attracted lower taxation (Happoshu, “third beer”). 

Clearly the Japanese consumer is drinking less. Shipments were down 15% over the period, while population is the same (about 125 mio people). Of course, median age increased significantly, from about 39 to 48 years of age. Such aging consumer is now enjoying a much broader diversity of beverages. Noticeable is the emergence of the “liqueur” category, a mixed bag where Chuhai in particular finds its place. Chuhai, a (cheap) mix of spirit, soda water and flavorings, sold in cans, is bound to become the number one product in the near future. The liqueur category, at 29% of shipments, is now ahead of the “standard” beer category. Other rising categories include distilled spirits, and wine. Meanwhile, Shochu, the traditional Japanese distilled spirit (a different category for the NTA), has remained overall stable. Volume is roughly equally split between “premium” Honkaku Shochu (single distillation in pot) and column distilled industrial Shochu. Whiskey has been rising, and brandy declining. Together they make about 2% of the market today.

From 1.7 mio liters (ML) in 1973, sake shipments dropped to 1.3 ML in 1995 and 467kL in 2019. According to JSS (the Sake and Shochu Makers Association), the 2020 number is even significantly lower: 419kL (a 75% drop in 40 years). “Tokuteimeishoshu” or “premium” sake (about 33% of the sake market in volume) is often consumed in restaurants, and this category was hit the hardest by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, there are far ranging consequences:

  • Breweries have seen their financial position deteriorate significantly. A handful of them confirmed shut-down in 2020 and in 2021 again (there are about 1,100 companies still actively brewing). The launching of a few new projects constitutes a ray of hope though. 
  • The impact on agriculture and rice farmers is very significant: the MAAF (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) reported a significant market surplus in “Shuzoukotekimai” (designated rice cultivated for sake brewing) in 2020 despite (or on top of) a 13% drop in the crop. This 13,000 tons surplus is equivalent to 15% of the 2020 estimated crop, and the situation is expected to be far worse in 2021. 

Not all news are bad though.

A positive trend in my opinion started to materialize in 2010. In conjunction with the rise in overall “quality”, the average price of a sake bottle has been rising fast since 2010 (+17%), therefore the decline in sake sales expressed in value is more moderate than what shipment volume numbers are showing. If Japanese consumers drink less sake, we can hope they drink a more “qualitative“ one!

In addition, sake export numbers confirm their promising trend with a modest rise in total export value in 2020 over 2019, although COVID has impacted export volumes to most countries (-13% over one year). The export market represents close to 5% of total volumes in 2020.

According to the JSS, since 1995, sake exports have risen from Yen 2.9 bio (EUR 23.5 mio) to  Yen 24.1 bio in 2020 (EUR 198 mio), i.e. a rise of +740%. Over the last 20 years, since 2010, the rise is +183% in value, and +57% in volume. As a matter of fact, exports are driven by premium sake. 

China’s exports were multiplied by 16, pushing the country to the number 2 spot in value, while HK has become number 1. HK has become “the” hub for expensive Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo (sake brewed from premium rice milled down to less than 50% of its initial mass), followed by Singapore. Calculated average export prices are about Yen 3,300 and Yen 2,200 per 720 ml bottle respectively, significantly above all other large markets…and the Japanese average market price.

As the chart illustrates, the market has broadened, and Asia is a very clear leader. A sharp decline for Korea over the last 3 years is not a big surprise given the political tensions between the 2 countries. Korea traditionally imports “cheap” Japanese sake. The USA was more of a surprise with a significant drop between 2019 (when USA was still the number 1 export market) and 2020, in value (-25%) as well as in volume (-19%). We can however clearly see the impact of COVID on restaurant sales there and a sharp recovery can be expected if and when the pandemic recedes.

The Japanese Government, the JSS, individual producers have obviously taken note of the momentum exports are able to bring back to the Japanese sake industry…and all those who depend on it. Marketing expenditure has been rising. By nature though, it is spread across a number of micro or mini independent markets and we have to give some time to such investments.

Last but not least, sake culture is expanding overseas thanks to the initiatives of multiple local brewers. This phenomenon is not captured by NTA statistics. 

In summary, my beloved drink is not out of the wood yet, and it is likely that a number of producers will continue to suffer and others stop operations. However innovative brewers who are able to read foreign markets and/or choose the right partners may see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Gifu’s Parasols

Gifu’s Parasols

Developed by Oda Nobunaga in the 16th century at the foot of his fortress installed at the top of Mount Kinka, guardian of traditions such as river fishing (with cormorants in particular), attractive to walk-through in the historic part of town, Gifu was a crossroads for Japanese crafts and know-hows. 

Source NHK

In particular, the city dominated the production of umbrellas and parasols made of bamboo and Washi paper until the post-war years (15 million units per year!)… before production suddenly collapsed under the competition of Western-style umbrellas.  Japan, as is often the case, seized on the concept of this foreign umbrella and instilled its own dose of innovation. Nothing could be more practical (but also more harmful to the environment) than these almost “disposable” umbrellas made of transparent plastic and with white handles sold for a few euros in “Combini” (convenience stores). 

The traditional handicraft of Gifu has thus moved from the sun to the shade … while also suffering competition from poor quality products developed for “tourists”.

It takes about 100 steps to make a traditional Wagasa umbrella (literally “Japanese umbrella”). The processes involved are carried out by three highly specialised artisans (not including the production of the Washi paper sheets (an intangible world heritage), or the lacquering of the parts for certain models). Japanese television NHK recently profiled three of them. 

Source NHK

At 85 years of age, Nobuo Tsuji, like his ancestors over three generations, specialises in making the ribs from quality bamboo logs. After soaking sections of beautiful freshly cut bamboo in a pool for five days, he splits them meticulously until he obtains 48 almost identical and harmonious ribs from one log, each about 2 millimetres wide and thick.

Nearby, the taciturn Kazuo Nagaya (70 years old) is quite simply … the last craftsman in Japan who specialises in the production of an essential part measuring 3 cm in its diameter. This piece, called Rokuro, binds the ribs together, allowing the umbrella to be opened or closed by sliding it along the handle. In his oversized workshop (the 5 workers who used to work there left a long time ago, due to the crisis in the sector), he took over from his mother who managed the business temporarily after his artisan father died prematurely. The business has been surviving from orders for related products such as paper lantern frames as well. Being able to produce a quality Rokuro requires at least 10 years of training, so fine are the 48 teeth between which the ribs will be inserted, teeth which must be pierced with a fine, well-centred hole in order to tie the whole together. He uses a very resistant local wood called EgoNoKi (styrax japonica), whose sole supplier deceased 7 years ago. Since then, a group of volunteers has been looking for sustainable supply proposition … Moreover, Mr Nagaya ended up having to carve the very fine gouge needed to drill the holes in the Rokuro himself, as no industrial product that would have succeeded the work of a specialised craftsman can rival its performance. We can only wish good health and a long life to Mr. Nagaya … but also that he soon inspires younger people with a vocation.

Vocation is what changed the life of Miki Tanaka (40 years old). After studying Spanish, she set out on a career in tourism, but fell under the spell of Washi paper and Gifu parasols to the point of wanting to make it her profession. The daughter of a civil servant, who was not happy about such craze, she was not able to claim family heritage in craftsmanship thus needed all her determination to find a master, then had to go through the training process of an apprentice “the old hard way”. Now married and a mother, she radiates from doing what she loves, and she inspires when she explains the joy of contributing to the creation of an object that captures a bit of the soul of each of the hands it passes through, an object that no such hand could build on its own. Metaphorically as well as visually, opening such an umbrella is like allowing a flower hidden in a bamboo to bloom … Despite the power of social networks to let shine pearls that had remained in the shadows of their shells, I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency for the preservation of all these traditional, highly specialised skills dedicated to this magnificent object. One may well think that its market should be wider than that of random visitors to Gifu or the Hanamachi, i.e. Maiko and Geisha’s districts that use such traditional umbrellas, or the Kabuki theatre.  If Wagasa may be lacking a bit in terms of pure functionality in its current design as an umbrella, it already shares many common points with objects taken over and re-developed by the luxury industry, such as aesthetics, rarity, noble materials, exclusivity… Does the Wagasa have a future with the new generations? This is what the association Organ All wants to believe. It opened a beautiful Gifu’sHandcraftArtisanHouseCASA shop managed by a communication specialist, Ms. Ikumi Kawaguchi. 

Miho Imada, a Lady in Sake

Miho Imada, a Lady in Sake

Did Minister Seiko Hashimoto, in charge of “Women’s Empowerment” inside Prime Minister Suga’s cabinet pick it up ?

Miho Imada made it to the list. She was nominated one of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world by the BBC. Congratulations!

Modest as always, Ms. Imada says she does not really know why she received such a tribute, that the screening in Europe of the “Kampai! For the love of sake” documentary film may have helped to make her visible. The truth is that she definitely deserves to shine on BBC’s radar screen, for what she achieved, for her company, for the sake brewing sector, for her larger community.

Yes, Miho Imada is the proud heiress, owner and CEO of a 150+ years old sake brewery (a status referred to as “Kuramoto” in Japanese), as well as the person directly in charge of sake brewing (a function named “Toji”). Traditionally, these 2 roles were held by different individuals, both male. The Kuramoto owns the brewery, its equipment, buys rice and fungi required to brew sake, hires workers (the Kurabito), sells the sake. The Toji is a certified technician and/or artisan, who understands fermentation and how to control it, so as to produce the sake type that the Kuramoto is looking for. He is often a rice farmer in summertime. At least all that was the model until the crisis hit the sake brewing sector. Sake production peaked in the early seventies. Since then, it was divided by three, sake has become a marginal drink (except for the culture!) and the number of breweries dwindled to about 1,200 still active today. It has become more and more difficult for many houses to survive, for the Kuramoto to find a successor, as well as to hire Kurabito. The job had become much less glamourous. While in the past, in absence of a male heir, a Kuramoto would often transmit his business to a daughter’s husband or adopt a son in the family, necessity and changes in the society have led to the rise of a few female Kuramoto, ladies taking charge of the family business. They remain a very small minority in the sake brewing sector, however it is even less frequent to see a female Toji! There are a couple of factors behind this phenomenon, specific to this industry.

Inside Imada Shuzou

Firstly, I need to explain there was a taboo: in the past, women were not allowed into the Kura, to enter the room(s) were sake was brewed, for spiritual reasons (there are still a few “sacred” places off-limits for women in Japan, this would require another development…). Fans of Japanese history or those who do business with Japan will know that rules, traditions and status quo can be really hard to bend or change there … until pressure from the outside world becomes necessity and leads relevant moral or political authorities to lift the barrier without looking back. In the world of sake brewing, the barrier was fully lifted as crisis was looming for the industry more than 30 years ago.

Moreover though, sake brewing is a very demanding job, physically. It involves carrying heavy loads in both very cold and very hot and humid environments. In addition, during the brewing season (6 months!), brewery workers used to be on duty every day, living on premises, working from before dawn to after dusk and into the night. This was not seen compatible with the body strength and resistance of a woman, as well as her role in society, all the more if she was a wife and a mother. Happily, over the last few decades, modern equipment and technology have simplified the life of a Kurabito, and made their working schedule marginally more flexible.

The brewery’s building, and Senzaburo Miura’s house on top of the hill

Imada Shuzou (Imada Brewery) is located in a small town called Akitsu in Hiroshima Prefecture. Like many small cities away from today’s employment basins, Akitsu has been on a course of steep decline. The city played a very important role in Sake History in late 19th century. Imada Brewery’s buildings are at the foot of a hill where the former house of Senzaburo Miura can still be seen. Senzaburo Miura is the man who developed the processes to brew Ginjo sake (in short, fragrant, modern sake) which made sake from this region extremely famous in the beginning of the 20th century. Akitsu is the city where the Hiroshima Toji guild formed, and still has its head-office.

Ms. Imada says that as a kid she used to play in her family’s brewery, and that she did not feel any particular ostracism toward girls. She then worked in a different economic sector for a while before coming back to her father’s struggling company in 1994. She soon started to brew sake as an apprentice. It seems that things were not easy for a few years, while the former Toji was still in charge, however divergence on brewing strategy and the type of sake to be produced in a market spiraling down probably was the key point of disagreement. Her father protected her until Toji Yasuhiro retired about 20 years ago.

Imada san and Hattanso, 2020 crop

In 20 years, Ms. Imada succeeded in making her sake (named Fukucho, a wish for “Forever Fortune”, the original brand name she revived in 1998) one of the sought after sake brands, not only locally, but in the Tokyo market and internationally as well. Imada Shuzou exports about 20% of her production, far above national average. About 20 years ago, starting with just a few seeds, she revived Hattanso, a local sake rice strain that had played an important role in the history of sake rice cross breeding. Hattanso cultivation had however at some point been discontinued, because it is quite difficult to grow for farmers. Today she has a few farmers on contract to produce this tall, quite beautiful and generous grass, for her brewery, in the rice belt north of Akitsu.
This year, to celebrate her 20 years as person in charge, Ms. Imada released a new product called Legacy, where she uses sake brewed by her predecessor as one of the ingredients (“Kijoshu” sake type where part of the brewing water is replaced with sake), creating an even stronger link with the brewery’s tradition (photos below sourced from the brewery’s social media). I visited the brewery a couple of days before the news was officially released, and I can only testify to all the positive energy that was beaming as the brewing season was just starting. I can only hope, and do trust that the old buildings are actually radiating this energy back, into Akitsu city and the local community.

Ms. Imada, like a few other ladies in a similar position, is a symbol of a revolution in the world of sake. As a now growing community of Kurabito, as consumers, educators, bartenders or chefs, ladies are directly bringing innovation into the word of sake. They bring some fun as well and they impact their communities. Ms. Imada only received well deserved recognition for her achievements. She is a symbol of two of the most emblematic values in Japan, the Way of Craftsmanship and tradition.

Imada san, congratulations again! May you inspire the brewing community and the whole of Japan about what the better half of humanity can bring to business and culture!

To BBC she wrote: “If you can find a job worthy of your life’s devotion, immerse yourself in it. If you treat your chosen profession with respect and sincerity, you will be on your way to achieving your goals.”

World Peace through Fermentation

World Peace through Fermentation

She has been cultivating her passion for cheese since childhood.

Chiyo SHIBATA had the opportunity to spend a few summers in France. Her father, mechanical engineer in charge of the maintenance of Air France planes landing at Narita Airport, had been saving his holidays (and salaries) to take the whole family to Paris for a few weeks as often as possible. They would typically rent out the apartment of a family going back to Maghreb or Southern Europe for summer, and live the life of Parisians, buying produce from the city’s markets. That is where Chiyo met good cheese  🙂

5032923d-10fd-4d03-b74b-90fb82f017d1

Chiyo graduated from university as a micro-biologist and trained at a couple of French artisan cheesemakers for a year before starting her career at the Chiba prefectural microbiology research laboratory. This activity left her a little bit of time to prepare for her life project. A few years ago, when I first met Chiyo, she had just started renting an old, beautiful former Bushi (warrior) home, with a barn, not too far from the city of Otaki and its castle (Chiba Prefecture). It is conveniently located next to a farm raising cattle for milk as well. In the barn she had built a clean modern lab paneled with wood and constructed a bar space to welcome clients once a month, for cheese & wine pairing experiences. The next steps were about transforming the house into a Minshuku (guest house) and convincing the farmer to buy Jersey cows for a “better” milk. It seems these will not be needed in the near future…

41682181_1233294443475216_3975394722423242752_o
source Koshida Shouten

She then told me for the first time the story of Koshida Shouten, a producer of Himono (dried fish, mackerel fillets in their case) from nearby Ibaragi Prefecture. The Tsukiji market had temporarily stopped distributing their products, which had no preservatives or additives, and were not pasteurized. Such a natural process was considered a threat to consumers’ health. Given the importance of the Tokyo market as a commercial route, the company had called the Chiba prefectural micro-biology lab for help. They were determined enough to wait for their judgement and resist the pressure of killing one more tradition. Chiyo analysed the finished products as well as the “brine” into which the fish fillets are plunged for a while before being dried. Such brine tubs are replenished with water when required but have not been emptied and replaced for more than 45 years. Not only did Chiyo’s studies show that the product was harmless, but the analysis revealed an amazingly rich environment, a great diversity of micro-organisms in the marinade, some originating from the sea, others from the woods, the grasslands, the mountains. Chiyo incidentally identified a few yeast that were appropriate for cheese making.

picture: Takesumi (cow milk cheese matured with a bamboo ash coating), paired with “Grazie a Dio”; I chose to open this Italian language label as a tribute to Chiyo’s success in Bergamo (see below)

In parallel, Chiyo developed the application of a few Japanese traditions to her limited production, such as the coating of the freshly rolled cheese with bamboo or Makomo ash. Makomo is a wild rice specie native to Asia, whose stems rather than grains are consumable. More importantly from a cultural standpoint though, Makomo is the higher quality raw material used to produce the Shimenawa, these braided straw ropes used in the Shinto cult to symbolically protect a particular place against evil influences, and/or indicate its divine nature.

IMG_5617

Chiyo had achieved an important milestone, the ability to express her country and culture through a unique cheese type, based on domestic yeast cells (she still uses “French” ferments as well though) and a Japanese maturation process. Supported by very strong scientific knowledge, her processes improved to the point where her Ubusuna cheese earned a bronze medal at the 2019 World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, in competition with more than 3,800 other types.

73083364_2453386974897289_2818832902320553984_n

Chiyo resigned from the Prefectural lab and is now fully dedicated to her cheese production at Fromage―Sen. A short video (in Japanese) introduces her vision.

There is at least one battle to fight and win domestically: get the Japanese Government to accept the production of cheese from unpasteurized milk. Her enthusiasm and energy are highly contagious. Inspired and inspiring, she progresses toward her ultimate goal: contribute to world peace through mutual understanding between nations, and the sharing of the richness of their fermentation cultures.

Asa cheese lover myself, I hope she will be able to scale production up a bit so that I can put my hand on Ubusuna or Takesumi products more regularly…

 

Sakana series: okizuke firefly squid

Sakana series: okizuke firefly squid

“Sakana” (sake snacks) are food morsels, pairing particularly well with sake, in traditional Izakaya culture.

These two (Okizuke firefly squid and Onozakura nihonshu) would have had very little chance to meet in the past!

Okizuke firefly squids 沖漬けホタルいか are “drowned” in sake/millin and Shoyu (soy sauce) right after their capture in high seas. They don’t travel well, and present certain health hazards (decaying entrails and a parasite worm). Although freezers solved both issues, they remain quite rare on shelves (compared to the poached version). For a Youtube video about the process, you may click here.

Meanwhile, Onozakura 小野桜is a confidential sake brand from the Ura Kiso mountains, near Nakatsugawa Juku (Gifu Prefecture). The production is managed by Ohga san, a passionate energetic sake retailer located in Nakatsugawa, more precisely in the heart of this particularly well preserved historic town welcoming travelers on the Nakasendo.

An old section of Nakasendo, Yamauchi Shuzou, Ohga san’s sake shop

This 1300-year old way was one of the two critical roads connecting Kyoto and Edo. It cuts through the mountain range in Honshu’s heartland, while the other one, Tokkaido, is following the coastline. Without any prior brewing experience, Ohga san saved Yamauchi Shuzou from closing a few years ago, in absence of a successor for the brewery.

A “jizake” (literally, local sake), Onozakura would not have travelled far, and has been traditionally designed to be paired with local cuisine: gibier, fresh fish from local streams (or possibly preserved fish from distant shores), mountain vegetable (fresh with a nice spring bitterness in the season, or preserved for the long winter), and goheimochi (grilled rice cakes on sticks dipped in miso).

IMG_8961Nakao san grilling Goheimochi

This particular bottle was kindly aged 2 years by Miyata san from Kuetsu before it ended in my cellar. 2018 was my last visit to the brewery.

Pungent seafood is a bit of an acquired taste, across cultures. Fishiness is miraculously receding when the morsel is married with a robust sake though. The Okizuke firefly squid reveals an amazing texture with a slight bitterness, leaves you with the definite feeling of crunching a fresh shellfish morsel, and no strong aftertaste. It is hard to stop after eating the first one…

 

The Aramasa Way

The Aramasa Way

(a glossary is available at the end of the article for words followed by an asterisk)

His talented great-grand-father Uhee Sato brought the Tohoku region into the spotlight for the national sake brewing industry before World War Two. Today many eyes are back on the Aramasa sake brewery (Akita) and its current leader, Yusuke Sato.

When Uhee Sato struck, Western Japan had been dominating the sake market for many generations.

aramasa map

 

Since Edo times, Kansai (the region centered around the old capital of Kyoto) had been standing head and shoulders above their rivals (and actually still is…volume wise).
Miyamizu (“mizu” is water), the miracle water for sake brewing, had brought fame and success to brewers who had access to its underground flow in the 5 Nada villages and in particular in the area now called Nishinomiya (Hyogo Prefecture). The city of Edo (which became Tokyo in 1868) was buying Nada sake en masse, bringing wealth to the “Kudarizake” seaborne sake trade as well.
The National Research Institute of Brewing was established in 1904. As its current name is hinting, scientists were soon searching for the best sake yeasts across the country, to collect, cultivate and disseminate them widely. For their first selection, NRIB went no further than Sakura Masamune, the brewery owned by Tazaemon Yamamura’s heirs. He was the one who had demonstrated the virtues of pure but mineral Miyamizu around 1850. Kyokai Yeast Number One was collected in 1907.

Around the same time, Tsunekichi Okura , a visionary brewer inspired by science despite his lack of academic education, made Gekkeikan a formidable player based in Fushimi, Kyoto. He had introduced a number of innovations (year-round brewing, bottling without salicylic acid etc.). Kyokai Yeast Number 2 was collected at Gekkeikan.

Then Hiroshima stole the show for best Japanese sake. The region did not have much hard water, on the contrary, but it had Senzaburo Miura (who developed of a soft water sake brewing method), Riichi Satake (who built the first electrically powered rice milling machine), Kioshi Hashizume (dedicated brewing engineer), as well as innovative and cooperative sake brewers, such as the Kimura family at the helm of Kamotsuru Shuzo (Saijo, Hiroshima). In the early years of the National Competition for New Sake (from 1911), the Hiroshima region took the country by surprise and collected top prizes. Unsurprisingly, Kyokai Yeast Number 3, 4 and 5 were isolated and selected at Hiroshima breweries over 15 years from 1914.

Uhee Sato from Akita learnt his brewing skills at Osaka technical High School, together with another famous Hiroshima representative: Masataka Taketsuru. “Mas’san”, as he is known, would soon leave the world of sake brewing and his family business based in Takehara, to embark into the great adventure that sent him to Scotland first before he shaped Nikka Whisky. He graduated in 1916.

Back at the brewery, Uhee Sato researched how to improve the quality of Aramasa sake. The Aramasa name comes from the first two Kanji (Chinese characters) of Shinsei Kotoku (New politics with profound virtue), used to summarize the policies of the Meiji administration(*) to transform the Japanese society and economy from the 1868 Restauration. The brewery had been founded in 1852.
Convinced by Uhee Sato’s results, NRIB scientists chose Aramasa to collect Kyokai Yeast Number 6. It was identified in 1930.
Yeast Number 6 allows for a robust fermentation, produces comparatively muted aromatics, and a high acidity level. If only because Aramasa collected top prizes four years in a row before the war (including Number One spot for two years in a row), Kyokai Yeast Number 6 seems to have had a much broader diffusion than its predecessors … until Yeast Number 7 was identified in 1949 at Miyasaka Jozou in Suwa (Nagano (*), sake branded Masumi). In between, the war had hurt the industry dramatically.

IMG_4901

Yeast Number 6 did not disappear. However, when Yusuke Sato joined his father at the brewery in 2007, a few other yeasts were used customarily.

I must say I am most impressed by the vision Yusuke Sato developed for his brewery, and Nihonshu (Japanese sake) in general. In pursuit of tomorrow’s sake, step after step, year after year, Yusuke Sato revisited History and Tradition, re-interpreting them and comparing results with available data from the past, improving processes and sake quality, carving his own special niche in the History of contemporary sake. It was always striking to see, at the Akita Brewers’ diner these past 2 years in Tokyo, how fast the long queue was forming in front of his booth, to be able to taste his latest innovations. It almost looked disrespectful from the crowd toward other breweries, but I do not think this is the case. Participants are Akita sake lovers and there is a lot of excellent one. I have covered a few breweries such as Saiya Shuzoten (Yuki No Bosha) in this blog already. Aramasa however is making the buzz and contributes to building Akita sake’s reputation again.

The first thing that happened at Aramasa around the time Yusuke Sato came in, is a youthful boost. The average age of workers dropped significantly below 40.
My understanding of the progression from there follows:
– From 2009: Rice is sourced from Akita only
– From 2010: Yeast Number 6 becomes the only one used at the Kura
– From 2012: No more added alcohol, Junmai(*) sake only is brewed (with the exception of Kijoshu(*), which cannot be labelled Junmai for technical reasons)
– From 2013: No more express fermentation starter (Sokujo(*)) using commercial lactic acid
– From 2013: Kioke, i.e. wooden barrels, are introduced for the main fermentation (their number has been progressing steadily since, and the company anticipates to make their own Kioke from Akita wood resources in a couple of years’ time)
– From 2013: Rice is entirely bought from farmers under contract
– From 2014: All yeast starters are Kimoto(*) (more precisely natural yeast starter without any cultivated lactobacillus)
– 2016: Koseki san the Toji (Master brewer), who had no previous experience in agriculture, is sent to start a major project for Aramasa and Akita: the cultivation of organic rice for the brewery.

 

Visiting Aramasa last year was full of surprises and discoveries. The Aramasa style is not about doing things like they were done a hundred years ago. Everything has changed, the rice, the science, the equipment, the polishing ratios, the materials, and to give one example only, some of the Kimoto yeast starter is produced … in plastic bags!

Alongside this clean and clear path toward “terroir”, “natural fermentation” and “organic” soon, marketing innovations were progressively introduced through new labels:
– Design (a powerful “6” for example)
– No more mention of sake grades (I have often mentioned some of the limitations of the current classification system … )
– Company’s brewing philosophy for is stated on the label

6
(one early version of Aramasa juice’s new packaging)

It has been a real success with consumers, attracted not only by the story, but by this new sake taste as well. Sato san was a leader in introducing fruity sakes with a sweet attack on the palate soon balanced out by a high level of acidity for a lingering layered taste. My personal experience is that not everyone loves this type of sake, but foreign consumers in particular, and wine lovers, are often ranking it amongst their top few during the broad sake tasting experiences I am hosting. Many new labels are released every year, reflection of as many new experiences. Aramasa sake has become one of the hard sake brands to find in the marketplace. Thankfully, prices have not risen significantly (yet?). Quite a shy individual, Yusuke Sato is participating to events where he can promote his philosophy, but otherwise seems to be avoiding publicity.

Thank you for showing us this exciting new way for Nihonshu. Kanpai.

IMG_7892
Akita is known for its beautiful ladies (on my left) and the Namahage (on my right)

 

Glossary:
– Sakagura or Kura:   sake brewery
– Kyokai :   a shortname for Nihon Jozo Kyokai, former name of NRIB
– Nagano: prefecture located Northwest of Tokyo, but outside Tohoku
– Meiji administration: Emperor Meiji received all political powers from the Tokugawas (Shogun dynasty) in 1868; 1868 marks the end of the Edo Period
– Junmai : sake brewed from rice and water only, with the help of microorganisms and without any addition of sugar or other raw materials, including alcohol
– Kijoshu: sake brewed from sake: part of the water used in the main fermentation phase is replaced with sake
– Sokujo: yeast starter prepared with the help acidifying elements (lactic acid in general) which allows a fast process
– Kimoto: yeast starter prepared in accordance with a traditional slow method, developed in the Edo period, that allows multiple fermentations to take place in turn, including a lactic fermentation

 

CEL24 – smell with moderation

CEL24 – smell with moderation

07721A0D-6DC7-4A66-94E7-46F25CF84534

These glittery, delicate glass vessels from Kyoto were treasured by the generous friend who gifted them to us. They carry part of her family history. From them rise the uniquely intense aromas of this fresh unpasteurised Kameizumi sake, produced by rare CEL24 sake yeast (since 1998). The tiny vessels fit me well for this particular nihonshu, that I cannot quaff in wine glasses like so many others.

Eleven volunteers started Humoto Saketen in 1898, in quite remote Tosa (Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku island). The city bears the name of a feudal domain that played an important role in the tumultuous Japanese History. As a matter of fact, one of its low-ranking samurais, national hero Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867), had 30 years earlier achieved the unthinkable, uniting together the opponents to the undisputed Tokugawa rule for 250 years. He had made the return of political power in the hands of the Emperor possible. The so-called Meiji Restauration actually took place in 1868, one year after Sakamoto was assassinated.

Brewery buildings were built around a natural spring that had never dried since its discovery around 1635. Bannen No Izumi (“the 10,000 years spring”, in other words “eternal spring”) gave its name to the sake as Kameizumi, i.e. Turtle Spring (the turtle is a symbol of longevity in Asia of course).

I understand that the road has been quite bumpy for the brewery, which took its current name (Kameizumi Brewery) in 1965. Does that explain their desire to innovate, in particular with sake yeast?

Kameizumi almost exclusively uses yeast strains developed in Kochi Prefecture, and these are all truly uncommon outside Kochi. CEL24 ferments slowly, and reportedly generates a high quantity of malic acid and ethyl caproate. Ethyl caproate is associated with powerful fruity aromas (apples, strawberries are often used as example). Some of the flavours actually remind me of gummy candies (grape?). On the other hand, alcohol concentration tends to stay comparatively low (14% for a Genshu, i.e. “undiluted” sake). On the palate, the sake tastes sweet (almost syrupy) at first before tartness balances it out. It ends with a bitter note (not the most pleasant thing).

If I can’t have too much of it, that is a good thing! There will be some of this rich potpourri left for tomorrow.

A ray of light on a grey day – Shorin-in

IMG_4779The day had become grey with intermittent rain. The naked trees reminded us that the spring that had lifted our spirits alongside the Path of Philosophy the same morning in Kyoto City had not reached these high grounds yet. From a distance, the building actually inspired compassion, with the umbrella, the green and blue sheets protecting the stairs and balcony against rain, the scaffolding and the metal sheets being assembled to protect the roof made of cypress shingles. It looked quite different from photos available on the web. As I got closer to the impressive wooden structure, I was suddenly struck by a ray of light coming from inside the building, dissipating the gloom instantly. A few meters away from the first step, I was standing at the point where my eyeline met His eternal golden gaze, through an aperture in the upper part of the Hondo’s (main hall) front wall.

Shorin-In (勝林院) was founded in 1013 by Tendai monk Jakugen, in Ohara North of Kyoto. Its main object of worship is a large beautiful gold-plated wooden statue of Amithaba (the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light, often referred to as Amida Buddha or Amida Nyorai). Initially sculpted in 1013, it was (mostly?) recreated after repeated fires in the Edo period. A multicolor rope is hanging from a beam and across the hall, tied to the hands of the divinity at one the other end. It allows worshippers to pray while being physically connected with the Buddha. A second one, white, is reserved for the souls of the deceased. Amida Nyorai is flanked by expressive and elaborate statues of Bishamonten and Fudomyo. The building itself dates from 1777.

Shorin-in has been playing a leading role role in the history of Shomyo, the traditional Tendai Buddhist chanting. Thanks to the friendly introduction of a senior researcher at the Kyoto Library of Historical Documents we were welcomed by Reverend A. who kindly offered to give us a brief but captivating introduction about this unique way of chanting, and the code used to record in writing the melody on sutra booklets.

Shorin-in desperately needs funds to repair the roof. Cypress shingles (Hinoki Kokera) offer a better resistance (to fire in particular) than bark (Hiwada) or straw (Wara)  …. However a thousand seasons and the recent typhoon have taken their toll.

IMG_4736

Wood splitting was the traditional way of making Kokera (shingles) They are fixed with bamboo nails. The wood’s veins create some relief on their surface, facilitating air and humidity flow. They had a long life-expectancy. While the temple expects to be able to renovate the roof the original way (Kokera Buki), new Kokera are now sawed from the mass of the tree trunk, and offer a flat, polished surface. Air does not circulate as well, leading to an early risk of rot.

I am not familiar with the funding of such renovation works, but when I see the money spent for Kyoto City temples (a very good cause), I hope that Shorin-In and its registered cultural assets can benefit from help as well, if only to keep the immaterial cultural Treasure of Shomyo in its jewel case, where it has been taught for 1000 years.

Shorin-in (no website) is located in Ohara, Sakyo-Ku, Kyoto. Ohara is accessible with Bus #17 from Kyoto or Demachiyanagi stations. Alternatively Bus #19 will get you there from Yase-Hieizanguchi or Kokusaikaikan Stations.

There is a lot else to see in Ohara, thus the destination deserves half a day or more.

For earlier pictures of the temple, you can refer to Jennifer’s interesting blog, Japan’s Wonders (autumn 2017)

img_5560

Zenkuro – Sake Prop “down under”

Zenkuro – Sake Prop “down under”

This post is based on my personal notes about Zenkuro, taken during an interview with David Joll and Matt Shaw from Melbourne Sake, together with the Sake On Air team in January 2020. I completed these notes with publicly available information. Watch out for the relevant Sake On Air episode and get inspired!!

For those who do not speak Japanese, let’s translate straight away: “Zenkuro” ”全黒”means “All Black”. Could we really expect any other name from a Kiwi, rugby lover, big fan of Japan?

The Zenkuro brewery is based Queenstown, in the southern part of South Island, New Zealand. At the same latitude in the Northern hemisphere, one finds places such as Montreal, Bordeaux, Venice or Shiretoko, the North Eastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan.

Surrounded by mountains and great nature, the city is a very popular tourist destination “down under”. Pristine soft water and a cool to cold climate make the place truly appropriate for sake brewing, although this was not the driver for the brewery’s location.

85104333_2472162332907274_5400871531624529920_n

Zenkuro was created by David Joll, together with a local community of japanophiles and outdoor specialists, running tours for Japanese visitors. Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall are contributors to the Japan Lonely Planet guidebook, and authors of the Hiking in Japan guidebook (Lonely Planet as well), one of my favorite books J! Another key stakeholder is originally from Japan: Yoshi Kawamura, co-owner of the small YK3 sake brewery in Canada (with Yoshiaki Kasugai, the Toji – master brewer – there; they have launched in Richmond near Vancouver in 2013).

David is managing the brewery and is the Toji. He came to Japan as high school student for the first time, then university exchange student, before getting married and working locally. Soon the years added up to 25 and David chose to get back to his home country with his wife and 4 children.

There was no plan to get involved in sake brewing initially, however the desire to offer a bit of the Japanese culture to visitors in Queenstown and the support of family gave birth to the the project.

What do you do from there when you decide to start a Kura overseas ?

David & team constructed the brewery in the shade to keep it cool, then designed a fermentation room with temperature control.

To learn about the sake brewing process, David made an internship at a friendly Kura (Yoshikubo Shuzou in Mito city, Ibaragi; sake branded Ippin) and perfected his knowledge of sake culture with John Gauntner (my own Sensei).

One has to have David’s DIY spirit and skills to succeed without spending precious capital in equipment from Japan: beside some of the tools available for beer or wine brewers locally, the Kura started with bedsheets as linen for the rice steaming unit, and a locally made metal Fune (press) in the shape of a bathtub. Pillow covers played the role of filter for the Moromi fermentation mash in such Fune.

Administratively, creating a new alcoholic beverage category for tax and license purposes seems to have been a bit of a challenge. Matt from Melbourne Sake was still dealing with the issue in his own context!

Sourcing good ingredients and agents was a challenge in New Zealand as well, and David recalls they would buy table rice from supermarkets and experience with wine and beer yeast.

A key business partner, Urban Hippie  supplied rice Koji to Zenkuro at their beginning. The company is owned by Takehito (and Mie) Maeda, former chef, and seems to be the only commercial miso maker in NZ.

Very hard work and passion then made the magic happen.

Trial and error cannot be avoided as a process at the beginning, but David surprised us when he shared he received thumbs up to market batch number 3 only!! There have been 49 other batches since, in about 4 plus years, including some brewed with Marie Nagata, one of our Sake On Air regular hosts.

On recording day for Sake On Air we enjoyed a bottle named “Untouched”, an appropriate translation for Muroka Nama Genshu, i.e. unpasteurized, unfiltered, undiluted sake. Thanks to David, we paired it with a NZ smoked cheddar. The acidity in the sake, its rich flavor on the palate made the pairing truly successful, and very savoury. The sake itself reveals grassy aromas, cucumber as well as green melon … a Zenkuro trademark.

In the process to get there, i.e. a consistent, high quality product, some improvements from the original process have been introduced. From friendly Kura, David received Japanese specialized linen with a looser mesh to replace sheets. The Kura is now able to source Kyokai Kobo yeast #701, the foamless version of #7, the most widely used yeast in Japan.  Iida Group, a Kansai based trading company involved in the sake industry (owner of the Nakano brand of rice polishing machines as well), is now supplying dried frozen Koji from Japan, arguably more suitable for sake brewing than the one sourced in NZ (would the Koji produced by Urban Hippie be too rich in protease and not enough in amylase?). Last but not least the company reinforced its rice supply.

8F620389-C668-4BC5-8206-3E07D1CE6DF3

This ”Untouched” sake was not my first sip of sake branded Zenkuro. For the recent 2019 Rugby World Cup, a sport dear to David’s heart, Kanhokuto Shuzou (Fukuoka; sake branded Kiku Tamanoi) and Kumazawa Shuzou (Chigasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture; sake branded Tensei) “co-released” a Zenkuro special edition made together with David and distributed in Japan during the World Cup. The fragrant green notes were there!

Whereas the initial goal of a brewery starting business is make the best of what they have, Zenkuro is now able to offer product variation. In about 5 years, the results are impressive, and the industry says it: Zenkuro received gold and silver medals at the International Wine Challenge in London for some of their batches (Umeshu, drip press Shizuku, White Cloud Nigori).

Interestingly enough, Zenkuro’s main market today is not Japanese restaurants but chefs serving New Zealand or Western gastronomy. The pairing with the smoked cheddar was convincing enough.  Of course the Zenkuro team still needs to invest a lot of time in sake education, to explain the product and culture to professionals as well as the general public. The brewery is open for visits.

Zenkuro will not be able to call their sake “Nihonshu” (a beverage made in Japan from Japanese rice and Japanese water) and will have to stick to “Sake” as a product type (“Sake” means “alcohol” generically). In their part of the world, David and Matt do not seem to be too worried that other producers release under a similar category an alcoholic beverage far from the fermented drink made from rice and water that they have been educating the market about. By contrast in Europe, certain stakeholders in the nascent sake industry are already working toward defining an “appellation” to protect their product, a direct inspiration from what Japanese brewers have been releasing for centuries, from the rest.

You have heard me praise the generosity and humility of the Sake Brewers’ big family. David fits in that category so well. He has been sharing his experience with other aspiring brewers, and invites them into his brewery. Matt from Melbourne Sake who brewed with David for a few months was our witness. David is the Father of sake brewing down under.