Sake Industry News. Issue #30.


Welcome to Issue #30 of Sake Industry News.

As this will be our final issue before the year end holidays we’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our readers and subscribers for our wonderful first year. To say the year (in particular, the last 10 months or so) has been unusual would be a facetious understatement, but here we are.

It would be naive to believe that everything is going to magically get better as soon as the calendar turns over to 2021, but we still remain positive that we’ll at least see the beginnings of a return to normal. And with a bit of luck, hope, and most preferably, a vaccine, we look forward to a new year when we can get back to brewery visits, tasting events, our favorite sake bars and of course sharing sake with those we love. 

Whatever your plans for the year end holidays and the New Year, we hope your festive season is filled with fun, laughter, joy and of course, plenty of sake.

All the best from SIN!

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And now here’s the news…

IWC Results Are In

London- The International Wine Challenge or perhaps better known as IWC, the world’s largest wine competition, has announced the winners from its 2020 award season.

The 2020 Sake Competition was comprised of nine divisions: Table Sake (futsūshu), junmai, Junmai Ginjō, Junmai Daiginjō, Honjōzō, Ginjō, Daiginjō, Sparkling, and Aged sake. 

Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were awarded along with IWC “recommended” and one special prize trophy to be chosen from among the gold medal recipients as the Champion Sake. In total, 1401 different sake were submitted for assessment with 88 being awarded gold medals. 

Heiwa Shuzō from Wakayama, well known for its flagship sake Kid, took home this year’s Champion Sake award for its Maryuzan Junmai Ginjō. And in further cause for celebration for Norimasa Yamamoto and his team, the brewery was recognized as Sake Brewery Of The Year for the second year in a row. Watanabe Shuzō in Gifu Prefecture received the best value award for its Komachizakura Betsu Gakoi futsūshu. 

The IWC added the sake division to its competition in 2007, and is considered to be an important gauge for exporting trends.

Click here for full winner results

JG: In spite of all that is happening, and after a postponement, the IWC ran their event this year as well. Usually I am honored to be a judge at the event, but for obvious reasons that was just not possible. This year the event was run with judges almost exclusively from the UK and under strict conditions. I am sure it was challenging and my respect goes out to all that were involved. 

Heiwa Shuzō 平和酒造 , Kid 紀土 , Muryōzan Junmai Ginjō 無量山 純米吟醸 , Watanabe Shuzō 渡辺酒造 , Komachizakura Betsu Gakoi 小町桜 別囲い

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Power Struggle Breaks-up Legendary Kyoto Brewery

Kyoto- The sake world was stunned by an unexpected announcement from Hidehiko Matsumoto, tōji of Matsumoto Shuzō, makers of Sawaya Matsumoto. 

The rather blunt and direct notice came via Matsumoto’s Facebook page on December 1 where he announced his intention to retire from his family’s brewery effective December 31. While this came as a shock for many, the story behind his resignation was even more curious. According to the post, just as the first sake of the season was being pressed, the brewery’s shareholders called a board meeting. There the board announced that Hidehiko’s father, and president of Matsumoto Shuzō, Yasuhiro Matsumoto, was being removed from his position as president effective immediately and further removed from his position as director effective December 8. Matsumoto Shuzō has been financially supported by shareholders following an arrangement made under a previous generation’s jurisdiction. 

According to Hidehiko’s statement, the shareholders have never had any role in the brewing side of the business which made it all the more concerning when they apparently refused his proposal to allow his father to stay on until the brewing season had finished. Hidehiko felt there was no way in good conscience he could stay on without his father by his side and subsequently submitted his resignation.

According to the post, Matsumoto and his father have not yet planned any future course of action but for now he is deeply disappointed that he cannot be by the side of his brewing  team that has worked so hard to make his family’s sake.

The story has unfolded a little further with some complicated backstory explaining the family affairs of Matsumoto Shuzō. Hidehiko’s cousin Shōji Matsumoto has been named as the new president of the brewery. 

Hidehiko’s father, Yasuhiro is the second eldest of four brothers who were part of the family brewery. The new president, Shōji, is the son of the eldest of the four brothers. The third brother of the Matsumoto clan, Shōhei was the one behind the popular Sawaya Matsumoto brand. The story goes that once nephew, Hidehiko, came on board as tōji and proved himself more than competent as a tōji and leader, Shōhei gracefully stepped down from his role in the brewery under the proviso that the integrity of Sawaya Matsumoto was maintained. 

What has since transpired in the company and family is unclear (and perhaps none of our business), but both Shōji and Shōhei’s signed their names to a fax that was sent to the brewery’s loyal retailers informing them of the developments indicating that Shōhei is likely in agreeance with the new developments.

SIN will bring more news on this unusual story as it unfolds.

JG: This really is unfortunate, and a huge loss for the industry. But in the end, it is a Matsumoto family issue, and it would be inappropriate for any of us to comment any further.

Matsumoto Shuzō 松本酒造

New Brewery Opens Its Doors To The Public

Hokkaido- Obihiro University of Agriculture has opened its on-campus sake brewery, Hekiungura to the public for sales and visits. 

The brewery was conceived by Kamikawa Taisetsu Shuzō and is run under group company Tokachi Ryokkyu. Construction of the brewery was completed in April this year and brewing officially began in September. 

The brewery officially opened its doors to the general public on November 18, allowing visitors to purchase its brand, Tokachi sake directly and see some of the brewing process in action. 

A post shared by 日本酒「十勝」 @碧雲蔵 <上川大雪酒造> (@hekiungura)

The brewery is also teaching students about the science of brewing under the tutelage of tōji, Shinji Kawabata.

Source – Tokyo NP

JG: Hokkaido will be a place to watch for sake brewing over the next few years. With two new breweries, and lots of effort being applied to growing Hokkaido-specific sake rice varieties, its significance as a sake-producing region continues to grow. 

Kamikawa Taisetsu Shuzō上川大雪酒造 , Tokachi十勝 , Hekiungura碧雲蔵 , Tokachi Ryokkyu十勝緑丘

Dassai’s Milkshake Brings All The Boys To The Yard

Tokyo- In a yet another one for the “only in Japan” category, one of the most unusual collaborations in the sake industry is set to hit the market for the New Year. 

Asahi Shuzō, of Dassai fame is teaming up with hamburger chain, Mos Burger to create the Dassai Mazeru Shake. But before you start typing out an angry email to Mos Burger taking them to task for the socially irresponsible promotion of serving sake milkshakes in a family restaurant, you can relax -the shakes will be made using amazake

For those unfamiliar with amazake, despite its name it is actually is a non-alcoholic (or in some cases very low alcoholic) beverage made using water, steamed rice and kōji rice, and sometimes sake kasu (lees). Amazake is a popular drink among all ages in winter when it can be enjoyed warmed. Amazake has been produced for hundreds of years and is often served to infants, and is occasionally even served as a part of school lunches. 

The Dassai Mazeru Shake will offer customers the chance to mix (mazeru) Dassai amazake made with Yamada Nishiki rice milled to 50%, into a Mos Burger vanilla shake and enjoy the flavor combinations that can be created with different amazake to vanilla shake ratios.

The special shake will only be available from December 26 until early February or when stocks run out. 

JG:  Yamada Nishiki in milkshakes – wild. Yet another very creative solution to using excess sake rice. Remember that rice was ordered and planted before COVID hit, and then the brewers simply could not use it all up. But once planted, if the brewers do not buy it, they will lose the trust of the growers, which bodes not well for the future. Brilliantly creativity. Let us hope it contributes to the solution. 

Asahi Shuzō 旭酒造 , Dassai 獺祭 , Dassai Mazeru Shake 獺祭まぜるシェイク

Sake Decadence Reaches New Heights

Kyoto- In 2019 the Tokisake Association was established under the eye of Tokubee Masuda (maker of Tsuki No Katsura) in order to promote and ignite interest in aged premium sake.

Now the association is releasing a special eight-bottle set comprised of one bottle of aged sake from each of the seven founding producers, along with one special bottle made as a blend of the seven by renowned sommelier Shinya Tasaki.

The eight-bottle set has set a record for such a product with an eye-watering price tag of 2.02million yen (USD19.4K). 

The set is made up of:

Twenty sets were made available by reservation only. Reservations closed on December 5, so we apologize to any of our readers who had hoped to get their hands on this uber-premium set.

Source – Businesswire

JG: This is genuinely interesting for a myriad of reasons. The producers are all outstanding and have lots of experience in aging their sake. (Curiously, though, Daruma Masamune, the Gifu brewery that basically makes aged sake their whole schtick, is not involved.) Also, they are potentially forging a new market for sake – that of very expensive and very rare products. And, they have eased their way into it by only making twenty sets this first year, with encouraging initial results. 

I do think that there will be challenges in growing the sector. One, aged sake is significantly different from regular sake, and is not as widely enjoyed. Next, a brewery cannot ramp up the production of aged sake – it takes time, obviously. It takes like ten years to make a ten-year aged sake. 

Nevertheless, the sake market will benefit from a more expensive sake sector. So let’s see how this unfolds over the next few years. 

Tokisake Association 刻SAKE協会 , Masuda Tokubee Shōten 増田徳兵衛商店 , Kokuryū Shuzō 黒龍酒造 , Dewazakura Shuzō 出羽桜酒造 , Nanbu Bijin 南部美人Shimazaki Shuzō 島崎酒造 , Nagai Shuzō 永井酒造 , Kidoizumi Shuzō 木戸泉酒造 , Toki no Shirabe 刻の調べ

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Niigata Brewery Nails Best Match For Yellowtail 

Niigata- Obata Shuzō has taken food and sake matching to a new and scientifically accurate level with its latest release. The brewery used an electronic taste sensor to breakdown the components that would help them design the best sake possible for matching with yellowtail fish. 

Winter is the season for tasty yellowtail and Sado Island, where the brewery is located, is considered a hotspot for high-quality, fatty yellowtail. The detailed research led to the development of Manotsuru Brease (buri to dōzo). Buri is Japanese for yellowtail, so the “brease” is a play on words of the English, “please”. A bit of a stretch? Maybe.

The junmai sake went on sale on November 25 and is said to be perfectly designed to draw out the umami of yellowtail.  

Sake is known to go well with just about any seafood, but the taste spectrum of seafood is of course varied, as it also is for sake. And as the food matching concept gains more traction, the idea of finding more specific matches for fish and sake is a relatively new concept. 

As part of the design process, Obata Shuzō first analyzed which sake in its portfolio was the best chemical match with yellowtail and then tweaked the sake production process further to matching perfection. Manotsuru Brease is described as dry and smooth with a full rice flavor and light acidity and can be enjoyed chilled or warmed to enhance the umami of yellowtail.

Source – Jiji

JG: In Japan, sake is often said to “support food” without getting in the way. While that is true about sake, some feel that maybe not enough attention has been applied to precise pairings of sake and food. Projects like this will attract positive attention and publicity to sake and food pairing, and hopefully encourage more folks to develop their own pairings, with or without cool technology.  

Obata Shuzō尾畑酒造 , ブリとどうぞ

Kojima Sōhonten Goes Full-Junmai

Yamagata- Kojima Sōhonten, producers of popular sake, Tōkō has made the switch to junmai-only production as of this season. 

The move means the brewery will no longer produce any honjōzō products and will cease all use of distilled brewers alcohol in sake production. Brewery president, Kenichiro Kojima said part of the motivation behind the move was as a throwback to the roots of sake brewing.

The brewery still has inventory of aruten sake that will still be shipped and sold till stocks are depleted and from there all sake released will be junmai only. 

JG: I myself am not at all anti-added-alcohol. I enjoy a lot of honjozo and non-junmai ginjo sake. But more brewers are moving toward all junmai, many of them sensing that the market is moving in that direction. While I support their efforts, I hope non-junmai remains a valid and significant part of the sake market. 

More Certification For Nanbu Bijin 

Iwate- Nanbu Bijin has added to its vegan and kosher certification with new credentials as a certified non-GMO producer in North America. Non-GMO refers to the use of non-genetically modified organisms in production ingredients and processes. In North America, non-GMO food has gained some attention in recent years as more consumers focus on the ingredients in their food and general health. Nanbu Bijin is hoping this will be another step to expand their growth in the US market.  

Of the Nanbu Bijin portfolio, eleven different sake including their tokubetsu junmai, junmai ginjō, sugar-free umeshuand other fruit liqueurs three have satisfied the standard of the Non-GMO Project, the organization that determines certification. Nanbu Bijin obtained Kosher certification in 2013 and Vegan Certification in 2019. For sake to obtain non-GMO certification is still relatively unusual.

“The rice used in sake brewing is non-GMO Japanese rice. We didn’t need to change anything in our brewing methods to qualify for certification; just like our vegan certification. Hopefully this certification will give us a wider reach with health conscious consumers in the US market,” said Kosuke Kuji, president of Nanbu Bijin.

Nambu Bijin exports to 54 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa as well as US. As the non-GMO market is growing globally the brewery plans on applying for certification in other regions.   

Source – Nikkei

JG: Kuji-san and Nanbu Bijin continue to have a positive effect on making sake popular to an ever-increasing audience. Expect to see more and more breweries follow their lead. 

Nanbu Bijin 南部美人

New License Legislation To Come Into Effect In 2021

Tokyo- As reported earlier this year, the Japanese government made an announcement declaring a revised liquor tax law that would see brewing licenses approved for new enterprises looking to brew sake for the express purposes of international export was being considered.

The proposal recently passed the Diet and the new legislation will come into effect in April 2021. The government is currently using sake as a main product of its ‘Cool Japan Strategy,’ promotion of Japanese goods and hopes the new legislation will help to expand export. 

Despite the seemingly good news, the local sake industry remains a little confused.

Liquor licenses are divided into beer, shōchū and other categories, and each has various production stipulations as part of the license conditions. In the case of seishu, a producer must produce a minimum annual production of 60,000 liters (33,000 bottles of 1.8 Liter bottle equivalent). Compared to the 6,000 liters required for fruit liquor and beer licenses, the sake production requirement is significantly high which has historically been a big hurdle for anyone looking to start a new sake brewery in Japan. 

This new revision will allow a new brewery to obtain a license without a minimum production requirement on the condition the brewery produces sake for export purpose only. This deregulation is only for new entrants to the industry.

According to the National Tax Agency this condition is in place to minimize the impact new breweries would have on the domestic sake market.

Source – Mainichi

JG: It will be interesting to see how many new companies that will brew only for export will actually be formed, and who will be behind them. I cannot, in all honesty, imagine that there will be very many. I am sure we will report on this again as it unfolds. 

Sawada Shuzō Ponders Next Steps Following Blaze

Aichi- After suffering a freak fire that decimated the brewery’s kōji room, Sawada Shuzō are looking at how to make a comeback. The cause of the fire, which broke out on November 27 is believed to have started from a short circuit in the electric hotbed wiring. 

As reported in our last issue, the kōji room has been completely destroyed while three tanks of moromi were left unsalvageable. In addition, mid-production batches of kōji were also destroyed and the brewery was left with much soot and ash damage as well as a smoke odor throughout the facilities. They are currently assessing sake that was already bottled or in tanks for smoke taint. If the new sake (shinshu) is deemed suitable for release, the brewery plans on releasing it, but has no concrete plans yet for a return to brewing.

Check out the video of the Koji room from their twitter account.

JG: Let’s hope that Sawada Shuzō can recover from this. Let’s support them in any way we can, if only by drinking more of their sake, Hakuro. But they are small so it may be hard to find. Nevertheless, other ways to express our support may arise. 

Sawada Shuzō 澤田酒造

Terroir Museum Opens In Hyogo 

Hyogo- Honda Shōten has opened a tasting and sake research space in Himeji City near the brewery dedicated to the concept of Hyogo terroir. 

Best known for its popular Tatsuriki label, the brewery has dabbled in the terroir concept before through its terroir tasting set of Tatsuriki sake; three sake made exactly the same but using top-grade Yamada Nishiki from three of the premium growing regions of Hyogo Prefecture. The Terroir Museum will offer tasting samples that showcase the concept of terror as well as display terroir research materials. The former president of Honda Shōten, Takeyoshi Honda was a firm believer in the influence of soil on rice quality and in turn sake characteristics. For some 20 years until his death Honda regularly studied and categorised the characteristics of different soils at the Kyoto University’s Soil Laboratory. Current president Ryusuke Honda said, “tasting sets that focus on different rice varieties are commonplace, but comparisons between different soil plots are a rare thing. I hope we can be a brewery where people can find new ways to enjoy sake.”

Source – Kobe NP

JG: I am very sure that this will be a fascinating place to visit and look forward to getting down there soon. The Honda family has tons of visual materials and reports analyzing the soil of their part of the country, famous for growing the best Yamada Nishiki. I am sure that visiting the museum will be a wonderful experience. 

Honda Shōten本田商店 , Tatsuriki 龍力 , Terroir Museum テロワール館

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Industry Stirrings…

Akita- One of the most anticipated releases for hardcore sake geeks is here with the 2020 offering from Akita Prefecture’s “Next Five”.

Next Five is a group of five breweries from Akita Prefecture that collaborate each year in an effort “make sake for the future”. The group combines their collective skills to push the envelope a little and bring sake into a new era with modern flavors, marketing and panache.

This latest release has been named Ispahan and is a kijōshu. Kijōshu is a unique style of sake where water used in the production process is substituted with actual sake, albeit of a lesser quantity than if water were used. The resulting sake is usually of a dense, sweet nature, ideal as dessert sake. The sake used instead of water in the project was vintage sake from Aramasa Shuzō that had been aged in oak barrels.

This year the group collaborated with French pâtissier, Pierre Hermé who created one of his signature ispahan pound cakes to be sold as a limited release set with the sake. Ten thousand sets are available for JPY13800 (USD133), making this  the group’s most expensive release to date.

For more information on Akita Next Five see John Gauntner’s story from issue #21

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Supply and Demand; The Year Ahead For Sake Rice

By John Gauntner

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (“MAFF”) issues a monthly report on rice. The October report was a report on the demand for sake rice currently and into the next few years. While not bright in its outlook, it did shed light on the state of the rice-growing industry. 

After the 2019 growing season, there was a surplus of 13 to 15 thousand tons of sake rice. This could be attributed to a number of factors, as yields go up and down each year and do not necessarily correspond to predictions. 

Then, in 2020, demand for sake rice dropped hugely by 24 percent, or 23 thousand tons. This is expected to lead to a huge surplus, but the final numbers will not be calculated until January of 2021.  

Based on all of this, in 2021, sake rice production will need to be curtailed by 27 percent, or about 26 thousand tons, in order to begin to approach a balance between supply and demand. But this does not even take into account the rice that is likely to be left over from the 2020 harvest, and when that is factored in, it will likely be necessary to reduce even further the amount of sake rice that is grown. 

The report noted that the supply and demand balance for 2020 could not be fully assessed until January, once all the rice production numbers were gathered. This will be included in their February 2021 report. 

The report emphasized that stable business relations and transactions between rice producers and sake brewers (or rather sake rice purchasers; strictly speaking that could include middlemen and trading houses) would be vital. It also emphasized that in order to help rice producers grow the appropriate amounts of rice, contracts and also multi-year contracts (which are hitherto not common) should be encouraged. 

Based on the results of a survey that they sent this year to 1421 brewers, of which 730 responded, asking how much sake rice would be needed in the 2021 brewing season, the number was down to 56 thousand tons, or 19 percent, from 2018 levels. 

The same survey sent last year, however, i.e. pre-COVID, indicated that the same amount of rice was expected to be needed in 2021 versus the 2018 season. However, obviously COVID drastically dropped both domestic and export shipments. And this, in turn, left to a lot of rice that went unused, and remains in storage. 

Note that, as reported in a previous issue of SIN, a lot of research is going into how to best store rice for use in a later brewing season. While the optimum conditions have not been fully ascertained, using one of several methods (i.e. temperature and humidity levels in controlled storage) will ensure the rice will stay in good condition for brewing. This should, of course, help a bit. 

While the report did not address this, one challenge may be getting rice producers to grow more sake rice again once things stabilize. It may be appealingly easy for them to stick with table rice rather than to switch back to persnickety sake rice. 

As is the case with just about everything these days all that can be done now is to patiently wait and see how things unfold. 

And our role as sake professionals is simple: drink more sake, promote more sake, sell more sake. 


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