There is new learning about my own progression along Darwin’s evolutionary scale which evidently, to some degree, has been propelled by crossing a few of the introductory borders into the world of fine sake. First century poet Otomo Tabito made an early case for sake’s role in human evolution when he wrote:O what an ugly sight The man who thinks he’s wise And never drinks Sake! Give him a good look How like an ape he is!
Sake continues to poke my bubble of wine enthusiasm with its brewed mysteries; mostly because I am lucky enough to regularly eat and drink with Richard Auffrey who unequivocally knows more than the average guy about brewed rice. After all he is the Passionate Sake, has studied under “The Sake Guy” John Gauntner, became a Certified Sake Professional through the Sake Education Council, and conducts numerous sake tasting and educational events around Boston. The whole sake thing was ratcheted up one big notch for me when Rich extended the invitation to a comprehensive afternoon of sake immersion at the Japan Consul General’s home in Boston and to hear from Rich’s attending sake mentor John Gauntner, while tasting more than 40 sakes provided by a dozen visiting Japanese brewers.
Compared to wine, I feel like (and am) a novice in the deep sake culture and even the most basic knowledge Rich has passed on to me is too extensive and involved to condense in one WineZag post. It would be an injustice to attempt any sort of quality primer on the fundamental principles of rice, water, brewing, milling, fortification, pasteurization, grades, vessels, or styles. See John Gauntner’s five books or catch him somewhere on his global tours where he talks about sake in ways that my greatest wine mentors speak to wine. Gauntner, who resides in Japan and is the only non-Japanese person to earn the certification of “Master of Sake Tasting” by the Brewing Society of Japan, travels extensively.
After listening to Rich for years, tasting through more sake than anyone should rightfully consume at a Monday noon time hour, and hearing Gauntner speak to retailers and restaurant operators on making sense of sake for their clientele, I can share some conclusions I reached about the relative similarities between the worlds of fine wine and sake geek-dom.
Gauntner wove a sake overview uncannily smacking of the transformational trends witnessed over the last twelve to fifteen years in the world of wine. More fine sake is available on the market today than ever before, produced by visionary and energetic young brewers taking the reigns from their aging predecessors. These new brewers “live in a different world” than the previous brewing generation. The new guard seems more in tune to the market, putting tradition and long accepted brewing philosophies to rest and producing sake that appeals in style and packaging to a wider marketplace.
Of course, as we witnessed in wine, there is some danger in all this. As we now see wine production unwinding from a sad era of powerfully overblown and highly extracted product and moving to more graceful and prettier lighter versions, sake styles are now also calming down from a recent era of over the top fruity aromatics that new brewers thought the market was swooning for. As with natural and non-interventional wine making, good old orthodox Sake styles showcasing the rice, region, water, yeast, and koji are back in the market and winning the day. Other non traditional sparkling, fruit flavored, and low alcohol versions have been introduced, but they remain a fraction of today’s market inventory.
The new wave of sake brewers, just like today’s younger crop of winemakers, embrace appropriate but limited roles for research, chemistry, and machine technology, bringing on new pasteurization and milling methods but retaining human sensitivity, inspiration, and intuition in the parts of the process where it matters most. They are storing sake in bottles for six to twelve months for better outcomes, and there is now more fine grained sake in the market to show for it. There is a new understanding that information feeds enthusiasm and a clear effort is in evidence to provide more information on labels and bottles indicating grade, region, and rice to instigate learning for budding enthusiasts.
Could sake take hold in the US in any significant way? It has the trimmings and depth of character to create enthusiasm, but it will take more open minds by consumers and harder work from purveyors.
I was happy to hear Gauntner suggest that great wine glassware is most appropriate for enjoying aromatic styled sakes, like Ginjo for example. Those small sake cups commonly used in Japan are products of a mutually endearing pouring tradition and large endemic Japanese ceramic industry, but might not be the best vessel to showcase sake’s component aromas and flavors.
Also, somewhat like fine wine, there is little bad sake on the market today. Gauntner celebrates the fact that even rot-gut sake has improved over the last twenty years. So it’s hard to make a mistake trying some sake. If you live in Boston, it might be worth a trip to Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill. The proprietors who I met at the Consul General’s home are sake fans, and they stock over 50 different bottlings!
In addition to sake’s depth of similarity to so much in the world of wine that I cherish (very available top four grades of ginjo-shu sakes, integrated machine technology, industry personnel changes, and education) there is still one more BIG reason that makes it easy to be swept away by sake; Japan. Having spent a large chunk of fourteen years traveling around and working in Japan, I have to admit it is not possible to capture the essence of a beckoning and intoxicating Japanese cultural fabric in this single post. When I do try to boil down my experiences in Japan, it is impossible to ignore the culturally embedded SERENITY and HOSPITALITY that is quickly apparent to visiting foreigners with immersive inclinations. The communal baths and ryokan gardens, Kaiseki meals and cherry blossoms, mutual pouring of beer, tea, and sake for your friends and guests at dinner, selfless bowing and tea ceremonies, presence of Shinto and Buddhism, and countless other eastern cultural underpinnings have always made Japan into a soft bed of feathers for me to lay in.
All this was again in full evidence at the home of Consul General Takeshi Hikihara, our host for this sake celebration and educational experience. Hikihara-san graciously opened his glorious home, offering the services of his highly accomplished kitchen staff, and welcomed us to relax, learn, and mostly celebrate the wide styles, brewer personalities, and calming effects of sake on a picture perfect Boston spring day. Sake earned its righteous place in the spotlight on this afternoon, and hopefully Gauntner’s guidance for making sense of sake through accessible menu and inventory programs will resonate with the many restaurant and wine shop operators in attendance.
It would be an oversight not to mention the very thoughtful and humble video produced by Mr.Kosuke Kuji (pictured above), Guest Professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Vice President of Nanbu Bijin Brewing Company. The tragedy of last year’s earthquake and tsunami had dramatic effects on sake sales in Japan. At a peak time for sake consumption that coincides with the relaxing season for cherry blossom celebration and school graduation, waves of fear and preoccupation interrupted traditional sake consumption moments in Japan. Sake breweries not only experienced damage from the natural disaster, but also felt the pain of shrinking sales. If the similarities to wine enthusiasm do not move you to dip your toes in ochoko, maybe this touching and sincere video will. Kampai!