Thanks for tuning in to Part 2 of our special focusing on the current impact of COVID-19 on the sake and shochu industries. If you haven’t yet listened to Part 1, where we interview a number of significant individuals with unique perspective on the industry here in Japan, that’s a great place to start. You can find that here.
Slightly different from Part 1, this particular recording is more discussion-based. This time around several of your regular Sake On Air hosts, including John Gauntner, Sebastien Lemoine, Christopher Pellegrini, and Justin Potts, share anecdotal insights from their own experiences over the past several months. While our experience is by no means any be-all-end-all “official” word on where things stand, we hope that it will contribute further perspective, as well as provide some additional food for thought.
In addition to the impact of COVID-19, we also touch upon the serious flooding that has battered the Kyushu region throughout the month of July, only adding insult to injury in already incredibly trying times. This is impacting the livelihoods of the locals, as well as producers across both the shochu and sake industries.
If any listeners are keen to donate and contribute to the relief efforts still very much underway, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to provide you with a few potential options. As all of these activities and the information related to them are being conducted in Japanese, it makes it hard for the international community to support. If you’d like to help, let us know how we can help you.
While all of us in Japan are now generally free to roam at this point, this particular conversation took place online, with John joining us from the U.S., where he’s been grounded since the early days of all of this, Christopher and Sebastien joining us from their respective locales in the heart the Tokyo metropolis, and Justin tuning in from his home Chiba countryside.
For this conversation, do feel free to pour yourself a glass or two of sake or shochu (or both) and settle in with us. After the show, we’d love to hear from our listeners about their experiences over the past several months all across the globe, so do feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook at @sakeonair, or mail us at email@example.com.
Thanks so much for joining us across this special two-part series. As this is an ongoing challenge affecting everyone, we’ll very likely revisit this topic again six months or a year from now. While the hurdles to overcome are high any many, we’re all guaranteed to learn a lot through this process together. We look forward to helping keep you informed along the way.
We’ll be back to our regular programming in two weeks. Until then, Kampai.
This week, we’re bringing you a double episode exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the sake industry here in Japan, and how that impact is beginning to reverberate through the international market.
The entire nation of Japan, while never undergoing a formal lockdown, was officially placed on State of Emergency status as of April 7th, a state which continued until May 31st, with the country gradually easing restrictions in phases over the several weeks that followed, leading to a complete reopening on June 19th.
During this period, restaurants and izakaya were requested to limit their hours of operation from 5am to 8pm, while closing all alcohol service by 7pm. This, combined with the request for the entire population to refrain from unnecessary travel, as well as shift to teleworking in all instances possible, transformed how people shopped, dined, and of course, accessed and consumed sake and shochu. As you might have guessed, for many breweries, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants, sake and shochu stocks became largely idle for months on end.
While sales numbers have been gradually recovering since June, the number of people testing positive for COVID 19 have also been on the rise as of late, with Japan now experiencing what at this stage might be considered a “mild second wave.” As a result, dining establishments have again been asked to curtail their hours of operation for the month of August, closing by 10pm, with particularly dense dining and entertainment districts in parts of Osaka being asked to cut back their hours of operation even further.
These front-line sales tend to get a lot of attention, however it’s the beverage’s deep agriculture ties, along with the particular timing of the pandemic which might result in a truly devastating fallout down the road. We discuss this as well.
To be honest, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. The impact from the past 6 months isn’t truly going to manifest itself for some time to come, and how the pandemic will develop both in Japan and internationally is, at this point, still anybody’s guess.
However, we do feel a responsibility to sake lovers around the world to share what it is we do know, which is why over the past couple of months we’ve been conducting a series of short interviews, as well as discussing this reality amongst ourselves, in order to help paint at least somewhat of a picture as to where we stand as of the end of August 2020.
For Part 1, we’ve edited together a series of excerpts from five different interviews that we conducted with individuals here in Japan who are in a position to offer particular insight into the impact COVID-19 on certain pockets or channels of the sake and shochu industries. Our guest include:
Between this and Part 2, we’ve left you with a lot to digest over the next couple of weeks. There’s still a long road ahead, but we’ll be in it for the long haul. We hope you’ll stick with us. If you’re looking for a great way to support, there’s always one:
Timestamps: 0:00:21 Introduction 0:05:17 Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of JSS 0:12:47 Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (Urakasumi), Co-chairman of JSS 0:29:00 Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of International Department at Nihon Shurui Hanbai 0:41:48 Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors 0:57:15 Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya 1:16:27 Closing
While this summer has certainly been a lot of things for many of our listeners, we hope that one thing which has been a defining mainstay throughout the summer of 2020 has been sake.
Summer is gradually winding down a bit at this point, but we thought it was about time we did a (semi-)timely episode that celebrates the sake of the season. For summer, that’s natsuzake. Literally “summer” (natsu) “sake” (zake), this relatively recent entry into the seasonal release calendar has rapidly garnered fans from across the sake-sipping spectrum and the annual releases have turned the category into one that grows and evolves dynamically every year, birthing more unique products and interpretations of the style than even the most dedicated follower of sake can hope to keep up with.
Although no one particular property defines what is (or isn’t) natsuzake, profiles commonly trend toward things like bright flavors, lower ABV, slight effervescence, a gentle palate, and general qualities that tend to require refrigeration or ice cubes (or both), lending to relatively sessionable sake. As a result, if you can get your hands on the stuff, it often tends to be a great entry point for a lot of new drinkers into the sake category itself, as well.
This week Chris Hughes is joined by Rebekah Wilson-Lye and Marie Nagata, where they cover the history of the summery beverage, its evolution, definitions (and its accompanying ambiguity), personal experiences and suggestions, and more.
Go ahead and put a bottle on ice and slide into a patio recliner to beat the heat with us on this week’s episode of Sake On Air.
Thanks for listening and we’ll be back with more Sake On Air in a couple of weeks. Kampai!
– Rebekah uses the term “kanzake” occasionally to refer to sake brewed in the winter while discussing traditional sake brewing practices and seasons. For our regular listeners, you may have heard this word before in an entirely different context. Note that this is not actually the same word. The terminology that Rebekah uses is actually a less-common term for what is often referred to as “kanzukuri”. – Prestige Sake Association comes up while discussing its role in developing the natsuzake product concept. – Ajinomachidaya, a sake shop and wholesaler located on the west end of Tokyo, near Nakano, also comes up in referencing the development and proliferation of natsuzake. – The Sake Cellar ideal for storing your natsuzake. – Big thanks to Takahiro Nagayama of Nagayama Shuzo (Taka) and Yusuke Sato of Aramasa Shuzo (Aramasa) for their support when preparing for this episode.
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.
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! 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
To learn about the sake brewing process, David made an internship at a friendly Kura (Yoshikubo Shuzou in Mito City, Ibaraki; 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
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 the 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
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, over about 4+ 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 savory. 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.
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.
Ce billet résume mes
notes personnelles sur Zenkuro, prises lors d’une interview de David
Joll et Matt Shaw de Melbourne Sake, en collaboration avec l’équipe Sake
On Air en janvier
2020. Je les ai complétées avec les informations disponibles sur le net. Suivez
l’actualité de notre podcast Sake On Air pour écouter l’enregistrement lorsque
disponible, et laissez-vous inspirer !!
Pour ceux qui ne
parlent pas japonais, traduisons tout de go: “Zenkuro” “全 黒” signifie “All Blacks”.
Pouvions-nous vraiment nous attendre à un autre nom de la part d’un Kiwi,
amateur de rugby, grand fan du Japon?
La Maison Zenkuro
est basée à Queenstown, dans la partie sud de l’Ile du Sud, en
Nouvelle-Zélande. À la même latitude de l’hémisphère Nord, on trouve des villes
comme Montréal, Bordeaux, Venise ou bien encore Shiretoko, la pointe nord-est
d’Hokkaido, au Japon.
montagnes et de belle nature, la ville est une destination touristique très
populaire “Down Under”. Une eau pure et douce, un climat frais à
froid, rendent l’endroit tout à fait approprié pour la production de saké. Ce
ne sont cependant pas ces paramètres qui ont déterminé le lieu d’établissement
de la Maison à l’origine.
Zenkuro a été fondée
par David Joll, en collaboration avec un groupe de japanophiles de la ville, spécialistes
de l’Outdoor, organisant des randonnées pour les visiteurs japonais. Craig
McLachlan et Richard Ryall sont des contributeurs clés au guide de voyage Lonely
Planet sur le Japon, et les auteurs du guide de randonnée Hiking in Japan
(Lonely Planet aussi), l’un de mes livres préférés J ! Un autre acteur-clé pour la Maison est
originaire du Japon: Yoshi Kawamura, copropriétaire de la petite Kura (Maison
de saké) YK3 au Canada (avec Yoshiaki Kasugai, le Toji – responsable
de la production; ils se sont lancés à Richmond, près de Vancouver en 2013).
David dirige la Maison
Zenkuro et en est le Toji. Il est venu au Japon comme lycéen en échange une
première fois, puis revenu comme étudiant universitaire, avant de se marier et
de travailler localement. Les années se sont ajoutées les unes aux autres. Au
bout de 25 ans, David a choisi de retourner dans son pays d’origine, à
Queenstown, avec sa femme (japonaise) et ses 4 enfants.
semble-t-il pas prévu de se lancer dans la production de saké à l’origine, mais
le désir d’offrir un peu de la culture japonaise aux visiteurs de Queenstown,
et le soutien de son entourage, ont donné naissance au projet.
Que fait-on lorsqu’on
a décidé de fonder une Kura à l’étranger?
David et son
équipe ont construit la Kura à l’ombre des montagnes pour la garder au frais,
puis ont équipé la salle de fermentation d’installations de contrôle de la
Pour en savoir
plus sur le processus de production du saké, David a effectué un stage dans une
Kura accueillante (Yoshikubo Shuzou dans la ville de Mito, Ibaragi; saké de
marque Ippin) et perfectionné sa connaissance de la culture du saké avec John
Gauntner (mon propre Sensei).
Il faut avoir l’esprit
et les compétences de David en matière de bricolage pour réussir, sans dépenser
son précieux capital en équipements en provenance du Japon: en sus de certains outils
disponibles pour les brasseurs de bière ou les vinificateurs localement, la
Kura a démarré avec des draps utilisés comme linge pour l’unité de cuisson du
riz à la vapeur, ainsi qu’une presse de type Fune fabriquée en métal
localement, sorte de baignoire. Des taies d’oreiller jouaient le rôle de sacs
filtrants pour le moût de fermentation (Moromi) dans cette presse.
Sur le plan
administratif, la création d’une nouvelle catégorie de boissons alcoolisées à
des fins fiscales et de licence semble avoir été un peu difficile. Matt de
Melbourne Sake traitait toujours ce problème dans son contexte Australien au
moment de l’interview !
Trouver de bons
ingrédients et agents biologiques fut également un défi en Nouvelle-Zélande, et
David se souvient avoir acheté tout ce qu’il trouvait comme riz de table de
type japanica dans les supermarchés pour commencer, et tenté l’expérience des
levures de vin de bière.
commercial clé, Urban Hippie a fourni du riz Koji à Zenkuro à ses
débuts. La société appartient à Takehito (et Mie) Maeda, ancien chef, et semble
être le seul fabricant de Miso ayant pignon sur rue en Nouvelle Zélande.
Un dur labeur et la
passion ont fait le reste, jusqu’à ce que la magie se produise.
On ne peut éviter
une approche par itération et retours d’expérience sur des cuvées successives
au début, mais David nous a surpris quand il a partagé qu’il avait reçu un feu
vert de son entourage pour commercialiser la cuvée numéro 3 seulement, jugée
suffisamment bonne !! Il y a eu 49 autres cuvées depuis, en un peu plus de 4
ans, dont certaines réalisées avec Marie Nagata, camarade de Sake On Air.
Le jour de
l’enregistrement, nous avons pu déguster une bouteille nommée «Untouched»
(« Intact »), une traduction appropriée pour Muroka Nama Genshu,
c’est-à-dire un saké non pasteurisé, non (finement) filtré et non dilué (d’eau).
David nous avait aussi apporté un cheddar fumé de Nouvelle Zélande pour un
accord. L’acidité du saké, sa riche saveur en bouche ont assuré le succès du mariage.
Ce saké révèle aussi des arômes herbacés, de concombre et de melon vert… une
Pour avancer, et
produire de manière cohérente et fiable un produit de haute qualité, certaines
améliorations du processus ont été progressivement introduites. De la part
d’une généreuse Kura japonaise, David a reçu des toiles, avec une maille plus large,
pour remplacer les draps de l’unité de cuisson. En outre, la Kura est désormais
en mesure de se procurer la levure Kyokai Kobo # 701, version non-moussante de
la levure # 7, la levure la plus utilisée au Japon. Iida
Group, une société
commerciale basée dans le Kansai et impliquée dans l’industrie du saké
(propriétaire de la marque Nakano de machines de polissage du riz également),
fournit maintenant du Koji congelé en provenance du Japon, sans doute plus approprié
pour la production du saké que celui en provenance de leur partenaire
néo-zélandais. le Koji de Urban Hippie serait-il trop riche en protéase et pas
assez en amylase?. Enfin, l’entreprise a renforcé son approvisionnement en riz.
Ce saké «Untouched»
n’était pas ma première gorgée de saké de marque Zenkuro. Pour la récente Coupe
du monde de rugby 2019, un sport cher à David, Kanhokuto Shuzou (Fukuoka; saké
sous la marque Kiku Tamanoi) et Kumazawa Shuzou (Chigasaki City, préfecture de
Kanagawa; saké Tensei) ont «co-produit» une édition spéciale Zenkuro avec David,
fermentée et distribuée au Japon pendant la Coupe. Les notes vertes étaient bien
Tandis qu’au départ
une Kura en phase démarrage cherche avant tout à tirer le meilleur produit de de
ce qu’elle possède, Zenkuro est désormais en mesure de proposer une gamme de
références. En environ 5 ans donc, les résultats sont impressionnants, et
l’industrie le dit: Zenkuro a reçu des médailles d’or et d’argent au concours International
Wine Challenge de Londres pour certains de leurs sakés : liqueur de prune Umeshu,
saké de presse goutte à goutte Shizuku, saké White Cloud Nigori.
le principal marché de Zenkuro aujourd’hui n’est pas constitué des restaurants
japonais, mais de chefs servant de la gastronomie néo-zélandaise ou
occidentale. L’association avec le cheddar fumé fut suffisamment convaincante.
Bien sûr, l’équipe de Zenkuro doit encore investir beaucoup de temps dans
l’éducation de leur marché, l’explication du produit et de sa culture auprès
des professionnels et du grand public. La Maison est ouverte aux visites.
Zenkuro ne pourra
pas nommer leur saké «Nihonshu» (une boisson fabriquée au Japon à partir de riz
japonais et d’eau japonaise) et devra s’en tenir au mot «saké» comme classe de
produit, ce qui signifie « Alcool » en japonais. Dans leur région,
David et Matt ne semblent pas trop inquiets que d’autres producteurs ne mettent
sur le marché sous une même « appellation » une boisson alcoolisée
loin de la boisson fermentée à base de riz et d’eau, à propos de laquelle ils éduquent
le marché. En Europe en revanche, certains acteurs de l’industrie naissante du
saké travaillent déjà à définir une appellation protégée pour ancrer leur
produit, inspiré directement du savoir-faire des Kura japonaises depuis des
Vous m’avez sans
doute entendu louer la générosité et l’humilité de la grande famille des producteurs
de saké. David a bien sa place dans celle-ci. Il partage son expérience avec
d’autres brasseurs en herbe, les invitant chez Zenkuro. Matt de Melbourne Sake,
qui a travaillé avec David pendant quelques mois, en a été le témoin. David est
le Père du saké « Down Under ».
TOKYO – Sake On Air – the world’s number one podcast dedicated to Japan’s iconic beverages, sake and shochu – is commemorating the first year of shows by hosting its first ever live audience Q&A episode with the hosts at the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center to be streamed via the show’s official Facebook page.
A Year of Sake On Air
Since its first broadcast one year ago, Sake On Air has amassed regular listeners in over 50 countries across the globe and is downloaded thousands of times every single month by an ever-growing population of sake and shochu fans. Over the past year Sake On Air has completely revamped its website, making it easy to find and enjoy new and past episodes, gather event info and insight from the hosts, and get to know the team behind Sake On Air providing unprecedented access to the sake and shochu industries. Originally starting with 5 rotating hosts, industry veteran and insider Rebekah Wilson-Lye, and sake world trailblazer Marie Nagata also joined the team as regular hosts this past Spring.
To commemorate a year of sake-infused podcasting, Sake On Air will be hosting a small private event on November 25th (Mon) beginning at 7:00 pm (Japan time) at the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center in Tokyo, recapping a year of Sake On Air, looking ahead to year two, and hosting a live Q&A. A presentation portion of the show, as well as the Q&A will be broadcast live on the Sake On Air Facebook page, with snippets from the after party and host comments popping up throughout the evening on official Instagram feed. Those interested in taking part from afar are encouraged to send their questions and comments to the team via Instagram, Twiiter, Facebook, or to firstname.lastname@example.org between November 18th (Mon) and 23rd (Sat), and your questions may be addressed on air.
Sake On Air began in October 2018 as the world’s first podcast dedicated to Japan’s most inspiring beverages: sake and shochu. Hosted by a rotating team of industry professionals, the bi-weekly show brings the stories from the front lines of the industry, serving as an informative, educational and inspiring resource for a world of sake and shochu fans, food and beverage specialists, and sake-curious. Sake On Air is broadcast from the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center in Tokyo, Japan, and is made possible with the support of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.
The Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center is home to a slew of sake-centric events all throughout the year. On occasion, we like to pool that info together in one place to share with our listeners so that locals are in-the-know and lucky visitors don’t miss out on a great opportunity to further (re)discover exciting realms of sake, shochu and awamori.
Sake Salon #23 – Fushimi Sake Night
Date: October 28 (Mon)
Location: Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
Guests: Tokubei Masuda (President of Masuda Tokubei Shoten, makers of Tsuki no Katsura brand sake), Yukihiro Kitagawa (President of Kitagawa Honke, makers of Tomio brand sake)
Seats: 30 people
Details: Event will include presentations from both breweries along with tastings and light food to accompany.
Location: Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
Guests: Representatives from the Finnish Embassy in Tokyo
Details: A special event to commemorate 100 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Finland. Enjoy a selection of sake together with various light fare representative of and inspired by classic Finnish cuisine.
NOTE: This event will be hosted and conducted primarily in Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers are more than welcome to attend. Please just note that English language support will be limited.
Across a pair of recent episodes of Sake On Air, Wolfgang Angyal, CEO of the Riedel company in Japan, has prepared a brilliant workshop, an opportunity to understand Riedel’s methodology for devising and determining the shape of a glass vessel, as well as sample a selection of sake in Riedel glasses (wine glass, daiginjo glass, junmai glass) … and a traditional guinomi.
The point was not to settle upon what is “best” for sake, but about experiencing how the choice of the vessel impacts the tasting, through a number of factors: temperature, position of the head and shape of the mouth, flux, aromatic intensity.
As a follow-up to the recent episode, I wanted to to take a moment to reexamine some of the things we know about the history of sake-related glassware in Japan.
Until the beginning of the 18th century, glass had to be imported into Japan. Remember that this transparent material is not part of Japanese traditional architecture. While the first glass material was probably brought in from Korea, there are signs that an active glass-shaping craft took root across the Japanese archipelago, to produce comma-shaped beads for example, whose design is unique to Japan (one of the imperial regalia) and Korea, as early as during the Yayoi period (300BC to 300AD).
In the 8th century, one of the Silk Roads’ branches was ending in Nara, the then Imperial capital of Japan. The Shosoin Treasure Hall has splendid and precious glass-made drinking and serving ware which arrived from Persia around this time.
From the 16th century, Portuguese, Spanish then Dutch merchants brought European glassware into the country through their Nagasaki trading post (including wine glasses, bottles and decanters for daily use). Japanese were enthralled by such products, and glassware soon became popular items for upper class society.
Japanese started manufacturing glass in the 18th century using Chinese knowledge and technique, with the inspiration of Western design. By that time, the first Riedel family member had entered into the trade of luxury glassware in Europe, in Northwest Bohemia.
At a recent exhibition of selected inspiring ancient craft at Suntory Museum in Tokyo, glassware actually had a remarkable presence. I remember a gorgeous sake ewer with a handle and small series of beautiful blue, freely blown sake bottles dating from Edo times (1600-1868). They were almost perfect in shape, although not identical, showing that no mold was used. In addition they do not show the scar of the pontil rod, a tool used by European glass makers, that facilitates the production of blown glass. Such a rod enables the artisan to work on the mouth or handle of the piece while holding the shaped glass from the bottom. Because such technique was unknown in Japan, one can understand that these blue bottles, produced in large quantities, required considerable skill from the artisan! These bottles are known as “bidoro”, coming from the Portuguese work “vidro” (glass).
The first book describing glass making in Japan was published in 1829. In 1834, artisans developed a beautiful cut glass technique in Tokyo (known as Edo kiriko; Edo was the name of Tokyo before the Meiji Restoration), followed by Kagoshima in 1851 (known as Satsuma kiriko; Satsuma is the pre-Meiji name of the Southern Kyushu region, the name of the ruling clan). Satsumo kiriko is well known for its magnificent transparent red material (color produced by copper), and diverse motif compositions. European cut glass (Bohemia, England …) influenced the design, however, as often is in the world of arts, local craftspeople went one step further and developed a unique style. The Satsuma glass making workshops were burnt to ashes during the Anglo Satsuma war of 1863. Glass making was restarted in 1872, with beautiful objects sent to the Imperial Household, however specialists judge that Satsuma kiriko never fully recovered from this 10-year long interruption. The exhibition presented this boat shaped bowl with a bat on the stern (a symbol of good fortune), its wings outspread, and a tomoe motif (yin-yang double interlocking comma) on the prow. It probably had different usages, including this of a haisen, a bowl filled with clean water, placed between people drinking together, so that one could rinse (i.e. clean) the sake cup before passing it to the other.
In 1910, Gekkeikan, a dynamic sake brewer from Fushimi (in Kyoto) introduced a small transparent bottle in the shape of a tokkuri, with an attached ochoko cap made from the same material, which was sold to passengers at train stations of the government-owned railway authority. According to the brewery, it gradually expanded nationwide over a few years, contributing to spreading the Gekkeikan brand, eventually becoming Japan’s largest sake producer. Until railways unlocked Kyoto sake from the former Imperial Capital’s limits, Nada sake (Kobe today) was the dominant sake “exporter” to the economic and political capital Edo. Today we can find sake bottles in many different colors. From the sixties, brown and green became most popular. Gekkeikan introduced brown sake bottles before 1927, to protect the drink against ultraviolets.
The use of large glasses, and stemware in particular, was inspired by the wine culture and is a recent phenomenon. Stems are rarely seen in Japanese table arts. The tradition remains influenced by the low tables where multiple plates are placed next to each other.
On a recent overseas sake promotion project guiding wine experts around breweries in Japan, one term that popped up more times than I care to remember was terroir. Not from the wine experts, but from the breweries, who were using it in their marketing spiel.
However, what I later learned from the feedback of the participants is that very few were really using the term correctly. They were claiming there was a terroir where perhaps there wasn’t. I realized that in the sake world, the concept, if it even existed, or needed to exist, was blurred. Many breweries think that throwing in words from the wine world instantly makes their sake more familiar overseas, but in reality, very few people really relate to or understand these buzzwords that they are using.
Despite having recently acquired a high-level wine qualification, I myself didn’t have a perfect grasp of the terroir concept. As you may have noticed in this podcast, I couldn’t even pronounce the word properly. I learned that there is even a debate in the wine world about the true definition of terroir. If the wine world is still not sure what terroir is, then surely its adoption by the sake world is a little premature. The more research I did on the topic, the more it became clear that the timing was right to get a podcast on this topic out in the open.
The intention was never to conquer the topic in one episode. This episode is simply laying the groundwork for future exploration. I went into this podcast on the fence about terroir. And I remain on the fence. Terroir definitely helps the smaller breweries stand out, but I am not sure it is the right word they should be using to talk about what is essentially just regionality.
We didn’t really talk much about the protective purpose of terroirs with regards to geographic indications, etc., but this always felt to me like an entirely different debate. Some of our listeners may already have made their mind up about the terroir of sake, but whatever your feelings about this topic, I definitely think more debate and more analysis is needed before we jump to any conclusions. In future episodes, I think we will need to include more insight from the actual brewers and representatives of the wine world to help flesh out the discussion.
Directors cut: we also talked about the relationship between local cuisine and sake, Japanese beer production, and the concept of jizake, but these segments all sort of felt like they lost focus a bit, so they didn’t make it into the final cut. We may (likely) revisit any or all of these one day.
– Chris H. (aka Big Chris) –
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