Regional sake styles are dominating the conversation
It’s one of the hottest drinks shows in town. Literally. This is the seventh year Kampai Toronto has been staged by the Sake Institute of Ontario (SIO) and, similar to every year I can recall, it’s wilting hot outside. Luckily, the cool brick walls of the Fermenting Cellar in the city’s Distillery District and the (functioning, thank god) AC, are keeping the attendees and exhibitors — and sakes — cool enough to show their best.
That Kampai Toronto has been more or less a sold-out event every year attests to the burgeoning interest in Japan’s national drink (now produced elsewhere, including British Columbia and Ontario). Indeed, Kampai Toronto allows sake newbies and aficionados alike to get a firsthand taste of what the category is currently offering. Let’s just say that the sake industry is working diligently to quash stereotypes and preconceived notions, expand its audience and further refine one of the world’s most refined drinks.
I’d heard from many an industry insider that there’s a new breed of younger sake master brewers (toji) who are exploring some new directions, but I had never been clear on exactly what these directions were. To get the lowdown, I asked sake expert (and my usual go-to for all things sake) Michael Tremblay to elaborate on the evolution of Japan’s brewers and the contributions made by the country’s toji guilds.
“Toji guilds came about during the Edo period, from rice growers who had time to brew sake in the winter months when they had nothing much else to do,” Tremblay explains. “Some would travel to other prefectures for work and bring back the techniques used [by other toji]. These guilds passed down the history and teachings from generation to generation.”
The new generation still relies, to an extent, on handed-down tradition, but they have more in their brewing arsenal.
“With the younger generations, brewers that are being groomed to take over the family brewery for example, many of them are going to university and getting formal training in sake making,” Tremblay reveals. “Some even go on to do graduate degrees in molecular biology and study yeast strains [and other brewing minutia]. Thus, this younger generation — not all but many — are entering sake making from an academic standpoint. Many have also travelled much more than the toji they will replace … visiting wine-making regions like Napa or Burgundy, and coming back with ideas.”
Younger toji at breweries like Kojima Sohonten are developing new fermentation tanks that are inert. Firms like Kuheiji and Matsumoto are employing new wooden rice steamers. Others are trying bottle pasteurization with the cap on so the sake absorbs a little CO2, adding a refreshing spritz to the final product. And some are tipping their hats to the wine industry, printing rice harvest vintage dates on bottles.
“Many are also trying to grow rice again, something that was outlawed after World War II for breweries and where the rules have finally changed that allow them to,” says Tremblay. “And a big one for me: brewers are more open to working with one another, critiquing and learning from each other.”
Besides rice, yeast — perhaps the most significant contributor to the flavour — is another component that is going through something of an evolution.
“Prefectures such as Shizuoka have yeast strains to thank for their regional style and for putting them on the sake map, winning all kinds of sake competitions in the 1980s,” Tremblay remarks. “Other prefectures like Kyoto are working on new yeasts that can work well with Iwai, Kyoto’s heirloom sake rice that is being revived at the moment. Hiroshima is another prefecture actively working on new yeast strains.”
Tremblay mentions “regional styles,” which is perhaps one of the most significant developments in the sake world. A pre-show seminar at Kampai Toronto — led by Tremblay — admirably demonstrated the stylistic differences between sakes brewed in prefectures including Nigata, Kyoto, Gifu and Hiroshima, among others. Tremblay notes that most sake-producing regions that are choosing to emphasize their uniqueness are doing so via a distinguishing logo on their bottles. “This is really cool,” he enthuses, adding that this logo typically means all components are local.
Yet striving to source all ingredients from a specific area is not without its complications. The water, rice and yeast used in sake production can — and often are — sourced from parts of the country that may be a significant distance from the actual brewery.
“One of the big cons of [a regional focus] is that the best rice in the world for brewing premium sake, Yamada Nishiki, is predominantly grown in the southern part of Japan in places like Hyogo, Osaka and Fukuoka,” Tremblay admits. “So even in Yamagata, where there is a strong regional focus, almost every brewer is purchasing Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo, which is the premier region for the best Yamada Nishiki, to make top-quality sake. So, regionality works here, but since rice can be purchased in other parts of the country, there will always be sake made using ingredients from another prefecture. With that said, I think what’s really cool is that many prefectures are continuously trying to breed a new strain of rice that works in their climate and is as good as Yamada Nishiki. In addition, almost every prefecture in Japan has a sake rice that is indigenous to that region.”
That Tremblay singles out Yamagata as having a strong regional focus isn’t coincidental. Earlier in the year, I attended yet another Tremblay-led seminar hosted by the Independent Wine Education Guild (IWEG). The night focused solely on the sakes brewed in the Yamagata region. What makes Yamagata worthy of such focus?
Writing for Sake Today, Haruo Matsuzaki argues that it, “… would not be an exaggeration to say that from [the 1980s], Yamagata as a whole established itself at the very forefront of sake trends.” He cites the usual culprits: younger brewers with new ideas who were willing to work together, new strains of yeast and the development of new rice strains (think Dewa Sansan, Dewa no Sato, and Yuki Megami).
“What are the general characteristics of Yamagata sake? It is light and delicate, as is the sake of the whole Tohoku region. It also exhibits even character, having been brewed with rice mainly from the same region, and furthermore enjoys a refined quality. Yamagata’s is a well-developed style of sake that is likely a combination of the effects of balanced flavours and aromas that arise from the use of Yamagata Kobo [yeast], as well as the prefecture’s determined efforts to produce sake that would garner attention in bigger markets all over the country,” Matsuzaki concludes.
In any case, Yamagata was the first sake prefecture to be recognized with a Geographical Indication (GI) from the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2016. The sakes we tasted ranged from the fragrant, floral Eiko Fuji “Ban Ryu” Honjozo, to the slightly funkier Dewanoyuki Kimoto Junmai (Kimoto being an ancient fermentation technique that leads to an earthier profile), to the intensely complex Yamagata Masamune “1898” Kimoto Junmai. Even though all nine samples were from the same prefecture, they were all distinct — and impeccably crafted.
Yet it’s not just within the sake-brewing community where things are evolving. From her perch aloft the Aburi Restaurant Canada empire, sake specialist Miki Ellis has a bird’s-eye view of the change in consumer appreciation of sake. I chatted with her at a pop-up food and sake pairing at Miku Toronto (one of two Miku establishments in the Aburi fold).
When asked if she’s noticed a change in consumer attitudes towards sake, she responds, “Absolutely. Over the past five years there’s been a huge increase in consumer knowledge.” She notes that old preconceptions have faded substantially, and that her customers are becoming more experimental. “They understand that chilled sake is a legitimate — and often better — serving temperature, and they more often opt for top-quality daiginjo-grade bottles.” Ellis also sides with Tremblay (and practically everyone else I spoke to) when it comes to the importance of regionality. “Japan is incredible when it comes to regionality in general, and this is especially important when it comes to producers of all food and drink, including sake.”
All well and good. But I still couldn’t helping walking away from all this wondering, “does regional actually mean better?” I guess this is up to me (and you) to decide.