Updated: Sep 25, 2022
What is it about sake that captures the imagination so thoroughly? Although lacking in number compared to those of other alcoholic beverages, such as wine, beer, and whisky, fans of sake often have a passion that is second to none. When asked to explain this appeal, my former toji used to say ‘’sake is just a clear liquid, but there are many stories within.’’ That statement acknowledges the formidable journey sake makes from brewer to consumer whilst also stating its most endearing feature: its story
More than anything, the story of sake is one of people. The collective hard work of farmers, distributors, researchers, promotors and, of course, brewers, to name but a few, can be felt with every sip. For many, this transcends sake from a mere product of consumption to something of intrigue. For some, it will compel them to visit Japan, to see where it’s made and meet the people who make it. For others, it might even be the inspiration needed to make the life-changing step of joining the ranks of the industry. All these scenarios are good for sakes’ future.
Indeed, I’ve always maintained that conveying the story of how sake is made is a great way of developing new demographics. Japanese craftsmanship is famous throughout the world, and sake is an important part of this. Those who have visited sake breweries before, or perhaps had the chance to speak with those directly involved in the industry, will know that each maker is different. They seemingly all have a fascinating story to tell, filled with unique quirks and anecdotes, told by some of the most passionate people you could ever hope to meet. The enthusiasm this generates is contagious, and that little bit of background regarding a product or brewery can have a profound effect on our purchasing choices.
Virtually all the sake I buy is because of something interesting I have learned about how, why, or where it was made. The sake I want to introduce here is a perfect example of this. It epitomises the seemingly run-of-the-mill brews that you are likely to find on the shelfs of Japanese supermarkets, the kind you aren’t likely to find in the refrigerator of a modern, upmarket sake bar, or the kind that nowadays is often passed off as ‘’cheap’’ or even ‘’low grade’’ belonging to a bygone era. Ironically, it’s also the type of sake that has the most interesting story to tell, one that on close inspection reveals more about the methods and wisdom that built the foundations of today's sake industry than the vast majority of modern so-called ‘’top-shelf’’ sake ever could.
Sawanotsuru tokusen (Special Selection), Kimoto Honjozo
Although not ubiquitous like some of the other Nada brands, Sawanotsuru (crane of the swamp) is still well-known and nationally distributed. They have been brewing sake since the mid-Edo period (1603-1868), a time of rapid development in the industry, and are one of the world’s largest producers by volume. Despite this, I had never tasted their sake until recently when I came across an old article written by one of their former toji, Mr Sakai Masashi. Published in the mid-nineties, it was appended to a modern translation of the Domo Shuzoki (Idiots Guide to Brewing), thought to have been written around the late 17th century, and arguably the best extant record we have on sake brewing from the early-modern era.
Essentially, it's an article about the Tanba-ryu (Tamba School), a style of brewing developed by the guild of the same name located in Hyogo Prefecture and considered to be one of the Three Great Brewer’s Guilds of Japan. However, considering that it was written during the so-called Ginjo Boom, we can surmise that it is also a heartfelt appeal to modern consumers to remember that not all sake needs to be light (tanrei) and highly aromatic. Indeed, Sakai specifically contrasts the light-tasting sake synonymous with this time with the rich, strong fares of years past, and how the latter is now looked down upon by consumers.
Sakai was himself a member of the Tanba guild, and it was his passionate explanation of their brewing style that prompted me to visit Sawanotsuru. The Tamba-ryu greatly contributed to Nada’s rise during the mid-to-late Edo Period, which would eventually help establish Nada as the preeminent brewing region in Japan. Their techniques were said to be well-adapted to the hard water found throughout the region, such as the famous Miyamizu, and they are credited with developing several other techniques that would eventually help Nada's sake dominate the lucrative consumer market of Edo (modern day Tokyo).
During this time brewing was done by the kimoto-style (kimoto-kei) method without the use of cultured yeasts. Nowadays, sake made in this way garners much attention, especially from consumers of natural wines who have gravitated towards the notion of an additive-free beverage made with ‘’minimal intervention’’ and strong connotations of ‘’tradition’’. However, one aspect of the Tamba-ryu that is less appealing to this niche demographic is the use of brewer’s alcohol, a practice that can trace its roots back to the early Edo period. That makes it traditional, which ironically is what exponents of its counterpart, Junmai, frequently claim it is not. Back then brewers used Shochu, known as hashira-jochu (support shochu), rather than brewers’ alcohol, but the principles were the same. When done skillfully, and not to simply increase yields, it can produce sake that is ideal for prolonged drinking, similar to the term ‘’session’’ used to describe easy-drinking beer.
Much maligned, honjozo is fast becoming a niche category. Mostly this is due to a lack of understanding; other times it's simply bias from those who consider Junmai to be a superior product. Regardless, the decline of this once mighty category is a worrying sign for the industry. Therefore, to avoid sake such as these being limited to only consumers who value the liquid in their glass rather than the latest consumer trends, their story also needs to be told. There is a wealth of great sake that receives little or no attention in overseas promotion and dealing with the misinformation surrounding them must surely be a priority for any self-respecting ambassador of the industry. The story found within each sip of this Sawanotsuru tokusen, one that includes the traditional kimoto method, the methods of one of its most famous guilds, and the rise of its most famous region, is surely the perfect sort to capture the imagination of new consumers.
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