Loping Along the Ginjo Trail

Story by Chris Pearce

Loping Along the Ginjo Trail

Loping Along the Ginjo Trail 2400 1600 World Sake Imports

100 Years in Pursuit of Perfection

Ginjo has always struck me as one of the loveliest words in the Japanese language. The character “gin” combines the radicals for “mouth” and “this moment” and is used with words that denote singing or reading poetry, as in “ginsei” (reciting voice) or “ginko” (traveling minstrel). The basic concept seems to be a voice at perfect pitch, and it was this idea of balance and timber that crept into the sake world. “The secret of superior sake,” instructed a brewing history of Hiroshima published in 1917, “is to brew it with careful scrutiny (ginmi).” Taking this idea a step further, Dr. Kamajiro Eda introduced the word “ginjo” in an article on desirable qualities in competition sakes published in 1911. Eventually it came to designate a category of sakes that, with their enticing aromas and elegant finesse, are a world apart from the dry, acidic sakes which were the norm in Japan until fairly recent times.

Before loping any further along the ginjo trail, I would like to pay tribute to Chieko Kumagai, one of the great modern teachers of the sake world, whose two books “Ginjoshu no Hanashi” (All About Ginjo Sake) and, with other contributors, “Shuzo Kyohon,” a textbook on sake brewing published by the Japan Brewing Association, contain just about all that anyone would want to know about sake. Dr. Kumagai joined the National Research Institute of Brewing in 1961 after graduating from Tokyo Agricultural University and since then she has held a variety of research posts. Her popular courses and seminars have tutored hundreds of aspiring young neophytes in the art and science of sake-brewing. For the last two years Kumagai-sensei has participated as a judge at the U.S. National Sake Appraisal held in Honolulu, and she has graciously agreed to allow me to quote from her work for the next few columns on ginjo sake.

Before looking at what ginjo sakes are, it may be instructive to look first at what they are not. An analysis of brewing records from 1870 to 1910 shows that the sake people drank then was quite different from what we enjoy today. Because the rice-polishing ratio was very low, usually with under 15% of the rice milled away, sakes were around 2.5 times more acidic than the ones we drink today. In addition, because research on specialty rice brewing varieties was still in its infancy, brewers used the cheapest rice they could lay their hands on. The carbohydrates locked into these often small, hard rice grains did not easily convert into glucose, a form of sugar, through enzyme action, and so sakes were lacking in sweetness and dry to the point of harshness. Even the “Onigoroshi” (demon-slayer) sakes that are the driest available today are only half as dry and acidic as the sakes of a hundred years ago. Last year I tried the oldest Onigoroshi around, from a brewery in Gifu Prefecture, and found it singularly unappealing.

During the Edo Period (1615–1868), cold weather brewing techniques developed in the Nada quarter of present day Kobe, featuring the use of the kimoto method and improved polishing with water-powered rice mills, set the standard for brewing excellence. (History records that the founder of Sakura Masamune once produced a sake made from rice polished for three days and three nights, which won the highest praise from Nada’s sake aficionados.) Regional sakes were unknown outside their own provinces, but there are frequent records of brewery owners traveling to Nada to entice toji (brewmasters) to work for them or least part with a few secrets. Within a few generations they would outshine their mentors at the annual Japan National Sake Appraisal, first held in Tokyo in 1908.

Although the toji had an intuitive understanding of the tiny microorganisms that produce sake, until the 20th century there was no body of scientific knowledge on sake brewing. After the arrival of Western civilization in Japan, scientific methods were introduced, and brewers began to record such variables as temperature, alcohol percentage, acidity and dryness vs. sweetness, observing how the interplay of these factors affected the taste and balance. New milling equipment, which polished rice grains along the vertical axis instead of horizontally, was developed, leading to further improvements in sake quality. With these innovations, by the early 1930s technically the stage was set for the creation of sakes of a higher order than had ever been possible before. By 1935 brewers were using mainly Omachi rice, with polishing ratios of sixty, fifty and even forty percent, to produce entries for the Japan National Sake Appraisal. Following a trend that began around 1910, sakes gradually became sweeter—apparently the public liked them that way, an important consideration for the mandarins in the Tax Ministry, which controlled the sake industry. A century ago over 20% of Japan’s total revenues came from taxes levied on sake production.

World War II brought a slow-down to the steady proliferation of sake-brewing technology throughout the country, and in the postwar years brewers cashed in on the national craving for alcohol by producing inferior sakes with a high percentage of added pure alcohol, rather than alcohol produced through natural fermentation. Sake’s infamous reputation for inducing staggering hangovers dates back to these days, when almost everything you drank was cloyingly sweet and laced to the gills with 99% brewer’s alcohol. It was not until the mid-1960s that brewers moved in the direction of clean, light sakes we take for granted today.

Further advances in scientific analysis made it possible for ginjo sakes to be produced, first in small lots for competitions and then on a commercial scale. Newly acquired gas chromatography equipment enabled Dr. Seiichi Tanaka and his team to isolate and analyze individual amino acids, accomplishing in a day what used to take a year. These amino acids not only contribute to the balance and harmony of a given sake, they also provide essential nutrients for yeasts. In the mid-60s a research group under Dr. Shigeji Iida focussed on the esters that produce aromas such as melon, apple and anise in sake, discovering a number of formerly unknown ones. Additional work revealed the ideal balance of desirable esters in a sake sample, creating the basis for what would eventually emerge as a template against which competition sakes could be judged, with the gold medals going to entries which seamlessly brought together aroma and flavor in perfect balance.

It took dedicated work by generations of researchers to bring sake to the point it is today. Last year the National Research Institute of Brewing celebrated its centennial anniversary. Its affiliated academic journal has been in continuous publication almost as long. I’m not sure there is anything in the wine world, at least not until thirty years ago, to equal the amount of scientific inquiry that has gone into sake. When A. H. Rose of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bath in England produced the first detailed monograph on sake production in 1977, he cited over 150 research papers published in Japanese. Building on tradition is a hallmark of Japanese culture, and nowhere is this more evident than among those who have dedicated their lives to unraveling the secrets of brewing delicious ginjo sake.


This articles was written by Chris Pearce, president of World Sake Imports, and was originally published in the Hawaii Herald.

    Back to top