At the start of the Miyagi Prefecture section, I transferred about 10 milliliters from the first entry to my sampling cup. Turning to my program I found that Katsuyama Brewing Co., Ltd. from the prefectural capitol of Sendai, had impressed the judges favorably. It was one of 278 sakes in a field of 1049 to receive a Gold Award in the 92nd annual Japan National Sake Appraisal. Spitting discretely into one of the standing spittoons spaced every two feet along our tasting corridor, I loosened by tie, drew a deep breath and settled down to the serious work at hand.
The Japan National Sake Appraisal, conducted by the National Research Institute of Brewing, goes back to 1910, when Japan’s Ministry of Finance, Department of Taxation, concluded that more sake would be drunk, and more taxes paid, if the sake tasted better. One third of the cost of the Russo-Japanese war was paid for by Japan’s breweries and sake drinkers, and as late as 1955 twenty percent of all tax revenues came from sake consumption. Even now the Japan National Research Institute of Brewing, which conducts the appraisal, is closely connected to the Tax Office.
For the breweries who participate, the appraisal is one of the most important occasions of the year. The sakes submitted as entries are competition sakes and not for sale to the public. They are made in small lots in 500-liter tanks, with every minute task attended to by hand. Some breweries produce three entry batches and then either submit the most successful or seek to capture the best attributes of all three with a blend. The competition is only for daiginjo sakes, at the pinnacle of the sake world, made from rice polished down to forty percent, or even thirty percent, of its original size—no more than the size of the head of a pin.
It is a pitiless contest—the judging is based on a strict profile of what a prize-winning sake should taste like and smell like, and how it should impress itself on the human brain’s noetic receptors, which know instantly whether an entry has soared beyond this humble world of mundane achievement and reached the sublime heights of sake perfection. I still recall last year’s entry from Uragasumi, which seemed to dance, lighter than air, across my tongue before vanishing effortlessly into the happy reaches of sake nirvana.
Setting such lofty thoughts aside, I returned to the trenches. After the first forty sakes or so I found that I could readily detect subtle nuances in the entries–more acidity here, more mellow mouth-feel there, a shocking lack of finesse on rare occasion. I recalled the words of Chieko Kumagaya, a judge at the 3rd U.S. National Sake Appraisal last year, who told me, when I expressed some concern at the daunting task of a 65-year-old woman tasting over 200 sakes at a sitting, “I only hit my stride after the first hundred.”
For me the most interesting part of the event was sampling the entries that had failed to receive recognition. In most cases it was clear that the three fundamentals—balance, taste and aroma—were out of sync with each other. As a result, the sense of balance and harmony that a great sake possesses was lacking. No wonder no prize. Occasionally though one of the sakes that had failed to win an award would stand up quite well, and it was probably just bad luck that kept it from placing. The entries are judged on a scale of one to five, and it only takes poor marks from a couple of judges—tiring perhaps after the long slog around the tasting tables—to deprive a delicious sake of entree into the winning circle.
Sake fatigue was something I could definitely relate to, and as the day wore on I began to feel a bit flagged. By three in the afternoon, with numerous rests in between, I’d sampled no more than 400 of the entries, less than half and a pitiful record for the envoy from America. But one most proceed at one’s own pace, and there would be another opportunity soon for large-scale sake-tasting back in Honolulu.
The first U.S. National Sake Appraisal was held in Hawaii in 2001 under the guidance of the Japan National Research Institute of Brewing. Now in its fourth year, this official tasting brings together experts from Japan and the United States to judge the quality of sakes available overseas in a blind tasting. A day or two after the appraisal, all of the entries are made available for sampling, accompanied by sake appetizers prepared by top Honolulu restaurants, at The Joy of Sake. This year, following the Honolulu event, The Joy of Sake travelled to San Francisco and New York. Full details on last year’s events can be found at the Joy of Sake website (www.joyofsake.com), and the 2005 schedule will be announced in February.
This articles was written by Chris Pearce, president of World Sake Imports, and was originally published in the Hawaii Herald.