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Thursday, July 27, 2000
For new sake sensations, seek out the 'brat pack'
After tasting sake for some time, we begin to search for sake we have not yet tried. Of course, we have our favorites, sake we can fall back on and drink any day of the week. And we already know about good, well-publicized sake, be they blue chips such as Kubota or powerful upstarts like Juyondai.
Still, part of the joy of sake is the thrill of discovery. With 1,700 brewers blending tradition and modern advances, our chances of finding a new sake stimulation are good.
Where does one find new stars of the sake world? A good place to start would be a respected sake pub. Obvious though it may seem, places like Kuri, Akaoni, Mushu and Japontei -- to name just a few in the Tokyo area -- always seem to have something new. (Reviews and contact info for all of these can be found at www.sake-world.com)
What is good about such pubs is that they seem to have dibs on sake in short supply; no matter how hard it can be for consumers to find a bottle of a given sake, you can always find it at one good pub or another. It sells at a premium, of course, but at least you can sample it.
Many of these pubs are supplied by the same group of distributors. Big sake shops such as Hasegawa, Machida-ya, Suzuden, Mitsuya and Koyama Shoten in the Tokyo area alone, as well as Kimijimiya in Yokohama, help certain sake make it big.
Then there are the magazines. The slick food-and-drink magazine Dancyu, for example, often has something on sake or sake pubs, highlighting several brands in a given article. Other magazines worth watching include Pota, Amuse, Sarai and even the Walker series (Tokyo Walker, Men's Walker and so on).
A rising star sake pretty much has it made when it is written up in such a magazine. Naturally, you still have to go out and taste it, but a bit of study beforehand -- knowing what to look for -- always helps.
Of course, just because a sake is in a particular publication or pub doesn't guarantee it's good, but by the time a sake becomes this well known, you can bet it's survived a gamut of critical assessment.
How do relatively obscure but good sake suddenly jump into the limelight? One brewer explained to me that it is through the well-intentioned efforts of one or more of the larger distributors. When they come upon what they think might be the next big thing or a hidden gem, they proceed to push the new product on pubs and retailers interested in staying in the forefront.
One other way new stars rise to the top is by receiving an indirect endorsement from well-known sake sensei, be they famous sake writers, or more often a well-respected government sake taster or inspector. The influence of their public commendations is significant.
I have no intention to diss this system, nor am I frowning upon the distributors or senseilike individuals that grease the machinery. On the contrary, thanks to the hard work and experience of all of those involved we are able to learn more about good sake and locate it more easily.
If there is any criticism to be made, it would be that there are plenty of great sake, with great stories behind them, that never receive the recognition they deserve. In any region of Japan, there are tiny kura brewing excellent sake that survive in relative anonymity, despite their potential greatness. Perhaps they deliberately shun the attention, preferring to satisfy a small local audience. Regardless, it's too bad that a few names are picked to bask in glory while so much wonderful sake remains unknown.
I like to refer to these newly popular brands as the "brat pack." This moniker may seem misleading, since most of these brewers have been around for well over 100 years. Still, among the more staid and famous labels, these sake have an aura of freshness and youth.
Members of the brat pack include Aizu Homare and Hiroki from Fukushima and Wataya from Miyagi. Other bona-fide brats are Ryu from Kanagawa, Kamoshi-bito Kuheiji (a mouthful in more ways than one) from Aichi and Tenyurin from Mie. Minami from Kochi and Biwa no Sazanami from Saitama must not be forgotten either. These can be indeed hard to find, but not impossible.
Often these kura are tiny microbrewers. This, of course, is part of their appeal. And, just as often, there is a story behind them, often including a family tragedy or a near-miss, with the phoenix of great sake rising from the ashes. Conversely, this may be why some kura with great sake never become well known: They don't have a story juicy enough to attract the media, and that's a shame.
Another important point to keep in mind is consistency. A brat-packer can sometimes turn out to be a flash in the pan, while many medium- and large-scale brewers make sturdy sake that will be consistently good with little or no deviation from year to year. There is no such guarantee from kura whose production is too small to ensure consistent process control.
Should you ever find yourself bored with your present sake selection, look for members of the brat pack above, old and esteemed members of the sake-brewing world that have recently become a bit more well known. This gang is always changing its members, but you'll rarely be disappointed by what they have to offer.
Oodles of information about sake is available at www.sake-world.com. To be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to email@example.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.
Hiroki (Fukushima Prefecture)
This manifestation of Hiroki is also a muroka nama genshu (unfiltered, unpasteurized, undiluted sake). It has the fullness and richness of flavor and fragrance that would be expected from a sake bearing those words on the label, but is also quite clean and deliberate. Hiroki also has a story: It lost its toji one year and its president the next. The current 33-year-old president was going to throw in the towel, but encouragement from several distributors convinced him to continue -- and take up both toji and president duties. A truly amazing feat.