A Look into the Sake World
By Jonathan Krupko, University of Iowa, and intern at JETRO Chicago
On June 21st more than 100 participants gathered for Chicago's fourth sake tasting and pairing presented by JETRO and the Consulate General of Japan. The event consisted of 25 vendors featuring more than 80 brands of sake originating from various prefectures in Japan. Ten of the vendors present were brewers who had made the 13 hour flight from Japan; the other fifteen were domestic distributors traveling from as far as Los Angeles and New York. The attendees consisted of restaurant owners, food and beverage directors, chefs, and local distributors who were interested in increasing their sake selections.
The event began with opening remarks from The Hon. Yoshifumi Okamura, Consul General of Japan at Chicago. He thanked all in attendance before describing in detail how "Sake is a masterpiece of Japanese craftsmanship." Following Consul General Okamura, guest speaker "Sake Samurai" John Gauntner addressed the crowd. John Gauntner is a world leading sake expert and the only non-Japanese person in the world to possess both the Master of Sake Tasting and Sake Expert Assessor certificates. He lives in Japan and is the author of many books including The Sake Handbook.
Mr. Gauntner began with the fact that sake sales in America have been increasing over the last ten years. He predicts this increase will continue for years to come as more and more Americans become familiarized with sake. He pointed out that the increase in attendance from last year's event compared to this one alone shows the growing interest. He continued to explain key topics including growing trends, sake list suggestions, and serving temperatures.
New trends such as aromatic sakes, sparkling sakes, and unpasteurized sakes are growing. Aromatic flavors such as apple, banana, and licorice have been growing in popularity for the last five/six years in the United States. Sparkling sakes have been gaining recognition over the last five years as well, but still are only a niche market making up a very low percentage of the entire sake market. Unpasteurized sake, which was not nearly as common 20 years ago as it is today, is the third trend that has recently had substantial growth. Most sake is pasteurized twice, once before it is stored in tanks and then again after it has been left to sit for six months to a year. The recent transition to storing sake in bottles, as opposed to tanks, has allowed brewers a choice regarding pasteurization. They can either pasteurize it once before storage in a bottle, or bottle it without pasteurization and then do so after it has been left to sit for six months to a year. Furthermore, the ability to keep sake refrigerated during storage has now allowed brewers to keep it unpasteurized. With all of these new trends making their way into stores and restaurants, sake lists differentiating by flavor and brewing techniques have been growing in popularity.
"There is no one right way to make a sake list," Gauntner said. "It ultimately comes down to preference; but remember, your main goal is to impress the customer and show diversity within your inventory." By doing this, you show the consumer how unique each sake is compared to the next and intrigue him or her to try different types. The general rule when making a list is to keep it simple, eliminate confusion, and do not overwhelm your customer. There are many ways to create a sake list. Mr. Gauntner suggested three ways that tend to be the most effective: by style, by origin, and by grade. By style usually is best when you have a variety of types, for example sparking sakes, aged sakes, and aromatic sakes. You can list them directly by type or by taste (for example sweet, semi-sweet, and dry) or aroma. This is a creative method that makes a distinct difference the consumer will understand. By origin is suggested when you have sakes that are from all over Japan. Typically, northern brewed sakes taste different from southern brewed sakes due to the different climates and rice styles. This method is common in Japan and shows diversity, but listing by prefecture or region may confuse your customers if not properly displayed, Gauntner warns. Thirdly, listing by grade is typically the easiest. Sake is usually fairly priced with respect to quality, so listing by price will in fact give you a list that is ascending by grade as well. Use this method if you have many premium sakes such as junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo, for it is the easiest method for a customer to judge quality by.
The last topics touched upon were glassware and serving temperature. There is no set rule for either. Once again, it comes down to preference. Mr. Gauntner did give some suggestions however. He said that wine glasses work great and everyone has them. There is no need to go out and buy special glasses, especially if you cannot afford them. Use what suits your establishment best. Gauntner recommended that wine glasses are a particularly good choice, if you list by aroma. On the other hand, warmed sakes are better served in smaller glasses. When it comes to serving temp, remember there is such a thing as too hot and too cold. Experiment with cold, room temp, and lukewarm, but not boiling or frozen because it will skew the taste. As to storage, Mr. Gauntner said sake should be stored cool and out of strong light. It does not need to be refrigerated unless it is namazake (unpasteurized sake). However, colder temperatures will retard aging.
One of the questions Mr. Gauntner addressed at the end was, "What is the difference between rice grown here (United States) vs. rice grown there (Japan)?" Mr. Gauntner explained that rice grown in Japan is short grain rice vs. medium grain rice which is typically grown in the United States. The style of rice affects how the rice will be milled for each type of sake. The other main difference is found in the quality of the rice; how much protein is in the rice and whether or not the starch is concentrated in the center both relate to how the rice is grown. Typically, Japanese rice is carefully grown to about a foot tall before it is planted in the fields, unlike United States' methods, which results in a difference in quality.
Another question asked was about the best way to heat sake. "There are many ways to heat sake," Mr. Gaunter said, "but you must be careful not to evaporate the alcohol, because this will skew the taste." He suggested that you first heat water to boiling and then remove it from the heat source. Next, place a flask with the sake in it into this boiling water. This way, you can ensure to not heat the sake to boiling temperatures and risk evaporating the alcohol.
After Mr. Gauntner's informative speech ended, the guests returned to tasting the vast selections and variety of sakes from all over Japan. While packing up, Ms. Matsushima of Kikusui Brewery said, "This was a great opportunity for all. I am pleased to have been a part of it." Business between the attendees was conducted and positive results were the outcome. JETRO and the Consulate General of Japan at Chicago want to thank all who participated in this event, and hope to see you next time.
A sake brewer explains his sakes to attendees
A sake brewer explains her sakes to attendees
A sake distributor pours samples of sake
Attendees also got to sample Japanese craft beer
Attendees sample a brewer's sakes
Sake Samurai John Gauntner addressing the audience
Speaker John Gauntner (L) & attendee examining sakes