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Sake World Newsletter #5

Silly Regulations (Part I)

The question often arises from among US readers, "where can I find good sake near my home?" Almost as frequent heard is the question, "Can I buy any good sake over the internet?"

Unfortunately, I must most often answer that I can be of little help.

As far as helping readers find what sake is available near them, or where their favorite brand is, or where good sake in general can be found in a specific area, that information is changing constantly and certainly not located in one place. The closest thing to a US directory is the book Sake Pure and Simple, which lists places that sell and serve sake all over the US. And, although it has been published very recently, it certainly does not have the absolute latest information. Certainly even more stores have begun stocking and selling premium sake since then. There are literally hundreds of brands currently imported into the US, as well as several being brewed domestically.

Yet, despite the fact that more and more places are indeed making good sake available, sake is light years from being a standard product, or one that sells in any volume. Yet. This means that it is still not accorded much shelf space or priority in the minds and plans of distributors and wholesalers, in particular. Point being, it is still relatively hard to find around town.

That leaves the Internet. Ah, yes, the Internet.

Since we know there is plenty of good sake out there, why can't we just contact those who are selling it, where ever they may be, and have them ship it to us? In this day and age we would expect that we could just order it over the Internet and have it sent to us. In a perfect, free-commerce world, this would be true. But the US has a few old laws on the books left over from the days when Prohibition ended that, it could be argued, no longer serve the public. In short, with the exception of about 13 states, it is not legal to ship alcoholic beverages to consumers over state lines.

Many readers may have come up against this seeming brick wall already, perhaps in their attempt to obtain fine wines over the internet. (Kudos to the wine industry for breaking ground here.) It all starts with what is known as the "three tier system" for alcoholic beverages.

In short, there are three tiers to the industry. The top tier is that of producer, like winery, brewery or distillery, OR importer and/or out-of-state-shipper (OOS). The second tier is that of wholesaler or distributor (for all intents and purposes, the same thing). The third tier is retailer. To keep unsavory elements from controlling the industry, no company is allowed to own an interest in more than one tier.

There are some exceptions, gray areas, and quirks to all these laws, and at the same time, I am admittedly not an expert in these legal matters. For examples, wineries can sell directly to consumers in many cases, especially for wines not in distribution. Also, distributor/wholesalers can be out-of-state-shippers, shipping to distributor/wholesalers in other states. But the above is the general gist of the structure.

Next: in order for a sake (as one example) to get into the hands of a consumer in the US, it must pass through all three tiers. In other words, a sake imported would need to go through an importer, wholesaler, and retail shop or restaurant before coming to you, the consumer. Naturally, each tier takes its margin, adding to the final price along the way.

And, finally, sake cannot be shipped from a retailer (or other entity legally permitted to sell directly to consumers) to a consumer in another state, with the exception of the 13 reciprocal states that allow it. This means that if a "distributor" in your state does not carry a sake, it is all but impossible for you to get it.

For the record, those states are: CA, CO, ID, IL, IA, MN, MO, NE, NM, OR, WA, WV, and WI. This list the list to the best of my knowledge. One or two more states may have joined this "alliance" of common sense since the source I referenced was written.

There are, in fact, even more laws and regulations of dubious usefulness exist on the books to further hamper the efforts of those of us trying to learn about and enjoy sake. Next month, we will look at a few more such rules, and address the situation more thoroughly.

Note! Do not take the information in this newsletter as being legally correct! Be sure to check out any and all conditions with the appropriate local authorities!

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A Brief History of Sake (Part I)

The History of Sake

The history of sake is a bit difficult to clearly lay down. Sake itself has taken many forms and changed quite a bit over the centuries, and just when it became the beverage we know today depends on how it is defined.

But working with fairly loose interpretations, sake, like the other fruit and grain fermented beverages of the world, was not so much developed as discovered. Rice that was left out uncovered was exposed to natural airborne enzyme-producing spores. Yeast then fell on the resulting moldy mixture, which was found to create a certain euphoria in those that consumed it. This in turn provoked enough curiosity that a more controlled process was eventually sought. Natural enough.

People would take a bit of this and save it, mixing it with rice later to make another "batch," similar to a sourdough starter. At this stage, the pseudo-sake was still more of a solid mixture than a beverage, and was also relatively low in alcohol since not much yeast at all came into the equation.

Wet rice cultivation began in Japan about the third century, and surely concoctions like the above moldy rice mash were soon to follow. Eventually, in about the 7th century, more technically advanced methods began to trickle in from China and Korea.

Perhaps the first great milestone of the long and winding history of sake was the establishment of a brewing department within the Imperial Palace in the then-capital of Nara (modern-day Nara Prefecture). Although the capital soon moved to Kyoto, certainly some significant progress was made during this time.

Entering into the Heian Era (794-1192), the commoners continued to feast on slightly improved versions of the soupy sake described above, whereas the aristocracy appointed a group of craftsmen to develop and brew several types of sake. It was about this time that some sake began to be consumed warmed, which is seen to have likely been a Chinese influence. If only they knew what they started.

These craftsmen were at the time producing at least 15 types of sake. Brewed for different occasions, festivals and holidays, there was a wide range of not only flavor profiles, but brewing techniques as well. Some were sweet, some were heavy, others were brewed for high alcohol content. Still others were flavored or colored.

Outside the walls of the palace, there were about 180 independent brewers in the Kyoto area alone. Soon, sake breweries located on the grounds of temples and shrines, with their plentiful supply of land, rice and industrious monks, began to flourish. As the economy began to stabilize, many brewing families aligned themselves with shrines and temples as well, to ensure their survival and prosperity.

In the late 14th century, there was a lot of healthy competition among the several hundred brewers in Kyoto, and lots of technical developments took place. The step of using a "starter" mash of an extremely high concentration of yeast cells was developed in this era, as was the isolation of koji spores, (Aspergillus Oryzae, to use the proper scientific monicker), the mold converting rice starch to sugar for fermentation.

As Japan went in and out of civil war, the capital moved to Kamakura and back, and the sake world too rose and fell. But the technology behind it grew steadily. Pasteurization came into use based on empirical observations, although it would be several hundred years before Louis Pasteur figured out why it worked. Texts from 1599 indicate the use of the three-stage brewing process used today. It was also about this time that 100% milled white rice (as opposed to brown rice) began to be used. With this, all the key elements of sake brewing as we know it today were in place.

Which is not to say that sake brewers coasted or rested on their laurels. No, over the next 300 years or so, technical improvements continued to pop up in the industry. Most were certainly the result of experience and the need to save time and manpower. As chemical analysis and the ability to more accurately measure temperature and other parameters became possible, sake with a more consistently higher standard came into being.

(To be continued next month)

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Sake to look for

Since we are still wading through winter, deep in her chilly, white depths, here are five sake that are warming and solid when gently heated. (Try to keep it about 40C, or 110F or so.)

Tosatzuru, Junmai-shu, Kochi Prefecture

Mild, demure nose, with a faint sweet creaminess to it. As is most sake from Kochi, Tosatzuru is quite dry. Yet, it is far from being overly light and clean, having rather a nice if mellow presence to it. The profile from beginning to end is even and balanced, with no overpowering facets. Earthy tones present themselves after a few seconds. Long and acid-bolstered tail that tingles somewhat as it fades away. Rating: 84

Kariho, "Rokushu" Ginjo-shu, Akita

Rokushu has a somewhat full body but with the rougher edges polished away, leaving a light sake with a good amount of content as a result. Leaning just a bit on the dry side, the flavor is tight but laced with various elements of nuts, rice and even a trace of richer fruit. A charming liveliness comes out at room temperature, but a calming crispness is most apparent when cool or chilled. Versatile sake indeed. Rating: 88

Urakasumi, Junmai-shu, Miyagi

One of the original movers and shakers of the ginjo-shu boom. A relaxed and mellow flavor, not wildly distinct but consistent and fitting for a great many occasions. Mellow fragrance dominated by steamed rice, chestnuts and acidity, a dry flavor profile that gives rise to a nice second bouquet as you drink. Rating: 87

Gokyo, Junmai-shu, Yamaguchi

Gokyo exhibits the wonderful quality of having an "oku-Bukai" flavor, a deep and layered flavor profile that always seems to present another aspect from the background. A mellow, nutty nose that fades a bit too quickly for some, and a full, very balanced flavor. The tail leaves slightly bitter and acidic notes as it slowly fades. Overall, Gokyo is perhaps the most elegant and subtle of the above selections. Rating: 90

Nishinoseki, Junmai-shu, Oita

A player in the world of premium sake from long ago, on the same scale as Urakasumi, Nishi no Seki has been making and selling ginjo-shu for decades. Their junmai, however, is enough to satisfy. Rich and cocoa-laced, there is a nice sweet richness to it that also makes it wonderful warmed. A slightly astringent nose typical of junmai-shu. Rating: 87

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eSake.com Update Newsletter

As announced in the last issue, all those interested in taking their sake experience beyond the digital text realm and into actually tasting the stuff should check out www.eSake.com. There you will find a rich resource on sake, how it is made, the culture and people that make it, and plenty of information on sake and food. And, if you live in Japan, you can order from upwards of 40 types, and have they shipped to your door. Check it out.

To subscribe to the eSake Update Newsletter, just visit: http://www.esake.com/About_eSake/Join_Update_Club/join_update_club.html (or follow links from eSake's home page).

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SAKE-RELATED EVENTS (JAPAN)

On the evening of Saturday, January 22, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist and yakimono expert Rob Yellin and sake guru John Gauntner will be hosting their first sake and Japanese pottery (sake utensils, of course) seminar of the new year, new century and new millenium at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email John at john@esake.com. Participation is limited to 45, and should fill up fast.

The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and two enlightening lectures with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required. Directions shown below.

John will cover sake basics: different types, why the difference in prices, how to know a good sake from a bad one, hot versus cold, et cetera. (Those that have attended John's seminars before may hear some material repeated, but the sake will be new.) Rob will cover material on basic pottery styles (kilns) and types, and will have many wares on display, with perhaps some for sale.

DIRECTIONS: The seminar is from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm (or so). Mushu is the big red door just above exit A5 at Awajicho station on the Shinjuku and Marunouchi Subway lines, which are also connected by underground pass to the Shin-Ochanomizu station of the Chiyoda line. Mushu's number is 03-3255-1108. The address is Awajicho 1-1-1. John's cell phone number is 090-1996-9578 should that be necessary.

Also...

Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar for ladies on the evening of January 18, also at the aforementioned Mushu. Although this seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san's level of knowledge and experience are superlative, and any and all "qualified individuals" should consider attending. Those interested can make a reservation through me at sakeguy@gol.com.

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Reader Feedback and Q&A

...are both sparse this month. Questions, comments and criticism are all welcome.

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Sake Newsletter copyright (c) John Gauntner.

Sake Newsletter is published by Sake World. For more sake information, visit their website .

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