The "Life Hacks for Everyone" site Dime features an interesting take on how to introduce beginners to sake - blind tasting.
Why would you make beginners blind taste? For many of the reasons my favourite coffee shop does blind tastings of coffee: without the fancy packaging and copywriting, or unconscious biases towards or against the origins or styles you already know about, you're more likely to find something you actually like.
Instead of, you know, choosing what you think you should like.
Reporter Junko Abe notes that the idea has been put into practice since June 2018 under the banner of "Yummy Sake". Sake novices blind taste from a kit with 10 samples and rate each sake online on a dedicated site using a five-point love/hate scale. That plus a few questions about taste are all it takes for an algorithm to determine the beginner's favourite sake from a selection of 12 types.
The project developed out of the current situation with domestic consumption of sake falling, says Takurō Nakashima, head of the Yummy Sake promotion office. Lamenting the passing of the good old days when there were over 10,000 types of sake, Nakashima points out that there are only 1,400 breweries active in Japan today and of those only 100 could be called major. The man or woman of drinking age in the street has few chances to find sake from smaller breweries or those that make specialised styles - even if those might be the ones they love.
If people knew what kind of sake they liked, it would make it easier to pick out ones that match. It would no longer be all about brands, or marketing, but choosing a sake because of its taste. And that, Nakashima believes, is the key to increasing the number of sake drinkers.
In particular among the younger generation, there's a perception that you need a degree in sake to understand anything. Even for something as simple as finding a ginjō you like, you have to fight your way through specialist terminology like "ethyl caproate" and "isoamyl acetate". It's much easier to taste first and ask questions later.
May 2018 saw the opening of the pop-up Bar Yummy Sake, which was very popular with the younger segment (55% of participants in their 20s) regardless of whether they knew anything about sake at the beginning. Tickets were sold out a week in advance. Over 1,000 people turned up on the day trying to get one. And with the blind tasting removing any influence from preconceived ideas of brands and the like, 92% of participants said they were satisfied with the taste verdicts. Nakashima saw this as proof that if you can remove the perceived difficulties around sake, younger people like it just fine.
The blind tasting is now available at branches of Mirai Nishonshuten (未来日本酒店, Future Sake Shop) in Daikanyama and Kichijoji. Participants enter a number for each sample and try 10 types of sake, rating each one with onomatopoeic sound-words like byun-byun (zingy), piri-piri (spicy), yawa-yawa (mild) or toron-toron (heavy). (Covered in What you talk about when you talk about sake.) The results generated after the blind tasting also avoid using specialist vocabulary, opting instead for tactile, easy to understand onomatopoeic terms like awa-awa (light), howa-howa (cozy) or kurun-kurun (curly). [Struggling a bit with those last two.]
The 12 onomatopoeic types apparently follow the logic used by tasters at Mirai Nihonshuten. The staff there realised from dealing with customers that the logic and approach used by professionals just doesn't work for the public. The cut-off point for milling ratio between daiginjō and ginjō might be 50%, but there isn't much difference between 49% and 51%. So they abandoned the tokutei meisho and instead concentrated on analysis based on flavour alone. The Daikanyama shop labels all sake with onomatopoeic tags to guide shoppers to the right flavour. Both shops have tasting corners so as soon as you know what you like from the blind tasting you can carry on trying the sounds - I mean flavours - you prefer.
Data on users and flavours from the blind tastings has also been analysed to yield dozens of parameters, and kept to provide a reference for professional tasters and make it easier for them to classify new sake. Mirai Nihonshuten is also considering holding events for each sound - sorry, flavour - so people who like the same kind of sake can gather and enjoy them together.