Taste Translation: Annual Japan Sake Awards 2024

Annual Japan Sake Awards (official title), National New Sake Appraisal, zenkoku shinshu kanpyōkai (全国新酒鑑評会), whatever you call it, the results are out!

Currently held jointly by the Japan Sake and Shōchū Makers Association (JSS) and the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB), the contest has been held by someone in one form or another since 1911, making this year the 112th round (I think one was skipped during WWII). 

Any holder of a sake brewing license in Japan can enter, which means that larger breweries that have more than one site (and therefore more than one license) can enter more than once. 

The sake submitted to the competition is known as shuppin-shu (出品酒) “(competition) submission sake and is made specifically for this contest, very carefully and late in the brewing season (when the breweries have got to grips with that year’s rice). The rest of the batch may end up as a limited edition product, but in general the aim of the competition is to assess the technical skill of the brewery, not the quality of commercially available products.

There were 828 entries (out of an estimated 1,200 eligible licences, so about 70% of breweries) and judging took place in two rounds in late April and early May. The judging panel is selected by NRIB from a pool of sake brewers, prefectural research centres, the National Tax Agency (NTA) and NRIB staff on the basis of their prowess in sensory evaluation.

Evaluation is by blind tasting, and in the first round each sake is evaluated by marks out of 5 for aroma, taste and overall quality. Then in the second and final round of judging, sake that passed the first round are given marks out of 3 for overall sensory profile. The sake are analysed in advance to determine glucose concentration, and then presented for judging in order of increasing glucose, as well as being grouped by concentration of aroma compounds, with the aim of allowing for more accurate evaluation.

Out of the 828 entries, 392 (47%) received an award, and among those 132 (16% of the total, 34% of the prize winners) were given a gold award.

And regardless of whether they won an award or not, every brewery gets valuable feedback from the judges to implement in their work for the next brewing year.

    A shuppin-shu competition sake being pressed by fukuro-shibori (where the moromi is ladled or pumped into small cloth bags and the liquid drips out by gravity)

    Above: a shuppin-shu competition sake being pressed by fukuro-shibori (where the moromi is ladled or pumped into small cloth bags and the liquid drips out by gravity) above. Right: to-bin (18 L glass flasks) of sake that have been labelled and capped and put aside to allow fine sediment (ori) to settle. Photos taken at Miyasaka Shuzō, makers of Masumi, in Jan 2019.

    to-bin (18 L glass flasks) of sake that have been labelled and capped and put aside to allow fine sediment (ori) to settle

    The results sheet from NRIB lists the number of sake submitted by regional tax bureau, which gives an idea of the number submitted by region (the tax regions are strangely not quite the same as the regional government regions).

    • Sapporo (Hokkaido) – 16 entries, 4 awards (25%), 2 gold awards (12.5%)
    • Sendai (Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima) – 173 entries, 99 awards (57%), 61 gold awards (35%)
    • Kantō-Shin’etsu (Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Niigata, Nagano) – 193 entries, 91 awards (47%), 41 gold awards (32%)
    • Tokyo (Chiba, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi) – 36 entries, 8 awards (22%), 5 gold awards (14%)
    • Kanazawa (Fukuyama, Ishikawa, Fukui) – 34 entries, 12 awards (35%), 6 gold awards (18%)
    • Nagoya (Gifu, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie) – 79 entries, 36 awards (47%), 19 gold awards (24%)
    • Osaka (Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama) – 108 entries, 63 awards (58%), 29 gold awards (27%)
    • Hiroshima (Tottori, Shimane, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi) – 83 entries, 39 awards (47%), 17 gold awards (20%)
    • Takamatsu (Tokushima, Kagawa, Ehime, Kochi) – 39 entries, 19 awards (19%), 9 gold awards (23%)
    • Fukuoka (Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki) – 47 entries, 18 awards (38%), 5 gold awards (11%)
    • Kumamoto (Kumamoto, Oita, Miyagi, Kagoshima) – 20 entries, 3 awards (15%), 1 gold award (5%)
    • Okinawa (Okinawa) – 0 entries

    I think sake is technically made somewhere in Okinawa (so the NTA, etc. can say it’s made in every prefecture) but it’s not surprising there were no entries from there. You can also see a bit of a north-south difference with more breweries in the north (except Hokkaido, where sake brewing was introduced more recently) aside from the Osaka regional tax bureau (which covers Nada, Kyoto and Hyogo). 

    The smaller the number of entries the less representative/useful the percentage of awards/gold awards, but it gives you an idea of the brewing prowess of each area. Or you could argue it reflects the preference of the judges, but knowing what sake will please a given audience and then making it is also a skill.

    I couldn’t find the number of entries by prefecture, but the award/gold award results per prefecture are (ordered by number of gold awards, reasoning below): [Long list, feel free to scroll…]

    • Hyogo: 30 awards, 19 gold awards (63%)
    • Fukushima: 32 awards, 18 gold awards (56%)
    • Yamagata: 22 awards, 14 gold awards (64%)
    • Nagano: 22 awards, 12 gold awards (55%)
    • Akita: 18 awards, 10 gold awards (56%)
    • Tochigi: 15 awards, 10 gold awards (66%)
    • Miyagi: 15 awards, 9 gold awards (60%)
    • Niigata: 24 awards, 9 gold awards (38%)
    • Hiroshima: 16 awards, 9 gold awards (59%)
    • Mie: 10 awards, 8 gold awards (80%)
    • Aichi: 13 awards, 7 gold awards (54%)
    • Iwate: 7 awards, 6 gold awards (86%)
    • Aomori: 6 awards, 4 gold awards (66%)
    • Gunma: 10 awards, 4 gold awards (40%)
    • Fukui: 6 awards, 4 gold awards (66%)
    • Yamaguchi: 8 awards, 4 gold awards (50%)
    • Ehime: 7 awards, 4 gold awards (57%)
    • Ibaraki: 10 awards, 3 gold awards (30%)
    • Saitama: 10 awards, 3 gold awards (30%)
    • Gifu: 7 awards, 3 gold awards (43%)
    • Shiga: 7 awards, 3 gold awards (43%)
    • Nara: 6 awards, 3 gold awards (50%)
    • Okayama: 7 awards, 3 gold awards (43%)
    • Kochi: 8 awards, 3 gold awards (38%)
    • Saga: 7 awards, 3 gold awards (43%)
    • Hokkaido: 4 awards, 2 gold awards (50%)
    • Yamanashi: 2 awards, 2 gold awards (100%)*
    • Chiba: 3 awards, 2 gold awards (66%)
    • Kyoto: 12 awards, 2 gold awards (17%)
    • Osaka: 5 awards, 2 gold awards (40%)
    • Fukuoka: 7 awards, 2 gold awards (29%)
    • Kanagawa: 1 award, 1 gold award (100%)*
    • Toyama: 2 awards, 1 gold award (50%)
    • Ishikawa: 4 awards, 1 gold award (25%)
    • Shizuoka: 6 awards, 1 gold award (17%)
    • Tottori: 3 awards, 1 gold award (33%)
    • Tokushima: 2 awards, 1 gold award (50%)
    • Kagawa: 2 awards, 1 gold award (50%)
    • Miyagi: 2 awards, 1 gold award (50%)
    • Tokyo: 2 awards, 0 gold awards
    • Wakayama: 3 awards, 0 gold awards
    • Shimane: 5 awards, 0 gold awards
    • Nagasaki: 4 awards, 0 gold awards
    • Kumamoto: 0 awards
    • Oita: 1 award, 0 gold awards
    • Kagoshima: 0 awards

    *Your regular reminder of the meaninglessness of small numbers for statistics.

    I’ll see if I can find the number of submissions per prefecture, as I think % of awards and gold awards per prefecture will be more interesting.

    Why bring this up? The prefectures patting themselves on the back in the Japanese press are the ones that won the most gold awards, but I think it’s equally relevant to see the proportion of breweries in a prefecture winning awards and gold awards as an indicator of that prefecture’s brewing ability. 

    One of the gold awards was particularly meaningful for the Fukushima Sake Brewers Association, as it was the first for a sake made with the Fukushima sake rice variety Fuku no Ka (福乃香). The winning sake was “Roman” from Hanaizumi Shuzō, and Executive Vice President Shin Nakamaru added that it had been a process of trial and error to understand how to soak the rice properly, but they really wanted to use their prefecture’s rice and were delighted with the soft, sweet sake it produced.

    Yamagata Prefecture won the most gold awards last year, but lost out to Hyogo and Fukushima this year. Masumi Nakano of Miyasaka Shuzo (makers of Masumi), who also heads the prefectural brewers association, commented that their third place position demonstrates the prefecture’s strong technical skills and ability to produce high quality sake… but that he expected the regret of losing out on first place would motivate Yamagata’s breweries to try harder next year. The breweries that did win gold awards mentioned that it was difficult to produce their usual sake with the harder rice from the hot summer.

    And there was more interesting material about the competition on the NRIB site, but I will leave that for next time!

    ——————–

    Outline of the Annual Japan Sake Awards 2024 (NRIB, 22 May 2024, English)
    List of Gold Prize winning sake in 2024 (NRIB, 22 May 2024, English)
    令和5酒造年度全国新酒鑑評会の出品状況及び今後の予定のお知らせ (NRIB, not dated, Japanese)
    日本酒金賞18銘柄 全国鑑評会 「日本一」奪還ならず (Yomiuri Shinbun Online, 22 May 2024, Japanese)
    全国新酒鑑評会 山形県「金賞」14点で3位 連覇はならず (NHK Yamagata News Web, 22 May 2024, Japanese)

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