There was a lot in this article about the tokutei meisho shu system, here’s the rest.
The Senkin brewery in Miyagi Prefecture does’t put terms like junmai ginjō or junmai daiginjō on their bottles. Asked why, Kazuki Usui, 11th generation head of the brewery, explained that consumers use the tokutei meisho shu system as a way to rank and classify sake.
For example, Senkin’s Natural sake is made by the kimoto (生酛) method, where ambient microorganisms are allowed to colonise the fermentation starter. This takes 60 days to create the starter, whereas other sake may use the simpler and more stable sokujō (速醸) method where lactic acid is added to the starter to create a favourable environment for single strains of sake-specific yeast bought in vials from brewing associations. So although it has nothing to do with tokutei meisho shu, the time, effort, cost of production and degree of risk are much higher, but consumers may not expect a high price from anything but a daiginjō. Although Natural is harder to make, there may be a disconnect when a potential buyer sees it’s only milled to 90%.
All their non-kimoto sake use rice milled to at least 50%, so there’s no question that they make one of the classifications, but Usui still doesn’t use them. He thinks it’s fairer to let the consumer decide if the price is right seen the rice variety used.
So rejecting the tokutei meisho shu, at least for Usui, removes any possibility of preconception on the part of the consumer, or misleading on the part of the brewery. It frees the consumer to choose based on their individual preferences. It frees the brewer from feeling they have to price a sake to match its tokutei meisho shu classification, allowing them to price it fairly based on the effort it took to produce.
The Aramasa brewery in Akita take a similar approach. All their sake is kimoto junmai, but no matter the milling ratio they just label everything as junmai. They also produce a kijōshu, a sake made replacing some of the brewing water with sake, but that’s not an official term in the tokutei meisho shu at all so they don’t mention it.
There are also sake that simply fall outside of the requirements for classification and so are lumped in with the rest of the futsūshu. A perfect example is Miyoshikiku’s WILD-SIDE togaimai (等外米, off-grade rice) muroka nama genshu, which as the name implies uses rice that fails to meet minimum standards set by the Japanese government. The rice used by this Tokushima brewery is milled to 65% or 60%, meaning it should qualify as a junmai. And another of the requirements to be classed in the tokutei meisho shu is that the rice used should be of any one of the official grades (grade 3, grade 2, grade 1, special, finest). So WILD-SIDE is automatically excluded because of its raw ingredients, regardless of how it is produced. (Apparently Asahi Shuzō are also making a futsūshu Dassai with off-grade rice.)
According to Ryōichi Mamiya of Miyoshikiku, rice farmers in Hyogo Prefecture who are asked to produce higher grades of sake-specific rice such as special grade often treat rice as off-graded even if it could have been classed as one of the lower grades. So this rice isn’t off-grade because it’s poor quality, but more likely because it has a small amount of immature rice grains mixed in with the rest. A harvest will miss out on the higher grades if all the grains aren’t around the same in size.
But even so, why use off-grade rice? Mamiya says that trust is what’s most important to them. It’s not about the grade of the rice, it’s about dealing with farmers they know personally instead of using an anonymous trading system. That’s the rice they want to use to make their sake.
This also goes against the grain – rice for sake brewing is usually bought from an intermediary company [or from Japan Agriculture, I think]. But knowing the producer is more important to Miyoshikiku than using the rice specified by the tokutei meisho shu system so they can get a classification. Sugimura tried their sake and found it had a rich aroma full of sweet notes like pineapple and lychee, and delicious on the palate. He thinks it would pair well not only with Japanese food, but also with creamy pasta, raw ham, or tomato dishes. It would also be perfect with fruit such as pears or grapes, or even dried fruit.
Senkin are going one step further and creating a French wine-style domaine, where they control every stage of production: growing the rice, brewing, all the way through to bottling. They’ve been growing the rice they need in cooperation with local farmers since 2011. They hope that using the same water for growing the rice and brewing will create a terroir of sorts for sake. [This comes up so often that I probably should write something separately on it. But for now, see Back to the land and IWC sake tasting in London July 2017. ] A side benefit of the domaine system is stabilising the local farming community by asking them to grow sake-specific rice, which fetches higher prices than table rice.
So, in conclusion, the tokutei meisho shu classifications are easy to understand and often used when selecting a sake. Especially when starting out, it’s nice to be able to look for daiginjō or junmai daiginjō written prominently on the label. But at the end of the day these classifications are about processing and brewing process, not about aroma and flavour. The original aim of the tokutei meisho shu system was to increase the amount of high quality sake being produced, and as technology and techniques have improved – making it possible to brew quality sake from rice milled less than 70% – some alterations have been made, such as removing the requirement for milling in junmai. But the system has not kept up with the diversification of sake, and the gaps between the time when it was set up and the reality of sake today is starting to make itself known.
Should new terminology be brought in? Not a simple question to answer. It would make labels even more complicated than they already are. Sake is more diverse than ever, with breweries proud of their own distinctive products. Some, like Senkin and Miyoshikiku, are popular despite not using the tokutei meisho shu system. But ignoring “low classification” or “unclassified” sake, now more than ever, means you could be missing out on something you’d enjoy even more than what the system puts at the top.
So much in this article! I really enjoyed translating it. Part of me rejoices in even more of the seemingly infinite variation sake is capable of, despite its limited ingredients – it’s like the juxtaposition of old and new that I love seeing in Japan. The other part of me wants to crawl under my desk and cry because as I’m busy learning the intricacies of the old system, real brewers on the ground in Japan are dismantling it to create something new. At least I’ll never run out of things to learn…
And I can understand why brewers are turning away from a system that fails to account for the complexity and difficulty of what they do. Have a look at the Aramasa site for something structured completely differently from the usual tokutei meisho shu classification-based product lineup. I couldn’t find a site for the Miyoshikiku brewery, but their labels are amazing.