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Today’s piece is short, but interesting – the Oita Broadcasting System TV station covers the Kumamoto Sake and Shōchū Makers Association Association kikizake (tasting) for shinzake (newly brewed sake). Click here to see the original article which includes video footage of the assessment (about 1 minute).
The report looks at a yearly meeting held in Oita City, Kumamoto Prefecture on 7 March 2018 to assess the dekibae (出来栄え) or craftsmanship/skill of the prefecture’s sake brewers by testing newly brewed sake produced between October 2017 and March 2018. Brewers will take feedback from this assessment on board to make improvements before the April appraisal held in Kumamoto City. The 17 assessors tasted 110 sake from 12 breweries, looking for balance in the aroma and flavour. The Association says they want to continue raising the bar for sake brewing, and to get younger people to appreciate its charms.

There were some interesting things in the footage – I have the image of the kikichoko (white ceramic cup with two concentric cobalt circles) as the receptacle for sake tasting, but the assessors are using amber-coloured glasses. (See 0:27 for a good shot of lots of them lined up on a table.) Does anyone know what the reasoning behind that is?

Watching the assessors is interesting as well – the video shows them taking a quick inhale, then a quick sip. (If they have to get through 110 samples I can see why they have to be brief…) One swirls the glass a little while smelling, but I wonder if this is the Japanese style of assessment where they check for faults/lack of balance rather than what is seen as “tasting” in the west.

There’s a not-very-clear shot of the sheet being used for the assessment around 0:51, and it looks like there are five short sections for each sake? Even writing in Japanese, which tends to be more compact than English, that’s not a lot of room.

Anyway. Respect. I’m still buzzed after tasting a dozen coffees on Sunday.



UPDATED 12 May 2018

Many many thanks to Gordon Heady, working at the Noguchi Naohiko Kenkyujō (野口尚彦研究所, Naohiko Noguchi Laboratory) with the legendary back-from-retirement tōji of the same name, for answering my question about the amber glasses!

The yellow glass purposefully obscures color of the sake, as sub-consciously a judge might first see a yellow or brown color in a white kikichokko and make a prejudiced judgement about the sake before evaluation, such as it being coarse or whatever they think muroka style sake connotes.

However, all sake looks the same in “amberglass”! So, insofar as judging goes, the amber glass plays a big role.

Also, I have participated in three Kyushu-wide evaluations in the early part of the year and they are critical for brewers who receive feedback, both anonymous and otherwise, about their new sake. With this feedback, Toji can make choices about the sake still in the tank such as making one sake a honjozo if the junmai was evaluated poorly or expanding the release of namazake versus pasteurized sake if it as evaluated highly. So interesting!

One could identify haziness in the amberglass, however, to be clear the judge isn’t looking for anything the eye could perceive. The amberglass allows for focus on taste and aroma. Naturally the kikichokko allows for appearance, but these types of evaluations aren’t concerned with the appearance of sake.

Other possible choices made moving forward include (1) aging the sake further or even less (2) filtration options. The latter is especially intriguing as the toji has more tools and processes available than one might think to ameliorate aroma or taste. For example, different mixtures/concoctions of charcoal powder are designed to either improve flavor OR aroma. My toji in Fukuoka reckoned there might be 20 varieties available commercially! Whoa!

— Gordon Heady