Sommelier Talk: Episode 12 – Back to the Roots

During the last 60 years, from the Showa to the Heisei eras, ingenuity and technology advancements of unprecedented speed have improved machineries used in sake related research, development and production.  For instance, sake brewing steps spanning from rice polishing to koji and yeast production, have all improved greatly to ensure a top quality output.  Through use of these advanced machinery, more sake breweries are now able to produce high quality sake with a nice fragrance and the smooth palate feel that most consumers prefer.  And because of these advancements, the entire Jizake industry has benefitted from being able to suffice consumer demands, thus popularizing the overall Jizake business.  However, viewing it from the brewing art point of view, these technological advances have created some drawbacks.


As more breweries followed this path, what was once a brewing art based on human input and the elements that nature provided each year, has slowly gone to the wayside.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a Jizake that stands out with its unique characteristic.  The charm of regional differences is blurring as technology can now alter or replicate what nature produces naturally.


Basically, with the right tools and knowledge, it’s possible for a brewery in northern Hokkaido and another in southern Kyushu to produce sake with very similar characteristics.  The same can be said about local cuisines. With advanced logistics and transportation systems, regional food ingredients can be sourced in almost any part of Japan without much difficulty.  This phenomenon isn’t all entirely bad. Consumers’ interest in regional foods and Jizake has fueled the entire food and beverage industry, along with interest in domestic travel into remote contrysides.  During the last ten years, however, this mass movement towards pursuing consumers’ taste is coming under critical review, with Jizake breweries gradually reclaiming their unique regional charm that have been set to the side.  This trend isn’t isolated to Japanese Sake, as it also occurred in the wine world as well.


As grape wines grew in popularity worldwide, wineries relied more on controllable elements including the use of machinery and technology rather than highlighting terroir, or the region’s unique geography, geology and climate.  Moreover in wine’s “new world” including Australia, Chile, and Argentina, emphasis on the enjoyment of wines alone overshadowed the practice of food pairings. By contrast, the wines from the “old world” including France, Italy, Germany and Spain, remained relatively true to tradition, brewing to complement local cuisine with unique ingredients, seasonings and sauces.


In Italy, a Bordeaux type wine called “Super Tuscan” is very popular, made by blending a variety of wines, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s a relatively new type as opposed to the very traditional Sangiovese or Nebbiolo wines. To put them into perspective, one belongs to the “pop music” era, while the other is classical music.  Both new and old styles of wine are produced in Italy, and they are both delicious, though preferences will differ by individual consumer.  Regardless of the type, as the general popularity of Italian wines grows, an increasing number are finding intrigue and interest as they delve into the unique regional wines with their charming characteristics, and the perfect food paring to match.


Returning to the topic on sake, it’s a wonderful turnaround, as a number of breweries which have “lost their way” along with commercial growth are now retracing their way back to their roots to feature their local charm.  To offer this same type of “old style” service of Jizake and food paring, test out a number of sake within the same grade or produce using the same sakamai to find one that best complements the dishes featured on the menu. Offering a value-added “Jizake drinking and dining experience” is a much appreciated service for increased enjoyment by customers.