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As benchmarks rise, honjozo takes a hit

by John Gauntner

Last year, sake production dropped below 1 million kiloliters for the first time since the industry’s postwar recovery. Much of this drop was seen in the realm of cheap sake and honjozo, whereas the higher grades of junmaishu and ginjoshu stayed the same or made very modest production gains. Fewer people, it appears, are drinking less expensive sake.

In the early ’70s, honjozo was all the rage. This was before the days of the “ginjo boom,” a time when there was very little of this mysterious ginjoshu stuff even available. Back then, there was even a group known as the Honjozo Kyokai. A poster showing the labels of their members is now a collector’s item. (Well, OK, at least I cannot get myself to throw mine away.)

But now, honjozo has fallen to the bottom of the top. Which is to say, honjozo is still considered “premium sake,” but not quite as premium as junmaishu and the various grades of ginjoshu.

Honjozo is still in the top 20 percent of all sake brewed. But the benchmark of what constitutes good sake continues to rise steadily. Improving technology and consumer demand have combined to encourage producers to raise the standard. Or, as George W. Bush has been known to gaffe, to “raise the pie higher.”

As most readers likely recall, honjozo, or more formally honjozoshu, is sake made with rice that has had at least the outer 30 percent milled away, i.e. it has a seimai-buai of at least 70 percent and has had a very small amount of distilled alcohol added at one step to help pull out aromatics and flavors from the mash. Junmaishu (and any sake labeled with the junmai characters) has not been made using this added-alcohol “tool.”

Despite what purists might say, the use of this added alcohol is but one more method and does not detract from quality. Squabbling aside, the term honjozo came about in the late ’60s to help differentiate this new premium sake from very cheap stuff, to which copious amounts of alcohol are added simply to increase yields. Although the word itself alludes to “the original method of brewing,” it is anything but, since until the war no sake was made using this added-alcohol method.

The drop in honjozo production probably has more to do with the level of rice milling. With the rice only milled down to 70 percent of its original size, the ferment will not respond as well to aroma-creating yeasts and ginjo-producing methods. Many consumers are beginning to expect more fragrant and refined sake to be the minimum standard.

Also, by milling the rice only another 10 percent, to 60 percent of its original size, brewers can classify the sake as ginjo. This is purely conjecture on my part, but being able to classify sake in the ginjo realm is like crossing over a large psychological border in terms of marketing.

But honjozo is still very worthy sake, and can be great value for your money. Although honjozo is generally not as refined, complex or lively as most ginjoshu, it is still usually light, fragrant and smooth. In fact, it is often much easier to drink than massively flavorful and fragrant ginjo, which some tipplers may find cloying.

The seeming fall from grace of honjozo can be taken as a sign that sake overall has been getting better. Better milling technology, greater availability of proper sake rice and new yeast strains are converging to meet ever-rising consumer demands.

Not to be forgotten, by the way, is tokubetsu honjozo, or “special honjozo.” This nebulous classification refers to honjozo made with better-than-average rice, more milling and/or special methods, and can really strike the balance between simplicity and polish.

Not to end on a dour note, but the industry is still in trouble, and the drop in sales of any grade of sake hurts. Higher standards alone for better sake will not help things. Unless consumers start to drink more of the kind of sake they have come to demand, the decline of the industry overall will continue. We all must do our share. Kanpai!

For a more detailed explanation and description of the various grades of sake than space permits here, go to www.sake-world.com/html/types-of-sake.html

On the evening of July 27, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Robert Yellin and I will be hosting a sake and Japanese pottery seminar from 6 to 9 p.m. at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations. The sake topic will be toji ryuha, or the guilds of master brewers in the sake world.

Participation is limited to 40 people. The cost, which includes six sake samples and ample food, is 7,000 yen. If you are interested in attending, e-mail sakeguy@gol.com

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Isojiman (Shizuoka Prefecture)
Tokubetsu honjozo

Indeed, Isojiman is among the most popular sake in Japan and quite deservedly so. It is also a great example of why it is not always best to shoot for top-grade daiginjo. This honjozo (albeit tokubetsu) has heaps of memorable character, flavor and charm. A slightly citrus-laced, mildly fruity aroma leads into a subtly rich and autumnal flavor.