Good drinks for those who wait

by Philip Harper

In most sake breweries, the brewing season is over by May, a month marked by the announcement of the National New Sake Awards, the biggest public prize to which a brewer can aspire. (Those interested can taste some of the prizewinners at the National Sake Fair in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro on June 11th.)

Why “new sake”? In contrast to the world of wine, where the charisma (and price tags) of hoary vintages lend a reflected sheen to even the humblest table wine, the orthodox mantra about sake is that it doesn’t age, and that younger is better. And why isn’t sake generally thought of in terms of age, like wine?

It was not always so, as one of the great sake authorities, Sakaguchi Kinichiro (1897-1994) stressed in his book, “Nihon no Sake” (Iwanami Shoten). Revered by aficionados, this work appeared in 1964, just before the peak of sake production — a time when brewers could sell as much as they could make. At that time, techniques and equipment were being developed to improve efficiency and capacity: Aging the stuff should have been the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Yet the professor’s seminal text devotes much space to the subject of maturation, citing, for example, the hostels of the Edo Period (1603-1868), where aged sake (koshu) sold for two or three times the price of the young plonk served to the hoi polloi. What happened to this culture of aging sake?

There have always been risks in keeping sake. The most feared spoiler is hi-ochi, a lactic-acid bacteria that turns infected sake cloudy, white and sour, and was the ruination of many a brewery in the old days. Sake can be protected from these microbial marauders by pasteurization — and in fact generally has been since several centuries before Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) gave his name to the process in the West.

However, the mechanism of disaster was incompletely understood and infected sake was often returned after heating to the original vessel — which was still unsterilized — and thus a seething nest of bacteria did their dirty work all over again. Thus the risk and fear of hi-ochi infection was a powerful disincentive to age sake. That aged sake was nonetheless a sought-after product commanding high prices despite these risks, shows how captivating the flavors of mature sake are.

Sake is made from the staple food of the nation, which has always left the industry prone to the winds of politics and economics, and contributed in the 20th century to the virtual disappearance of aged sake (jukuseishu) as a genre. Around World War II, acute food shortages made the use of rice in making — let alone aging — sake a largely unaffordable luxury.

Another perennial factor in the fortunes of the national drink is its role as a source of tax income, which is why the sake industry is supervised even today by the National Tax Agency. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), a staggering 27 percent of all the government’s revenue came from liquor taxes. Sake was taxed at the point of production — meaning that a brewer maturing his sake had to bear the burden of keeping stock on which tax had already been paid — rather than recouping the cost of taxes in the market.

In 1944, a major obstacle to the aging of sake was removed when this system was changed to the current one, in which levies are due only when the sake is shipped out of the brewery for sale.

Still, for decades, brewers were actively discouraged from aging sake: Policy aimed to turn new sake into tax income as quickly as possible. Currently, aged sake is still a small market sector, but it is also a growing one. The hard times the industry has faced in recent decades have spurred producers to try new things — including old sake.

There are signs that this particular trend may make ground more quickly overseas than in the home market. Japanese people have decades of brainwashing about “old sake” to overcome, but Western drinkers can enjoy it for what it is without having to overcome preconceptions. The sappy zip and zing of freshly pressed sake is a lovely thing, but there are extra dimensions and profundities of flavor that only reveal themselves with the addition of the extra ingredient of time.

Even many longtime sake fans have no inkling of the combination of subtle delicacy and profound, elegant flavor of a high-grade ginjo brew thoroughly cold aged, and would be startled by the colors — from gold through russet and copper all the way through to soy-sauce brown — of full-bodied sake matured unrefrigerated. Over time, the texture of the liquid becomes richer and more viscous, and aromas and tastes deepen like the color, progressively gaining caramel, nutty, chocolate, smoky and sometimes even incense-like elements.

The delicious irony is that old sake offers a whole new world of sake sensations.

The National Sake Fair on June 11 at Ikebukuro Shunshine City Exhibition Hall A2 & A3 is open to consumers in the afternoon from 4-8 p.m.; tickets ¥3,000 in advance, ¥3,500 at the door. For more information call (03) 3519-2091 or visit www.japansake.or.jp/sake/fair/gaiyou.htm