Sake Competition sets the standard for new enthusiasts

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

On July 29, Iwao Niizawa, the fifth-generation president of Niizawa Jozoten in Miyagi Prefecture, was one of six brewers to claim prizes at the 2016 Sake Competition awards ceremony that took place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. His Atago no Matsu Tokubetsu Junmai topped the list in the contest’s junmai-shu division, which covers sake made without the addition of distilled alcohol.

Niizawa, whose brewery was destroyed in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, expressed heartfelt words of appreciation as he accepted his award.

“We were in danger of going out of business, but thanks to the support of so many people, we were able to continue brewing. I have never forgotten my sense of gratitude, and I feel like this is an acknowledgement of the hard work we put into making sake,” he said.

Now in its fifth year, the Sake Competition, which is organized by a committee led by retailer Hasegawa Saketen, featured 415 breweries — including six from the United States, Canada and Norway that were invited to participate for the first time. The contest received a record high of 1,483 entries, all of which can be purchased by consumers.

Consumer-facing sake competitions have been growing along with an increased interest in the beverage — particularly among drinkers overseas. The Finance Ministry reported that exports of sake have been rising since 2006, reaching a new high of 18,180 kiloliters with a sales value of ¥14 billion. Sake competitions serve as a guide for consumers — many of whom are new to the drink — offering examples of outstanding brews that have been vetted by industry professionals in a blind tasting.

The first major contest to engage an international audience was the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, which was launched in 2001 by Kokusai Sake Kai, a nonprofit organization based in Hawaii. Last month, the appraisal drew 480 entries, the largest number in the contest’s history. The sake division of the London-based International Wine Challenge (IWC) also saw a surge in contestants, receiving 1,282 entries this year. Although the sake assessment is typically conducted in London, IWC organizers brought the event to Hyogo Prefecture to celebrate the competition’s 10th anniversary in May.

The competitions are distinguished by differences in evaluation procedure. At the IWC, where I have participated as a judge, analysis is done in panels and discussion is encouraged, while scoring at the U.S. National Appraisal and Sake Competition is done individually. To gain more perspective on sake and food pairing, this year’s Sake Competition included judges outside of the industry such as chef Fumio Yonezawa, of Jean-Georges Tokyo, and bartender Gen Yamamoto. A common feature of all of the events is a mixed judging panel of Japanese and non-Japanese experts, which results in choices that appeal to an international audience.

“All of the contests have good points,” observes Chris Johnson, who has judged for the U.S. National Sake Appraisal and IWC sake division. “It’s great to have different points of view that can help people discover new brands.”

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