Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
With Oshögatsu upon us, it’s time to reflect on the year that’s ending and, by extension, all those other years in the past that have given us something special to remember and appreciate — like the mentor who gave us the boost that got us going in our job, or that insistent partner who made us start exercising regularly, and, of course, our parents, whose stupendous efforts to turn us into passable human beings we only come to appreciate as we get older.
These milestones exist in the sake world, as well — years that mark a departure from what had been before, opening up new vistas of sake perception and, occasionally, altering an entire industry in the process. My work and lifelong interest in sake production led me to the fascinating, but little-known story behind Koshi no Kanbai, a regional label from Niigata Prefecture. But in order to understand how important Koshi no Kanbai has been, we must go back fifty years, to the mid-1960s.
The transformational pivot was the 1964 Tökyö Olympics, when Japan
launched itself on the trajectory that’s taken it to where it is today. But as Ray Tsuchiyama reminded us in a recent piece in The Maui News, living standards on Maui then were higher than they were in Japan. Few Japanese had television sets and very few owned cars; it was hard to get a passport to travel overseas, and, writes Ray, “even a can of Dole pineapple or a banana was a luxury item in Tökyö.”
However, the one thing there was plenty of was sake. These were great years for the sake industry, as it turned out vast quantities of alcohol for a population little drawn to beer, much less expensive imports like wine and spirits from abroad. In the early years after World War II, rice was strictly rationed and breweries were only allowed to brew a set number of tanks. But as the economy recovered and rice harvests increased, brewery production grew apace, reaching nearly three times what it is today. With armies of salarymen slaving into the night, then stopping by nearby izakaya pubs after work for stress reduction sessions, the country was essentially running on alcohol. The sky was the limit for sake brewers back then — they couldn’t make enough.
What was the sake like? In 1942, the Ministry of Taxation, in an effort to maintain sake production in the face of diminishing rice supplies, approved the addition of distilled alcohol to the alcohol produced through the natural fermentation of rice, yeast and water. This led to the development of sanbaishu sake, which had three parts added alcohol to one part naturally produced alcohol — and also to legendary hangovers, creating a stigma that sake has not fully escaped from to this day. There were only three grades of sake — tokkyu (special), ikkyu (first rank) and nikkyu (second rank), and assuming that minimum quality standards were met, a brewer could designate his sake as any one of them — as long as he was willing to pay a higher tax for tokkyu and ikkyu.
Whichever rank it was accorded, to our modern tastes, it was all futsushu — ordinary supermarket sake with a rice polishing ratio of 70, 80 or even 85 percent. It had little flavor depth due to the high percentage of added alcohol, and, of course, no pleasant fruity ginjo aromas. If you wanted to make a more elegant sake, you’d have to opt for a higher polishing ratio of 60 percent — and who was crazy enough to do that since it cut your production, and profits, in half? You’d need to search out more expensive specialty sake-brewing rice varieties instead of buying what was cheap and readily available, the common practice at the time. You’d also have to be uncompromising in the face of pressure from the Tax Ministry to increase production (and pay more taxes) and from a local brewing industry that, in a conservative, consensus-driven society like Japan, provided little support.
As it happened, there was a brewery like this in Niigata Prefecture. The founder, a landowner named Ryuzo Ishimoto, had started Ishimoto Shuzo in 1907, fairly recent in sake terms. To his son he passed on the insight that good-tasting sake cannot be made without the best rice. He’d proven that himself by selling off the harvest of his own paddies and instead purchasing a rice variety called Kame no I from the village of Kajimura at a higher cost. Unquestionably, the sake was superior.
When Ryuzo’s son, Seigo, took over in 1933, it wasn’t the best time to be a sake brewer in Japan. In 1937, war with China broke out, and in 1938, rice rationing began. In 1939, the government took control of the sake industry with the goal of producing as much sake as possible from as little rice as possible. The polishing ratio was set at 87 percent and alcohol content fell to under 10 percent. People called it “goldfish sake,” alluding to its anemic flavor and appearance.
Things got worse. The year 1943 was the nadir of sake production in Japan. With a disastrous war crippling the economy, almost no sake was made at all. When production resumed in 1944, quality was the brewers’ least concern. Since the selling price was the same no matter what kind of sake you made, and, since due to rationing, any extra amount could be sold instantly, brewers had a powerful incentive to make as much sake as possible with the rice they got from the government. Even when rice became more available, this way of thinking continued up into the 1960s and beyond.
Against this background, Ishimoto Brewing Company (Ishimoto Shuzo) was allowed to brew seven small tanks of sake in 1944. The next year, Seigo persevered and was able to produce a tank of beloved ginjo sake that met his standards. The other tanks also had a high polishing ratio and used specialty sake-brewing rice varieties. The only beneficiaries of this policy were the people who lived in Kameda and the surrounding area. There was little distribution outside the prefecture in those days and almost all of the sake produced was consumed in Niigata.
Now the story takes a twist. The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of sake research in Japan, as scientists at the national and regional level worked to uncover the secrets of sake-making. In Niigata, a key figure in the early postwar years was Tetsuro Tanaka, who, at the time, headed the sake section of the National Tax Administration regional office in Niigata. He set up a research group in 1953 that included members of 16 breweries, including Ishimoto Shuzo, which is credited with getting Niigata sake out of the rut of wartime sake production and onto its path today.
Meanwhile, from the National Research Institute of Brewing in Tökyö emerged a group of dedicated researchers who were determined to elevate the quality of sake throughout Japan. These “research technicians” would often travel to distant prefectures, taking new techniques with them (and often picking up new knowledge from the traditional toji, or master brewers, they met). One of the breweries selected to benefit from these advisory trips was Ishimoto Shuzo, and one of the research scientists assigned to visit them was Dr. Yasuyuki Kobuyama.
Kobuyama was, by all reports, a sort of Renaissance sake man, a born reconteur and man about town, as well as a gifted researcher. His classroom at the research institute was filled with earnest young technicians, including Takao Nihei, who later would take over Honolulu Sake Brewery. In addition to teaching in the classroom, Kobuyama was a popular lecturer around Tökyö and maintained good contacts with the media. After one talk, he was approached by Eiji Maeda, the son of a sake shop owner from Nishi-Nippori, who asked him to recommend a regional sake to sell in Tökyö. “Have you ever heard of Koshi no Kanbai?” Kobuyama asked.
Maeda somehow got his hands on a bottle and was astonished by how different it was from the rest of the sake he was selling in his shop. It was light-bodied, and it wasn’t sweet. It seemed to possess a natural balance that elevated it above the mass-produced sake from Nada and Fushimi. In Maeda’s shop, just like in hundreds of sake shops all over Tökyö, there wasn’t a single jizake, or regional sake. They were all familiar big brands like Gekkeikan, Ozeki and Kikumasamune. There was no awareness, no demand and, consequently, no distribution system for bringing regional jizake labels into Tökyö. Although Koshi no Kanbai had won gold awards at Japan’s National Sake Appraisal in 1962, 1965 and 1967, it remained off the radar of sake drinkers outside of Niigata.
Maeda began taking his new sake from Niigata around to clubs and restaurants in Ginza, where he thought it might find a following. He later recalled that in the first five years, he sold hardly any at all. People were used to sweet sake with relatively low acidity and flavor depth. The sake meter value (essentially a measure of residual sugar in sake) for ikkyu labels was extremely sweet by today’s standards, reaching -10 for some breweries in Aichi and Saga prefectures. Even in Niigata, now known for its light, dry sakes, Koshi no Kanbai was the only label in 1968 with a positive (+3) sake meter value indicative of dryness (in other words, lack of sweetness).
What happens in drinking circles among businesspeople or journalists in Tökyö is that you attend a banquet and after that, move on to another spot for the nijikai, or “second session.” Here, again, sake appears, and in the ’60s, it was usually warmed, making it taste even heavier and sweeter than it would if served cool.
At one of these gatherings, talk turned to an article by Hisayo Sasaki, editor of the magazine Sake, in which she extolled the mysterious virtues of a sake called Koshi no Kanbai. As it happened, the proprietress had a bottle of Maeda-san’s sake on hand and served a round to her guests. After the cloying sake of the past couple hours, it was astonishingly easy to drink. Pulling out his notebook, Shun Kohiyama, a staff writer for the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, started taking notes. His article was published on Jan. 7, 1968.
It was one of those turning point moments. Research has shown that when you’re poor and hungry, a sweet sake tastes best. Hunched over a smoldering irori fireplace in the deep and penetrating cold of an Akita winter, do you really want a light, dry sake to go with your dried squid? You want something hot, sweet and robust. But with living standards on the rise in the cities, propane heaters keeping rooms warm and tasty appetizers on local izakaya menu, sake tastes changed. What people wanted now was a sake that was light, smooth and easy to drink. No doubt, other breweries were making good sake at the time, but the one that captured the imagination of sake drinkers in Tökyö was Koshi no Kanbai. In newspaper and magazines stories, it was referred to as “the maboroshii sake” (maboroshii has two meanings, “ethereal” or “hard to find”) and it was hard to know which one the writers meant.
“In no time at all,” recalls Norio Umeda, the brewery’s director of operations, “Koshi no Kanbai became a national brand.” The media conjectured that other excellent sakes were hidden away in the provinces and, before long, labels like Masumi, Uragasumi, Tateyama and Nishinoseki began to appear in Tökyö shops. The “jizake boom,” which has continued in various guises up to the present day, was well and truly underway. In 1978, in recognition of its pivotal role in winning acceptance for regional sakes, the Japan Brewing Association presented the Yohachiro Ishikawa Award to Ishimoto Shuzo for its “extraordinary contributions to the elevation of sake.”
In addition to opening up the market for jizake makers all over Japan, Koshi no Kanbai is credited with providing inspiration for the light, dry style that is the hallmark of Niigata sake today. By the late ’70s, Niigata was the number four prefecture in sake production, but it was being clobbered by the giants in Kyöto and Hyögo and was badly in need of a strategy to differentiate itself. Spearheaded by the Niigata Sake Research Center, a consensus developed that, following the Koshi no Kanbai model, Niigata sakes should be “tanrei karakuchi” — light, clean and dry. The consensus was formalized in 1984 with the publication of an official policy paper, at which point Niigata’s brewers began to put its recommendations into practice.
For starters, they proposed to: 1) increase the polishing ratio of their rice for a cleaner taste, 2) make sakes that were noticeably drier than they had been previously, and 3) target a ginjo profile that was “light, crisp and mild.” The steps they took to achieve this goal were straightforward. In 1978, the average polishing ratio for Niigata sakes was 71.2 percent, but by 1988, it was down to 66.7 percent. In 1978, the average sweetness was -3, and by 1988, it was +2.4 and into “dry” territory, generally speaking. The success of this effort was soon apparent. Between 1983 and 1991, the output of Niigata’s sake breweries grew by 34.8 percent. In 1986, in recognition of the role it had played in the transformation of the Niigata Sake Industry, Ishimoto Shuzo was awarded the Niigata Prefecture Prize for Economic Development.
Ishimoto Shuzo itself, however, had remained somewhat separate from this process. They didn’t actually regard their sake as “tanrei karakuchi.” What they were striving for was “flavor amplitude,” filling in every small crevice of flavor potential to achieve the maximum possible expression while retaining balance and easy drinkability. They were after their own best expression of sake, not the epitomization of a Niigata style.
Whether they succeeded or not is up to the sake drinkers of today, not only in
Japan but overseas, as well. What is a great sake? Serious sake drinkers go beyond the first pleasant sip and focus in on what the brewery is trying to express. Yes, Koshi no Kanbai is clean and easy to drink in the “Niigata style.” And, yes, it’s full of the goodness of the rice from which it is made. I suppose if you asked the toji, he’d say it is “sake sonomono,” or “sake just as it is,” a typical understatement from a brewery that has made such meaningful contributions over the last fifty years.
Chris Pearce is a founding member of Hawai‘i’s Kokusai Sake Kai (International Sake Association) and was instrumental in establishing the U.S. National Sake Appraisal. He coordinates the annual Joy of Sake events held in Honolulu, Tökyö and Mainland cities.