Monday, March 3, 2008

March 3, Pt. 1

Jizake tasting at the official residence of the consul general of Japan

As I walked up Madison with Bret Thorn I spotted a lanky man with dark shaggy hair and distinct facial hair structure I'd recognize anywhere. As he and his female companion each pushed a stroller with a young'in strapped inside, I hissed to Bret, "That's Chris Cornell! From Audioslave!"

Bret answered, "From who?"

"You know, the guy from Soundgarden?" I clarified, reaching back into the depths of murky memory to the sixth grade when I wore a pair of tattered pilling generic work boot rip offs and a highly ill-advised green flannel vest.

This was just the beginning of "sightings" for me at the Japanese ambassador's residence, where a seminar on jizake (artisanal) sake was taking place with a tasting of several products from Japan. The event was being held by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and The Conference of Japanese Food Distributors in New York in anticipation of the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show.

At the tasting I managed to spot the ubiquitous Akiko Katayama and even ran into Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club, who was there scoping out the sake with a tall serious looking young gentleman with spiked black hair who looked dead earnest as he talked to the vendors about the different sake they had on hand.

Bret let me know that Zak Pelaccio (Fatty Crab) was there as well, and having not seen him before, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the tasting, there was a brief seminar, and I was pretty glad for that. All I knew about sake was sometimes you drank it warm, sometimes cold. It's made with rice. Some are sweet, some are dry. I've had some aged sake before, and it kinda tastes like sherry. That was pretty much it.

However, as Michael John Simkin started his presentation on "Sake 101," I noticed the opening slide had one label that clearly said "supahkuringu" in katakana. Yes, sparkling sake. I did not know such things existed. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.

Mr. Simkin drew attention to the fact that sake consumption in Japan was decreasing. The number of producers was decreasing as well.

He said that in before World War II, there were 30,000 producers of sake in Japan. After the war, there were 6,000. In the early 90s, 3,000. Today there are about 2,000 that hold sake producing licenses and every year four or five breweries are closing.

Bret later on asked during the question and answer session what factors might be contributing to this decrease in sake consumption in Japan, and Mr. Simkin replied that he felt the answer was two-fold.

First, that for a long time Japan was a homogeneous culture with little outside influence, so sake was naturally the national beverage since there wasn't anything else. Then came the influx of new beverages and brewers were not ready and did not know how to market their product in an open market.

The second reason is that for those between the ages of 20 and 30, they had seen how as a national drink sake was drunk by their fathers and grandfathers, so naturally it just seemed "uncool" to drink sake. In relation to the first point, instead beer started taking a foothold as well as other alcoholic beverages such as bourbon and scotch that chipped away at sake's monopoly of the beverage market.

I asked what the perception was on sake being used in mixed drinks, and Mr. Simkin answered that he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the idea, but he added understood that some people enjoy mixed drinks and the idea of some operators buying more sake, even if it was to use in cocktails, was for the greater good of making sake more popular.

It was interesting to hear that Japanese sake consumption and producers were going down in numbers, considering that the availability of sake brands in the United States increased the past 30 years according to JETRO president Kazuo Okumura. In his opening statement before the seminar, he said that the number of sake brands available in the United States went from five in the 1970s, to 500 in the present day. Not that brand availability equal consumption, but an interesting comparison nonetheless when going back to the numbers giving by Mr. Simkin about the dropping number of sake producers.

We got a helpful chart describing the sake classification. The basic levels of classification depends on how much of the rice is polished before it is sent off to be fermented to make sake. The more polished the rice is (getting rid of the husk, and even further polishing down the white of the rice), the more refined it is. Besides the level of refinement, sake is also divided between the different varieties where no additional alcohol is added, and the varieties where a small amount of distilled alcohol is added.

However, Mr. Simkin pointed out that sometimes a little education is dangerous for American consumers. When they learn about the added alcohol versus no added alcohol versions, they believe latter to be the better variety and refuse to drink the former. Some don't take into account that adding alcohol or not is treated merely as a stylistic difference in Japan, and not a comment on quality.

After the end of the seminar, we made our way to the second level of the building where tables of sake was set up. I tried different varieties to see if I can utilize what I learned earlier, and there definitely were moments of "Oh, see, I do notice that this one has a bit of a more pronounced alcohol taste compared to this one," and "This smells a bit more fruity than floral," but in the end there were just too many.

I tried two varieties of sparkling sake. One was in a very pink bottle, with a very pink label. The person I spoke to explained that it was developed especially with women consumers and those who aren't particularly into drinking sake in mind. A special team of developers worked with a team from a women's magazine to come up with the concept of the drink, the bottle's design, and even the sake quality. It definitely had a refreshing kick and was on the sweet side.

Another sparkling sake I had was less sweet and less carbonated, but it had a savory aspect to it that had an interesting contrast to its fizzy mouthfeel.

I even tried a sake with yuzu. I was told that it was pretty popular in fusion restaurants where its used for making food such as desserts. Which made sense considering how yuzu has been cropping up here and there in food and beverage.

And there was sake...IN A CAN. Well, I wasn't as surprised as I made that sound, but it was like the first time I heard about wine in juice boxes and champagne in cans. A general outburst of, "These exist? That's pretty genius."

Another interesting side track was trying out unfiltered sake that was cloudy from the bits of rice in it. On producer had a product of both filtered and unfiltered versions in little lamp-like bottle. Another unfiltered variety I tried (the same sake producers of the second sparkling sake), had a light pink, plum blush.

"Where does the color come from?" I asked the brand representative.

The redness was from the mold used in fermenting the rice for sake. Rice used in the making of sake need to be inoculated with mold because, as Mr. Simkin explained earlier, you cannot make alcohol straight from carbohydrates. You can from sugar. So the mold helps break the carbohydrates in the rice down to complex sugars so that fermentation can begin. As someone who eats a lot of rice and who has forgotten about a bit of rice stuck in the corner of the fridge, only to pull out the container after a certain amount of time only to find the rice turned into a rather shocking bright red/pink, I thought it was entertaining to see it reflected in the color of the sake.

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