November 2009

Sake Story - Masao Aisawa (The Elvis of the Sake World!)

Posted by Beau Timken in 2009, Newsletter, November, Sake Story
Masao Aisawa We all have one! We know it! And sometimes we appreciate it and often we just simply forget to recognize how lucky we are to know "that guy." I have a "that guy" and quite frankly I am so privileged to even be in the same room with him (or the same shared hotel room for that matter). A "that guy" is somebody who wants the best for you - as a person, as a friend, and as just one of us shmoes out there trying to take this wacky life day by day. My "that guy" is not only one of the "good guys" in life - he's also the Elvis Presley of the sake world. (And yes he will kill me for calling him the Elvis of the sake world - but - it fits!)

Masao Aisawa married into a sake brewing family. This is a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because you marry into the best "business" in the world, and it's a curse because your name is not the brewery's name - something that always gets the nudge nudge wink wink in the recesses of the sake brewery owner's inner circles. (BUT there is no greater motivator to prove that you are worthy - and my "that guy" is totally worthy!) Not only is Masao a dedicated and immensely loving father, but he is also truly one of the most gifted friends in the making friends industry. People love him. Oh and he is a genius to boot.

I met "Elvis" at a food tasting expo in SF nearly six years ago. I've been to a lot of these food/sake/all things expos and I know the amount of enthusiasm needed to "get by" from a vendors perspective. What I saw that day amazed me. I did not see the typical sake vendor station manned by a person who looks A) un- amused B) wary of drunks C) tired - What I saw was a gentlemen in a kimono (full-dress cutting no corners on proper kimono etiquette) manning a station that was nothing short of superb. In a word - it was a declaration of the most "into it" sake guy that I had ever seen. The guy was in to it!

On a side note - Masao-san speaks about the same moment when some "white guy" came to his station and immediately went to the specially bottled brewery water and started shaking his head in total appreciation. He laughs to this day that I spent about five minutes tasting the water - really tasting it. (Yes - I am a slut for the breweries that do the entire and glorious "we are blessed and love our water so much" thing.) Then we started talking - and talking - and talking.

That first meeting sealed a deal that remains to this day as my most loyal and sound retailer to brewer relationship. I love selling Takenotsuyu sake. We carry 5 of Aisawa-san's creations. (Honjozo, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, and a 10 year-old koshu named after his oldest daughter. Oh and his brewery water as well!) And yes - Elvis even let me name one of his sakes - the Junmai which he wanted to call "Bamboo Dew" and I said no way - sounds too much like a soft drink or a dance craze - so I said why not call it "Tears of Bamboo" or "Bamboo Tears"? The rest is retail history!

Why am I using the "top of the fold" section of my Newsletter to wax praise on Masao Aisawa? - because my "that guy" made my recent trip to Japan outstanding. He opened doors and imparted so much knowledge on me that I can only do such a meager little pay-back as to highlight him in BIG BOLD words within this rag. (M-san I am certain that you are reading so thank you.) And yes - you would be a fool to not have tasted his sakes at least once - he won gold (and almost the top trophy) at the IWC (International Wine Challenge) this year and almost always wins gold in the Hiroshima national tasting.

I went to Japan for other reasons - two of which you will read about later in this issue - but had to at least touch base with M-san at some point. He lives in Yamagata prefecture, which is sort of "up there" but in a sense it is "god's country" right after Ohio. Near the Sea of Japan and encased in some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world - with the flatlands exploding with agriculture - namely sake brewing rice - well at least near his kura. When I told him that I was visiting I said that I would like to check out one of his fellow Yamagata breweries. "That guy" lined up 5 breweries in one day! That's what "That guys," do. He also let me into the "inner sanctums" of the Yamagata Brewers Association annual brewing/fermenting technical meeting for tojis to transfer knowledge- for that I am forever grateful.

Yamagata prefecture has the oldest and most established "Brewers Association," which is basically a study group that each and every brewer in Yamagata attends annually. I find this fascinating - essentially they are competitors competing for the same sake consumers, but they are more bound to the fact that they all represent Yamagata so they want to see the other brewers do well. Thus, they get together to share as much information as possible to improve the entire band of quality prefecture-wide. These meetings usually start at 9am and continue through until 4pm. And trust me when I say that they are technical. Everything from brewing schedules and fermentation temperature charts to new rice varietals and the best non-slip work boots gets discussed. All for the common good of making Yamagata sake better.

And there I was - probably the first white guy - sitting beside Masao at a desk in a row of desks very similar to my business school days. I will be honest - in spoken word I probably understood 30% of what was being said. But I had the brewing charts nailed! (There was some statistical analysis that I had no clue about whatsoever - and I was having horrible flashbacks to business school where I wrote a poem for my "Stats" final.) But "my guy" walked me around and introduced me to everybody - and some of the guys in that room were heroes of mine - from the toji of Rokkasen to the kuramoto of the famous Juyondai brewery. He made me feel like I belonged! He also promised me that I would not have to say anything. Doh! Right before the lunch break this promise fell flat on the floor and the kuramoto of Dewanosato introduced me and asked if I would like to speak for 20-30 minutes. (Gulp - usually this is no prob - I love talking about sake and the US market, but my "that guy" had taken me to a Yamagata great 8 (representatives from each of the 8 areas within Yamagata) dinner that included lots of sake, geisha, and more sake. Then we had a "2nd party" followed by a 3rd party - and I was feeling a little grotty in that classroom.) So with the assistance of my buddy Toshi Imai (Kudoki Jozu) we managed to entertain Yamagata's best for 20 minutes.

From my retailer's perspective - this meeting also had a cool component in that they had purchased a bottle of sake made by each brewery that was obtained in some retail shop or liquor store - to check the quality and conditioning of the brews. We tasted these, and also tasted 5 sakes sent over from Aichi Prefecture. The same type of brewers group from Aichi sent what they believed were 5 representative bottles of regional sake, and they wanted the Yamagata guys' impressions of the sakes. I thought that this was very interesting - they respected the Yamagata guys so much that they wanted to have their efforts judged by their prefectural competitors.

I would never have been privy to this if it weren't for Masao. When the meeting was over we went to his house (cabin) - my Yamagata hotel - and he let me taste some of his newer brews - including a Junmai made with the very new and hot rice varietal called Dewanosato. Masao also cracked open a "hon" nama that he had only reserved 15 bottles for personal use. (Yes - brewers must lay claim to certain brews before they get sold!) Then it was off to Kyoto for the new class of Sake Samurais to be sworn in. Masao and I ripped up Kyoto for two nights - and basically I deduced that he was "Elvis" when we went to a great izakaya and I watched as the owner nearly fell over when Masao walked in. The old guy went on a mission to introduce each and every person to Aisawa-san - from table to table - and Masao did the rounds with a huge smile smacked on his face. There was one very inebriated gal who not only bowed deeply to Masao - she got down on her knees and kept saying "Hakuro Suishu - Hakuro Suishu - Hakuro Suishu" - (the name of one of Masao's more famous products.) I just shook my head and said, "He's like freakin Elvis."

If you are ever in Japan - because these products do not get exported and he only brings them to trade tastings in the US - you must seek out one of the offerings that Masao is well known for - his "line-up." What's his "line-up"? Being the sake stud that he is Masao decided to make 6 identical sakes - with only one differing component - the brewing rice! So he literally brews 6 different rice sakes exactly the same - same water, same milling %, same alcohol content, same koji-kin, same yeast, same everything except the rice. Why? So you can compare to see/taste the flavor and feeling of the rice - and it is supposed to represent why you make sake to begin with - to highlight the rice! (He also puts them in bottles with really beautiful identical labels of differing colors!) Sheer genius!

Now there are a lot of really great photos that I could have shown - the ones of the fellow Yamagata cohorts laughing and really valuing Masao's passion and wisdom - the ones of other brewers from around Japan who know Masao for being a new gun on the sake scene - the ones of his friends in Kyoto who love his products so much that they have formed a Yamagata Sake Lovers Group in the heart of darkness known as Kyoto - or I could have shown the pictures of Masao with his wonderful family - but maybe it's best if you meet the man himself on one of his "Elvis" sake tours in the US. And yes there is a line to be put on his "groupies list" and you are behind me!

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