Sake “Process” – How We Continually Learn Together As An Industry
So there I was on the night of my 40th Birthday! We were in Napa – yes the heart of darkness – in the cradle of wine country. We were staying at a vineyard and had reserved the large table at the vineyard restaurant that of course specialized in wine. The Somm was actually a Master of Wine so the odds were very stacked against this sake guy!
With my family all around the table all eyes were on me when they asked, “So what did the sake guru bring for his 40th birthday?” And of course I was totally prepared as I was armed with some killer bottles of sake. We began knocking one bottle back then another, and sake was winning the day! So much so that the Master of Wine was now seated at our table enjoying a special impromptu course in all things sake
And then came the moment for that one bottle that I wanted to blow everybody’s socks off and I proceeded to open the wonderfully shaped vessel. I personally love the sake and I knew that the table would go bonkers for the brew that I will not name. All eyes were on me as I started explaining the reason why I had saved that sake for last. I told the group that if we did the old “You are on a deserted island and you had one bottle of sake what would it be?” that brew would be in the running. I’m sure my face was beaming!
And then I smelled the opened bottle. Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr crash smash hoooooooooooonk! The off aroma felt like a car crash and I am sure my face dropped and my body wilted. Oh no I said to myself. The nose was bad. The nose was musky! This sake had a total and completely wrong aroma, which told me that it had changed in the bottle. I won’t bore you with the technical terms of what happened, but let’s just say the sake that I had cherished and saved for the finale had gone bad! Why? (The good news is that it’s such great sake that even the damaged version was very tasty, and it did not dampen the spirits of the evening!)
Okay! As a purveyor of sake I had to know what happened? So when I got back to the city I called the importer and told him the story. He too was confused and had no explanation and said that he would call the brewer! He did, and then he embarrassingly called me back. There was indeed a problem and it was a mistake! The brewer apologized to the importer who in turn apologized to the retailer who in turn had apologized to his family and potential customers. But for what? Sometimes there is a disconnect in the sake business, where certain valuable information does not get communicated. This became my perfect example! For you see the brewer did not tell the importer that the sake was nama or unpasteurized and the importer did not handle the sake as it should be handled and he also did not tell the retailer who further did not handle the sake properly. The result was an unhappy bottle of sake that did nothing wrong. Its handlers did.
And that was one of many learning examples of how the sake industry works together to make a better product. It’s called feedback or the chain of communication and I am pretty proud to say that we at True Sake have been a very important cog in this process. For well over a decade we have made a point of communicating things such as this when it comes to our attention. We have discovered small little issues from how labels are affixed to bottles to extremely serious issues of how entire batches of sake were off and had come undone in the bottle by poor pasteurization or chemical degradation. We’ve been on top of it! In fact it floats our boat. And in the end everybody wins as we make a better industry. Why am I telling you this now? It happened again and this time Mei saved the day!
I can’t speak for her, but I imagine Mei thought “Heh? what the heck is that?” when she looked closely at a bottle of sake that appeared to have floating flecks in it. She mentioned to me that something did not appear right. And when I looked at the bottle I had to agree. But I was not very concerned, because I had tasted the product a week earlier and it did not taste damaged. Nevertheless it was a problem and back up the chain we went with our question and concerns. Why the flecks? Should we sell it? The importers are a new group and they had no idea for the reason. So they said that they were going to meet with the brewer in a few weeks and would ask him then. (In the back of my mind I felt like they might be defensive and sort of question us and why would they make a stink out of something like this. I get it! A portfolio is like a family and the sakes are the kids. Nobody likes to hear when one of the kids is not right! Perhaps the first hesitancy is to get defensive. That said they were very professional and I think they wanted to know why as well!)
And as promised I received the following email:
We had a chance to meet with the owner last week in Tokyo and talked through the issue you brought up about the sediment in his sake. He said that the sake isn’t charcoal filtered. It does have a mesh filter to remove any foreign matter, but no charcoal. Because of the mesh filter he can’t call it muroka (the sake tax board are very strict in Kyoto area about this classification), but it essentially is muroka, which is why it has a golden hue. So sometimes after the sake has settled typically the end of the summer after bottling it may display some sediment which is natural and shouldn’t affect the taste.
And Bingo! A win-win for everybody as the owner also stated that his sakes are pretty delicate and need refrigeration at all times, which we now do. We advised them to inform all of their sellers of this information about handling and that’s how it works! Learning and communicating is and has been the backbone for the sake industry in the West, where we all have to work a little harder to make certain that what is brewed is tasted as should be! I enjoy being a part in this chain of communication. Hats off to Mei for discovering this important part of the sake process!
P.S. Check out the True Sake In The News section where I am doing a filmed interview and I taste one of our sakes on camera and it’s bad! Another great example of knowing a sake and sensing something is wrong and then relaying that information on to the importer and brewer! (They both concurred that this batch of sparkling sake had gone wrong and we pulled the product and they took further precautions.)