Sake Award - Competition Sake "There is no substitute"
Yes, the national sake competition in Hiroshima each year is a big deal! Ask any maker of sake what it means to them and they will all give a diluted answer reflecting on a certain humbleness. But in the privacy of their own minds they go crazy for this competition. Absolutely crazy! To get a gold medal is - well let's just say a very marketable achievement. There are many facets to this competition that are extremely intriguing - for example you may only submit one sake per sake brewing license (some brewers have two breweries so they get to submit two sakes) but I want to focus on the process of this event in terms of conditioning the sakes.
The important date for breweries is April 1st. That is when their submissions are due in Hiroshima. And yes it gets quite hectic when roughly 1,400 brewers send their sakes via over-night cooler to all arrive on the same day! If the submissions are late - they do not get graded. So many brewers send a day or two early just in case.
What is a submission? How many bottles? What size of bottles? What type of sakes are submitted? The answer is easy - each maker produces their best sake and must send 18 500ml specially colored bottles to the research center. I always thought that they sent one or two ishobin. WRONG! They specifically have to send 18 bottles because the event goes in stages - 1st Cut requires 6 bottles - 2nd Cut requires 6 bottles - and the last 6 bottles go to the "Brewer's Tasting" where of course the brewers all sample each other's product at the conclusion of the event. So the brewers have to ferment and pasteurize their brews - rest them for a while - then they must pour them into the 500ml pea-soup green bottles (same bottle as the Koshi no Kanbai Tokusen Junmai Ginjo) and hand twist the caps on.
Again, each brewer makes his or her competition sake their own way! Of course they use their best rice-yeast combinations and their best brewing methods to achieve a product that few get to sample in the "real world." (I have been given several competition sakes as gifts, and to be honest I really didn't appreciate what I received until I found out how labor intensive the process is and the rigor moral of making these beauties.) So many brewers use the rice varietal Yamadanishiki for the competition that they recently created a new category for grading, which is Yamadanishiki rice and non- Yamadanishiki rice sakes. (I always joke that this competition is like a B.L.T. competition, because they all use the same darn ingredients - like bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes - but in this case it is Yamadanishiki rice and the same Association yeasts.)
Almost all of the sakes have added alcohol! Rare is the day that a ballsy brewer will submit a Junmai Dai Ginjo. The reasons for this are many - including the amazing aroma advantage the added-alcohol sakes have, but one lesser-known reason may be the storage factor of these competition sakes. Many will argue that added-alcohol last longer (stay balanced longer) than their Junmai counterparts, and this may be needed in Hiroshima.
One brewer gave me his timeline for the event. He said that he started brewing his competition sake in January - the moromi took 28 days. He waited 6 days and then hit the sake with heat for a single pasteurization. Then he stored the sake for one month at -2 degrees Celsius. On March 28 he poured the sake into the 18 bottles and cold shipped them to Hiroshima. (Guaranteeing that they would be there by April 1st)
Here is where things get interesting. The research center stores the submitted sakes at room temperature (15 degrees Celsius) until the competition on May 20th! That's a long time out of refrigeration for a single-pasteurized sake - from April 1st until the first cut on May 20th! As the brewer told me this one month and one week at room temperature was a way "to secure the balance of the sake." Damn! That is amazing! They go through so much to make a brilliant sake at the risk of having the brew change in the bottle during this time. (The brewer told me that Junmai Dai Ginjos change much quicker in this environment)
Are they done yet? Nope! Because the judges award 500 Silver Medals and 250 Gold Medals at each competition. And if you get an award your reward is that you must then send 18 more bottles of the same brew to the research center for the open-to-the-public sake tasting of the award winning sakes.