Sake Judging - US National Sake Appraisal
You might know it as the "Joy Of Sake" tasting! But before the Joy comes the hard work of tasting and appraising the sake that goes forth and becomes the Joyous event that we have all come to love and appreciate. So before you think Joy of Sake think about the largest and most comprehensive tasting and appraising event outside of Japan. Think about the most ambitious and pioneering international sake judging event ever off the shores of the land of sake. Then think that this event is celebrating its 8th glorious year!
In 1986 the International Sake Association was founded in Hawaii. This body not only celebrated sake and tried to understand its wonders but they decided to create an event that would use strategic partners in Japan to help craft a sake appraisal worthy of distinction both in Japan and in the West! The fruits of their labor is called the U.S. National Sake Appraisal and is indeed the preeminent sake appraisal outside of Japan. Created by the International Sake Association and hosted by a great group called the "Kokusai Sake Kai" this appraisal took place in Honolulu in late August.
One of the founders of the ISA and a Director of the "Kokusai Sake Kai" Chris Pearce (founder of World Sake Imports - but please do not confuse the two - these are separate entities all together and Chris has gone to great lengths to make certain that the lines are not blurred) has asked me for several years to be a judge in this competition. Due in large part to personal issues, I have never been able or had the honor to judge this endeavor until this year. So if you think Honolulu and drinking sake might be a difficult thing then thank me for diving on that grenade. I took it on the chin for you guys! I stared down over 300 sakes for you good people. In a word I went to heaven for you! (You may thank me later)
I will quote the U.S. National Sake Appraisal press release for the down and dirty:
"A total of 327 sakes from 157 breweries were submitted for this rigorous blind tasting conducted under the auspices of the Japan National Research Institutue of Brewing. A team of ten judges - five from Japan and five from the U.S. - participated in this year's appraisal.
Volunteers prepare the entries by pouring samples into traditional 'janome' professional sake tasting cups. After tasting an entry each judge marks his or her score on the judging form. The results are tabulated using an Excel spreadsheet, with approximately the top 50% of the entries going back again for the nisshin or second tasting."
Ahhhhhh sounds so simple, but there was soooo much more! You cannot just throw 300 or so sakes in some cups and say "go gettum boys." The tasting took two full days and of course we started early in the morning when taste buds are at their peaks. The first morning was the "isshin" or the first tasting for the Daiginjo A category (96 entries) and the Daiginjo B (49 entries). After the independent volunteers tabulated the scores the judges then tasted the "nisshin" or the second tasting, which consisted of roughly 50% of the isshin sakes. (For those keeping score that meant that we tasted roughly 75 more sakes for a first day total of about 250 brews.)
The second and longer day consisted of Kimoto Dai Ginjo, Ginjo, and Junmai categories. We followed the same isshin and nisshin method of tasting then eliminating a portion and then re-tasting and selecting the Gold and Silver medalists. Again this accounted for roughly 185 sakes in the morning and another 95 in the afternoon. (Again for those counting that is roughly 280 sakes to go with the 250 brews the day before and when you here about a sake tasting with 327 sakes think about those poor judges who actually taste well over 500 sakes - those poor dear souls!)
We tasted these sakes in an enormous room, which was a subsection of a massive event center with vast chamber after vast chamber. The walls were a perfect neutral color and the ceilings had to be 30 feet. In our tasting room we had three rows of tables lined end-to- end that extended roughly 50 feet and were covered in white tablecloths. Separating these tables were two smaller sections for water and spit cups. (Yes you need spit cups!) At the end of each main row were spit buckets to deposit our efforts that we carried in our spit cups! (A whole lotta spittin' - heard a rumor about a previous taster/judge who didn't spit enough and actually used several of the 'janome' professional sake tasting cups as his own personal spittin' cups, which of course are the cups that we taste the sake in. They were changed out very quickly! Yuk! (but funny)
In one end of the room we had our judges meeting table that housed all ten of us after each session, and at the other end was the official observers table with the "shot clock" timing sheet for each session and the tabulating computer. On the other side of the wall was an identical chamber filled with the entire volunteer base and each and every bottle of sake. They poured the a/c room temperature sakes into the "snake eye" white tasting cups with the concentric blue circles and brought them in by tray. Thus it was impossible for us to know which brews we were tasting by name or bottle appearance - a blind tasting in every sense of the word. What we did know is that we had roughly 45 seconds for each brew and the sake tasting cups (which we all shared) were arranged on the tasting tables in order of acidity, so that the neighboring entries had nearly the same acidity levels as those around the one that you were tasting. (This is very important and quite a professional way of doing these appraisals as acidity levels can overwhelm and under whelm those around them.)
Our scoring sheets consisted of 5 sections for each sake - taste, balance, aroma, finish, and overall impression. Each section had 5 segments/boxes from good to poor, but the overall impression section had the following criteria 1. Outstanding 2. Good 3.Without Flaws 4. Slightly Flawed 5. Noticeably Flawed. This sheet, which came in a book for each tasting session, was for the isshin "first tasting." The second tasting for the medalists did not include the taste, balance, aroma etc sections rather it just had criteria from Outstanding to Slightly Flawed. (For a visual reference think about each judge walking down the line of sakes holding a binder with sheets for each sake, a pencil (yes you do some erasing), and a spit cup that is used for each brew - this you dump out every ten or so sakes.)
Speed is not the issue - accuracy is far more important. When a large tasting segment (Like the Junmai section) starts some say that you should walk up and down the table trying several random sakes to get your pallet accustomed to that particular flight. Others would say that you must just focus specifically on each sake as an individual - not as part of a flight. I try to refrain from comparing sakes side- by-side. That said, I will taste a great sake and use that as a point of balance for reference when I have a hard decision coming up with a grade for a sake on the bubble - meaning if I find a very balanced and superb sake in one row, and there are two sakes that I am really close to giving a great grade or a good grade - I will use the great sake as a point of sensory reference.
Overall we graded pretty tough this year. I heard that it was one of the most critical set of judges in the history of the appraisal. Am I proud of being critical? Not really! Am I proud of taking each brew and putting it through my own criteria of how a sake should smell, taste and feel? Yes. I also am charged with having a palette that is a reflection of being a retail store owner. In a word, I know what sake drinkers in the west like! And it is quite different from what the Japanese palette prefers. I have been professionally trained to grade sake in the following manner - balance 30%-40%, taste 25%-30%, aroma 20%-25%, and finish 15%.
In my book I wrote about the process of tasting sake thinking in terms of a house. The balance is the foundation - the first floor is the flavor - the second floor is the aroma - and the attic is the finish or departure. If the balance is not there, the building collapses! Point being there is an "overall harmony" according to Chris Pearce that dictates the quality of the sake. If that harmony, balance, foundation is not there - spit and move on quickly!
I will discuss the differences between the Japanese judges' palettes and that of the westerners in a future article. But I did touch upon this in a past issue that touched on my participation with the International Wine Challenge in London - I was a Senior Judge overseeing 8 Japanese judges and 9 western judges. The differences were quite noticeable, as they were in Hawaii! One common theme is that many quality sakes start tasting the same - good - and it is the sakes with more pop or "presence" that get the gold. (Higher acidity - Genshu are some brews that score well)
My work is done - and your work tasting these 327 sakes will begin as soon as you hit the Joy of sake in your neighborhood! Please go to the JOS website and get to the tastings this year - you will be very pleased!