July 2010

Sake Trend - The Race To Organic Sake - Worth It?

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, July, Newsletter
For years now I have been telling you folks about the whole "organic" deal in the sake industry and how it relates to us. I've mentioned countless times that the Japanese standard for the "Organic" seal is not recognized by our very own USDA. Meaning - it's considered organic in Japan but it cannot be "sold" as organic in the US. Why? Go ask your government.

And for years now we have been selling certain sakes by telling our customers that several brews are organic or use organic rice etc. (Daishichi Kimoto Junmai for example) We also know our brewers very well and when they relate to us the fact that they produce all of the raw materials from start to finish under pure organic methods then we also say that these brews are "organic" (Chikurin Brewery for example). In other words, the Japanese organic standard is good enough for us as retailers of premium sake. Or is it?

Of late this discrepancy between the US and Japanese organic standards has opened a small niche in the industry and there are several breweries running like mad to gain market share within this fledgling segment. And they are doing it in the most laughable manner possible. Two breweries in Japan - Kikuyu in Niigata and Hakutsuru in Kobe - are actually growing special brewing rice in the US and shipping it back to Japan to be brewed and bottled. These sakes then get shipped back to the US and the result is that they get to have the USDA Certified Organic sticker on the label. Seems crazy right?

That's a lot of effort to get a simple sticker no? Well yes it is and now there are several breweries that are petitioning the US to send inspectors over to Japan to monitor their organic methods to prove that they are in accordance with USDA standards and should be rewarded with the all-sacred USDA Cert sticker. In other words there is a rush to get into a segment where they see value. But is this really a viable segment? Do people buy sake just to get organic sake? Is the organic premium really worth it? Hmmmmm? Several of our local brewers in the US think so and have been doing USDA organic products for years.

Is this the tipping point? We do get asked quite often by breweries in Japan if people want organic sake. And some folks come to us saying that they are going to export to the US a fully organic sake, and would we carry it. (Miwa wrote about one such brewery that actually flew her to Japan to see the operation). Their business plan is to export one organic sake. Hmmmmm! Me thinks this is not the best business model - a one brew portfolio based on an assumption that Organic sake would sell more than non-organic sake.

Let me be clear here. I cannot speak for you, but I get the sense that there is not a large desire to buy USDA organic sake, especially from an industry - sake making - that is not known for using all of the BS chemicals and enhancers that bring fear to the very soul of most consumers. The sake producing world is pretty clean and the rice is so special that it cannot possibly be too tricked out or over- chemical(led).

The final factor comes down to price. Would you pay more for an organic product? Would you pay a premium for a brew that has the USDA Organic sticker on it? I guess some would. But in my experience and watching the buying patterns of sake purchasers most people buy like frogs hopping from one brew to another - rarely do they settle down for one sake only. Thus, a single organic brew as your staple sake seems unlikely. Even if that sake was supposedly "better for you."

If the proof is in the pudding then I thought it would be wise to taste the damn pudding. So I collected all of the "officially" recognized USDA certified sakes available to you in the US and did an "O-tasting" not to be confused with an "Oh!-Tasting." Herewith are some simple notes and thoughts about the brews: The first two are sakes that have traveled a great distance - rice grown in the US but sake is produced in Japan - the second three are brews made in the US using locally grown rice - and lastly is a quick review of the Japanese crafted sake that is trying to become the first officially certified sake meeting USDA standards but produced entirely in Japan.

Hakutsuru "Organic Junmai"

From Kobe Japan. (I bought this 300ml for $6.16 in Japan Town)

"Using only premium California organic rice, Hakutsuru Organic sake is carefully brewed with sophisticated skills and techniques." The label has the USDA Organic seal. And on the back label there is QAI seal, which stands for Quality Assurance International. The nose on this Junmai is ricey with hints of caramel, grains, banana, and dusty elements. Smooth, round and compact look for layers of rice tones from beginning to end. There is a toasty quality to this brew that presents itself more when the fluid warms. There are hints of richness with flavors such as bamboo, cocoa, and nougat working with the abundant rice flow. SUMMARY: Not a very tasty sake that drinks thin and watery - dare I say "rice-watery." Would I buy it because it is organic? No.

Kikusui "Organic Junmai Ginjo"

From Niigata, Japan. (It would be around $18 for 300ml)

"The world's first import organic sake brewed in Japan. Certified Organic by OCIA International." The front label has the USDA Organic seal on it. And the back label has the OCIA "Certified Organic" seal. The nose on this Junmai Ginjo is floral and fruity with hints of mango, banana and white flower blossoms. Basically this brew drinks like other Kikusui products - crisp, compact, clean and quick. There are dried fruit elements like Asian Apple Pear, apricot, and a young melon hidden amongst the crispness of the fluid. There is a lot of acidity play at work that keeps the brew frisky and sharp. SUMMARY: A zesty Ginjo that drinks cutting like a sharp edged knife in a crisp delivery. Would I buy it because it is organic? No.

Momokawa "Organic Junmai Ginjo"

From Oregon, USA. (I bought this 375ml brew at Whole Foods, but forget the price.)

"This classic Junmai Ginjo is certified at every step, from the rice, yeast, and koji-kin to our kura (brewery) where it is made." "Fully organic certifiably so." The front label has the USDA Organic seal and the back label has an OTCO seal that stands for Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth. Sadly I did not notice that the brew was bottled in November 2009, and this may account for some of the "Ginjo" characteristics not showing face. The mild nose on this brew is made up of melon, rice, and wheat aromas. A smooth and round Ginjo with mild flavors and a quick departure. There is an overall ricey personality to this brew that drinks very thin with a gentle tingle of acidity. Look for hints of cinnamon amongst the base rice core. SUMMARY: This is pretty much a beginners brew that drinks very very mild - basically a gentle sake without much "stuff." Would I buy it because it is organic? No.

Momokawa "Organic Junmai Ginjo Nigori"

From Oregon, USA. (I bought this 375ml brew at Whole Foods, but forgot the price.)

"This is the first of its kind, the first nigori to be certified organic. We think the amazing flavors will speak for themselves and the fact that it's organic will put a smile on your face." The front label has the USDA Organic seal and the back label has an OTCO seal that stands for "Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth." The nose on this unfiltered brew is a collection of aromas from grape popsicle to cream with fruit layers all over the place. Smooth, round and fruity - What else could you ask for in a nigori? This brew drinks slick and has a shopping basket full of fruit tones from blueberry and grape to strawberries in cream with a dash of honey. There is a gentle acidity play that keeps the sake bright, but the smoothness rules the day. Soft and smooth. SUMMARY: A smooth nigori that has good balance and lots of flavors. Would I buy it because it is organic? Yes.

Sho Chiku Bai "Organic Nama Junmai"

From California, USA. (I bought this 300ml brew in Japan Town for $7.18 - a dollar more than the Hakutsuru that went from the US to Japan and back to the US again.)

"Sho Chiku Bai Nama Sake is the first sake in the US produced from organic rice." There is no USDA seal on the front label but there is an OCIA "Certified Organic" seal on the back label. The nose on this unpasteurized sake is very "nama" with fresh green tones and a hint of banana and grapes. A semi-rich brew that has fruit elements but drinks on the dry side. There are fruit and wheat tones that almost tastes like a breakfast cereal sake - like rice and grapes. This nama is a full-bodied sake that is chewy and fat but not immense. More sweetness comes out closer to room temp but I drinks better chilled. SUMMARY: A viscous nama that has a good fruit to dryness ratio. Would I buy it because it is organic? No.

Akira "Organic Junmai"

From Ishikawa, Japan. (Given to me as a sample.)

"Pure rice sake made from U.S. NOP certified organic rice." This sake is best described as a pioneering effort of a brewery in Japan trying to get USDA standards in Japan - to avoid all of the hoopla of shipping rice back and forth. The nose is pure Ishikawa- ken and by that I mean a unique collections of aromas ranging from rice, chestnuts, and earth tones to grainy, meaty, vanilla(y) and wine barrel scents. The fluid drinks just as "Ishi" as the nose! A large and frisky Junmai that is fat and chewy and it loaded with very base flavors that dance from rich and full-bodied to tart, sour and smoky. Imagine eating steamed rice off of a wood paddle that has been aged in wine barrel oak with veggie like hues! Grainy, nutty, veggie, earthy and woody - a true menagerie of wacky flavors that work on a firm acidity personality. A classic meal in a glass sake. SUMMARY: A vast sake with tons of looks - base and bold. Would I but it because it is organic? Yes.


"Organics" have come to us in every realm of life - so why not sake? I still do not think that the organic seal of approval is so very needed in an "industry" that is pretty damn pure and clean to begin with. But it's there and people are counting on consumers to produce a demand for these products based on that selling point alone (no matter the quality). And yet, quality does matter and some of the efforts out there are not really the end all be all - are they? So it is a line that we will watch more closely - the line of whether or not people will pay for a product that may not be excellent sake just to achieve the "organic-ness." Personally speaking I feel the answer is a "no way" for now, because as I mentioned before most consumers jump from product to product and rare is the customer who just drinks one or two sakes only.

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