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Sake Sommelier

The Power of the Appraisal — Kosuke Kuji


Sake brewers are working night and day to make tasty sake, as well as improve the quality and manufacturing techniques. There is one platform where specialists can objectively evaluate the efforts of sake produced that year and choose the best of the best: the National Sake Appraisal. We asked Mr. Kosuke Kuji, a 5th-generation sake brewer of “Nanbu-Bijin,” to tell us about the goals of the sake brewers participating in the competition.

What is the National Sake Appraisal?
In general, the judging is conducted all over Japan and is called an “appraisal.” Among them, the most influential one is the National Research Institute of Brewing that hosts the National New Sake Awards. The purpose of the competition is to promote sake through conducting a national survey on refined sake that was brewed that year to clearly define the present conditions and trends of sake manufacturing technology and quality. We have strict standards for sake submitted to the competition and use an amber glass and our senses to judge the categories of “scent,” “flavor” and “overall evaluation.” It is completely different from a simple sake tasting.

What are the merits of winning an award at the National Sake Appraisal?
A long time ago, if you won an award at this competition, sales would increase. This is because it was the only competition that was sponsored by a public institution, the National Tax Agency. Now, the competition is being run by the National Research Institute of Brewing, an independent administrative organization, but First Prize from the national competition holds an extremely important position among technical experts. However, now, even if you win the First Prize from the competition, it does not immediately translate into higher sales.

What is the significance of entering the competition even if it does not lead to increased sales?
I think that the reason for entering the competition is that you can compete with sake brewers from all over Japan under the same criteria. Normally, it is impossible for a small- or medium-sized manufacturer to compete with large manufacturers with strong sales. However, at the National Sake Appraisal, small, medium and large manufacturers are competing on the same stage as far as technological innovation skills. The conditions are almost the same – most brewers use the same rice (Yamada-nishiki), almost the same ratio of polished rice (35-40%), and the yeast is also the same in recent years. This competition is a pure way to see how your own technology and sake ranks compared to the rest of the country.

What are sake brewers enthusiastic about in the competition?
Long ago, receiving First Prize meant higher sales, so sake brewers were very enthusiastic. However, in recent years, their eagerness has waned, and even some sake brewers left the National Sake Appraisal. However, even now, there are many sake brewers that are still enthusiastic, especially brewers from the Tohoku (northeastern) region.

What are the characteristics of recent award-winning sake?
A long time ago, the most fragrant sake would win the award. However, from a few years ago, the method of judging was changed to line up the sake according to the main ingredient content readings of the scent. And thus, even sake that is not so fragrant could win the competition. I think this is wonderful. Also, in recent years, sake submissions have been made from rice from their own prefecture, rather than the traditional Yamada-nishiki rice. More and more sake made from local rice is winning the competition. Hiroshima Prefecture and Akita Prefecture are making vast efforts to use their own local rice.

Are there opportunities to taste award-winning sake in New York?
This is difficult. In general, there is only one tank that has been designated as the award-winning sake from the competition. There may be some places within Japan that serve it individually, but there are probably very few overseas. Because of this, there is high interest in the event at the Japan Society (see column).

However, in Japan, the National New Sake Awards is open to the general public in Tokyo, so there is one chance each year for the public to try new sake. (Please see the National Research Institute of Brewing homepage for the dates. It is only at this time that you can taste competition award-winning sake that you cannot buy in the store or try at a restaurant. So for those who are visiting Japan during this time of the year, they should definitely visit the National New Sake Awards.

Kosuke Kuji: The fifth generation of Nanbu Bijin Brewey in Iwate Prefecture. Graduated from the sake-brewing department of Tokyo University of Agriculture, Japan’s highest institution of learning sake brewing. He founded Sake Export Association (SEA) with his like-minded fellows to spread higher recognition of Japanese sakes widely around the world.


Tasting among the members of the National Research Institute of Brewing at the National Sake Appraisal (above), and the judging at appraisal of Iwate Prefecture (left).

Annual Sake Tasting & Lecture:
The 100-Year History of Sake Appraisal

April 3rd at Japan Society
John Gauntner, renowned sake expert and a founding member of Sake Export Association, discusses how 100 years of history of sake appraisal has changed the sake industry.