Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Niigata Saké Book: A Prefecture Guide

There are plenty of Japanese books about Saké which unfortunately never get translated into English. But one such translation was published last year, adding a fascinating look into the brewing industry within one specific prefecture, Niigata. Saké production is very important in Niigata, and they have an excellent reputation.

The Niigata Saké Book (March 2009, $45), an English translation of the Japanese Niigata Seishu Tatsujin Kentei Koshiki Tekisuto Bukku, was published by the Niigata Saké Brewers Association. The book is a trade paperback of 128 pages, and contains some additional information, which is not in the original text, for English-language readers.

This book is an inside look at the Saké brewing industry in Niigata, as well as providing plenty of basic information about Saké. It begins with 32 pages of color pages including a map of Niigata with the location of its 96 breweries. It then gives some brief info on each brewery, showcasing one of the Sakés they each produce. Sadly, Niigata had over 1200 breweries in 1879, and less than 10% of them remain. This is the case across all of Japan, where so many breweries have disappeared.

The first chapter details the Niigata prefecture, its climate, rice, water, and people, which all contribute to their Saké. Its climate is ideal, with many sunny and warm days in the summer and many snowy days in the winter. This is conducive to excellent rice growing in the summer and brewing in the winter. The rice they use is mostly grown in Niigata, and they have invested much research in developing better varieties. Their water is usually soft, and considered excellent for brewing.

The Echigo Toji, or Niigata Master Saké Brewers, are very talented and knowledgeable, renowned throughout Japan. The prefecture also established the Niigata Saké Academy to train new brewers so that the art does not die out. The number of Toji decreased from 922 in 1968 to only 259 in 1998, mostly due to retirement. Thus there was a strong need to ensure the art continued by training new brewers. In addition, the prefecture established the Niigata Professional Saké Research Institute, the first independent Saké research & development organization in Japan.

With 96 breweries, Niigata has the second most in Japan, with Hyogo prefecture in first place. Their annual Saké production is third in Japan, behind Hyogo and Kyoto. But, 62% of their production is Premium Saké, far higher than the Japanese average of 26%. Plus, their per-capita Saké consumption is 18 liters, higher than the national average of 7 liters and the highest in Japan. So, they stand by their product, drinking a significant amount of Saké. Kanpai!

Chapter Two then moves onto the Saké brewing process, with specific references to brewing in Niigata. For example, they discuss the specific Saké rices used in Niigata. Much of this chapter is a primer on Saké brewing, written in fairly clear language, and will help any reader understand the process. The chapter ends discussing the nature of Niigata Saké, how it is best described as tanrei, "clean-smooth-gracious."

The next chapter is also a primer on Saké, including its quality grades, types, how to read a bottle label, Saké tasting, serving temperatures, a food pairing with Niigata cuisine, and even how to minimize a hangover. This is another good chapter with lots of introductory information. It also contains some tidbits which might be new to even those experienced with Saké. For example, I learned about Scarlet Saké, a unique Niigata brew that is made with a scarlet fungus that adds color and flavor to the Saké.

The final chapter deals with Niigata Saké Topics, though much of it is applicable to Saké from any prefecture. Some of the topics include the relation between yeast and Saké flavor, Saké workers, and Sugidama. For a more specific item, there is a brief item about the Niigata Saké Festival.

Overall, I was very pleased with this book and would love to see similar books for all of the significant prefectures of Japan. It is more of an inside look, like getting a closer look at a wine region. Even if you know little about Saké, you are likely to enjoy this book, as well as learn plenty.

I do have a few criticisms though. First, parts of the book may contain touches of exaggeration, almost propaganda, but that is to be expected from a book published by the brewing association of Niigata. I do not think it was overdone though so it is a minor issue. Second, the translation is sometimes awkward and could have used more editing. You will understand everything, though you might chuckle at how some of the sentences read.

Lastly, and most importantly, this book is very expensive. At $45 on Amazon, I could not recommend it as it is a small book, and you could find much of the information elsewhere for much cheaper. You might be able to find it cheaper at the Kinokuniya Bookstore, but I am not sure. I suggest taking a careful look at it before deciding whether to buy it or not. At this price, the casual Saké lover won't be buying it.

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