Monday, February 4, 2013

Rant: Make It Simple But Accurate

Though I am always pleased to see Sake articles in the media, helping promote this wonderful beverage, I get dismayed when such articles contain erroneous information. I try to educate people about Sake, to clarify their misconceptions, but that becomes more difficult when articles in popular magazines and newspapers perpetuate such misconceptions. Most of the time, such errors could have been easily corrected and that makes the offense seem even worse.

The new issue of Boston Magazine contains an extensive Asian Dining Guide and one of the articles, Good Libations, discusses Sake. Though it is a brief article, it makes some significant errors and I was initially informed by the Food Editor that the article had been fact checked. That was dismaying and raised numerous questions in my mind. If it was fact checked, and still contained errors, then what did that say about the process? Who fact checked the article? How was it fact checked? What resource(s) was used to fact check it? Why were the errors allowed to stand?

I was later informed that at least some of the errors were intentional. Intentional? Apparently, they did not wish to confuse the public with too much information so they chose to ignore and omit certain basic facts about Sake. They essentially wanted to dumb down the article because they didn't believe the public was capable of handling the truth. I think the use of erroneous information is more harmful to the public in the long run and that the public is capable enough to handle at least a minimal degree of difficulty. They should be treated as adults, not children, and not spoon fed simple data as if incapable of handling more. One can be simple yet accurate.

Let us look more closely at the errors that were put forth in the article.

First, the article states that there are "three types of premium sake" but there are actually six types. The article failed to mention that there are three types of Honjozo Sake, a second premium category. The Honjozo category is actually even larger than the Junmai category.

The magazine intentionally omitted any reference to Honjozo, allegedly for simplicity's sake. However, they still could have remained accurate yet also been simple. All they would have had to say is something like "there are six types of premium sake but we will highlight only three here." That is succinct and accurate, fixes the error and should not unduly confuse readers. As you see, the term Honjozo didn't need to be mentioned yet readers might be intrigued enough by the reference to other types of premium Sake to seek out more information.

Second, the article states that the types of premium Sake are "categorized by the amount of rice milled away" but that is not truly correct either. First and foremost, the most important element that determines whether a Sake is "premium" or not, is the number and type of ingredients used in the production of the Sake. The milling percentage is a secondary consideration and alone not indicative of a premium Sake.

To be a Junmai, a Sake must only contain four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji-kin. To be a Honjozo, the Sake can contain one more ingredient, distilled alcohol. No matter how much of the rice is milled away, a Sake is not "premium" unless it also only has those four or five ingredients. Only about 25% of all Sake produced qualifies as "premium."

Again, the fix would have been relatively simple, adding that premium sake is "categorized by the number & type of ingredients, as well as the amount of rice milled away." Succinct and accurate, it fixes the second error and again should not unduly confuse readers.

Third, the article states Junmai must be "milled to 70 percent or less of the original grain."  Beside the awkward construction of that phrase, it is incorrect as there is no minimum milling requirement for a Junmai. A Junmai could be milled down to only 80% and still be considered a Junmai. The only requirement for being a Junmai concerns the number and nature of its ingredients. This is an error that runs rampant in many other Sake articles too.

The fix is also simple. Just state that "Junmai does not have a minimum milling percentage." There is really no reason why that couldn't have been done.

I don't see a valid reason why this article could not have been made accurate. Alleged concerns about dumbing down the article for the general public do not seem warranted, especially considering how easy it would have been to fix the errors. I understand this was not a lengthy educational article on Sake but simple articles can and should still be accurate. Give your readers some credit for being intelligent.

As a final matter, I want to address the lone "tip" in the article, advising people to look for the milling percentage on the label if the writing is in Japanese. I don't think that tip is really helpful and is more likely to confuse someone than help them.

The average person will almost never find a Sake in the U.S. which doesn't specify its type, such as whether it is a Junmai or Ginjo. They will though find a number of bottles which fail to list the milling percentage. So it is far more prudent to remember the type of Sake you prefer and seek out that type on the label rather than hunt on the bottle for milling percentages, which might not even be there. Plus, it is probably easier to remember a word "Ginjo" rather than remember you like Sake that has been milled down to at least 60%.

If you go to a restaurant, their Sake menu will list Sakes by type and almost never mention the milling percentage. Thus, remembering that you like "Ginjo" makes ordering Sake at a restaurant much easier too. Forget milling percentages and learn the name of the Sake type you enjoy.


1 comment:

jkommelb said...

While I know essentially nothing about sake (other than that what I've had tasted really good), I really appreciate this post, as inaccuracies such as this drive me crazy, and I truly believe are harmful. Not unlike the people who label beef as "American Wagyu" or "Kobe" in the US, or the few remaining companies that call their sparkling white wine "Champagne" in direct opposition to the definition, consumers are being misled. This is especially true today in the media, where the story the source is trying to present takes precedent over accuracy and integrity. I hope you informed the editor at Boston Magazine just how displeased you are with his/her product and poor the excuses he/she used are.