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World’s Leading Sommeliers Embark on Exclusive Sake and Japanese Food Culture Discovery Tour in Japan

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March 5th – From January 22 to 27, 2024, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association invited five top sommeliers from countries including France, Spain, Lithuania, and New Zealand to Japan. The visit was designed not only to educate them about sake but also to delve into the culture surrounding koji, which is essential to Japanese food culture. During the tour, the sommeliers participated in master classes on sake, tasted sakes categorized by Geographical Indication, and visited a seed-koji producer (a company that creates and sells spores of koji mold), a miso brewery, and sake breweries.

Sake master classes and tastings by Geographical Indication 

The JSS, in partnership with the French Sommelier Association and the International Sommelier Association, is committed to providing sake education for sommeliers. The invited world-class sommeliers were given an in-depth look at sake brewing methods and explained why sake pairs well with a variety of dishes based on scientific data. For example, sake contains minimal iron, which makes it an exceptional pairing with caviar and oysters. Iron can oxidize the unsaturated fatty acids in seafood, resulting in an unpleasant odor, a problem sake avoids. Additionally, sake is rich in glutamic acid, a type of amino acid, which enhances the umami taste when paired with meat, seafood, and mushrooms.

The experience also included tastings of 33 types of sake from 11 of the 15 Geographical Indications protecting regional sake brands, providing an understanding of the regional taste differences and diversity. Unlike grapes, rice, the main ingredient in sake, is easy to transport. The diversity is attributed not only to rice varieties and origins but also to local water quality, regional preferences, and the transmission of brewing techniques.

Exploring the essential to Japan’s food culture: A Journey to the Seed Koji Maker

One of the most crucial ingredients that determine the flavor and quality of sake is koji. Besides sake brewing, koji is also used in the fundamental elements of Japanese food culture, such as soy sauce and miso production, and has been used in sake since the 8th century. Since rice does not contain sugar, it needs to be converted from starch to sugar using saccharifying enzymes produced by koji, which is rice inoculated with koji mold. The quality of koji significantly affects the quality of sake, and each producer has their own method of making it. Koji mold spores are extremely small, measuring between 3 to 10 microns, making them invisible to the naked eye. Despite their tiny size, these microorganisms play a crucial role in traditional Japanese fermentation. Specialized businesses, known as seed     -koji shops, cultivate and handle these spores, providing essential support to producers of sake, miso, and soy sauce for centuries. On this occasion, the participants visited Kojiya Sanzaemon Co., Ltd., a seed-koji producer with over 600 years of history. Andrea Martinisi, the New Zealand representative at the ‘Best Sommelier of the World 2023’ competition and runner-up at the Asia & Oceania 2022 competition, said, “I really found it extremely interesting to visit the koji making factory. I loved understanding and learning how koji is made and recognizing the differences between different varieties of Koji-kin(Koji mold).”

Sake Breweries Visit

Visiting six sake breweries in Nagano and Yamanashi allowed for an experience that went beyond observing the general sake brewing process. It included viewing the production of traditional Kimoto method sake and sparkling sake made through in-bottle secondary fermentation, providing a deep appreciation for the diversity of sake. Particularly, the Kimoto method, which uses natural lactic acid bacteria, is less known due to their intricate processes. Sophie Mirande, President of the Corsican Sommelier Association, expressed her awe at the direct encounter with the various elements that contribute to the uniqueness of Japanese sake, highlighting the meticulous selection of rice, water purity, and the craftsmanship of Toji, the master sake brewers. During the visit to Yukawa Sake Brewery in Nagano Prefecture, where the Kimoto process was observed, Mr. Martinisi commented, “I like to have sake that are more suitable for food pairing, like Kimoto or Yamahai styles, with more umami and acidity,” expressing his appreciation for their distinctive appeal.

When asked about key points for promoting sake internationally, Martynas Pravilonis, the Lithuanian representative at BSW2023, emphasized the importance of educational events, programs, and strong relationships with sommeliers, as well as participation in events like ASI Regional and International Competitions and Bootcamps to spread the love and knowledge of sake. He also highlighted the role of media coverage and social media in disseminating information.

Hitoshi Utsunomiya, a director at the JSS, commented on the invitation program, saying, “The JSS believes it’s crucial to communicate the correct understanding of sake and the diversity of its pairing with food directly to sommeliers, who are in direct contact with consumers, especially those representing various countries. We want them to take advantage of the unique characteristics of sake, which differ from wine, in their service, based on what they’ve learned on-site. This time, we were able to invite sommeliers representing regions where we aim to further spread the culture of sake, such as Oceania, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe, and we look forward to their future activities in these regions.”

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