Warning, this post is about to get personal! No, I won’t be sharing any deep secrets about the past. I decided instead to share an introduction to Japan Sake & Shochu Academy (JSS) and my experiences during the training. I will discuss the history of the course and include some of my thoughts on the curriculum, etc.
However, before I proceed, there is an announcement. In light of the corona pandemic, most of us were no doubt concerned about how it would affect the course. We were happy to hear that the class had not been canceled and that we would take the necessary precautions. Indeed, during each day of training, we all wore face masks the entire time. We also checked our body temperatures prior to entering the classroom, washed our hands often, and we were able to social distance during the lectures.
With that said, let’s move to the introduction to Japan Sake & Shochu Academy, as promised.
The Official Beginnings
The Japan Sake and Shochu Academy was launched in 2015 by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association and the National Research Institute of Brewing. The goal is to introduce foreigners to Japanese sake, shochu and awamori. These are the special liquors of Japan. Our training began by learning about the history of Japanese sake brewing, which is said to have begun in the palace known as Miki-no-tsuaka. The Heijokyo Imperial Court (710-784 AD) had a sake brewing section that was created specifically for this purpose. The remnants of this brewing section can still be seen in present day Nara Prefecture.
From this history, we know that sake was primarily used during Shinto ceremonies and as offerings to Shinto gods. However, history shows real progress in sake brewing being made during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). During this era, koji (rice mold) production increased, and the Shogunate began to tax the production of sake. As a result, brewing technologies significantly increased, which led to an growth in the number of sake breweries.
The subsequent era, Edo Period (1603-1868), is especially when mass production and shipments of sake expanded, resulting in improved distribution and maritime advances. Through the Muromachi and Edo Eras, sake played a significant role in Shinto and Buddhist religious practices. Due in part to this usage, it easily transitioned into Japanese society via events such as wedding ceremonies, and social gatherings, etc.
Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Program
As the subheading reads, we are getting back to the program, however, we never left. The history of sake was the foundation of our training during JSS. From what we were told, this section was not included in previous years. It is good to know some of the history of sake and how it permeates Japanese culture, but perhaps it could be condensed a bit. Personally, I enjoyed the detailed history lessons but one could see how a non-history buff could question, “So, when are we getting to the good stuff?”
In addition to lessons on sake history and culture, Day One of the JSS course also included: learning about rice, washing rice in preparation for koji, koji making, and of course a lot of sake tastings. The organizers have mentioned that we will have tasted 20 different brands of sake during the course of our weeklong training. I’d say that we came close to that on our first day.
Truth be told, I never used the spit cup, as suggested. Where’s the fun in that? Instead, it was more enjoyable to sip every sample. By the end of the day I was already nursing a slight buzz when we were invited to head out to dinner as a group.
Due to a state of emergency due to COVID, the restaurant was normally closed. However, they made an exception for JSS and us students. It goes without saying that dinner at a Japanese izakaya was amazing and we were treated with arguably the world’s best customer service. We enjoyed more sake and beer for a few hours and then called it a night. It was the end of a long and tiring day.
We had the luxury of experiencing sake food pairings during Day Two of our training so the use of the provided spit cup was also a no go. The experience of pairing sake with carefully chosen foods was eye-opening. We learned about which styles go well with certain foods and that such pairings are not limited to Japanese cuisine. Due to the various styles and properties found in sake at precise, chemical level, it can be heated (or cooled) to draw out even more explosions of flavor and umami. Likewise, experimentation is encouraged and Day Two helped us to realize that and appreciate the versatility of sake. Dare I say, the possibilities are infinite.
Like the first day, Day Two ended with a trip to JSS Information Center, which was also normally closed due to the pandemic but opened especially for us. We learned more about JSS and their mission to spread the awareness of sake. And, we were treated to some original cocktails. From there, we headed to a nearby izakaya for more great food and drinks. Such great hospitality, one could get used to this.
Day Three, we learned about shochu, specifically the history of distilled spirits in Japan and some theories as to when the practice arrived. We also had the opportunity to taste different styles of shochu such as rice (kome) and barley (mugi) shochu. We learned about different types of koji used for shochu and awamori and what purpose each koji is used for. Yeasts were also covered, as they could differ from what is used during the production of sake. The selection of rice koji and yeast is determined by the brewer, depending on what he or she hopes to produce in the final product.
During this day of training, we are beginning to wrap up the coursework and prepare for our quiz. The day began with finishing up shochu styles that we did not cover during Day Three. Here we discussed, and tasted sweet potato (imo), brown sugar (kokuto), buckwheat (soba), and sake kasu (sake lees) shochu. Sake lees, a byproduct of sake production, is used by distillers in nearly every prefecture to produce sake kasu shochu. It tends to have woody aroma and the samples that we tasted reminded me of a light cheese.
After enjoying our daily bento, we learned about standards and regulations regarding liquor laws in Japan and prepared for the sake and shochu quiz. The quiz was a multiple-choice summary of our course and including a tasting and matching portion. A few of us were a bit nervous to hear the outcome but we all passed! With the good news of Day Four in the books, we were all looking forward to our final day, Day Five.
The Final Day
During our final day in class together, we all received our certificates. We then listening to a motivational speech by the President of the National Research Institute of Brewing and took a tour of the red-brick facility that housed our training. With certificates in hand, we soon loaded an awaiting bus and enjoyed a quiet ride to Izumibashi Brewery, located in Kanagawa Prefecture. There, we met with the CEO and took a tour of the farms, had a chance to see the inner workings of the brewery, and enjoyed some sake tastings. I even ran back to the bus to retrieve my wallet so I could purchase a bottle of white koji sake. Sake is typically made using yellow koji but this new product was made using white koji. The taste presented a pleasant surprise, it is a delicious and well-balanced sake.
Izumibashi is an impressive brewery that in addition to sake, also produces soy sauce, shochu, umeshu, and they even utilize a drone technology to inspect their fields. From the skies above, they analyze which fields need the most attention. We ended an already fantastic day by visiting the Izumibashi restaurant called Kuramoto Kako. There we enjoyed scrumptious food dishes that were paired with the sake and shochu that they brew and distill by hand. It is amazing to see how much Izumibashi is doing with a relatively small number of employees. They are managing a sake brewery, distilling shochu, farming their own rice, operating a restaurant, and providing tours of all of the above! It really is an impressive company and proved to be a great way to end our amazing week of training. Kudos to the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and the National Research Institute of Brewing for continuing to put this course together. Year 5 was a success despite COVID-19. Best wishes for the next 5 years and beyond!
Is anyone else tired of COVID, already? I know I am! Like me, many people are turning to online opportunities and DIY projects to stay occupied and remain positive during the global pandemic. Now is a great time for us to finesse our skills or pick up a quarantine hobby. If you are like us, you may consider using this time to learn something new and exciting. How about learning how to home-brew? Indeed, it is an extremely popular past time.
However, we understand that some of the concepts of home-brewing can be confusing. If so, don’t fret, we will cover the basics in this post. In the end, hopefully we will be able to shed some light and introduce you to an interesting opportunity. One that will help you realize your brew dreams during quarantine.
First, a Little Bit of History
The practice of brewing beer, mead and ciders on a non-commercial scale is often referred to as homebrewing. The concept of homebrewing is not a new one, though. Alcohol was traditionally brewed with some rudimentary methods at a domestic level, and eventually evolved as it became a valuable trade commodity. As a result, global demand for a variety of beverages increased. Accordingly, people around the world indulged in homebrewing for personal as well as commercial purposes. A major factor for this growth was the realization that homebrewing allowed the individual to avoid the higher cost of purchasing and transporting beverages.
Home-brewing makes production (and consumption) of such beverages affordable since it does not require expensive machinery. Likewise, brewing can be done fairly easily with relatively minimal skills. It is often said that “if you can make mac and cheese from a box, you can make beer”. Due to this correlative ease, brew connoisseurs are able to tweak the recipe according to their needs and specific tastes. As evident with the craft beer boom, we see many different styles, as brewers dial in beverages according to their liking.
And, since distilled spirits begin with the same processes, the methods used to homebrew tend to excite more than a handful of beverage lovers. People are flocking to pick up the hobby to past time or to learn more about their favorite styles. Likewise, since the process may be time consuming, it becomes a challenge that is highly rewarding when completed successfully. Moreover, because it is possible to brew beverages at a domestic level using basic household equipment, it makes it even more attractive to attempt at least once. You can even brew in your own kitchen, garage or back yard.
Store Bought Home-brewing Kits
Although a wide variety of methods related to home-brewing are available, all of them are highly related. The simplest way to begin with home-brewing is using home kits, which are readily available. These kits include all the equipment necessary to complete the process, many even come with packets of the required malt extracts. Speaking of which, let’s get down to the basics. The basic process includes preparing the grains, boiling grains to produce wort, cooling the wort, and then fermentation by adding yeast. The final steps after fermentation are bottling and enjoying your newly concocted brew!
While this is an over-simplified explanation of the entire process, our goal here is to outline the basics just to give you an idea of how easy it can be. Once you get the processes down, you can see how easy it can be to experiment with different grains during the boiling phase, or different species of yeast during the fermentation phase. The combinations are essentially endless.
If you’re a beer enthusiast who is tired of being cooped up, consider pursuing your brew dreams during quarantine. Home-brewing could become a fun activity for the family to gather around on the porch or balcony.
If you would like to go beyond the basics of how to brew beer, consider a quality homebrew training program that you can take part in online. Click the button below to learn more about a popular program that we found while surfing the Internet. The vendor offers several bonuses that include FREE products. He also includes a “100% 60 Day Iron-Clad Money-Back Guarantee”. Altogether this makes the program an enticing buy!
Around this time in 2019 we partnered with a local wholesaler and began an initiative to help establish their alcoholic beverage import/export capabilities. Looking at the genesis of that project, I can recall being excited to get started and hoping to see some of my ideas become reality. Well, at least that was the dream, anyway. Unfortunately, however, COVID-19 had other plans. In 2020, the global pandemic hit us with a hard, “Nope! Not today, fam.”
And before we knew it, days became weeks, and weeks became months. If we weren’t working from home, we were at the office completing tasks under varied limitations. To this day, as we begin 2021, the pandemic lingers and forces us to continue to take precautions. However, at least we now have better ways to cope. For this post, let’s take a look at Japan’s export data. This will help us to review background information as we go about planning for the future.
The Show Must Go On
As the saying goes, the show must go on and to that end, we are able to proceed with our mission to increase exports. We do so cautiously, while doing our best to follow mask-up and social distancing protocols.
For instance, we have attended several events via the internet, such as online exhibitions or virtual seminars. For these opportunities, we are grateful to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). Their efforts help to make such events possible. Indeed, there is good reason for the government to step in to help revitalize export growth. As it turns out,
…between September 2019 and September 2020 the exports of Japan have decreased by ¥-315B (-4.94%) from ¥6.37T to ¥6.05T, while imports decreased by ¥-1.13T (-17.4%) from ¥6.5T to ¥5.37T.
After reviewing the data, we are particularly interested in the increase that began in May 2020. During that month, export growth was well below -25% but it rose 20 percentage points to -5% by September 2020. We know how badly the COVID-19 pandemic impacted global markets. However, seeing the data to support Japan’s rebound is encouraging. Continuing to look at Japan’s export data, what are some of the specific programs or instances that led to the significant increase? On the whole, there are several government supportinitiatives that helped to drive the resurgence in global trade.
Regional Complexity Indexes
Still, the disparity between imports and exports can be felt in nearly every prefecture of Japan. This is particularly concerning for Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, a chain of islands located about 530 miles from Kyushu.
Okinawa has an Economic Complexity Index (ECI) of -0.23. This places the island prefecture at 38 of 41 when ranked among other prefectures of Japan. Interestingly, Japan overall is currently ranked number one among nations, with a 2.31 ECI score. Therefore, when looking at Okinawa in relation to other prefectures, we must consider areas where local businesses can improve the ECI ranking.
While it may be obvious, we suggest that the ECI can be improved by boosting exports overall. More specifically, by including new product categories that have little or no representation, Okinawa could go a long way toward improving the ECI. With that, not only would the quantity of exports improve, but the types of products available to send abroad would also increase.
However, with limited manufacturing in Okinawa, it appears as though we are in for a long haul. Nevertheless, our goal is to help change the ECI outlook by working to improve export strategies that are specific to our industry. Awamori exporting is a great place to start because there is a lot of support in that area. 2020 was jacked up, but 2021 is the year we make things happen.
As the low carb diet becomes more popular throughout the world, many beverage companies are beginning to develop new products such as low carb beer or hard seltzers, which have little to no sugar or carbohydrates.
As evident in several areas, alcohol producers have responded to the low carb trend in dramatic fashion. For example, the emergence of the low carb beer in particular is generally caused by actions that the beer industry has taken.
However, while many of such beers have a reduced carbohydrate count, this does not necessarily mean that there has been any sacrifices in flavor. Followers of Atkins or Keto diets, and other low carb regimens would likely be happy to see this trend continue to emerge due to years of having to steer clear of beer.
Recently in Japan, Kirin Brewery Co. was the first Japanese company to produce a zero carb beer, and given the positive response thus far, it is pretty clear that low carb or zero carb beer is here to stay.
Shoppers in Japan can find Kirin’s new beer by following the link embedded in the photo below. Cheers!
Last year, I tasted the Kujira 20 year that’s mentioned above and thought it was a winner. I remember being excited about the future of Okinawan whisky. However, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the product was intended for export only. It was not normally available domestically.
This year, I jumped at the opportunity to reserve a bottle of Kujira 24 year when I learned that it would become available locally and was due to drop soon. Today was the day that I received my limited edition bottle, one of 500!
Today we toast Jose de San Martin with a cocktail that was created in his honor. Jose de San Martin led armed forces to help liberate Chile from Spanish rule in 1818. He didn’t stop there, he continued to fight for the colonies and went on to deploy impressive military tactics once again, that eventually helped Peru gain her independence from Spain in 1821. Follow both links to learn more about the leadership of Jose de San Martin.
While reading, or slightly thereafter, treat yourself to the ‘San Martin Protector of Peru’ by following the recipe shared below. For PiscoLogía Pisco Acholado, we’ve got you covered: Online Shop. For the Dubonnet, unfortunately we currently don’t stock any but shop online via Amazon or wherever you purchase your favorite brands of liquor. Cheers!
When I moved to Japan one of my hopes was to start secondary aging Okinawan awamori at home. While it is nearly impossible to source these ceramic pots in the US, it is not that difficult in Japan so long as you are willing to pay. These are typically reserved for long-aged, or kusu awamori (古酒泡盛), which can run hundreds of dollars per liter especially in the traditional decorative ceramic jars, or “kame” (甕).
To learn more, follow the link below. Blue Habu is mentioned but more importantly, it is our mission to help spread awamori awareness and appreciation however we can. We appreciate the post. カンパイ！ — Read on kanpai.us/mystery-awamori/
The Asian continent is full of examples covering rice-based spirits. Oftentimes, the still is handmade from very basic supplies. This post will highlight a few instances.
Where to start?
Our story begins in Laos where, a rice-based alcoholic beverage known as Lao Lao is traditionally distilled, often by women. The spirit is typically used during ceremonies or sold as retail and consumed in casual settings. It is also popular among tourists who have discoveredthatsnakes or scorpionsare often immersed in glass bottles or in jars of the popular beverage… Challenge!
The presence of snakes and critters was traditionally used for medicinal purposes and was thought to help boost a certain prowess particularly among men. Let’s just say that as shown in the image below, it makes you strong. Indeed, many still believe this to be more than just an urban legend.
Similarly, in neighboring Thailand,Lao Khaois prepared the same way, and for similar purposes. Consequently, this is a good juncture to mention that the term “Lao” refers to alcohol and the second word in the phrase refers to the location of origin. Thus, “Lao Lao” is Laotian alcohol and “Lao Khao” is often used for Thai alcohol. Interestingly, “khao” means rice in both Thai and Laotian languages, and it also is the term for mountain in Central and Southern Thailand.
“Cool, but while we are talking about Lao Lao and Lao Khao, what about the other neighboring country, Vietnam?” Well, let’s discuss Ruou de. This rice-based spirit is similar to Lao Lao and Lao Khao, as one could probably image due to Vietnam’s proximity and cultural similarities with Laos. Ruou de has several variations that include“rice wine”or“snake whiskey”, primarily sought out by tourists.
Snake infused, rice-based spirits are not only found in S.E. Asia, but they are also prevalent further East in Japan as well. However, the distilled spirit is much more advanced and produced. The practice occurs in Okinawa with her tradition of producing awamori. In fact, all current awamori distilleries use long grain (indica) rice that is imported from Thailand to produce this cherished spirit.
We can look to the Ryukyu Kingdom’s role throughout the history of global trade for examples of how it helped to introduce the distilling methods that borne Ryukyu Awamori, which is widely recognized as Japan’s oldest spirit. (This reminds us of our very first blog entry:A Historical Look at the Alcohol Trade).
For an image of what awamori based “snake wine” looks like, we present habu-shu aka habu sake:
“Habu-shu” is a type of awamori based liqueur that forms a liquid tomb for many Habu, Okinawa’s indigenous pit viper. If you are wondering, the answer is yes, the business name Blue Habu is our way of recognizing, even appreciating, the significance that3 known species of Habuhave on the islands. We believe Habu play a role in not only the ecosystem but also the culture and much of the local traditions. Like the aforementioned “snake whiskies” prevalent in Southeast Asia, Habu-shu is quite popular among tourists. Indeed, when people hear the term “Habu”, they often think about Okinawa.
Welcoming New Options
Lastly, we have the privilege of shedding some light on a new spirit called Chura Lao. The special project wasimplemented by Co-Op Okinawain 2017 as a way to help stimulate the Laotian economy. The goal was to create a brand of Lao Lao that could be exported to Japan. Thus, helping to create stable employment and technological advances well into the future.
The word “chura” means beautiful in Okinawan language. Therefore, the thought was that choosing this name for the unique brand would make a positive impact on Okinawan consumers and help peak their interest. Likewise, the design printed on the brand’s label was also created to that end.
Chura Lao was successfully importing into Japan in March 2020. It will be interesting to see how well the project does in Okinawa. It has already gained the attention of consumers, businesses, and governments alike. Indeed, Chura Lao is more than just another product. It is a project that brings two nations together for one common goal — sustainable development.
From this last example we see how rice-based spirits can go from very basic production methods to become a mechanism of growth.
In just 48 hours, our team explored ten Awamori distilleries throughout the island of Okinawa. This was a great opportunity to meet the Awamori USA crew and visit several awamori distilleries together. We are grateful to have been a part of this experience and looking forward to growing our relationships with all involved. Please take a few moments to view the compilation of videos.