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 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 a 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 the 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 its 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, are used by distillers in nearly every prefecture to produce sake kasu shochu. It tends to have a woody aroma and the samples that we tasted reminded me of 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 included 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 official Japan Sake and Shochu Academy certificates. We then listened 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, well-balanced sake.
Izumibashi is an impressive brewery that in addition to sake, also produces soy sauce, shochu, umeshu, and they even utilize 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!
– Maurice D.