The Fermenting Cellar at the famed Distillery District was the place to be this past May 31st as it played host to “Kampai Toronto – the Festival of Sake”, marking this date as the first time a sake event of this great magnitude has taken place on Canadian soil. It enabled numerous sake consignment import agents as well as brewery representatives from Japan, the U.S and Canada (including IZUMI, located right next door) the opportunity to showcase 119 sakes representing 36 breweries and 40 different brand names, much to the delight and palates of the highly enthused Toronto crowd. The festivities kicked off late afternoon with a two hour industry trade and media tasting giving the restaurant industry and writers from various food and beverage publications the chance to wander the room, taste and scope out the evening’s line-ups.
In a filled room of journalists, sommeliers, chefs and restaurant owners; the honorable Japanese Consul General Mr. Eiji Yamamoto expressed his deep gratitude by welcoming the local sake community and organizers of this great event for their extreme efforts in bringing Kampai Toronto to fruition. With the Tōhuku Region earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan just over one year ago, including many of the sake breweries represented here today, it showcased how something positive can stem from something so catastrophic. Support for the industry in both Japan and abroad has made many realize how crucial 1800-years of brewing tradition leading back to the feudal times of the samurai really are. Many of the Japanese breweries deeply affected by this tragedy and represented here tonight including Okunomatsu, Yoshinogawa and Sudo Honke all have samurai lineage dating back up to fifty-five generations. Needless to say the crowd was deeply moved by Yamamoto-sans words, which were the perfect start to a celebrated evening that officially opened with the hammer breaking “kagami-biraki” ritual of the sake keg.
Michael Tremblay, (sake sommelier from Ki Modern Japanese in downtown Toronto) followed up by guiding over 100 individuals from the trade crowd through a 45-minute sake seminar and slideshow packed with viable and much needed information to prepare the crowd for the many delights they would be sampling throughout the evening. Many non-Japanese restaurants were in attendance as well, with Italian, French and Indian restaurateurs realizing that sake is becoming the next big thing and need to offer their clientele a fresh, new experience to keep an edge over their rival competition in a very competitive market.
Shortly after, the general public made their way inside under the 40-foot ceilings and before long the room was comfortably filled with over 300 bustling people looking for new experiences and soon to be favorite brews. Culinary delights were served up “sakana” style – moderate, light, clean and pure flavoured fare which is meant to be enjoyed with sake. Guu, Ki, Mye, Blowfish, Gingko and Pur Spirits Oyster House & Grill did a stellar job with a plethora of offerings and aided in soaking up the effects of the sakes bite.
As the evening progressed and the tempo rose; I stood amongst the crowd and felt a great sense of victory and accomplishment for the organizers and many supporters of this historic tasting event. This is where Toronto needs to be on the sake scene, where it should be, showcasing the best of the new in a historic venue so fit for this. This was year one for Kampai Toronto yet it felt as though it has been ongoing for years. We owe the many thanks to all the creators and organizers of Kampai Toronto for developing the concept and delivering the goods in full. It should be noted that JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) had sponsored the trade portion of Kampai. JETRO’s Executive Director Mr. Hitoshi Oishi was also in attendance at Kampai Toronto as well. The event was the creation of Shotaro Ozawa (Ozawa Canada), Vivian Hatherell (Metropolitan Wines, Sake & Spirits) and Ken Valvur (Izumi Sake Brewery). From the three of them came the idea to form the Sake Institute of Ontario (SIO) a non-profit organization whose mandate is to promote the knowledge and awareness of sake to all Ontario consumers. Out of this congregation Kampai Toronto was soon born. As of now membership is limited to only agents and brewers but after this event they are considering expanding memberships to restaurants and sake professionals alike; as well as continuing sake education program and the promotion of sake for consumer throughout the year!
Formerly known as “nihonshu” in Japan; sake (SAHK-ay) and not (sack-E), which it’s often called, is the colloquial name for the fermented rice beverage. Sake in Japan dates back to 300 B.C., though its roots can be traced to China 3000 years prior, at which time it wasn’t nearly the refined, delicate beverage that it is today. Today’s premium sake can be amazingly rich, intense and powerful on the nose while being soft, delicate and elegant on the palate. Tropical scents like banana, pineapple, mango, coconut and guava are common as are vanilla, melon, cucumber, fennel and bubblegum. It is said that wine has about 100 characteristics whereas sake has 200, and the differences don’t stop there. Sake is to chemistry as wine is to art – a completely different beast, differing from wine in that wine is made by the single fermentation of fruit (grapes) and generally not grain. Sake is made by a process called “Multiple Parallel Fermentation” (MPF), where the rice mold (koji) converts rice starch into sugar and yeast converts sugar into alcohol. In sake, saccharification and alcohol fermentation occur at the same exact time where in wine, because of the natural high sugars present; it only needs single alcohol fermentation. Also to be noted here is that the more sake is polished, the more it is taxed by the government, hence the more it will cost you at the counter. Sake should be enjoyed within 18 months of the bottling date (indicated on the label) as its flavour and aroma can become dank and off-putting over time. In terms of heating sake, some ginjo and junmai can actually benefit from slight, moderate heating, and not the scorching high temperature served in many sushi bars which completely destroy its delicate characteristics.Below are the six classifications of sake in terms of degrees of rice polishing with two being “sub” classifications of Junmai Dai Ginjō and Junmai Ginjō. Further beyond that these can be made into various styles of brew each with their own unique characteristics.
It has a small amount of distilled pure alcohol added to lighten the flavour, and to make the sake a bit more fragrant. It must be made with rice with a “seimaibuai” (degree of milled rice remaining after polishing) of at least 70%.
Junmai refers to pure sake, where no brewer’s alcohol is ever added. Laws no longer require a minimum level of rice polish but usually 70% remains. Junmai often has a fuller, richer body and a higher-than-average acidity, with a nose often not as prominent as other types of sake.
JUNMAI GINGJŌ (GINJŌ)
Premium Ginjō sake is much more delicate, light and complex than the above two. The rice has had the outer 40% of the grains polished away, leaving the inner 60%. Special yeast, lower fermentation temperatures, and labor-intensive techniques make for flowery, super-fragrant, intricate brews. When you don’t see junmai on the label this means that brewers alcohol has been added.
JUNMAI DAI GINJO (DAI GINJŌ)
Super premium sake that is polished to at least 50% the original grain size by law. The best (or most expensive) can polish down to 19%, making them the most expensive sake available. They are light, super clean, complex, airy, elegantly refined and fragrant, best being enjoyed chilled or at 48ºF. When you don’t see junmai on the label this means that brewers alcohol has been added.
Sake in the six classifications above is known collectively as “tokutei meishoshu” or “special designation sake” and can for all intents and purposes be considered “premium sake.” It constitutes only about 20% of all sake produced.
SAKE LABEL BUZZWORDS
Meigara: The brand name that the sake goes by which can often be confused as the brewery (kura). The meigara is almost always represented by the “kanji” characters on the bottle.
Alcohol %: Usually indicated by exact number percentage on the bottle but when you see numbers reading 15-16 on the label in small print, this indicates that the alcohol level is rated somewhere between these two numbers.
Rice Polish %: When numbers between 40-70% appear alone on the label, this tells you whether it’s a junmai (70%), gingo (60%) or dai ginjō (50% or less). The percentages represent the seimaibuai, the amount of polished rice kernel that remained.
SMV +/-: This is a number called the Nihonshu-do (SMW – sake meter value in English) and represents specific gravity of sake. It indicates how much of the sugar created from the starch in the rice was converted to alcohol, and how much remained to contribute to sweetness, meaning the “higher-the-drier” with +3 being neutral.
Acidity: This indicates the acidity of the sake, not as important as in wine. Sake acid generally ranges from 0.7 to 2.0 with 1.2 being average.
Bottling Date: This is when the sake was bottled, not brewed. The date may have Western or Japanese calendar reference to it. 11.09 would be a western date and mean September, 2011. However, 22.05 (a first number higher than 12) would be a Japanese Emperors calendar date. An “H” in front stands for “Heisei” era which began on January 8th 1989 after Emperor Showa passed away the day prior. After each emperor passes, a new count is started. 1989 was Heisei 1, so 2012 is Heisei 24. So 22.05 would mean a date of May, 2010. This is an important factor as sake really should be consumed within 18 months of the bottling date.
Tokubetsu: Meaning “Special” indicating special rice type or degree polish. It may state on bottle but only in Japanese.
To find out more about Michael or and see his reviews of Sake available at the LCBO click here.