During the presentation at the event’s opening night, guests learned about the importance of the Niigata Prefecture in Japan, especially with regards to sake. The region, boasting the third-highest total sake production in Japan, is home to nearly 100 sake breweries and is famous for its high-quality sake.
Niigata benefits from fertile land to grow Koshi-Tanrei rice, a cross between Gohyakumangoku and Yamadanishiki, and a climate perfect for sake fermentation. Koshi-Tanrei, which can be aged to produce sake that is released in autumn, is easier to polish and can be made into koji rice.
The Japanese in Niigata drink 24.72 liters of Japanese sake per person per year – more than twice the amount of sake consumed on average in the rest of Japan and a clear indication of its quality and integration into the local culture.
However, the sake drinkers Skyping in from Niigata for the festival’s opening ceremony proclaimed that the real reason Niigata Prefecture produces the best sake in the world can be summed up in just one word – snow!
The pristine melted snow brings out the subtle sake aromas and flavours that less pristine waters could mask and ensures premium-grade sake rice can thrive. The snow also helps purify the air which benefits the koji during the fermentation process to avoid negative flavours and aromas.
In fact, the Niigata area is so special that the Niigata Brewers Association, with the support of the Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute, introduced a set of standards for the Niigata Sake Brewing Industry with the creation in 1997 of the “Appellations d’Origine Controlees”. The controls are intended to guarantee the quality of sake by setting a standard for ingredients and brewing methods for sakes to be branded as “Niigata Sake.”
To be officially designated as “Niigata Sake,” the sake must:
1. Use rice produced only in Niigata Prefecture.
2. Be brewed in Niigata.
3. Use a water source in Niigata.
4. Be a Special Designation Sake with a polishing ratio of less than 60%.
5. Receive approval by the Appellations d’Origine Controlees Quality Control Committee.
So what is all the fuss about from the aspect that really matters to all of us – taste? In trying the 15 sakes available to taste, I’d answer that it is just like the snow melt it is made from – clear and smooth. Niigata Sake’s unique taste is lighter and less sweet than average sake and can be summed up as crisp and dry. It contains less amino acid and extract and is generally light in color.
During the hour of the opening Niigata Festival sake presentation and over the three-day event, I learned quite a bit about the region’s sake leadership. Admittedly, this came as somewhat of a surprise given Japan Rail Café itself only carries one bottle of sake, despite having lots of Japanese beers on tap.
With its mochi-making demonstration, snacks and skiing activities, the festival definitely put Niigata on my travel wish list for the next Sake no jin. I’d encourage all Sakemaru readers to like Japan Rail Café’s Facebook page to ensure you’re aware of their next monthly regional focus, which could very well include sake once again. They will also have a booth at the upcoming Sakura Japan Fair at Gardens by the Bay.