On the morning of March 11, Henry Sidel watched Japan’s earthquake and tsunami devastation via computer in a Chicago hotel room. He pulled out his phone and started frantically calling his sake producers.
The founder of New York-based Joto Sake LLC, Sidel was on a sales trip to promote the jizake, or artisanal sakes, he imports from eight top small breweries (kura), in different parts of Japan. It took him two days to track them all down.
No one was hurt, though brewers told of falling tiles, massive power outages, destroyed roads, no fuel. Shipments would be delayed. Sidel was juggling orders when I reached him.
Some of the country’s 1,600 small sake producers were not so lucky. Hardest hit were those in the northern Tohoku area, Shunsuke Kohiyama of the Japan Sake Brewers Association said in an email, especially in prefectures Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, where bad news from the damaged nuclear plant just keeps getting worse.
Japanese TV watchers saw Suisen brewery in Iwate reduced to rubble; its owner Yasuhiko Konno escaped the tsunami with minutes to spare, and is still trying to account for 11 missing employees.
Tales of entire breweries washing away, toppled sake-filled tanks, collapsed roofs and thousands of broken bottles are compiled and translated in a preliminary report on sake expert John Gauntner’s www.sake-world.com website. The Tokyo-based American warned in an email that he hasn’t been able to confirm them all.
There are a few miracles -- employees at the Suminoe brewery survived the tsunami by climbing on top of a refrigerated container.
The vast majority of the country’s sake producers are small, local and family owned. Some kura go back generations. Typically they make a range of sake styles, from freshly pressed to aged, with added alcohol (honjozo) and without (junmai).
Japan’s historic beverage resembles wine more than beer in taste and character, even though it’s brewed from rice, pure water, yeast, and koji (a mold that converts rice starch into fermentable sugar). Subtle differences depend on variations in these ingredients, production methods (traditional versus modern), and the personality of the master brewer.
“Together with the downward trend of sake consumption in Japan, this disaster may be the last punch for the small brewers,” Kohiyama wrote. Many left the business after the Kobe earthquake 15 years ago.
Because imports to the U.S. have been rising for the past 5 years -- even the French Laundry has sakes on its list -- many believe that the U.S. offers hope for the sake industry.
Which is why Kohiyama concluded, “The thing in the world that I worry about most is the rumor that Japanese food, including sake, is nuke-polluted. Most are definitely NOT.”
So should we be concerned about radiation contamination?
Sidel hastens to reassure. The bottles now in the U.S. were shipped well before the earthquake, so are fine. Since March is the end of the brewing season, most breweries had already stored finished sake in tanks.
The majority, including those Sidel represents, are very far from the nuclear plant. All future shipments will be inspected by the Japanese as well as the U.S., which has had radiation detection equipment in American ports for some time.
Still, what about the rice and water for next year’s sake?
“Water comes from deep wells, so it is not affected,” said Gauntner, who has written five books on sake. “And the best rice is grown in the western half of Japan, not near the nuclear power plant.”
At a “drink sake night” recently, I opened a dozen bottles with friends to toast Japan’s recovery. Premium-grade ginjo and daiginjo bottlings, they had the sophisticated elegance of wine and are best served slightly chilled.
Here are my favorites:
Yuki No Bosha “Cabin in the Snow” Junmai Ginjo ($36), from a brewery in Akita, is fruity-spicy and light, yet intense, excellent with salty appetizers.
Just-launched Chikurin “Karoyaka” Junmai Ginjo ($50), the first certified organic sake, is made from rice grown on the Marumoto brewery estate. It’s subtle and fruity with tart, complex flavors, perfect with sashimi.
Watari Bune Junmai Daiginjo ($110), from Ibaraki, is powerful, multilayered and deep. It uses an heirloom strain of rice that the brewery revived from near extinction.
Kosuke Kuji, co-owner of Nanbu Bijin kura in Iwate, whose employees include a former sumo wrestler, posted a plaintive plea on the brewery blog which Gauntner loosely translated on his website.
It ends with this: “We want to earnestly ask everyone around the country and in other countries to eat and drink products from the Tohoku region. We will rise again like a phoenix, so please support us.” I recommend his rich, suave “Ancient Pillars” junmai daiginjo ($73).
Many events are planned to raise money for Japan in the weeks ahead. On April 27, NYLovesJapan will feature the best sakes of several U.S. importers.
If you can’t attend, buy a few bottles and host your own “drink sake night.”
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)