The Ginjo Effect

Japanese sake (nihonshu) has a steep history.  While the origins of sake can be traced to over 2,500 years ago, the history of sake as we know it today goes back about 1,000 years.  Japanese sake, like most any other food or beverage through the course of history has evolved.  Technology, agriculture advancements and consumers have influenced such developments.


What did sake taste like 1,000 years ago compared to today?  Or, what about beer or wine?  While that may be difficult to determine, we can at least use more recent history to see the significant changes of all three of these beverages in merely the past fifty years.


Fifty years ago is also about the time that the Ginjo style sake were introduce.  A “Ginjo” sake was a sake that focused on enhancing the flavors and aromas of sake.  This was achieved by forsaking the available automation during the brewing process.  Instead, traditional and laborious efforts to use quality ingredients that were milled to high levels were adopted.  Also, more time during this process would yield a more flavorful product.


In a sense, the sake industry follows the trends of the wine industry.  Wine is more global and has a longer history originating over 7500 years ago.  But looking at wine’s recent history, we can see how it has evolved from an elitist luxury beverage reserved for special occasions, to now one that can be available for masses of people for everyday consumption.


Science and technology have greatly developed wine to how we enjoy today.  Wine is simply fermented grape juice.  The vine grows naturally.  Today’s approach to agriculture takes a more scientific approach to yield efficiency and flavor.  While climate can not be controlled, certain micro climates and appellations have been identified resulting in flavor profiles.  Vintners today can leverage their knowledge of microclimates.  Spring is the season of budding and flowering on the vine.  Plant cell analysis as created optimization of increasing and improving buds.


Many think of barreling as simply as “oak barreled” or “stainless steel “.  What many do not know is the effort and analysis that is placed in the barreling.  Wood or oak will obviously yield some flavors.  There are as many as twelve types of oak variety.  Each will contain natural chemical compounds.  Some winemakers consider these woods for the type of flavors they seek is their final product.  For example, a certain type of oak may consist of the organic compound furfural.  If the oak is made up of a significant amount of furfural, the chemical will yield a butterscotch type flavor.  Also, some winemakers may “toast” their barrels.  By placing a small fire inside the barrel the wood will slowly toast.  This heat induced toasting of the oak will create a nutty flavor.


As you can see, wine production is a science today.  Flavors are carefully analyzed and the methods to achieve them are loaded with minutia and intense details.


The sake producers today seek ways to sustain, while some breweries have closed after many years of business.  Once, sake producers could rely on their local market as customers.  But Japan has a significantly aging and declining population.  Furthermore, the the areas hit hardest are in the countryside, where the breweries are typically located.  The industry is changing.  The breweries that adapt have a better survival percentage.  The Ginjo product has allowed some brewers to appeal to a wider customer base.


Like the winemakers, sake producers are using similar methods to achieve a fuller flavor profile.  The premium sake is appealing to the overseas market.  The booming wine industry and craft beer market is largely based on the younger customer.  These customers are also in Japan.  They are crucial for the sake producers to capture too.


Today premium sake or many Ginjos are easy to drink by themselves.  Quite a contrast to the old clean style sake that the older generation Japanese are accustom to.  Fortunately, today in Japan both styles are available.  Having choices are nice.  But the Ginjo trend has not only changed the flavor of sake, but may eventually prove to be the savior of the sake industry.