Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sake Bouquet: Fragrance And Flavor Bloom From Two Basic Ingredients

Origins of Japan's "national brew". Via.

Think about your favorite perfume or cologne. It isn’t just one note is it? Many different fragrances mix and blend into the the beautiful scent that is uniquely you. The same is true about sake. When sitting down for a drink of Japan’s "national brew", we don’t tend to think about what went in to creating what’s in wafting from our glass.

Everything from the aromas and flavor, to the alcohol content and the temperature at which the sake should be served--reishu (chilled) is usually of higher quality ingredients, but kanzake (warmed) can be enjoyed no matter the quality--rests on two basic ingredients: rice and water.

The world’s leading sake expert, John Gaunter, known as the sake dendoushi or “sake evangelist” in Japan, leads Japan Society’s sold out annual sake tasting tonight, dissecting these two ingredients and explaining their roles in sake making. They may seem overly simple, but as Gaunter explains, there is much more than what meets the eye (and nose and taste buds).

Rice is the most important ingredient in sake. There are nine basic types associated with different flavor profiles, running the gamut from the “king of sake rice” Yamada Nishiki to the smooth and dry Gohyakumangoku. Profiles range from earthy and distinctly rice-y to rich, complex and more acidic.

The rice milling process also has a major effect, as Gauntner explains:
After proper sake rice (in the case of premium sake, anyway) has been secured, it is milled, or polished, to prepare it for brewing good sake. This is not as simple as it might sound, since it must be done gently so as to not generate too much heat (which adversely affects water absorption) or not crack the rice kernels (which is not good for the fermentation process)... The amount of milling greatly influences the taste. For more on this topic, please visit Types of Sake page.
Water is sake’s second most important ingredient. Most breweries are located next to a plentiful source of pure and natural water. The quality of the water, as well as how its minerals and compounds affect yeast growth and fermentation, will affect the flavor of the final product sake. The final product is about 4/5 water, but in the process of making the sake, “oceanic amounts” are employed. Water has to be used in washing and soaking the rice, then in steaming and fermenting it, then in the final dilution, which takes the naturally occurring alcohol from 20% down to a more palatable 16%.

Though Japan Society’s tasting is sold out, Gauntner told Examiner.com in a recent interview two great places in New York City to enjoy sake: the East Village’s Sakaya and the speak easy-esque Sakagura located a few blocks from Japan Society in the basement of an office building, noting “there really are so many more”.

Gauntner also indicated in the interview that his mission is more than educating New Yorkers and Americans in the art of sake. He also wants to elevate tastes in his home base, Japan:
People here have been so close to it for so long that they have little awareness of how special it is. The craftsmanship, history, cultural significance are all something people here have taken for granted for too long. And, few regular consumers are aware of just how damn good it tastes, as evidenced by reactions of those that try premium sake for the first time.
Thanks to Gauntner, next time someone asks for their sake of choice, the world will know more about what they’re yelling Kampai to!

--Sarah Anderson

Monday, June 18, 2012

Restructuring Japan’s Infrastructure: A Sustainable Way Forward


Last week we looked at challenges facing the Japanese economy in a global setting, especially the demographic dilemma unique to Japan. While there are many possible solutions to these challenges, some agree that infrastructure is a vital priority.

Traditionally, Japan’s infrastructure investments have been geared towards new construction projects rather than improvements in existing structures. As in the U.S., such projects have been derided as political allocations to representative districts (i.e. “pork”) rather than as necessary expenditures. But infrastructure reinvestment can provide much-needed repair work for Japan’s roads, bridges, tunnels and buildings. Of course, this investment will come at a cost. Japan’s public debt is now close to double its GDP as social welfare spending and tax revenues are moving in inversely-related directions. A recent increase in the consumption tax will help fund pension liabilities, but one wonders how much of the other tax revenue streams will be available for infrastructure expenditures in the face of pre-existing government debt.

In light of the almost-complete abandonment of nuclear power following last year’s Fukushima incident, another major component of Japan’s infrastructure is energy investment. Recent incentives to promote solar power could eventually make Japan the world’s largest solar-power market (over Italy and Germany). It seems that the time is ripe for Japan to lead the way in “cleaner” energy investments.

In tonight’s Japan Society’s Corporate Program event A Roadmap for Japan’s Steady, Sustainable Pathway Forward, Professor Daniel Okimoto delivers the speech "Infrastructure Investments: Japan's Historic Opportunity” looking at how energy, transportation, IT, healthcare, and tourism can help move Japan forward.

Okimoto, a specialist on the political economy of Japan, is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University and Director Emeritus and co-founder of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia/Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University. In 2004, he received the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation in recognition of his contributions to US-Japan relations during the 150th year celebration of bilateral relations, and in 2007, he was awarded the “Order of the Rising Sun with Goldray Neck Ribbon” by the Japanese government, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a non-Japanese citizen.

--Lyle Sylvander

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is Japan’s Demographic Dilemma The #1 Challenge For Economic Recovery?


Although not in the spotlight as much as the U.S. economic recession or the European currency crisis, Japan’s economy is experiencing its own set of challenges. The recent shutdown of all nuclear reactors, a public safety measure enacted in response to the Fukushima nuclear incident, has led to an increase in fossil fuel imports. This, coupled with an appreciating yen, has led to a trade deficit further pressuring an economy experiencing deflation and a growing fiscal deficit. Recently, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) enacted a new round of “monetary easing” to the tune of ¥15 trillion in the hopes of attaining an inflation rate of 1% and boosting moribund domestic spending. Despite these aggressive steps, many wonder if the BOJ is doing enough to kick start the economy and foreign investors remain largely unconvinced.

Professor Koichi Hamada addresses these concerns in his talk Monetary Policy & Japan’s Economic Recovery, Wednesday, June 13 at Japan Society. Professor Hamada is the Tuntex Professor of Economics at Yale University and Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, he is the former teacher of BOJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa and a proponent of monetary easing. The talk will be moderated by Paul Sheard, Standard and Poor’s chief global economist.

While Hamada will focus primarily on monetary policy, another major area for Japan to tackle is its demographic dilemma. The median age of the country is around 45 and continually rising due to declining birth rates and a restrictive immigration policy. Spending on social security benefits accounts for a large chunk of the government debt, the value of which increases as the yen depreciates. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his classic 1998 article “Japan: What Went Wrong?,” BOJ monetary policy is relatively ineffectual in the face of aging population—a problem unique to Japan and not apparent in the U.S. or European crises. Perhaps it should be a primary focus for recovery. As Shirakawa stated in May, "The current difficulties come not from the continued population aging itself, but from the delayed response to it."

--Lyle Sylvander

Updated 6/12/12.