From an era with toji to an era without!?

Greetings Sake Lovers !

Are you familiar with the term toji? Do you know who or what one is? Traditionally speaking, the toji is the person in charge of the entire brewing process. In English we might call them a master brewer or brewer meister. It’s basically just another word for the foreman in charge of the entire brewing process. Whether you know of them or not, in today’s article, we take an in-depth look at the role, origin, history and future of the most highly skilled craftsperson in sake brewing — with a few surprises along the way.

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The Etymology

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It may surprise you to learn — well it did us — that the most popularly supported theory about the etymology of the word toji suggests that it may have derived from the similar sounding word for ‘housewife’ in Japanese (it is written using different Chinese characters). Acually this is much less farfetched than it might sound because we know that 2000 years ago, in the Yayoi period, in the era that sake was believed to have been discovered, the craftsperson of sake was a she not a he. To elaborate further, back then, it was female deities who brewed sake — as an offering to the gods.

Toji as in master brewer = 杜氏
Toji as in housewife = 刀自

This thesis may seem somewhat ironic when you consider that old taboo of the ‘female in the brewery’. It makes you wonder if those against female brewing had skipped history classes.

The Origin of the Modern Toji

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The first modern toji were in fact simple rice farmers; farmers who had turned to the craft as a form of seasonal work in the agricultural off-season: in the summer rice was grown; in the winter sake was brewed. The majority of them had never brewed sake before but they were naturals — mainly because they understood the rice better than anyone else. Before long, these farmers had started to outsource their skills to breweries all over Japan with guilds setup to manage the outsourcing process, one for nearly every region, excluding Tokyo. At the height of the toji era, some guilds had over 1000 members and hundreds of toji. There are three particularly famous guilds, each of which is still going strong today.

3 Most Famous Guilds

The following 3 toji guilds often go by the pseudonym ‘the big three’.

Nanbu Toji

To date, this guild has nurtured over 372 toji, an Alumni that has yet to be surpassed. The only prefectures / areas where you won’t find Nanbu Toji are Okinawa and Kyushu, a testament to its sheer size. This guild was started in an area called Kitakamigawa, located in the Tohoku region’s northernmost prefecture Iwate. The current base is located in Ishidoriya Town.

Echigo Toji

Originating in the centre of the southern region of Niigata, this is the biggest toji guild in Japan in terms of number of affiliated bodies. The majority of breweries in Niigata have at one time or another employed a toji from this guild. With a total of over 281 tojis, this is the clear number.2.

Tanba Toji

It was started by the world-famous ‘brewers of Nada’ (Nada being one of the undisputed birthplaces of sake) in Sasayama City in Hyogo Prefecture. As well as being a very attractive guild and having a hand in nearly every famous brand of sake the region has ever produced, its teaching achievements spread far beyond just the regional itself also helping to define a large number of regional styles still in existence today.

Other guilds worthy of a mention include: Izumo Toji, Sannai Toji, Noto Toji and many more.

The Path to Toji

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Although the final step to becoming a toji, even today, takes the form of an exam and or practical examination, in the early days, aspiring brewers would first have to work their way up through an unforgiving traditional hierarchy that in some cases might take years even decades to ascend. The conventional route is to gain experience brewing sake and climb the ranks. Most tojis build up referrals from reputable breweries, creating a portfolio. It all starts with a brewery requesting your services as a toji. Another, slightly quicker route to toji is to train at one of the main agricultural faculties at one of the specialist universities that teach fermentation. The final route, is to build up a reputation working at one of the bigger breweries.

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An Era Without Toji?

It’s no secret that due to a rapidly declining birth rate, in the more rural parts of Japan, young people are becoming something of a rarity. A lack of young people means that the pool of toji successors is getting smaller and smaller. The effects of this so-called ageing population problem are of course being felt outside the brewing industry as well but are particularly significant in the case of the toji profession. Traditionally speaking, the retirement age of your average toji would be considerably higher than the national average; that has always been the case. But the toji is not an immortal being. A lot of the tojis are now in their late 60’s or older. A large number are in their last days of brewing. An era without those toji is now to some extent inevitable.

Dwindling Toji

Hardest hit guilds

Tsugaru Toji
For every 10 toji there were in 1985 there are now only 5 left.

Aizu Toji
There are now only 6 left!

Tosa Toji
Once said to boast a membership of over 60 toji, there are now only 6 left.

There are a number of ways in which the industry has changed to compensate for the lack of Toji.

An Era without Toji

 

Some breweries have simply done away with the system altogether. These brewers question the original logic behind the toji entirely: putting all your faith, all the responsibility on the shoulders of one person who is only going to be around, once a year for about 3 months and letting him dictate the style, taste and direction of your sake.

Next Generation of Toji

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KURAND purchaser and ex-toji, Aoto Hideki

Some breweries have simply started to look closer to home for their next toji — for example, to their own offspring. An overall drop in alcohol consumption means that a lot of breweries simply don’t produce the volume that they used to. As a result, a lot of breweries have had to cut their workforce. These days, it is not uncommon to find a brewery that brews sake with a team of just one or two people — a large number of the breweries we showcase at KURAND are of this ilk. There is an upside to this though. For starters, the hierarchy is gone, and with it the biggest obstacle to becoming toji. Furthermore, the brewers of today quickly learn to multitask becoming able to handle all the tasks that were once entrusted to one person. What you have is someone who has gained all the experience required to become a toji just by brewing sake on a daily basis.

Modern changes to the toji system have also seen an influx of female and foreign entrants.
One of the most famous examples is the British toji Philip Harper. Although we must point out that he is actually continuing the original tradition of toji; i.e. seasonal worker.

The ageing population problem is being felt in the agricultural industry too. In some parts of the country there simply aren’t enough farmers and abandoned rice fields are a common sight. Seeing this has motivated some to start growing their own sake rice, a move that represents a return to the old principles of brewing.

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So in a sense, we have come full circle. The brewers of today have effectively returned to their roots so to speak. From an age with toji, to an age without… or it may be more correct to say: the next generation of toji — to say otherwise would be nothing short of a paradox.

The KURAND lineup includes sake brewed by a number of upcoming toji and fresh young talent.

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We are also proud to count an ex-toji in our ranks here at KURAND. Look out for Aoto san, our purchaser (the chap in the photo above).

At KURAND we make a point of displaying the faces of the craftsperson on front label a bit like they do with organic produce because we believe that sakes tastes so much more delicious when you know who made it and why…

A Quickstart Guide to Pairing Sake with Food

Greetings sake lovers!

Sake and food pairing sometimes leaves you wondering what went wrong, how some dishes and sakes that on their own taste delicious suddenly lose all their appeal when put together. In actual fact, there is a bit of a knack to what is essentially an art in its own right. In this article we teach you 4 simple pointers to keep you on the right track.

Of course, we must stress that because every sake is unique and tastes vary from person to person, the following is intended purely as a rough guide. We are nevertheless confident that the following 4 pointers will greatly increase your chances of finding a good marriage (a combination of food and sake that works).

Is Pairing with Food Even Necessary?

Sake contains various acids such as Lactic Acid, Succinic Acid and Malic Acid that influence our sense of taste. When combined with the acids in food, each enhances the other, which in some cases includes less desirable flavours as well. In order to avoid downfalls and avoid ruining the taste of good sake or good food, an informed approach is required.

1. Focus on UMAMI

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Umami is the new buzz word taking the global culinary scene by storm. It’s the magical word on the lips of top chefs everywhere. If you haven’t yet come across this word, don’t worry, you’re not alone. To the Japanese, Umami is the essence of food appreciation itself. In the West we refer to it using word like savoury, meaty of tarty — for want of a better word. There are in fact only 5 flavours that the tongue can pick up: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and Umami. In the West, up until now, we have only ever been aware of four of these. Umami is the new entry. But what we refer to as a new discovery was discovered by the Japanese in the mists of time itself. Quite how they discovered it is not the question; they have been aware of it since the beginning. The building blocks of Umami are a type of Amino Acid called glutamates (Glutamic Acid). They are present in foods like cheese, meat, fish, etc. Sake also happens to be full of these because of the way that it is produced, essentially because of the raw ingredient, the rice. The key to reproducing the fifth flavour is simply by combining foodstuffs that are rich in glutamates. You can artificially reproduce this taste sensation by chewing a tomato in the mouth for longer than normal and then letting it dissolve on your tongue. The tarty flavour left behind is Umami. Japanese food ingredients that are rich in glutamates include miso, soy sauce, kombu (sea kelp), dashi (fish stock), etc.

This is not intended to be an article about Umami so to learn more check out the official site here!

The key to pulling the Umami-focused pairing off is to stick to sake that are full-bodied and get most of their flavour from the rice. For example, Junmai-type sake. Some sake labels tell you how glutamate powered the sake is. Look out for a decimal number preceded by these characters: ‘アミノ酸’ In general, any sake rated higher than 1.5 is a good place to start. You can also try to gauge levels of Umami with your tongue. When tasting the sake pay attention to the finish. If the sake has the Umami factor, you will be left with a tingling sweetness on the back of the tongue (Umami is best detected at the back).

2. Focus on Flavour Profile

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By matching similar flavour profiles 9 times out of 10 you will get the matching down to a tee. For example, sakes with voluptuous aromas tend to pair well with fruity flavour profiles, in which case Daiginjo is your best bet. By combining similar aromas and flavours, like for like, you can’t go too far wrong.

3. Focus on Textures

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In terms of taste, texture refers to the hardness, depth, strength or viscosity of food. In short, texture is how the food feels on the tongue (mouthfeel). Pair simple dishes with sakes that have a good clean finish. Pair smooth textured dishes with thick viscous mouthfeel sakes. Pairings like these steer clear of potential clashes in the mouth.

4. Focus on Richness

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The final pointer is richness. The rule is simple: rich foods go best with thicker, heavier sakes; lighter flavoured foods go with cleaner, lighter (Tanrei style) sakes. Each enhances the flavour of the other.


Why not switch that glass of wine for sake and start discovering a whole new world of flavour combinations.
At KURAND we offer the perfect space to experiment.

Shubo, the mother of sake. What is this essential stage in sake making?

As explained in a previous article, the three most important stages of the sake production process, in order of importance, are koji, moto, moromi. In this article, we take a look at the second. Moto is another way of referring to the Shubo. If you have ever studied the sake production process before, you will no doubt have come across this word. So without further ado, let’s look at this essential stage in more detail.

What is Shubo?

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There are many translations for the shubo: starter, seed mash, mother-of-sake or mini-fermentation, and many more. It is in essence, a mini-fermentation. A smaller version of the main fermentation to help it get going.

The concrete definition of the purpose of the shubo is: “to mix together the steamed rice, koji and water to grow a healthy yeast”. That alone might not make much sense. To truly understand this stage requires a wider understanding of how all alcohol fermentation takes place. That is to say that, actually all alcoholic beverages, not just sake, are made from the fermentation of microorganisms. In the case of sake, yeast consumes glucose producing alcohol as a by-product through its anaerobic metabolism.
To put it a simpler way, without yeast there is no alcohol, or to be more precise, fermentation cannot take place if there is not a big enough population of yeast. The shubo is basically how brewers cultivate that population.

How is shubo made?

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To make shubo, we first put koji and water into a tank called moto-oke and mix it together. Then we add a small amount of yeast and brewer’s lactic acid. Add to that some steamed rice and the base for shubo is complete. Brewers then let the mixture sit for two weeks to a month and to let the yeast multiply.

When making shubo the tank is left completely open. The door is left wide open. It’s an open invitation to outside bacteria and potentially destructive wild yeast to come in and enjoy the party; an invitation that can potentially destroy a batch of sake.

Thankfully, brewers can keep this bacteria out by altering the acidity level so that yeast which favours high acidity can survive while other bacteria which dislikes high acidity cannot. In modern times, brewers simply add lactic acid to do this.

Kimotokei and Sokujyoukei

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The modern method of adding lactic acid is called sokujo (lit: fast method), so-called because all the bad bacteria is killed off early on allowing for brewers to quickly increase the temperature to facilitate sugar conversion and complete the process in a remarkable 14 days. The yeast has the right environment and enough nutrients to grow quickly and healthily. Sake made with sokujo is well-balanced with a consistent flavour.

Before brewers had the scientific knowledge to fully comprehend the microbial fight for survival that was going on inside the tank, they somehow managed to keep bacteria at bay through very risky trial and error.

One of the oldest, much riskier methods of shubo is called kimoto, and originates around the 1600s. Kimoto works by leveraging the lactic acid bacteria that form in the air around the tank during the early days of the process. Of course, these bacteria only form if the conditions are right. If you are a beer drinker, you might already be making comparisons with Lambic beer because it too is made through the exploitation of airborne bacteria. It takes one month for shubo to be made this way and requires much more hands because to entice the bacteria in, an ample supply of its nutrients, glucose is needed. That’s why you will see brewers hitting the mixture of rice and koji with wooden oars. This super tiring job is called motosuri or yamaoroshi (lit: knocking down the mountains / or heaps of mounded mixture) or as it’s often termed in English: oar-ramming. The oar-ramming helps to increase contact of the starch molecules with the koji enzymes which in turn speeds up the conversion of starch to glucose. It’s hard work but the result is a firmer flavour. Sake made with this method are labelled: kimototsukuri (made by kimoto method).


We hope that this short but simple introduction to shubo has helped shed some light on why this stage is so important and why after koji, this is the part of sake production that requires the highest level of skill. Understand shubo and your well on your way to understanding the sake making process in great depth. Next time you are at KURAND, see if you can spot a kimoto. Every now and then one makes its way into our lineup.

Happy sake drinking!

The Ultimate Joy of Winter in the Land of Sake: Shiboritate

While the first snow has yet to hit the ground here in Tokyo and temperatures have yet to really bite, winter is still winter, and one of the best seasons to enjoy sake.

One word that will make a frequent appearance in izakayas and sake shops in winter is shiboritate. But what exactly is shiboritate and why is it so special?

What Does Shiboritate Mean?

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A few of the terms that appear together with the brand name on the sake label describe at which stage of the production process the sake was bottled.

Without being able to read Japanese, you would stand little of chance of working out the stage that shiboritate refers to, so here’s a little hint: shiboritate means freshly pressed. Okay then, at what stage was the sake bottled?

The Clue’s in the Name

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Traditionally most breweries brew their sake in the heart of the winter. A type of brewing referred to as Kanzukuri. In the second half of the process, the completed sake, a thick, gloopy alcoholic porridge called moromi is split into solids (lees) and liquid. This stage goes by various different names: shibori, agefune, joso, funagake, etc, but In English we called it pressing or filtering — filtering is probably the most accurate because the solids are being filtered out of the liquid. So to answer the question in the last paragraph, yes you guessed it, shiboritate is sake that has been bottled right after it has undergone this pressing/filtering stage.

What’s So Special About Shiboritate

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Generally, standard, non-seasonal sake is pasteurized (just like milk), just prior to shipping, to kill all the remaining microbes and bacteria which stabilizing the flavour and stopping the fermentation. Shiboritate on the other hand, completely bypasses this pasteurization, locking the flavours and aromas in a more youthful, refreshing state. Some shiboritate is even a bit fizzy because Co2 has dissolved into the liquid instead of completely dissipating.

Unpasteurized sake is called namazake in Japanese. Shiboritate is just one of the many versions of namazake that exist. But shiboritate is not just any namazake. It’s sake in its ultimate nouveau state shipped straight from the brewery almost immediately after pressing. It’s normally delivered around November through to March.

The exact definition is not legally defined, so some breweries may label it slightly differently.

The Ultimate Winter Sake Indulgence

So, the question is what it is about the flavour of shiboritate that makes it so worth dedicating an entire article to.

Crispness and Freshness

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The fresh taste of shiboritate is the perfect way to kick-start a body drained by having the heater on full all day.

The Sweetness and umami of the Rice

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Depending on the rice polishing ratio (how much of the rice remains after polishing) or variety of rice there are two distinct styles of shiboritate. There is a fruity type there is a more rice flavour laden type. The latter being the sort of flavour that conjures authentic images of life in the brewery in winter surrounded by the fresh aromas of rice.


Here at KURAND, if you ask us to sum up shiboritate, we think it’s the sake that best conveys the passion of the brewery; allowing you to experience the original flavour of the rice while gaining a feel for the production process itself.

There is nothing better than shiboritate to start off a new year. A whole range of diverse flavours and styles of shiboritate is waiting for you to try here at KURAND.

A Winter-Exclusive Style of New Sake: Shiboritate

As the mercury continues to drop here in Tokyo, the temptations of atsukan (Hot Sake) can be difficult to resist. But, resist you must, because atsukan isn’t the only way to go in winter.

Here at KURAND SAKE MARKET, our fridges are already filling up with shiboritate. shiboritate literally translates to freshly pressed (freshly filtered) and is new-sake that is exclusive to the winter.

What is Shiboritate

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In the latter half of the sake making process, there is a process where the finished moromi (raw unrefined sake) is divided into sake and lees. This pressing (filtration) process goes by the terms shibori, agefune, jyousou or funegake.
Sake normally also goes through a process of pasteurization called hiire where it is placed in water heated to about 50-60 degrees to kill all remaining bacteria, enzymes and yeast before being shipped. This has to happen because sulfites are not used to stabilize sake; they don’t work because the acidity is too low. Shiboritate however, is shipped right after it has been pressed, bypassing the hiire. In other words, it’s raw and fresh.


Note: The opposite of shiboritate at the other end of sake’s life cycle is hiyaoroshi (fall sake), which does undergo the hiire and a little storage over the summer.

Some shiboritate are a little fizzy as not all the CO2 has dissipated yet and some has dissolved into the sake.

Hatsushibori

The first batch of shiboritate sake to be pressed is called hatsushibori (LIT: The first to be pressed).

Shinshu

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The broader term for ‘new’ sake produced during the current brewing year is shinshu (from July of one year to June of the next).

To elaborate further, shinshu is sake produced from shinmai (new rice), harvested in October of that brewing year. After the summer (July 1st), Shinshu changes its name and becomes koshu (old sake).


It’s all a little complicated, but with no rules on how to label new-sake, each brewery defines it differently.

Generally, any sake pressed during that brewing year is called shinshu, but shiboritate tends to only be available around December and January. Make sure you don’t miss out on this season’s shiboritate and enjoy its youthful, vibrant, refreshing flavour!

Why are there so many sakes with ‘Masamune’ in their name?

Greetings sake lovers,

You will do doubt have come across more than the odd sake brand containing the word ‘Masamune’ (正宗). Apart from being the name of a famous samurai sword and beyond just sounding cool, the name itself carries very little meaning, so we wondered what possible other reasons there could be for its popularity. There was only one way to find out. It was time to turn to our partner breweries for some insight.

How many brands are there with the word Masamune?

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The first question we had to answer was of course: just how many examples of Masamune sake are there?
The answer: as many as 180.

The results of our research confirmed what we already new to be true; that for some reason this name is popular among sake brewers. In Japan, outside the sake world, the word Masamune is synonymous with the famous Shogun Date Masamune — although his name uses different Chinese characters; in the west, it would probably have to be the samurai sword named after the master swordsmith who created it. Could it be that all those Masamune sakes out there were named in a similar vein?

Time to ask the brewers

Tochigi Prefecture, Sugita Shuzo

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Q1.Why are there so many sakes using the word ‘Masamune’

[taidan img=”https://kurand.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/sugita.png” alt=”なとみ様” width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-13704″]Unfortunately, I am no wiser than you are on the subject.[/taidan]

Q. What is the meaning of your company’s brand name: Yuutou Masamune 雄東正宗 ?

[taidan img=”https://kurand.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/sugita.png” alt=”なとみ様” width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-13704″] Oh, it’s just a simple play on words. We took the similar sounding word for excellence in Japanese yuutou 優等 but switched the Chinese characters. In our version we took the second character from the word for this part of Japan Kanto 関(東) and the second character from the word hero eiyuu 英(雄). There is a saying you see: the hero of Kanto: Kanto no Yuu 関東の雄 (there is a similar saying for the Kansai region of Japan too: Kansai no Yuu). We hoped that this brand would become the new ‘hero of Kanto’. The word Masamune is tagged on the end for auspicious effect.[/taidan]

So there you have it. This brewery opted for Masamune because it augurs well. We think the ‘hero of Kanto’ idea is pretty cool too!

Tokyo, Koyama Shuzo

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Q1. Why are there so many sakes using the word ‘Masamune’?

[taidan img=”https://kurand.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/koyama.png” alt=”なとみ様” width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-13704″]Sadly, I don’t know.[/taidan]

Q2. What is the significance of the word in your brand name Marushin Masamune?

[taidan img=”https://kurand.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/koyama.png” alt=”なとみ様” width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-13704″]It’s a part of our brewing ethos which is ‘honest brewing that delivers sake to the customer with sincerity’. The first generation of the brewery, Koyama Shinshichi believed that trading was based on a basic principle of honesty and so embedded that belief in the brand name, the first part of which reads ‘completely true or authentic’ (marushin). [/taidan]

Even a brewery that has been around since the early Meiji era is none the wiser. This is yet another example of a brand name that was derived from the company’s ethos.

Nagano Prefecture, Maruse Shuzo

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Q1. Why are there so many sakes using the word ‘Masamune’?

[taidan img=”https://kurand.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/maruse.png” alt=”なとみ様” width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-13704″] Actually, I am hardly an expert on the subject either. The story I heard was that a brewery in Nada (the old name for an inlet in modern day Kobe) called Sakura Masamune were the ones who started it and as their sake rose to acclaim during the Edo period, the name was adopted as a pronoun for delicious sake everywhere.[/taidan]

Q2.What is the significance of the word in your brand name: Ikioi Masamune 勢正宗

[taidan img=”https://kurand.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/maruse.png” alt=”なとみ様” width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-13704″]Our brand name is based on an episode in Chinese legend where a carp climbs a waterfall and becomes a dragon which we abbreviated into the Chinese character for momentum, Ikioi. (勢) The name also embodies our desire to achieve steady growth. The word Masamune was added to lend it a more sake-esque feel.[/taidan]

Among all the different theories of the origin behind this naming, the idea that the word simply became synonymous with sake itself has got to be the most likely and the most convinving.

The most unthinkable answer

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After investigating the story we gleamed from Maruse Shuzo in a little more detail, we can assert that the most likely origin of the word Masamune in sake naming appears to be nothing more than a simple ‘play on words’.

The origin dates all the way back to the Edo Period. The author does indeed seem to be none other than the fabled Sakura Masamune. The story goes that when the head of the family was thinking up a new name for his brand, he one day decided to visit a temple he was friends with in Kyoto. “Eureka!”, he suddenly exclaimed. It was a tabletop scripture that had caught his eye, inscribed on the front with the phrase “Rinzai Seishu” (臨済正宗), written using the same Chinese characters as for Masamune.

Have you figured it out yet?

Basically, he instantly saw the potential play on words between the word Seishu (other reading for Masamune) and the alternative word for sake in the sake industry — also pronounced the same way —: Seishu (清酒) — literally meaning clear sake. Realising the fun he could have and the prosperous ring it had to it, he instantly adopted it for his new brand name. Things didn’t quite go to plan though; even though he had intended for his brand to be read ‘Seishu’, the locals misread it as ‘Masamune’.

And so there you have it, a simple misunderstanding has shrouded the origin of this naming in mystery — so much so that even now, there are breweries using it oblivious of its true origin and meaning.

Conclusion

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For some reason it still doesn’t feel like we have found the whole truth. Whatever the truth, the popularity of Masamune doesn’t show any signs of waning.

Why not pop down to KURAND and see how many Masamune brands you can find.

We look forward to bringing you another little sake story very soon.