Why is October 1 Sake Day (“Nihonshu no Hi”)?

Happy “Nihonshu no Hi,” or Sake Day!

October 1 of each year is officially designated “Nihonshu no Hi,” or “Sake Day.” But why October 1? Why not April 1? Or May 20, or any one of 364 other valid days?

There are, not surprisingly, several reasons. However, the biggest reason is related to the written character for sake.Long ago, it consisted of only the right half of its current form; in other words, the original form of the character for sake did not include the three short lines on the left side, which, by the way, represent water, or at least liquid.

 Rather, the original character for sake consisted only of the part that was made to look like a jar, indicating something holding liquid, which was of course an alcoholic beverage of some sort in the mind of those looking at the character.

 Enter the Chinese zodiac: 12 animal signs that are traditionally used to number years in the traditionally accepted sequence. Long ago, by the way, it also was used to count two-hour periods in each 24-hour day.

 The tenth of these is tori, or chicken (or perhaps rooster or cock). However, the written character assigned to each of these animals as used in the zodiac is not the standard characters used when referring to the animals in normal writing, but rather a special character and reading used only in these traditional Chinese zodiacal instances.

 Also, one reading of this character is “toh,” which is a synonym for ten, a point that is of course tied in to the association of this particular character to the tenth hour, month and year in a cycle.  

So, by fortuitous coincidence, the tenth year, hour and month, i.e. October are represented in the ancient Chinese zodiac system, also embraced by Japan, by the old character for sake. And, coincidentally, sake brewing begins in the fall, usually in October. And that is why the first day of the tenth month, October 1, is known as “Nihonshu no Hi,” or “Sake Day,” in Japan.

 As with everything in the culture of sake, it is hardly random, yet hardly obvious. Therein lies its appeal.

The Sake Notebook – all you need to know about sake in a concise, enjoyably readable package! For Kindle. For Nook. For iPad. Downloadable pdf. Learn more here.

Sake’s Hidden Stories – what the other sake textbooks don’t tell you.  Learn about the brewers behind the brew. For Kindle. For Nook. For iPad. Downloadable normal pdf. Learn more here.

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Something as Simple-sounding as Pasteurization…

…Isn’t simple in the sake-brewing world!

Sake brewing can be, to put it mildly, complicated. Just getting from rice to

ambrosia calls for milling-washing-soaking-steaming-molding-fermenting-pressing and a dozen other -ings along the way, each with deep complexities involved. And that is before we begin to consider the variations that each and every brewer applies.

But after that’s all done, once the completed sake drips out, we are done with the hard-to-understand stuff, right? I mean, we just have to store it, pasteurize it, cut it with water, and bottle it at some point, right? That’s pretty straightforward, right?

Wrong. The last few steps, as seemingly simple as they sound, exert massive leverage on the nature of the final product. How and when a sake is pasteurized, how long and at what temperature it is stored, and even whether it was stored in a tank or bottles – all these sound simple, but can make or break a quality sake, regardless of how good it might have been at pressing time.


350-year old matsu (pine)

We sat on his garden’s porch, the brewer and I, looking at a 350-year old pine tree. As I pondered the fact that that pine tree has been around exactly seven times as long as I have, we chatted about recent issues in brewing. The brewer in question is of stable (read: large-ish) size and of outstanding reputation, well deserved too. And he commented, “In fact, the biggest issue I face now in keeping one step ahead of the competition in terms of flavor quality is pasteurization. We keep tweaking things, and even after all this time it is still a bit of trial-and-error.”

At first this surprised me. I mean, you’d think they would have that down by now. Three hundred and fifty years should be enough to figure out something like pasteurizing your sake, right?

Wrong. It ain’t that simple, it never was, and it always needs tweaking. Let us consider some of the various ways it can be done.

Simple, commonly seen pasteurization setup: sake runs through coil submerged in hot water

First, remember why sake is pasteurized. Momentarily heating it up will deactivate enzymes that would feed a form of lactic bacteria, and kills any of that bacteria that might be there as well. If sake is not pasteurized, it must be kept cold to not allow the enzymes to do much, or the chances of it going funky are significantly higher. But you knew that, right?

 And nama-zake, or unpasteurized sake, is not unequivocally better than its pasteurized counterpart anyway. But that is a rant for another day.


Still, there can only be a couple of ways to go about this kind of a thing, right?

Wrong. There are so many variations to pasteurizing that it is daunting to even think about cataloging them. How many times it is done (once or twice?), to how high a temperature (about 65C for most), how quickly or slowly it is heated (could be very gently and slowly, could be instantaneous using a heat-exchanger), how fast or slowly it is cooled down, is it done en masse by the tank or to individual bottles, and if so, by showering those bottles with hot water or letting them sit in a trough of the stuff? And the timing! Sake matures more quickly when nama (unpasteurized) so the final maturity is hugely swayed by the timing of pasteurization.

One standard way is to run the sake through a coil that is submerged in hot water, as in the photo above. A more modern and much more expensive way is the flash-pasteurizer in the photo below.

All of these will vary from sake to sake, grade to grade, product to product. And of course, they will vary from brewer to brewer as well. What works for one brewer or sake product will not necessarily work for all, if any, others!

And they will change over time, either based on new research or experimentation or on new market needs, i.e. consumers preferring the results of one method over the other. As one example, much sake these days is pasteurized only one time, and stored in bottles not tanks. This pain-in-the-arse method gives sake with a more discernible, fine-grained flavor to it. So if a kura’s sake suits this style (not all does!), this is a trend commonly followed.

The point here is that there are countless variations on how to do something as simple-sounding as pasteurization, and each brewer has his or her own methods and preferences. The standard one-line explanations of olde rarely apply anymore. But ask anyway, should you get the chance. And when you do, bear in mind that even the simplest-sounding steps in sake brewing are anything but simple.

Final note: I, personally, prefer pasteurized sake most of the time, as I can perceive more depth in it. But nama-zake (unpasteurized) can be zingy, fresh, young and lively. And certainly it can be more attention-getting, if often less subtle. By all means, explore both realms and decide your preferences.

Sake Brewing Tanks – What are they made of?


Old brewing tank from Showa 33 (1958)

Sake is no longer brewed in wooden tanks. In fact, they began to be phased out about 70 years ago and have pretty much been non-existent since just after the war. They were replaced by what is almost exclusively used today, ceramic-lined stainless steel, or sometimes, bare stainless steel.

Why were they phased out? A number of reasons. One, for the most part, brewers do not want to impart the woodiness into their sake (taru-zake is one exception). The line between character and idiosyncrasy is not just crossed, it is shattered with woody sake.

 Next, the wood absorbs some of the sake during fermentation, so yields are a bit reduced – so much so that in days of olde brewers were given a break on taxes for sake absorbed by the wood. And the grain of the wood is very hard to clean thoroughly, and provides a hotbed for bacteria. With the ceramic lined tanks, brewers can just hose’em off when done.

Interestingly, long ago, when wood was used, they did not at that time either want to make their sake overly woody. So when a tank was made by the coopers that were such an indispensible part of the brewing team, it was not used to make sake right away. Rather, it sat around for a few years to air out, and/or was used to store water or rice. It did not earn the right to have anything ferment in it until the woody essences had slowly evaporated.

As always in the sake world, there are exceptions. There are a handful of brewers that do make sake in wooden tanks. But really, it is maybe 30 out of 1300, and they make perhaps one to three batches a year in wood. It is by no means a trend or movement, just an anomaly.

Which is not to diss the sake that comes from those tanks! It can be quite interesting, and perceptibly different. Surely just a bit of wood gets imparted, but often the flavors end up quite integrated and fine-grained.

Sake brewed in wooden tanks, what little of it there exists, is called ki-oke jikomi. While not very common, if you come across the term, now you know.

Everything you wanted to know about Yeast Number 9

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of perhaps the most important sake-brewing yeast strain of all, the Kumamoto yeast, also known as Yeast Number Nine.

While the yeast itself, its qualities, and its various aliases are worth knowing about, the history and culture surrounding all this is interesting as well. It all took place down south in Kumamoto Prefecture, thanks to the efforts of a man named Professor Kin’ichi Nojiro.

Back in the Edo period, when samurai clans still ruled the various provinces, before the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when power was returned to the Emperor and modern government was installed, there was no sake as we know it in Kumamoto. Instead, the ruling clan had dictated that a red type of sake, known as “akazake,” was the only type of sake to be brewed. It was likely an economical decision, an effort to make Kumamoto the capital of this curious brew. (The color comes from an ash put in the sake to preserve it. It is still available today; it all comes from Kumamoto and is used only in cooking.)

While that worked for a while, it put Kumamoto a bit behind the rest of the country in real sake brewing technology. In order to address this, Kumamoto Prefecture put a lot of research effort into brewing good sake, forming a company that functioned as a brewery and research center. It is still around today, and the wonderful sake brewed there is called Koro. One of the main forces in the research center devoted to that effort was Professor Nojiro.

Among other advances in brewing techniques, he discovered a yeast strain in 1953 that soon propelled Kumamoto sake to the top of the sake-brewing world. Initially, it was known as the Kumamoto Kobo (yeast). Soon, a very similar yeast was isolated, and thereafter the two came to be known as KA-1 and KA-4.

Eventually, an organization called the Nihon Jozo Kyoukai, or Brewing Society of Japan, began to propagate and sell this yeast to brewers around the country. Henceforth, when supplied by this organization, it came to be known as Association Yeast Number Nine.

So, to clarify, for those that are interested, if the label says Yeast #9, it came from The Brewing Society of Japan, who got it a few months before that from the company that makes Koro in Kumamoto. If it says KA-1 or KA-4, you know that brewer has a connection and was able to snag some directly from Koro, without going through any other organization.

It is very difficult to keep yeast strains like this pure over the generations and generations of reproduction required to use them in large quantities year after year. Those doing that work must test carefully to be sure that the qualities of the yeast do not change. The folks at the Kumamoto research center work hard to create consistent KA-1 and KA-4 each year, and the Japan Brewers’ Association gets fresh stuff from Kumamoto each year, ensuring their strains are pure as well.

This family of yeast is very suited to making aromatic yet clean ginjo-shu. And today, more of that kind of fine sake is being produced then ever before. This leads to great demand for the #9 strains. So what some prefectures do (most notably Yamagata, but other places as well) to make it more accessible is to buy some Kumamoto Kobo from the source, then propagate it at home, and distribute it amongst those that want it in that prefecture. This is significant only because amongst Yamagata sake, one can find a yeast called Yamagata KA, which is Yamagata home-grown Kumamoto Kobo.

So at the end of the day, KA-1 and KA-4, Kumamoto Kobo, #9, and Yamagata KA are more or less the same yeast. Consider it “family number nine” or maybe “Kumamoto lineage.” Naturally, there are those who insist the original pure strains from Kumamoto are better. But what is important to remember is that this line of yeasts is the most widely used yeast in ginjo sake brewing, and has stood the test of 50 years’ time without being dethroned, and without significantly mutating. 

So what is so special about it? In brewing, it ferments thoroughly and slowly at low temperatures, allowing brewers to control the fermentation closely. This all leads to wonderfully smooth and fine-grained flavors, good aromatic acid content, and lovely fruity aromas reminiscent of delicious apples and perhaps melon. Clean and bright sake with wonderful balance is the trademark of this line of yeasts. Indeed, there is nothing quite like classic #9 flavors and aromas in a sake.

Indeed, these days especially, there are many other great yeasts. Whether or not they will still be great in 50 years is yet to be seen. And it is certainly possible to enjoy your sake without giving a hoot about the yeast used. But often, the more one tastes, the more one wants to know why certain sake have the aromas and flavors they do, to know what makes a sake the way it is. Should your interest get to that level, remember ole’ Number Nine.

The company that makes Koro is still alive and well, and ownership of it is shared amongst all the other brewers in Kumamoto. The president-ship rotates amongst the presidents of the other Kumamoto brewery owners.

Koro is truly a lovely sake in all of its manifestations. Then name itself means “fragrant

Koro Junmai Ginjo

dew.”  I like to refer to it as the Pilsener Urquell of sake. It really is the quintessential manifestation of ole Number Nine. Melon, a light spritzy acidity, and incredible balance from beginning to end. Just ever so slightly restrained and understated, it is a tad different from the aromas of much modern ginjo sake. It is very limited in its availability in the US. And that is just the junmai ginjo. They make a daiginjo as well that is hard to get anywhere.