Announcing the Sake Professional Course in Chicago, August 12 – 14, 2014

Sake Professional Course
To be held at Sunda Restaurant in Chicago Illinois, August 12 – 14, 2014

From Tuesday, August 12 through Thursday, August 14, 2014, I will hold the 15th JG_SPC-3stateside version of the Sake Professional Course at Sunda restaurant in downtown Chicago. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries. The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.

JG_SPC-11The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore be somewhat technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. It is likely more than the average consumer needs! But the course is open to anyone with an interest and sake and will certainly be enjoyable. The course lectures and tasting will begin with the utter basics, and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days. Each of the three days will provide the environment for a focused, intense and concerted training period.

SPC JGThe goal of this course is that “no sake stone remains left unturned,” and my motto is “exceed expectations for the course.” Every conceivable sake-related topic will be covered, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting session. Participants will not simply hear about differences based on rice types or yeast types, they will taste and smell them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and regionality, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well. Participants will taste over 80 sake within five focused tasting exercises across the three days.

Wooden Koshiki on its sideLike its counterpart held in Japan each winter, it will be quite simply the most thorough and comprehensive English-language sake education in existence. Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

Also, as mentioned above, an exam is given at the end of the course for those that choose to seek certification. Those that pass receive a   “Level I Sake Specialist” certification from the non-profit organization The Sake Education Council.

Sugidama - half brownThe cost for the three-day class, including all materials and sake for tasting, is US$850. Participation is limited and reservations can be made now to secure a seat, with payment due by July 15, 2014. You can read Testimonials from past participants here. (Should that link not work, which is a possibility for technical reasons, I can send you the same by email.) For reservations or further inquiries, please send an email to 

 “No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”


Syllabus and Daily Schedule

Day I
9:00 – 12:30 Welcome, Orientation, Sake Basics, Sake Types, Terms found on Sake Labels
Tasting I: typical representatives of various grades, milling rates
1:00 – 3:00 Sake Production
3:00 – 4:30  Rice Types, Yeast Types, Water, Koji
Tasting II: Rice types, Yeast types

9:00 to 12:00 Sake Chemistry: nihonshu-do, acidity, amino acidity.
Yamahai and Kimoto
Tasting III: Yamahai and Kimoto.
12:00 to 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 5:00 All things nama-zake. Pressing methods. Aging and maturity. Non-standard sake types like nigori, low alcohol sake, sparkling sake, red sake, taruzake etc. Sake competitions. Vessels, temperature, toji guilds.
Tasting IV: Nama-zake, aged sake, various non-standard sake. The same sake in various vessels. Sake suited for warming. Competition sake.

Day III 
9:00 – 12:00 Sake regionality, sake and food, sake competitions, history, the state of the industry.
Tasting V: Sake Regionality
12:00- 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 Break
3:00 – 4:30 Exam

Koshiki-taoshi and Kaizo – the light at the end of the sake-brewing tunnel

It was well into the evening when the phone rang, but my caller i.d. told me the call was Mixing Moromi - soon to be done for the yearfrom a brewer in Akita Prefecture. Since he fits into both the friend and business associate categories, I picked it up.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty ha-a-a-a-mmered.” Not your typical call from the owner of a prestigious sake brewery, to say the least.

And to what do I owe this honor? Surely there must be a reason you have called at this hour and in this, er, state?

Indeed, indeed. Today was ‘kaizo.’ It’s over. We are done for the season.

That’s it. Kaput! All we have to do is clean up and we are outta here until the fall.” He seemed to momentarily forget he lived in the old house attached to the kura. “And, thanks to your support,” he continued with typical Japanese uber-humility, “we managed to finish the brewing season this year without any major difficulties.” I was fairly sure I myself had nothing to do with that, and of course politely deferred.

“Wow,” I responded. “That’s great. Congratulations. Another season down! I am sure you are relieved, and I am just as sure your sake will be kick-ass again this year.”

Pasteurizer - soon this is all that will remain to be doneThe true reason behind their call, driven though it was by the unbridled exuberance of the “kaizou” party, was to thank me for a positive assessment of a new sake they came out with that I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste several days earlier. I had recently ran into the two of them by coincidence, armed with a bottle, at a sake pub the night before a big Tokyo tasting. Regardless, it was great fun to hear from them, and congratulate them on completing the season.

“Hold on. There is someone here that wants to talk to you.” The cell phone got dropped at least twice and bashed into something made of glass on its way to whomever it was destined. Things like that happen in a room full of happy, buzzed sake brewers. Actually, I knew who it was going to be before I even heard the familiar voice.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty hammered too-hu-hu-hu.” It was the relatively young toji (master brewer) at that kura. “We made it through yet another season. And thanks to your support, we finished without a hitch…”

It was fun to hear from them, late though it might have been, and they certainly deserved to celebrate.

As many readers certainly recall, sake brewing runs roughly from the fall until the spring. Just when a kura begins to brew sake and when they finish for the year depends on a number of factors, including of course how much they brew. On top of this, dynamics including the number of brewers, number of tanks, size of the batches, how old or new their equipment is, and how often they fire up a new batch will all combine to determine just when they start and end. But typically it runs from mid-October to mid-April.

As the season draws to a close, there are two significant days that the people in the brewery owners and brewers together will celebrate. One is called “koshiki-taoshi,” the other is “kaizou.”

“Koshiki-taoshi” means “overturning the rice steaming vat.” A koshiki is the large vat in which rice is steamed every morning or so. In days of olde, the koshiki was made of wood (sugi, i.e. cryptomeria) and sat on top of a large iron cauldron of water (called a wagama) that tapers at the top.

Today only a handful of kura use wooden koshiki anymore. The craftsmen to make them are also all but gone. Most are steel these days, and in fact, many are fully automatic. Long ago, when the last vat of rice had been steamed, the koshiki would be turned over onto its side, cleaned thoroughly, and left to dry and be put into storage until next season. This is the term to which koshiki-taoshi refers.

When the last batch of rice has been steamed for the year, the brewers can see the light at the end of the brewing-season’s tunnel, hence the celebratory nature of the day.

Of course, that last day’s vat of rice will then be added to the last tank still fermenting, and after that there is still three weeks or more of waiting for those last few batches to finish fermenting, and then be pressed and sent to mature for a while. So their work is far from done. Koshiki-taoshi means only that there is no more rice to be steamed. Within two days, there will be no more koji to be made, and soon after that it is simply a matter of waiting. They know they are getting close to the end of six months or more of long, hard days.

Often in these modern times, automated koshiki are equipped in such a way that they can Wooden Koshiki on its sidebe turned sideways to make it easier to scoop out the rice. Kinda makes knocking them over a bit anticlimactic. Also, large brewers have continuous rice steamers, large contraptions that steam rice as it moves along on a mesh conveyor belt over steam, and constantly crank it out. So at such places there is no koshiki to knock over. But nonetheless, a ceremony and small party are held to acknowledge the significance of the last steaming of the season.

The next milestone is “kaizo.” “Kaizo” is written with characters that mean “all (has been) made,” and naturally enough indicates the day on which the last tank has been pressed, and therefore all the sake for the year has been brewed. All there is left to do is to sweep up, tidy up, and pack up.

After one or the other – or perhaps even both – of these significant days, the brewers and other employees of a sake brewery will often have a little bash in the kura. The kuramoto (brewery owner) will prepare a nice dinner, there will be warm toasts to each other, and there will be plenty of sake consumed. Also, newly made sake is offered to the gods in thanks for the blessings of the brewing season.

While, from what I have heard, it is more common to have this little party after koshiki-taoshi, obviously the folks at some places (like my friend in the intro) wait until kaizo, when presumably they can sleep late the next day.

Back in the 1960s when several of the larger kura rode continued growth to mammoth-hood, they began to brew all year round, in what is called “shiki-jozo,” or “four-season brewing.” However, as sake consumption has dropped off, especially that of cheap sake, the need for year-round brewing has dropped off, and none of the big brewers are doing this any longer.

But interestingly, there are a handful of smaller brewers that brew basically all Koji-making year, freezing the rice for use in the summer, and brewing at a more manageable, mellow pace. This pace might be starting a batch once or twice a week rather than everey day. Just when these places celebrate koshiki-taoshi is not clear. But I am sure they work it in somewhere!



Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, due out in June. You can reserve your copy now at Amazon!

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

– See more at:


Sake Confidential – my new book, out in June!

Sake Confidential: A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment

by John Gauntner, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley CA

Today’s sake drinkers are increasingly informed and educated. Most people that enjoy Sake Confidential - due out in Junesake know the basics of what sake is, how it is made, and what the grades are. So now is the time for a more in-depth look at the various aspects of sake and the sake world that make it the most interesting beverage on the planet.

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “the truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

The book is laid out in such a way that readers can jump around to topics that hold appeal, or read it from beginning to end. The very first chapter is a minimalist version of all things sake, after which each topic is covered in scrutinizing detail.

Sake Confidential will be available in bookstores in June; you can pre-order your copy at Amazon here:


Arabashiri – what is it?

What is “Arabashiri” Sake? It is a term we can see on labels of sake, but is actually independent of the grade of sake itself. Let’s see what it really means.

After a tank of “moromi” (fermenting mash) has run its course, it is ready to be pressed Drip pressing into special bottlethrough a mesh to allow the clear or slightly amber sake to pass through, while the lees, the rice solids that did not or could not ferment, are retained behind. As alluded to in the article above, this “squeezing” or “pressing” step is known as “shibori” in Japanese, and there are several ways of doing it, each with its own attendant degree of labor intensiveness and resulting quality of sake product.

While most sake today is pressed using a large machine that does a more than adequate Fune pressjob, historically and traditionally sake was pressed using a simple box known as a fune that has a hole and short trough at one end on the bottom. Most fune are perhaps a meter wide, three long and two deep, and made of a non-aromatic wood like cherry or paulownia, although today many are also made of steel, or even concrete. When the mash is deemed ready to be pressed, it is poured into meter-long cotton bags holding about 10 liters each, which are then laid down in an orderly fashion into the wooden fune. The sake is then squeezed out as a lid is cranked down into the box. This process will lead to slightly noticeably better sake than a machine pressed sake, but at a price: it takes perhaps three times the time and manpower to press sake using a fune.

However: at first, when the moromi-laden cloth bags are laid into the fune, for a while, the sake will run out of its own accord, under only the weight of the bags, with no need to crank the lid down into the box yet. This free-run fresh sake is known as “arabashiri,” which means “rough run.”

And slightly rough it is, in a brash and appealing kind of way. So appealing is it that many brewers market sake with the term arabashiri on the label, and it is quite likely you will come across it from time to time.

After the arabashiri trickles to a halt, the sake is squeezed out with pressure from the lid. This sake, known as “naka-dare,” “naka-dori” or even “naka-gumi” and is generally the most prized of the lot. After this long step, the bags are pulled out, rearranged in the box, and the lid is again cranked down to get the last few drops. This final bit of sake is known as “seme,” and amounts to only about five percent of the batch. No one would market their “seme,” but rather it will likely be mixed into other, lower grade sake.

Another interesting practice employed when pressing sake this way is to separate the sake 18 liter Toubin or "Ittoubin"as it comes out of the hole at the bottom of the fune into separate traditional sized 18 liter bottles, known as “ittou-bin.” The sake in each of these bottles will be slightly different in aroma and flavor. Often, these will be handled slightly differently, and the best of the best will be, for example, submitted to tasting contests.

There is an important note to remember with these terms: they are not legally definedMachine press - how most sake is pressed definitions or even industry standards. That means that they way they are used can and does vary from place to place. So an “arabashiri” does not absolutely have to be a sake that was pressed using the fune box-pressing method. It can be any sake that a brewer wanted to call arabashiri, maybe for the rough-and-ready feel that the term has. So it can, in fact, apply to a drip-pressed sake or even a machine-pressed sake.

This lack of legally defined officialdom applies to the middle-pressing terms as well, which should not be surprising, seeing as there are three of them used more or less interchangeably.

But in general, arabashiri refers to the free-run sake that runs out under its own weight when sake is pressed using a fune. Just remember that there will be some vagueness and some exceptions!