Some Sake Market Numbers: the reality as it is

Sake is booming
Sake Warming Ultimate ToySake is booming; it is growing strongly in popularity both inside Japan and around the world. And while this is true, we still have a long way to go. In an effort to curb I.S.E. (irrational sake exuberance), here are some sobering statistics that will encourage us to drink more sake and to promote it actively.

Yes, it is beginning to grow in every metric. Exports grow at an average of over ten percent a year. The domestic premium sake market grows at closer to fifteen percent a year. The domestic non-premium contracts about seven percent a year, but that rate of contraction is decreasing, which is mumbo jumbo for saying that the cheap sake market too looks poised to grow soon. But here are some other statistics.

Sake is only 6.9 percent of all alcohol consumed in Japan.
Sure, this is growing slightly as well. But when a product in a market drops below ten percent it is considered an insignificant part of the market. ‘Course, it depends on how you define the relevant sectors. But the truth is that sake has dropped way down and is only starting to pull out of the quagmire of near-extinction.

Pour sakeOnly 3.2 percent of all sake made is exported
Yep. That is all. The silver lining is that this is up from less than two percent a scant three years ago. But with France and Italy exporting more than thirty percent of their wine, sake has a lot of potential for growth.

Sake is but 0.1 percent of all alcohol consumed in the US
This is not meant to be a US-centric newsletter! But the US imports more sake than any other country (with Korea very close behind), about 35 percent of all exported from Japan. And still, sake is only one tenth of one percent of all alcohol consumed in the US. It is likely this dismally low number is similar in other countries as well.

Sake Brewing is a Tough Business
Sixty percent of all sake breweries are small to mid-sized companies, of which half are either losing money or barely (i.e. insignificantly) profitable.

As the boom in sake is poised to help the craft sake industry more than the large-scale end of the industry, this will likely improve too. But for now, the reality is lots of red ink for about half the sake breweries in existence, in particular (but not limited to) the small family enterprises that comprise 60 percent of the industry.

A Quarter Million Tons of Rice
Last year, a quarter of a million tons of rice were used in sake brewing. Of that, about 90 thousand tons, or 36 percent, were proper sake rice (shuzo kouteki-mai).

chikurin20080711_1A quarter of a million tons. The fact that only thirty six percent was proper sake rice is not disconcerting at all, since so much non premium sake is made – it is still 65 percent of the market. So the numbers are just about right, even if a bit inconceivably large in scale.

Japan’s agricultural sector, and rice farming in particular, are hardly thriving. Rice is of huge significance to Japan’s agricultural industry, its history and its culture. Sake’s growth really does have the potential to help local communities and the agriculture industry overall. And it all ties in to you and I enjoying it more, where ever we are.


Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.

This Year’s Rice Solubility – and how it affects sake

13withtweaksSake is, as we all know, brewed from rice. Rice, in turn, is a very focused expression of soil, climate, and each year’s weather conditions such as sunshine, rain and typhoons. Every growing season is different, and there are good years for sake rice and bad years for sake rice.

In most breweries, the toji (master brewer) will begin the brewing season with lower grades of sake. One goal in doing that is to be able to feel out the rice, to test it, to see how easily (or not) it will absorb water and, ultimately, dissolve into components while fermenting in the mash. The more easily it dissolves, the more flavor it will impart to the resulting sake. The less easily it dissolves, the lighter and more insipid the resulting sake will be. Finding the middle ground is key.

One great thing about sake brewing is that brewers can do a handful of things that can help the rice behave the way they want it to behave. In other words, they can make up for a bad year of rice and help the sake taste great again this year, at least to a certain degree. And naturally it helps tremendously if they know what is coming, and how to expect to have to deal with it.

riceWouldn’t it be great if someone analyzed it for them? Sure, brewers might know the weather of their immediate vicinity. But since rice can be brought in from other regions, wouldn’t it be great if the brewers could learn what to expect from each season’s rice, each of the main varieties of rice, from each region of Japan? Then they could use such data to determine how to tweak their brewing methods to adapt to each year’s and each region’s rice.


OK: Done.

The National Research Institute of Brewing is a research organization that has over its 110-year history been under the wing of multiple branches of the government of Japan, and also semi-privatized. Much could be written about this significant organization and what they do, and you can learn for yourself at if you like. But one thing they do each October is prepare a report for the brewing industry called the “Expected Suitability of This Year’s Rice to the Brewing Process.” (清酒原料米の酒造適性予測)

The short, four-page report talk firstly about its aim, which is explained above. It then runs down the average temperature in Japan for each ten day period in the two months of the growing season after the ears of rice appear, August and September, which are the key months related to the maturing of the grains. It briefly compares these to historical averages.

Next, the report runs down the eight major regions from northeast to southwest, commenting on the solubility of the rice for each, compared to both an average year, and to the previous year in particular

smallf chikurin 200801003_1Then, it waxes technical. It explains in excruciating detail how higher averages temperatures lead to longer Amylopectin (one of the two components of starch) chains. This means that the starches will dissolve very easily in the moromi (fermenting mash), which means more flavorful sake if controlled, but big-assed sloppy flavors if not reined in. It also accordingly means that resulting sake will be more susceptible to aging the adverse effects of aging.

Conversely, lower temperatures lead to shorter Amylopectin chains, meaning the starches will not dissolve very quickly or easily in the moromi, leading to lighter sake if done right, but tighter, shallower and less flavorful sake if its idiosyncrasies are not compensated for properly. Colder temperatures also lead to sake that will mature much more slowly, being reticent to give it up to the passage of time.

Curiously, one would think that the average reader of this report would not need to bone up on this stuff, so they must have had the intention of broadening the appeal of sake when they determined the content.

chikurin 20080902_3Summer in Japan this year was again hot, just about as hot as last year was. The warmer temperatures of the past decade and then some have continued. Furthermore, the islands of Japan were pummeled with typhoons this fall, meaning lots and lots of rain. Factoring in all that and more, the prognosis was that this year’s rice will be not dissolve very well; not too bad, mind you. Just not so well.

What does this mean in more concrete terms? It means that the brewers will need to do things like help the rice absorb a bit more water than usual so that it dissolves a bit more easily. This will ensure that sufficient flavor presents itself.

However, fear not! All is not lost! So much is involved in the complex sake-brewing process that a skillful brewer can often make up for a bad rice crop with effort, experience and intuition. In fact, what brewers strive for year after year is consistency in their main products out on the market. Naturally, there are inevitable changes each year, but a truly skillful toji will minimize these.

Fermenting mash ("moromi")That’s the cool thing about sake: in making it, we can meet nature half-way. What will most noticeably suffer are the highest grades of sake, contest sake especially. But for most of us, what we will be drinking will be as good as it usually is; but we should not forget that added burden that will be on rice farmers and brewers to make it that way. Sake, like wine, remains an integral expression of nature.



Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.

Sake Confidential



Significance of Shinpaku

amanoto_dsc3593The main raw materials of sake are rice and water, and rice is the only fermentable material used in its production. And just as the grapes used to make good wine are significantly different from those bought at the supermarket, the rice used to make premium sake is significantly different from that which we find sitting under the fish in sushi, or in bowls in meals.

In truth, most sake – perhaps 75 percent of all produced – is actually made from regular table rice. And a lot of this is perfectly tasty sake. But when we meander into the realm of premium sake, especially ginjo, almost always it is made with proper sake rice, which is significantly different from regular table rice.

While there are many ways that sake rice differs from other types (size of the stalk, size of the grains, more starch, less fat and protein), the most talked about of them is surely the presence of a shinpaku.

kome-shimpakuIn proper sake rice, the higher-than-normal starch content is mostly concentrated in the center of the grains. Why is this so heart-warmingly special? Because we want to get at the starch, which will be converted to sugar and then into alcohol. But we don’t want the fat and protein, which would lead to off-flavors and contribute rough elements to the sake. So with the starch neatly concentrated in the center, all we need to do is to mill away more and more of the outside of the grain, and by doing that we remove the fat and protein and leave only the starchy goodies behind.

That packet of starch in the center is called the shinpaku. The word itself is written with the characters for “heart” and “white,” and not surprisingly, when one looks at sake rice, you can clearly see that the heart of the grain is an opaque white, with everything around that being somewhat translucent. In regular rice, however, the color is uniform throughout since the starch, fat and protein are more mixed up and uniformly distributed.

rices2Why does sake rice have the starch in the center, and fat and protein around that? Part of it is just the nature of those strains. But it also has to do with climate and growing conditions. Regions with hot days and cold nights are best for sake rice production, as the cold nights coerce the plant to send the starch to the center of the grains. In “bad years” for rice, seasons being too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, or when the night and day temperatures had less variance, fewer grains will have a decent shinpaku.

What is interesting is that it is not the starch itself that makes the center of the grains white. What happens is that the starch molecules are round at the ends, and as they rush to get to the middle they don’t interlock well, and they leave tiny air pockets between their ends. These diffuse light passing through, giving the opaque appearance we see.

Beyond different varieties or strains of rice, within each type there are grades based upon how well it was grown. This is a function of locale, climate, and skill of the producer. And one of the big points of assessment is the percentage of grains with a visible shinpaku. This is also one of the standards in the official assessment of sake rice versus table rice in general.

There are many more factors beyond the shinpaku and its size that are involved in qualifying good sake rice. But the shinpaku is the most visible, if not the most talked about.

kome-kurabeNote, too, that one can make decent-to-good sake from regular rice. It takes a good toji and good tools, but just a few of the many examples of table rice from which decent sake is brewed are Koshihikari, Sasanishiki, the illustrious Kame no O. So one can indeed make decent sake from table rice. It’s just easier to do so with real sake rice.

Finally, the question often arises, if a brewer is using table rice, why do they bother to mill down to 70, 60 or even 50 percent of the original size? If table rice has no shinpaku, isn’t that meaningless and wasteful?

The answer lies in the fact that in truth, all rice to some degree has more starch in the center and more fat and protein near the surface, whether or not this is manifested in a visible shinpaku. It is just that this is all more distinct in sake rice; much more starch is in the center, and much more of the fat and protein is near the outside of the grains.

So more milling will have a positive effect on table rice as well when it is used in sake brewing, just not as pronounced as with good sake rice. As usual with sake-related things, it’s all a tad vague.



Sake Professional Course
in Japan 

Tuesday, January 10 ~ Saturday, January 14, 2017
Recognized by the Sake Education Council

No sake stone remains left unturned

“Quite simply, the best and most thorough sake education on the planet.”

From Tuesday, January 10 to Saturday, January 14,  I will hold the 14th  running (and 38th overall) of the Sake Professional Course in Japan.

SPC 1The Sake Professional Course in Japan is far and away the best possible sake education in existence. Three days of lecture and tasting, each evening capped off with dinner and fine, fine sake, followed by two days spent visiting four sake breweries of different size and scale – punctuated again with fine sake and a great meal each evening make this course as comprehensive as it could be. If you are serious about sake, and especially about working with sake, there is no other course for you; this is it. Satisfaction is guaranteed.

The course is recognized by the not-for-profit organization The Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered near the end of the week.

Flavor ElementsThe course will be held from the morning of Tuesday, January 10 to the evening of Saturday, January 14,2017, and will be focused in Tokyo, but with a two- day excursion to the Osaka – Kyoto – Kobe area to visit four sake breweries of various scale. Geared toward professionals, but open to anyone with an interest in sake, this course will begin with the basics, and will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. It will consist of classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions, four sake brewery visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food. Participants will stay together at hotels in Tokyo and Osaka. Lectures will take place in a comfortable classroom, and evening meals will be off-site at various sake- related establishments.

The goal of this course is that “no sake stone remains left unturned,” and the motto is “exceed expectations.”

During the three classroom days, we will discuss various aspects of sake and the sake world, including grades, production, rice, yeast, koji, water and more. Tastings specific to the just-discussed topics follow each lecture, thereby allowing participants to understand with their senses the theory just presented. 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.

Food and sake, the state of the sake-brewing industry, the culture and history suffusing sake are regionality are just a few more of the wide range of topics to be covered. Every conceivable sake-related topic will be touched upon, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting session.

Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

The Tokyo classroom venue is the Japan Sake and Shochu Producers Association in the Shimbashi area.

Yeast cellsThe cost for this five-day educational experience is ¥190,000. This includes all instruction and materials, as well as evening meals with plenty of sake each night. Other meals, transportation to and from as well as within Japan, and hotel are not included in the tuition. To make a reservation or if you have any questions at all, please send an email to John Gauntner at .

For more information, a downloadable pdf announcement and a view of the daily syllabus, please go here . Testimonials from past participants can be found here as well.

The Origins of Yamada Nishiki – Whence did the king of sake rice come?

Yamada before harvestIn the April issue of  blog, archived here, I wrote comprehensively and effusively about Yamada Nishiki, the current king of sake rice varieties. It is the most widely grown, and – amongst the 100 or so sake rice varieties in use today – it most easily lets brewers make the best sake they can.

Note the choice of wording. That diction was chosen to represent what most brewers and sake professionals try to convey. Yamada Nishiki itself does not necessarily lead to great sake; however, in the hands of a good toji, it is much easier to make great sake using that rice than any other. While certainly there are many opinions, most would agree on this, methinks.

What that really implies is, in the end, the skill, intention and techniques employed by a brewer contribute more to the final nature of a sake than the choice of rice. But the rice is also an extremely important factor, as that allows the brewer to work his or her craft to the utmost.

Curiously, many a toji (master brewer) will insist that it is his or her main role is to create a good environment for the koji and yeast so as to allow the sake to brew itself, and then basically get out of the way. But even through that interpretation, great rice like Yamada Nishiki makes that job easier.

As much adulation as I lavished upon it a few months ago, there is more to say that is historically quite interesting. Let us look at that here.

imada yamadanishiki 70 / 35Before launching into its history and roots, let’s quickly review why it is significantly easier to make good sake using Yamada Nishiki. The grains are large, which means more potential for fermentable starch inside. The starches are concentrated in a ball of starch in the middle, and well centered, meaning it is easy to mill the outer fat and protein away, revealing only the starch. And, that protein and fat are at low levels to begin with, lowering the potential for off-flavors.

And again: it is favored by brewers less for how it ends up tasting than for how it behaves and how it can be handled in the fermenting mash. For example, it dissolves at an ideal, manageable speed. If the rice breaks down and dissolves and ferments too quickly, it can lead to a lot of off-flavors. But if it does not dissolve fast enough, the flavor has no character, or breadth or depth. Neither extreme is good, and Yamada Nishiki walks that fine line.

Looking back, there are a number of events and political changes that brought about the phenomenon of Yamada Nishiki.

The first big change was in 1874, six years after the Meiji Restoration, when the government changed the way rice growers were taxed. Until that time, rice farmers paid taxes with rice itself; a certain chunk of all that one grew was shipped off to the government for their use.

Yamada Nishiki rice floweringBut after that change, tax was due in money based on the amount of land they owned. This means that all of a sudden rice was a commodity, a product to be sold on the marketplace that would lead to revenue to pay such taxes and cover living expenses and savings. As such, the more one grew the more one made, and farmers were all of a sudden very motivated to maximize yields and to do that by growing high-yield rice varieties. Sake rice varieties are decidedly not that kind of rice. So, even though demand for rice was increasing, the production of sake rice with its low yields began do prodigiously drop.

Then, in 1893, the government undertook research to identify and develop strains of rice more conducive to modern times and cultivation methods.

They formed a national agricultural research center and gathered all the rice types from all the localities they could, selected from amongst them a lineup that was particularly good, and got going with the research. The next year, Hyogo Prefecture started their own version of that research center that aligned their work with that of the national government. They then started looking for varieties that would be suitable to be selected as main ones to be used in a wider expansion that would benefit Hyogo’s agricultural economy.

riceStill, as mentioned above, sake rice production was on the decline. Compared to the easy to sell table rice, sake rice was hard to grow, it is quite tall and therefore falls over easily, and yields per field are much lower. It therefore costs farmers more to grow it, and there is less of a market for it. So in order to secure the high quality sake rice they needed, the brewers of Nada (modern day Kobe and Nishinomiya cities in the same prefecture, Hyogo, where the largest breweries have been for 250 years) created a contractual system with the farmers in the region (then known as the Harima region, now just a part of Hyogo) to secure a stable supply at a price that made it worth it to the farming community.


From about 1897, farmers and Nada brewers worked back and forth and hammered out these agreements that led to an system called muramai seido, which still exists to some degree today. It identified the best rice fields in Harima and set relative prices on rice from the surrounding fields as well. Once this was established, rice producing towns and villages or Harima began to sell their rice as a group, and the big brewers of Nada would purchase rice from those villages. This close cooperation helped the sake brewers to train and raise great rice farmers nearby. Note, though, that this all began even before Yamada Nishiki was created, and the rice from the Harima region was not as valued as it would later become.

Next, in 1912, the first rice varieties suitable for sake brewing that would promoted by the government as suitable for both large-scale cultivation and good for sake brewing (i.e. “sake rice”) were selected: Yamadaho and Wataribune. (Remember those names!)

Then in 1923, they manually crossbred Yamadaho and a version of Wataribune called Tankan Wataribune (“short-stalk” Wataribune) to create one strain that would be used for research. It was given the unglamorous name of Yama-watari 50-7 during that research stage. It did in fact get selected for as a rice the government would promote, and was in 1932 certified as a bona fide new rice type. Next it went into feasibility testing to assess its suitability to large scale production. Obviously, it passed, and was finally christened Yamada Nishiki in 1936.

However, it was not immediately recognized for its greatness and languished for a few years.

This is because the Nada brewers strongly preferred to use rice from what was then called the Hokusetsu region, which is now the northern part of neighboring Osaka Prefecture. They insisted it was softer and that it was easy to make koji using it. It was also considered to be fragrant and encouraged vigorous fermentation.

While this also may have been true, the truth is that they were very accustomed to the rice they had been using, and they were concerned that if they tried a new rice, it might be hard to get it to behave as they wanted to. It was easier to stick with what they knew. The risk of sake spoiling during fermentation, rendering the entire tank wasted, was higher in those days, and throwing another variable into the mix only increased the possibility of that happening.

Yamada Nishiki’s big break, so to speak, came in 1942, when the war necessitated rationing of rice. The rules surrounding this dictated that the brewers were not allowed to bring in rice from other prefectures, and had to use rice grown in their own prefecture. This seems natural considering the circumstances of the day.

So that meant that Nada brewers (remember, Nada is in Hyogo Prefecture, the next prefecture westward from Osaka) had to use Hyogo rice, not Osaka rice. And this meant that the brewers had no choice but to try this new Yamada Nishiki stuff from Hyogo.

Once they began to use it, though, they be like, “whoa, this stuff is good!” Using it, they found it was even easier to make good sake, and so turned their attention toward using increasingly more Yamada Nishiki. While it can be expensive, and while there are other great rice types, Hyogo-grown Yamada is still most brewers’ choice for at least their most extravagant sake.It has gradually grown in usage, but has always remained comparatively expensive. Although it is now the most widely grown sake rice, but it only took this lead in the mid-90s. Currently in Hyogo alone there are 5500 people growing it.

One reason it remains so good is that Hyogo growers take very good care of the DNA, so to speak. If one grows any rice and just haphazardly uses last year’s seeds to grow this year’s rice, pollen et al from other rice types will naturally get mixed in and the sake will lose its purity and its erstwhile main characteristics will become diluted. So at the sake rice research center in Hyoto, each and every seedling is inspected one at a time to be sure it has has maintained the original and necessary characteristics of Yamada Nishiki.

Rice only sake = junmai-shuThese are then grown to yield more seeds, which are then grown to yield even more seeds, that are then distributed to seed cooperatives, who then distribute the seeds to the farmers to use to grow the rice. So count ‘em: that is only three generations from purity each year, no seeds are any more than three generations from individually inspected and assessed purity. Dig that.

Of the myriad ways to enjoy sake, of course appreciating its flavors and aromas and its relaxing benefits are the most accessible. But the behind-the-scenes history, anecdotes and conversation fodder equally enjoyable. Well; almost.

Remember the roots of the rice the next time you enjoy Yamada Nishiki in a cup.


Sake Professional Course in Japan

From Tuesday, January 10 through Saturday, January 14, I will hold the annual Japan-based running of the Sake Professional Course in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. For more information and/or to make a reservation, please send me an email to that purport.

fune1More information about the course, the schedule, the syllabus and the fun is available here, with a downloadable pdf there as well, and testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day courses wrap up with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation for a future course, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me.

Recent Trends in Sake Profiles

Judges tasting awayThe government in Japan, in particular the National Tax Administration, monitors trends in sake preferences amongst consumers, as expressed by trends in sake production. The results of the analysis of data from last year’s sake was released a short while ago. While it is nothing shocking, it is interesting to see how things change. Here are a couple of tendencies culled from that slurry of data.


  1. Drier junmai-shu

Junmai-shu continues to grow in popularity, although not as fast as a few years ago. But it has also continued to become drier on the average.

  1. Richer sake

Junmai-shu also has a higher amino acid content than other types, not surprisingly. But all sake in general is getting richer, as measured by a higher average amino acid content.

  1. Increased levels of ethyl caproate

koshikiAgain, hardly surprising, but the level of the ester ethyl caproate, which leads to aromas like ripe apple, tropical fruit and licorice or anise, has been on the increase. Curse it. This is hardly surprising considering that ginjo and daiginjo continue to grow very strongly in popularity.

  1. Decreasing alcohol content in futsuu-shu

Drip Pressing SakeNon-premium sake has seen a decrease in alcohol content overall. Ginjo et cetera has seen alcohol levels stay fairly high, likely for increased impact, but in non-premium futsuu-shu alcohol has dropped a bit on the average. I am not sure what the significance of this point is, though, nor was it elucidated upon in the government report.

While most of these mini-trends are predicitble extensions of sake’s growth and popularity these days, it is fun to check the pulse of sake from time to time.

Flavor Elements of Sake  –  Part II

What else makes your sake taste and smell as it does?


Flavor ElementsIn a previous post, we began talking about the “flavor elements of sake,” i.e. what things – ingredients, methods and “after-care” – combine in various ways to make the sake before you taste and smell the way it does. And last month we looked at the main ingredients and their contributions. Rice, water, yeast and koji all play their roles, and those roles are intertwined. If you missed that, you can check it out here.

This time around, let us consider the following brewing processes, the choice of which will alter the path a sake-in-waiting will tread. While there is potentially no end to the points would could consider, let us narrow it down to six: milling, yeast starter, pressing, pasteurization, whether or not added alcohol has been used, and aging.

And just like the ingredients side of things, none of these six processes have an absolutely guaranteed air-tight cause and effect relationship with the final sake. All are intertwined with the many other choices involved. But there are tendencies for sake made with these methods to end up tasting and smelling a certain way. So let us look at those admittedly tenuous-yet-valid connections.

Imada yamadanishiki 70/35Milling
More than anything else, milling affects lightness: the more the rice is milled before brewing begins, the lighter and more refined the sake will be. But milling affects more than just the lightness as well – more highly milled rice can indirectly lead to more fruity aromas. And other things affect lightness or heaviness as well. But in general, the more you mill the rice, the lighter and more refined the sake will be.

This is because milling the rice more takes away increasingly more of the fat and protein lurking near the surface that lead to richer, fuller flavors.

Note that more milling is not always better, even though that point is used often in product marketing. Lighter sake is not unequivocally better than richer sake; not at all. And more milling does not guarantee a lighter sake. But the tendency is in fact there.

Yeast Starter
More than anything else, the choice of yeast starter affects flavor elements like sweetness, acidity and umami, expressed perhaps as “clean-ness versus richness.”

Yeast starter -This section could be expanded to fill several books, at least. But since we do not have that luxury now, let us break it down a bit. There are three main ways of preparing the yeast starter, a few less mainstream but very valid ways, and tons of variations beyond that.

What are those three main methods? Wincing at how inappropriate it is to constrain them to a single paragraph, they are: sokujo, kimoto and yamahai. Sokuju the most modern (yet still over a hundred years old), used to make 99 percent of all sake out there, and leads to clean sake.

Kimoto is the oldest and most traditional, very little is made, and leads to richer sake, often with a bright (almost tart) acidity and fine-grained flavor.

Yamahai is also about 100 years old and often yields richer, wilder sake with higher sweetness and acidity.

However, the above three descriptions are just tendencies, albeit solid ones to be sure. But not all yamahai is wild, not all kimoto is fine-grained, and not all sokujo is squeaky clean.

Note these three methods are also affected by everything else: milling, rice, yeast, water and more. The choice of yeast starter alone does not guarantee anything.

And the method chosen affects other things than the over-simplistic flavor profiles described above. But in short, the choice of yeast starter method affects clean-ness versus richness.

Pressing Method
More than anything else, the choice of pressing method affects expressiveness and intensity.

After a month-long fermentation period, the mash is pressed through a mesh, removing the remaining rice solids and sending the completed sake through. Not surprisingly there are a few main methods in use for this pressing step, and just as unsurprisingly they lead to different type of sake.

yabutaMachine press
Most sake is pressed using a machine that does this very efficiently. The fermented mash is forced through mesh panels leaving the dregs clinging to the mesh and the golden ambrosia comes out the other end. This machine does a great job and saves untold amounts of labor.


funeFune (box press)
However, a brewer can perform this step in other ways too. One such method involves pouring several liters of the fermented mash into a meter-long cloth bag, and then piling those bags into a large, sturdy box maybe two-across, twenty-long, and ten-high – or thereabouts. The lid is then cranked down and into the box, and the sake comes out a hole in the bottom. Sake pressed in this method is usually called funa-shibori and is often more pronounced, expressive and aromatic.


For those brewers and sake for which this is just not going far enough, the same bags o’ mash can be tied off and hung, and not squeezed at all. This drip-pressing method is called shizuku, And the sake that drips out is even more extravagantly aromatic, expressive and definitely intense.

However, many other things affect the expressiveness and intensity of a sake; the pressing method is just one of ‘em.

So in short, machine press – just fine; funashibori (box press) –  more lively and aromatic; shizuku (drip press)  – even more intense and expressive.

Most sake is pasteurized by heating it to about 60C or so for a short time. This stabilizes the product by killing off lactic bacteria and stifling enzymes that would otherwise feed those bacteria. When sake is not pasteurized it is called nama-zake, and is a very different animal.

Nama-zake can be livelier and more vibrant, often with more pronounced characteristic aromas. These aromas may be woody at first, and cheesy if the sake is not kept cold and away from oxygen.

While many find properly cared for nama to be more appealing, it is not unequivocally better – just different. Furthermore, nama-zake will mature much more quickly than pasteurized sake.

So, in short, nama is usually livelier in aromas, and pasteurized sake more settled and deep. But of course, there are exceptions.

Junmai vs. Jon-Junmai
Junmai means the sake was made with rice, water and koji only. If the junmai word is not on the bottle, then a bit of distilled alcohol has been added just after fermentation and before pressing to help extract more flavor and aroma, lighten the sake a bit, and improve shelf life as well. (Admittedly, in cheap sake lots is added to stretch yields, but in premium stuff this is neither the goal nor the result.)

Junmai types are often richer and fuller, especially compared to their non-junmai counterparts. So junmai ginjo is richer than (added-alcohol) ginjo, and junmai daiginjo is richer than (added-alcohol) daiginjo. Unless it isn’t.

Sometimes, that is simply not the case, and many people cannot tell the difference in most situations.

Ergo, in a nutshell, junmai types are slightly richer than added alcohol types. Usually.

Pour sakeAging
This is the simplest of the method-related generalizations here: aged sake takes on color, a sherry-like quality, earthiness and more pronounced flavors. Many factors affect this: the milling of the original sake, whether it is junmai or added-alcohol, time, temperature and vessel.

But in its simplest form, the more mature a sake is, the more intense and sherry-like its flavors and aromas become – most of the time, that is.

Most sake is shipped and meant to be consumed young: within a year or two. Very, very little is aged for more than a couple of years. While that rabbit hole, too, is deep, fascinating and enjoyable, it is a very small part of the market for now.

Along with last month’s assessment of the main ingredients of sake, the above runs down a few of the many options a brewer has in making sake, and how those choice will more than likely – but not absolutely – affect the fine nature of the sake. A quick review of the last line in each section should suffice as a quick-n-simple assessment of how each step affects the final product, and should hopefully be useful in knowing why your sake tastes the way it does, or what to expect based on the info on the label.

But superseding this all is the warm-n-fuzzy elusive nature of sake. As soon as we think we got it figured out, it hoses our hubris. And therein lies the fun.


Taste 80 sake at SPC Toronto!Fond of doing things at the last minute? Then check out the Sake Professional Course to be held in Toronto October 3, 4 and 5. Learn more here.

The Flavor Elements of Sake: What makes your sake taste and smell as it does

Yamada Nishiki rice floweringWhat is it that makes a sake taste and smell the way it does? What goes into and drives the myriad flavors and aromas we enjoy in today’s sake? We could get really technical. We good go chemical if want to, but it would not likely be pretty.

But what if we take a step or two back, and from a simple ingredients-to-results point of view ask “why’s it taste and smell like that? What makes it sweet or dry or rich or thin or fruity are ricey or sharp or round?”

Again: we could get technical. But in truth, a caveat-augmented simple explanation is more than enough. In other words, we can present the most general reasoning, the one that represents 70 percent of the truth, and then acknowledge that the remaining 30 percent exists as exceptions.

So let us look at what affects the way a sake tastes, smells and otherwise presents itself to us. The sources of those elements will be one of three things: ingredients, brewing methods, and after-care, or post-brewing handling methods. While there are countless ways of assessing the nature of sake, let’s narrow it down to those three.

And breaking it down further, let the ingredients be narrowed down to rice, water, koji and yeast. Yeast cells(Actually, since those are the extent of sake’s ingredients, that ain’t really narrowing it down, but you know…) And let us consider the following steps as the brewing methods that affect the nature of the sake: milling, yeast starter methods, pressing methods, pasteurization, whether or not alcohol has been added (i.e. whether or not it is a junmai style) and aging.

And finally, (But wait, there’s more!) we have region and final specs like the nihonshu-do (or SMV) and acidity. While these are more results than causes, we can extract info from them.

Since this is far too much for one enjoyable reading session, let us approach this over a couple of newsletters, and let us start this time with the basic ingredients of sake: rice, water, koji and yeast. And breaking it down to its most welcoming presentation, it might look like this.

Yamada NishikiI. Rice = Flavor
In short, rice affects flavor. But rice affects more than just flavor – umami and mouth feel for example. And other things affect flavor other than rice. But more than anything else, the choice of rice affects flavor.

There are about 400 types of short grain “Japonica” rice grown in Japan, and about 100 of the are sake rice types. While not all are distinctive in the flavors they provide, many are. Bear in mind that the rice-to-final-sake connection is not nearly as tight as the grape-to-final-wine connection. Much more affects the sake along its evolution in the kura. But the connection is still an important one.

Some rice will give sake balance and fullness, others will indeed affect specific flavors like sweetness or characters like acidity. Some lead to broader mouthfeels while others are much more narrow in their unfolding. And some lead to no discernible qualities other than lightness.

Yeast starter -II. Yeast = Aroma
In short, yeast affects aromas. But yeast affects more than just aromas – acidity and alcohol for example. And other things affect aromas other than yeast. But more than anything else, the choice of yeast affects aromas.

Do you smell melon? It’s due to the yeast. Banana? That would be yet another yeast. Apple and licorice? That is from yet another family of yeast strains. Is it entirely this simple? Oh, God no. But basically, aromas are a result of the choice of yeast.

III. Koji = sweetness/dryness and umami.
In short, the way the koji is made will affect how sweet or dry the sake will be. Also, since the higher the ratio of koji to plain steamed rice, the more the amino acids, the more umami the sake will have.

But koji affects more than just sweetness and umami. And other things affect sweetness and umai. But more than anything else, koji affects sweetness/dryness and umami.

Koji, KompletedKoji provides enzymes that convert starch to sugar. Just how strong those enzymes are, and at what stage of the brewing process they are most active, will determine how sweet or dry the sake is. If the koji leads to lots of starch-to-sugar conversion early on, that sugar will be readily converted to alcohol leading to a dry sake. If sugar comes along later in the process when the yeast is petering out, it will remain in the sake and lead to sweetness. In truth, this too is more complicated. But therein lies the gist.

Also, the more koji that goes into the batch, the richer and fuller the sake will be, expressed in terms of umami, that sixth taste, the concept of which is becoming much more familiar to the world at large.

Of course, koji leads to other aspects of the sake, and if not created properly can lead to faults as well. But basically, sweet-or-dry and umami are tied to koji.

IV. Water = mouth feel.
In short, the water – and in particular the mineral content of the water – affects mouth feel. But water affects more than just mouth feel – like how vigorous or lackadaisacal the fermentation proceeds. And other things affect mouth feel besides the source of water. But more than anything else, water affects mouth feel.

Soft water yields a softer, more absorbing mouth feel, and is actually more suited to ginjo production as well. Harder water often leads to a fuller mouth feel with a quicker finish.

Men at Work at Rihaku Brewery

Men at Work at Rihaku Brewery

As alluded to above, there is much more that affects how the sake ends up. Just how the ingredients are coaxed and guided during the brewing process is the next phase of all this. We will look at that next month, but for now, remember that rice leads to flavor, yeast yields aromas, koji leads to sweetness or dryness, as well as umami, and water leads to mouth feel. Basically. Sort of.

It all rests comfortably in the vagueness of all that sake is. Fortunately, we need deal with none of this to enjoy it.

Kampai! For the Love of Sake

Kampai! For the Love of Sake: The Movie

On August 19th the movie “Kampai! For the Love of Sake will open at theaters in Los Angeles and New KampaiYork. The movie is a documentary that traces the maze-like path that led three individuals to immerse themselves in the sake world. One is Kosuke Kuji, president of Nanbu Bijin Shuzo (making Nanbu Bijin sake) in Iwate Prefecture. Another is Philip Harper, toji (master brewer) at Kinoshita Shuzo, brewers of Tamagawa sake. And the third is myself, John Gauntner. The movie is quite well done, going back and forth and covering the human angles for each of us.

It currently is scheduled at the above two theaters and will show at other venues later. However, it is also available via various Video-On-Demand platforms from August 19th. In fact, you can pre-order it from iTunes here.

Check out a trailer here  and a slightly shorter one here as well.

Kampai again!While it focuses on the paths of the three of us, a couple-few more people make appearances, including Haruo Matsuzaki, the “sake palate from  you-know-where” industry consultant, and Daisuke Suzuki of Suzuki Shuzoten, brewers of Iwaki Kotobuki, who had to leave their kura in Fukushima due all that happened on March 11, 2011, are are now located in Yamagata.

Be sure to check it out!

Happy New (Brewing) Year! 28BY has begun.

Happy New Year! Happy New “Brewing” Year that is! Welcome to 28BY, or “The Year Heisei 28 Brewing Year.”

Suwa water fallsWe have calendar years that run from January 1 to December 31. And we have fiscal years that are more variable, but tend to run from April 1 of one year until March 31 of the next, especially in Japan. And, most relevant to us, we have Brewing Year, or Jozo Nendo, which runs from July 1 of one year until June 30 of the next. Here’s an explanation of why that exist as it does.

First of all, while Japan does relate to the fact that this is 2016, officially and traditionally it is called Heisei 28, or the 28th year of the era of Heisei. So to go from Heisei to western years, subtract 12 – this will work well most of the time. A bit of a mathematical hassle, especially when drinking, but not an insurmountable obstacle.

While most sake is best young, sometimes sake is aged by the kura before being released. And sometimes, we can see an indication of the year in which it was brewed. This should make it all simpler – provided we know how to read that information. The problem is that a given sake brewing season stretches across two calendar years.

Sake brewing starts in the fall of one year and ends in the spring of the next. So, if a sake were labeled only as year Heisei 27 (2015), it would be brewed in one given season if it were January of 2015, but be a completely different brewing season – with different rice, weather, and possibly even more – if it were October 2015. This difference could be likened to two totally different vintages in the wine world. So, we need a bit more detail.

This point did not escape the clever folks in the brewing industry who rice ready for harvest

needed a way to speak about the sake of one season, unencumbered by trivial details like how the rest of the world measures time. It also was a Imada yamadanishiki 70/35necessity from the viewpoint of the folks at the ministry of taxation, who also needed a more efficient way to tax kura on their output.

And so long ago they came up with the concept of the “Brewing Year,” or BY. Just like fiscal years can differ from calendar years, in Japan the Brewing Year runs from July 1 to June 30th of the following year. This, then, encompasses the entire brewing season of every brewer in the country in one clean 12-month period.

So, BY27 ran from July 1 2015 until June 30 2016. And sake brewed last fall and into this spring would be considered part of BY27. And, BY27 and we have entered into BY28. So, even though calendar year 28 (read: 2016) is half over, we just now started BY28.

Why do they use July? Why not October 1 (Sake Day!) or another day in the fall when brewing begins? Well, consider that there are various scales of operation. A tiny brewery might begin in November and finish in February. More common is starting in October and finishing in April. A very large brewer might start as early as August and run until the next June. And there are even one or two that brew all twelve months of the year.

Yeast StarterSince production is focused on the coldest month of the year, January or so, brewing operations will expand in both directions from that point. So by starting in July and running to June, the industry can capture a single brewing season for all brewers, big or small. While it ain’t rocket science, it is at least somewhat clever.

How does this help us? Well, when we see a sake labeled, for example, 26BY, you know that since Heisei 26 is 2014, this sake was brewed in the season beginning in the fall of 2014, and running into the spring of 2015.
That would make it about a year to a year and a half since being brewed, just about right for much sake, if young by some mature sake standards.

Note, this is not on all bottles. It is common to talk about it with producers and other sake adherents, but the only time it is actually printed on a label is when the sake has been aged deliberately, and the brewer wants you to know just how long it has been aged. It is indispensable in those situations, since the date that must be printed in tiny characters in the corner of the label legally indicates about when it was shipped from the brewery, and that may not let us know just how long it was aged before that.

Again, since aged sake is such a small drop in the bucket, you will not see this so commonly. But if and when you see such mysterious nomenclature, you will know precisely how old your sake is.


Interested in sake? Check out my most recent book, Sake Confidential.

Sake Confidential



2016 Japan Sake Awards

The most prestigious contest in the industry

Gold-medal-sakeIn May, the 103rd Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai was held in Japan. The official translation of this contest is the Japan Sake Awards, but the literal translation is much more descriptive if slightly unwieldy: the National New Sake Appraisal Competition. It is the longest running competition of its kind, and I write about it each year. Those interested can search the archives for the June or July issues of this newsletter over the past decade or so.

For the click-averse, here is a summary of the main points of this vaunted competition.


• It is by far the most prestigious sake tasting in Japan

• The sake submitted is not stuff you can normally buy, but added-alcohol daiginjo made specifically for this contest. It is brewed to have a minimum of faults, but still stand out. How’s that for a challenge?!

• Between 800 and 900 of Japan’s 1200 sakagura will submit an entry to the contest. Each company is allowed to submit one sake per brewing Sake Tasting Cupslicense, i.e. one per brewing facility owned. Some big companies own more than one facility so they would be permitted one for each.

• Sake is tasted blind in round one, and about half make it to round two.

They are then tasted blind again, and about half of these will be designated as gold, the rest that made it into the second round are designated as prize-winners (the term “silver” is not used, although the gist is the same).

• So about 220 win gold each year, and while prestigious, it is not that commonly used in marketing as the average consumer has no idea this contest even exists.

• For the sixth time in ten years, and fourth in a row, Fukushima Prefecture won more golds than any other prefecture, and as has been the case for the past decade, the entire Tohoku region did very, very well.

• This year, due to the hot summer, it was expected that many of the submissions would have too much flavor, or be too sloppy in the flavors, i.e. less restrained. But this concern proved unwarranted.

• Much winning sake was on the sweet side, with extra glucose to balance out bitterness contributed by yeasts that give fruity aromas. But the finish on much of this sake was clean and balanced, so all was in order.

Amber glasses• To me, the most interesting occurrence was that Aramasa from Akita won a gold medal, but did it with the oldest yeast in continuous use, Number 6, which is not known for the modern tropical fruity and anise-esque aromatics that normally win the attention of the judges. Furthermore it was a kimoto sake, i.e. brewed in a way that usually leads to more umami and gaminess, not typically what one finds in prize-winning sake at this competition. As I am seeing more and more in the sake world, “what is old is new again.”

• While the sake submitted is not normal market sake, the flavors, aromas, styles and leading prefectures are a harbinger of where sake is currently headed. Therein lies the contest’s appeal.

There is so much to be said about this competition: the changes over the years, the remarkably-few-yet-still-there-to-some-degree politics, the history, the records, the reasons it came to be. Much of that can be dug up in the archives of this newsletter, but more importantly it seems as though amidst today’s sake popularity, at least a few more people are showing an interest in this historically and culturally significant competition.

At these links, you can see the results and more in English (!).