Sakagura Tourism – not so fast!

Tourism in Japan is healthy – and on the rise. It has been for years, and will likely continue right up to and through the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

For the most part, this is a good thing. But not everyone in Tokyo – or Japan – will wholeheartedly agree. And, I can in fact understand and sympathize with those that see more hassle than opportunity. Not everyone wants to deal with the entire world at the doorstep, and that is their prerogative.

At the same time, interest in sake is exploding. It’s kind of nuts, actually, and is decidedly a good thing. And about time, too.

So, naturally, many visitors to Japan will want to check out sake breweries when they are here. Shochu distilleries as well will be interesting to many, but the majority of those are in southern Japan, not in the Tokyo area.

And in concert with this, the government in Japan is promoting “Sakagura Tourism” to both domestic and international audiences. This, too is a cool thing, as it develops interest in sake (and shochu, of course) that will lead to more growth. Amongst their many efforts in this area is the creation of sakagura tourism maps, which I introduced in Issue #199 of this newsletter, two months ago. These do not yet exist for all regions in Japan, and those that have been released are not all at the same level of comprehensiveness. But at least one region, the Kanto Shinetsu region, which includes the areas around Tokyo, also has a column for each sakagura that lists whether or not they allow visitors.

But in truth, this has presented problems for many sakagura. With but one very small column on the map to say “possible” or “not possible,” they had no room to qualify the response. And so “visits possible” gets taken as “hey, man, just drop in any time with as many of your friends as you like! We’ll happily drop everything and attend to you!” Conversely, “visits not possible” ends up sounding like “we are dour and arrogant bastards who do not appreciate our customers; stay away!”

Of course, neither of those extremes is at all the truth. But amongst those sakagura that said visits are possible, there are those that are already finding themselves overwhelmed, or at least see the potential of that happening in the future. So some are taking reasonable measures to make sure they can focus on what is most important.

So, in fairly stark contrast to much of the modern wine world, the sake industry and most of the sakagura themselves that comprise it were not – and are not – set up for tourism. That does not mean that they do not allow or do not want visitors. Most of them are, in fact, open to that. They fully understand the marketing benefits of having people feel close to the source and understanding more about sake. That is all fine.

Let’s look at the realities here. Consider most sake breweries in Japan: of the 1200 remaining, about 1000 are very small operations, family owned and run. Such places were never set up for visitors, especially not touristic visitors. In fact, there were never considered appealing tourism-wise.

They might have a staff of ten, five of which brew, two of which run the front office, and a couple more that sell or drive trucks. Perhaps these numbers are doubled; regardless, almost none have dedicated tour guide staff. So when people come knocking for tours, most of the staff are busy actually making the sake itself. It is not realistic to expect them to be able to stop something like the super timing sensitive craft of sake brewing to give tours on anything remotely resembling a regular basis.

Furthermore the inside of sakagura are not exactly set up for us normal folks. Kura are cramped, dark, wet, cold, slippery, often with makeshift scaffolding and ladders here and there, with absurdly steep stairs and other less than fully safe environments.

And that is just the consumer side of the issue. The sake itself is a delicate balance of micro-organisms that are very much affected by other micro-organisms. Sanitation is paramount. That’s why they have you change shoes sixty-five times, wash your hands often and often even squirt alcohol on your hands. Yes, they want to share their craft and creation with you. But they need to maintain standards to be sure it stays consistent and good. And the more people that go traipsing through the kura, the harder that is.

As alluded to above, one brewery in the Kanto area, about two or three hours north of Tokyo, put a notice on their web page that set limitations on visitations. In short, they very politely stated that, as much as they would love to remain as accessible and open as possible, that brewery visits would be limited to groups that do so with either a distributor or another sake industry person or company. They referenced as reasons much of what is outlined above, and expressed reticence at needing to do it this way. But in the end, they are just protecting their company and the quality of their brew.

While it was only one brewery in the Kanto area that posted this, other are expected to follow that example. I think it will continue along those lines, and in the end, I think it would be great if the government body promoting sakagura tourism, or some other such body, steps in and addresses this in a way that is helpful to everyone.

Let us see what unfolds.

Bear in mind there are, in fact, many breweries that are set up for tourism; some have gift shops and even restaurants. And many others are open to it as well. But being busy with skeleton crews, and not necessarily having language support may hamper their best efforts. So by all means, try to visit a brewery when you come to Japan. But be understanding, considerate and reasonable as well.

One Percent Seimai Buai Attained!

Tatenokawa Shuzo in Yamagata Prefecture has produced a sake with a one percent seimai buai. One. Percent.

The product is named Komyo. Only 1500 bottles (720ml) were made, and they went on sale for 100,000 yen (circa US$960) each on Sake Day, October 1. See the Tatenokawa website for information on the retail outlets handling it.

They used a Yamagata rice called Dewa Sansan, which is known to be harder than most i.e. will stand up to more milling without cracking or breaking. Still, they must have done something to specifically select the grains that went into this, since they would need to be relative large to begin with. In order to achieve the one percent, the milling machines ran for two and a half months straight, for a total of about 1800 hours. For a daiginjo milled to 35 percent, this usually takes about 72 hours.

I do not currently have any more detailed information than the above. If that comes my way I will share it in time. Also, I do not expect to be able to taste it, with only 150 bottles made. I’m OK with that.

As a quick review that may be superfluous, the seimai buai refers to how much the rice was milled before brewing. The number expressed refers to the percentage of the rice grain by weight that remains after milling. So a 70 percent seimai buai means that the outer 30 percent was milled away, leaving the inner 70 percent remaining. A 40 percent seimai buai means that after milling only 40 percent of the original grain remains. And, of course, a one percent seimai buai means that a ridiculously whopping 99 percent of the grain was milled away, leaving only the inner one percent of each grain of rice remaining.

Why is the rice milled? Because fat and protein that can inhibit fermentation and lead to rough flavors resides in the outer portion of the grains of rice, and milling more and more removes those offending compounds. Of course, this can go too far in the opinion of many, and milling too much can potentially strip the resulting sake of character. Not necessarily, mind you; just potentially.

While surely most readers recall, to qualify for daiginjo the rice must be milled to a seimai buai of 50 percent. It can be taken further, of course. The erstwhile maximum was 35 percent, but from a several years ago a few producers pushed that envelope. We saw sake made with a 23 percent seimai buai, then 18 percent seimai buai. Until October 1, though, the maximum on the market was seven percent, of which there were three (Tatenokawa, Raifuku of Ibaraki, and Hakurakusei of Miyagi).

Keep in mind more milling is not better. Sure, it makes the sake lighter and more refined. But that might not be what one wants to drink. And even if your preference is lighter, more refined sake, more milling will lead to that to a certain degree. But once a certain threshold is crossed, milling beyond that will not make the sake any lighter or more refined.

While plenty of 35 percent sake exist, many folks in the industry say going beyond 40 percent is meaningless. Furthermore, if a brewer uses a method of milling rice in such a way that it maintains the original oblong shape of each grain (rather than rounding them out), then a higher percentage of fat is removed with less milling. In that case, going much beyond 60 is moot, say some. (Such methods are called henpei seimai, or cho-henpai seimai, and were made well-known by Daishichi.)

Regardless, going to one percent seimai buai has no real technical merit. So, why do it?

Because it’s something to talk about. It is newsworthy. It is good marketing. People will remember your brand. In that sense, it is brilliant.

And, at one percent, you cannot be outdone. Or so you’d think. But never say never in the sake world.


Interested in learning much MUCH more about sake? Enroll in the Sake Professional Course in Las Vegas, December 4 – 6

I will run the last Sake Professional Course of 2017 in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Hotel from Monday, December 4, through Wednesday December 6.

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.

The cost for the three-day class, including all materials and sake for tasting, is US$899. Participation is limited and reservations can be made now to secure a seat; full payment is requested by November 15. You can read Testimonials from past participants here. You can see this information online here, and download it here. For reservations or inquiries, please send an email to


“No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”


Breathe the Air from the Kura

At a recent event celebrating the 100th anniversary of a particular brewer, I found myself sitting across from another brewer. As we chatted, it became clear to me that he was a particularly clever marketing person. His sake has an aura of exclusivity to it, no doubt fueled by the owner’s crafty ideas – one of which he shared with me.

“Lemme show you something; didja ever try this?” he began. He pointed one of the several bottles sitting on the table that awaited consumption. The official “kanpai” had not yet been offered, so we had to resign ourselves to just looking for the time being.I was at first just a bit patronizing. But he soon had my attention.

“What do you see here, just above the sake, in the very top of this bottle?”

“Uh, air?,” I replied, genuinely confused at where he was heading.

“That’s right,” he shot back, putting my mind at ease. “That little bit of air is from the inside of the kura in which this sake was brewed. So, just upon opening a bottle of sake, before pouring it out, if you smell that and breathe it in, you are literally breathing and tasting the air of the kura itself. Trust me: doing that will really enhance the experience with that sake.”

This seemed genuinely interesting to me, its lack of scientific grounding notwithstanding. And so I tried it, a bit selfishly, on all the bottles on our table within my reach. No one noticed what I was doing but him, so no harm done.

Not surprisingly, it smelled like air. It smelled too like sake, especially the daiginjo bottles I opened. But I do admit there was something else, some vibe or feeling that consciously breathing in the air of kura evoked. And I also admit that the sake seemed to resonate with me more from the bottles on which I tried this. Imagination? Certainly, to some degree. But that’s cool.

There are of course downsides to this practice. Only one person gets to breathe in that kura-air. How does a group of drinkers decide this? Also, a couple of breweries put in nitrogen at the top to stave off any vestiges of oxidation. So that would mean we are breathing in the nitrogen from a gas factory in Saitama, then, right? But I digress.

Give it a try. Next time you open a bottle of sake, surreptitiously breathe in the air from a kura that has been making that sake for a long, long time. Odds are the sake will actually taste better


The next Sake Professional Course will be held in Las Vegas on December 4 – 6. Click here for more information.


Sake Anomalies: Give Ground Grudgingly

Al Gizzi likely never thought his legacy would live on in quite this way. And he surely never considered that he would be associated with sake. Al Gizzi does not even likely remember me.

Al Gizzi, or “Gizz-balls” as he was known behind his back in his less popular moments, was my high school football coach. He was also an English teacher, and his love for literature lent him a leaning toward alliteration that bled into his coaching efforts.

On that high school team, I was fortunate enough to have played offensive guard, where protecting the quarterback is paramount. When he drops back for a pass, we offensive linemen were taught by Coach Gizzi to take the impact of the defensive rush, and “give ground grudgingly,” referring to how we would slowly yield petite portions of the pitch, backing up to form a pocket from which the quarterback could find his receiver way down field. Give ground grudgingly. Succinct yet thorough, these words described our ideal movements perfectly.

Our team never went anywhere, although we did manage to finish a respectable 7-3, and my football career came to an abrupt if predictable halt upon my graduation from that esteemed institution. But Gizz-balls’ words have remained with me over the years.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with sake? By all means, read on.

As sake continues to grow in popularity, a handful of hitherto peripheral types of sake are getting dragged into the fringes of our collective attention. I am referring to things like sparkling sake, low alcohol sake, and even high alcohol sake. Then there are things like aged sake, kijoushu, taru-zake, and red sake. And, of course, there is that bane of my existence, sake cocktails. (It hurts my fingers to type those two words on the same page, much less in the same sentence.)

But, alas, when confronted with these less-than-orthodox types of sake out there, the handful of funky variations made using one whacky ingredient or method that surely has the toji of bygone years spinning in their graves, I have come to the realization that it is time to “Give Ground Grudgingly.”

Yes, it may be time for me to acknowledge that these types are out there, and that there may even be people that like them and want to drink them. With just a vestigial hint of a Grudge remaining, the time has come to Give Ground, recognize and even endorse these for the benefit of those that do or might enjoy them.

Why have I been so reticent to do this until now? A number of reasons, most of them centered around my intention to convey good, useful information about sake.

I am personally most fond of “orthodox” styles of sake. What is orthodox? Like, you know, regular stuff.

Fairly youthful, not sparkling, not cloudy, not red, not unusually high or low in alcohol, and not mixed with anything else. And there are plenty of these, from all walks of sake, including dry, heavy, sweet, light, aromatic, subdued, subtle, lively, soft, tart, thick, airy, smooth, textured and including every permutation of these and everything in between. There is such diversity within this realm of “normality” that it could never come to be considered mundane.

But as I pointed out, it is much, much more than just a matter of my personal preferences. It seems best to convey to those interested in sake just where the best of sake is to be found. And it tends to be more in standard sake than in the fringe-dweller sake.

Not that I am dissing these novel types. Not at all; really. It is all about enjoyment in the end, and if you like them, end of story. But if you want to know where the best of sake is to be found, the culmination of centuries of honed skills combined with modern technology, unique, artisanal sake, and if you want to enjoy sake that you know will be a viable product and part of the market as well as a dependable connoisseur product for years to come, drink the afore-defined orthodox stuff.

Actually, anomalies and variations are good, fine and useful. They keep the category interesting, let brewers push the envelope a bit, and ensure that in the sake world there is a little something for everyone out there. But it is important to have a firm grounding in orthodox stuff too. And it is important to keep such diversions just that: paths off of the main road of premium sake.

So indeed, creativity and innovation are cool and to be respected, and in fact are indispensable to the survival of anything. Which is one of the reasons I am giving ground grudgingly to their admittedly rightful place in the market.

Here is a rundown of the rogue types; hitherto offenders, henceforth contenders.

Sparkling sake

Perhaps the fastest growing of these new types, there are two main types of sparkling sake out there. One, like champagne, sees a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Another is made by jacking sake with carbon dioxide. Everything in the Universe has a price, and this includes bubbles in your sake. That price is paid from the coffers of flavor. Much of this sparkling sake has an alcohol content of about eight percent, yet others are up around 14 percent. To me, it generally tastes like spiked cream soda; it is just the size of the spike that differs. But admittedly cream soda has its appeal too, and sparkling sake can be very drinkable.

Red sake

There are several ways to make sake that is reddish in tint, a pigment that often approaches rose wine. Most common among the few of these that is exist is using red rice strains.

Low alcohol sake

A few brewers have come out with sake that is only eight to 12 percent alcohol, jacking up the acidity quite a bit to provide punch. The thinking is that some folks cannot handle a full 16 percent, so these products would appeal to them. The ones that are out there are, for the most part, balanced and enjoyable, if different from regular sake.

High alcohol sake

The newest of the brat pack here, there are a couple of sake with an alcohol content of 25 percent or more, even one at 38 percent. Note, these are NOT distilled. However, yeast cannot survive above 20 percent alcohol or so. So how do they do it? They freeze it, using one method or another, and take out the ice, effectively removing water and increasing the final alcohol content.


This type of sake is made with some of the brewing water replaced by already-brewed sake. Often, kijoushu is also aged for several years. While enjoyable, it is markedly different from orthodox sake, and very little of it is made.

Aged sake

Known as koshu (old sake), or more formally and eloquently as choki-jukusei-shu (long term matured sake), something about saying that old sake is new smacks of an oxymoron. Aged sake is a topic that deserves much more attention that just these scant few lines here. Nevertheless, very little is made and available, hence its relegation to outlier status. It can, in fact, be delicious and interesting.


Taru-zake is sake that has spent a bit of time (from hours to weeks or longer) in a wooden cask made of cryptomeria, or sugi, also called Japanese cedar. This gives it a very pronounced woodiness to the aromas and flavors, to the degree that often that is all one can perceive. Which is great, if you like it.


Nigori-zake is in fact filtered, even though many like to call it “unfiltered sake.” But it is filtered with a coarser mesh that lets some of the rice solids through. Chewy and rich, but hardly refined, it is much more popular overseas than in Japan.

Sake cocktails

There are those in the mixology trade that insist that sake is a great cocktail ingredient. I wouldn’t know. ‘Nuff said.

This is just a handful of the myriad variations out there. Heck, I just had a kijoushu taruzake the other day that was outstanding. So, let me reiterate that I am not anti- anything. I am more simply for good sake and its spreading popularity. And with sake just starting to really catch on outside of Japan, it seems best to remember where the essence great sake can be found; this makes the variations that much more enjoyable.

And so, from here on out, the time has come to Give Ground Grudgingly to the various manifestations of sake that are out there. Hopefully this will help to form a pocket from which that diversely talented quarterback of the sake world, orthodox premium sake, can launch a perfectly timed and placed touchdown pass and win over the world.

Al Gizzi would be proud.

Some Guys Just Don’t Know When to Quit

…or maybe they can’t.

Some guys just don’t know when to quit – or can’t quit – making sake.

Mr. Naohiko Noguchi is one of the most decorated, respected, accomplished and famous toji (master brewers) in the history of the sake brewing industry. And at 84 years of age, he is coming out of retirement for the fourth time to brew sake at a new brewery starting up next month. At 84. That’s eighty-four. As in LXXXIV. As in “hachijuyon.” One would think enough is enough; not for some folks.

He does have people running the financial and business side of things. According to some sources, the details are a bit murky in a way that is beyond the scope of this newsletter. But the point is that he has most things taken care of, all he has to do is concentrate on brewing sake. And that is certainly plenty.

But this all begs the question, why? Quite simply, he loves the work. He cannot imagine himself not doing it. It is such a part of his being that if he is not brewing sake, he gets sick. Literally.

A bit more about this illustrious toji: He started brewing at age 16, and worked his way up the ranks for a few years at a handful of kura. He joined Kikuhime in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1961 and brewed sake there for 36 years. He retired from that company, and came out of retirement down the street (figuratively) a few days later at the brewery making Jokigen, also in Ishikawa. After a decade and a half there, he retired again, and this time he probably meant it. But he resurfaced after taking one season off, to make sake at the eponymous Noguchi Shuzo. One year there, two more off, and he is back at it again.

He is famously known as one of the four “Noto Toji no Shiten-o,” or “Four Guardians of Heaven of the Noto Toji Guild,” along with three others. Across his tenure at the first two kura, he won 27 gold medals at the annual National New Sake Tasting Competition, and was designated as a “contemporary master craftsman” by the Japanese government. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and verified he was sharp as a tack, and not nearly as scary as I had expected. You can read about that here.

He was not likely the easiest guy to work for. Not that I would know. But one does not get that good at a craft like sake brewing by being laid back and lackadaisical. He was surely particular about his ways. An attitude of, “Ah, that’s likely good enough…” is neither part nor parcel of sake brewing at that level.

In fact, a friend of mine actually worked under him for twelve years at Kikuhime. But it was another ten years after the time that Noguchi-san retired (uh, the first time) that he could actually speak directly to him. Even while toiling under his direction, their difference in hierarchical rank was so great that all communication had to go through someone else. Wow. (Nowadays, they actually hang out from time to time.)

Back to the question of why: he has gone on record saying that he wants to spend the rest of his life doing what he loves best. Furthermore, he is convinced it is actually better for his health – even at age 84 – to continue brewing sake.

His body concurs. He has become ill, including a bout with cancer, when not brewing. His family has naturally expressed concern with his plans to keep at it, but he has expressed that “Continuing to brew sake will actually keep me healthy. I will be satisfied if I can die brewing sake,” he said.

Mr. Noguchi’s trademark style of sake is not for the light-hearted. He excels at making yamahai, but not just any yamahai, what I like to call “two-by-four-upside-the-head” yamahai. Very rich, full, with oodles of umami and the acidity to drive it home. It laughs in the face of maturity, and in fact revels in aging. The color is inevitably a gorgeous golden. He cannot even spell “charcoal filtration.” It is, ultimately exquisitely balanced and delicious. But light and fruity it ain’t.

Of course, he may change all that this coming season when he starts again. But at 84, probably not.

Rumor has it that Mr. Noguchi will make a limited amount of sake at his new brewery. It will certainly be hard to score some. But I will certainly at least try, of course.

You can read an interview (in Japanese) of Mr. Noguchi here .

The website (in Japanese) for the new brewing venture is here .

Pilfering Yeast

Yeast StarterBrewer Number One stood up and faced the crowd. And he talked about his sake. Its lively yet balanced nature is the result of a family of yeasts, one of which was discovered at his brewery several decades ago, he explains. It has contributed to – if not created – the high reputation enjoyed by all of the sake in that region, which only came into sake prominence about 30 years ago.

Brewer Number Two spoke next. While several years younger than Number One, they are friends (or were, anyway) and both went to Tokyo Agricultural University, the “UC Davis of the sake world.” With his typically dry sense of humor, he jokingly (or so we thought) explained how Number One’s father actually stole that yeast from his brewery to get it all started.

Several days later, Brewer Number One send Brewer Number Two an email that basically e-tore him a new e-asshole. “You should not be saying groundless and untrue things like that; you will confuse and mislead people.”

While it was an email between the two of them, I know Number Two well enough that later, he told me about it, and even showed me the e-tearing email. “I actually thought it was a true story, but it seems I was confusing my anecdotes. I have cleared that up now, but not before Number One laid into me about it.”

What is this all about, this stealing of yeast? How does one steal a naturally occurring micro-organism, and why would one if it is just floating around in the air? I mean, you can’t just stuff it in your pocket and walk out the door, can you? And is it illegal?

Yeast CellsYeast is massively important to the making of great sake. While they contribute to aromas more than anything else, good yeasts will also ferment strongly and not peter out too early, tolerate high levels of alcohol, yield appropriate levels of acidity that are not too high nor low, and much more.

While long ago all yeast was naturally occurring, dropping in from the ambient environment, these days brewers get yeast from a few supply chains. These often include local research centers as well. Sometimes, as in the case of Brewer Number One, these yeasts never officially leave the prefecture. And there are those brewers that still use proprietary yeasts, stuff they found in their brewery that does not get released, which is how it all used to be.

And so, if you could get your grubby little paws on the yeast from a great brewery, you could often use it yourself, transposing its main characteristics onto those of your own brewery and sake. And doing so surely would not be illegal, provided that something like “breaking and entering” was not involved.

Nothing like this takes place these days, of course. With so many great yeast strains so easily available, there is no reason to do so. But in the not too distant past, it did happen from time to time.

How does one steal micro-organisms that one cannot see?

Oh, let’s say you visit a brewery whose sake you respect. You just want to pass through, see their setup, ask a question or two and see if you can learn a thing or two from the venerable toji. And as you look down into a tank of fermenting mash and its rising swaths of foam, you smell the aromatic goodness and note how vigorously it is fermenting. Just before you move on to the next tank you let your hand nonchalantly drop down near the surface and scoop up a fingerful of foam. And as you turn to walk away, you casually wipe that off on the underside of the brim of your baseball cap. You just stole their yeast.

When you get back to your own kura, you wash off that area of your cap or sleeve and do what you need to do to revive and let multiply the yeast you know is in that slightly grimy discoloration on your cap. If you do it properly, you will be able to propagate that and eventually use it in your own sake.

While surely not simple, it is far from impossible, and happened often enough that many kura were loathe to let brewing personnel from other companies visit them. Or so I have heard.

Foam on the top of a fermenting mashAgain, this really does not happen anymore; nor was it ever a huge industry problem. But I have heard about it from several brewers, elevating it above simple legend. Also, just getting a good yeast is not the end of the challenge. A brewer with any new yeast needs to learn its idiosyncrasies during preparation, throughout fermentation, and beyond.

Furthermore, they would not be able to talk about it, and brag how it was painstakingly isolated over several years from amongst ten thousand others by the prefectural research center, or any other such romantic story. Nope.

Nor would it have roots or traceability. All they could really do is call it, “proprietary.” So there are no huge advantage to doing this, nor any real need anymore. It’s a bit like stealing sand from the beach.

But back to our true story, enter Brewer Number Three, nicknamed Mr. Unabashedly Unscrupulous. Apparently, he did in fact visit Brewer Number Two years ago and did in fact steal their yeast. However, he was not able to successfully reconstitute it, and as such it was all for naught. In time, he ‘fessed up about it; no harm done. But wow. Such audacity.

And, when Brewery Number Two chided Brewer Number One about his father’s supposed heist, it seems he was crossing his wires.

“Yeah, I mixed up my yeast-thievery stories and characters,” he admitted to me later. “I suppose I should check my facts before saying things like that in public…” he conciliatorily conceded.

Again, to be clear: this is not something that happens anymore, and is certainly not a problem in the industry. It is nothing more than a fun little anecdote that goes far to convey the important role that yeast plays in making great sake.

The only thing that we need to remember is that the gift of aromas you enjoy in your sake tonight are driven by the choice of yeast.


SPC DenverInterested in learning more about sake? There are just about seven seats remaining open for Sake Professional Course in Denver, August 28 to 30. Learn more here .

Ten Reasons to be in Denver

The next Sake Professional Course will take place in Denver, August 28, 29 and 30, 2017. Here are ten reasons you really want to be in one of the ten remaining seats.

10. No sake stone remains left unturned. Every single aspect of the sake world is covered in excruciating detail.

9. Certification: you can become a Certified Sake Professional as recognized by the Sake Education Council.

8. Just one more reason to spend three days in Denver in early autumn!

7. You have been working hard, and deserve a break that is only three days, fun and educational, and that will serve you for a lifetime. 

6. The 1500 or so folks that have already taken the course across the past 11 years have good things to say about it.

5. It is organized, flows logically, and manages to get a massive amount of sake information internalized in three short days.

4. You’ll learn about koji, toji, yamahai, kimoto and muroku nama genshu – and taste them all! (Well, not the toji…)

3. You will become eligible for the Level II Course, with Advanced Sake Professional certification testing, held in Japan in February of each year, from which only about 220 people have graduated.

2. This course opens the door to a lifelong romance with what is easily the world’s most interesting and steeped-in-culture drink.

1. You will taste upwards of 90 (count ‘em!) sake across three days. Nowhere else can you get exposed to so many in a focused environment.


Learn more about the course here

Read testimonials from those that have taken in in the past here

To sign up, or if you have any questions, please send an email to .


2017 National New Sake Tasting Competition Report

2017 National New Sake Compeition Report

In May, the 105th Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai was held in Japan. The official English name for this contest is the Japan Sake Awards, but the literal translation is much more descriptive if slightly unwieldy: the National New Sake Tasting Competition. It is the longest running competition of its kind anywhere in the world. Those interested can find more information in the archives of this newsletter (which go back to 1999!), in particular in the June or July editions for each year.

But to save you the hassle, here is a summary of the main points of this prestigious competition.

The sake submitted is not stuff you can normally buy, but rather daiginjo or junmai daiginjo made specifically for this contest. It is brewed to have a minimum of faults, but still seem unique and special. I often refer to it as “daiginjo on steroids.”

This year, 860 of Japan’s 1200 sakagura submitted an entry to the contest. Each company is allowed to submit one sake per brewing license, i.e. one per brewing facility owned. Some big companies own more than one facility so they would be permitted one for each.

Almost all of it is not junmai because using the added-alcohol step brings out more aromas and flavors. But this year, 156 of the 860 submissions were junmai, up from 139 a year ago. Clearly more brewers are interested in trying to win with junmai sake.

Koji baskets

Koji being cultivated in small trays

Sake is tasted blind in round one, and about half (this year, 437 to be exact) make it to round two. They are then tasted blind again, and about half (this year, 242 to be exact) 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).

This year, 242 won gold, and 215 won silver. While prestigious within the sake industry, it is not that commonly used in marketing as the average consumer has no idea this contest even exists.

For the seventh time in eleven years, and fifth 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. In fact, much more interesting than Fukushima – with all due respect to their accomplishments – was Miyagi, where 20 sake out of the 23 total submitted got gold! Two more got silver as well. This was an unprecedented result.

This year, brewers were whining that the Yamada Nishiki rice that is most commonly used for contest sake like this was not dissolving easily in the fermenting mash. This means tight flavor profiles with little flavor expressed. But this proved to not be too much of a problem, although flavor profiles seemed to vary quite a bit from region to region.

Much winning sake was on the sweet side, with extra glucose to balance out bitterness contributed by yeasts that give fruity aromas. This seemed especially true in Fukushima, and only slightly less so in Miyagi.

While the sake submitted is not usually sake desitned for the market, 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, (see the end of the newsletter for more on that) but more importantly it seems as though amidst today’s sake popularity, more brewers and consumers as well are showing an interest in this historically and culturally significant competition.

You can see the results in Japanese here and in English here .


Sake Professional Course  in Denver, Colorado
August 28-30, 2017

From Monday August 28 to Wednesday August 30, 2017, I will hold the 27th North American running of the Sake Professional Course at the University of Denver, (Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality, Daniels College of Business) in Denver, Colorado. 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.

You can learn more about the course here, see the daily syllabus here,and download a pdf here. If you are interested in being in the mailing list for direct course announcements, please send me an email to that purport.

Testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well.

Repudiate Nothing in the Sake World

Old and new can co-exist

I recently shared a glass of sake or three with a brewer that is half my age. That itself ain’t saying much, getting up there as I am, but my real point is that he is clearly of the “changing of the guard” group of brewers in the industry. In other words, he is of the generation that has recently taken over that is chock full of new ideas.

And one of those is pasteurization. More specifically, there is a solid trend of pasteurizing sake only one time amongst many (young) sake brewers these days. To summarize the issue, sake is pasteurized by heating it to 65C or so to stabilize it. Leaving it unpasteurized (nama) leaves it susceptible to going bad. Pasteurizing it kills any suspect bacteria and deactivates the enzymes that would help feed them. If it is not pasteurized, it needs to be kept refrigerated to prevent the offending chemical reactions from taking place.

Usually this is done twice, once after brewing and before maturing for a few months, and once again after the maturing period is finished, just before bottling. However, either the first or the second can be avoided – and stability can be ensured – by either maturing in bottles so as to spare the sake exposure to the air, or keeping the sake cold during that maturation period. Either will work; so will both together.

Why bother? Because pasteurizing can in fact strip some character from the sake. The less you have to mess with it, the fresher it will be.

Basically. Yet, the other side of the pasteurization coin is that pasteurized sake can have more depth and resonance than nama (unpasteurized) sake. Some nama tastes and smells like nama – and not much else.

However, undoubtedly there is a trend toward pasteurizing only once rather than twice. And it seems more common in sake made by younger brewers with the willingness to try new things.

Still, the half-my-age-brewer in question is perhaps a bit more traditional than most. He is also technically very adept via both education at the Tokyo Agricultural University Brewing Studies department, and experience, having worked in a brewery his whole (short) life. He still pasteurizes his sake twice, knowing well that it does not need to detract at all from quality or liveliness if done properly. Also, his sake is a bit more solid and earthy than most, and therefore more tolerant of such handling. Or so I think.

And so, Half-my-age was at a conference of brewers, discussing quality and trends, run by a distributor of an outstanding lineup of sake that is not the least bit shy about sharing his opinions of how things should be, reality be damned. When Half-my-age described how he still pasteurized twice, Not-the-least-bit-shy retorted, “Hm. I didn’t know there were any sake brewers at all that still pasteurize twice!”

That must have smarted. Or rather, that would have smarted a bit to most, but Half-my-age has a temperament that lets it all roll off his back, and the confidence of one who with education and experience to know better. Not-the-least-bit-shy has neither.

His reply was, “If you keep the sake appropriately chilled for the months between pasteurizations, character and quality are one hundred percent maintained.” And he added, “one should repudiate nothing” in the sake world.

“Repudiate nothing.” That is something we would all do well to remember as we trek through the world of sake.

The above example with Half-my-age and Not-the-least-bit-shy is but one example about one small step of the brewing process. “Repudiate nothing” applies to any step in the process: new yeast versus old yeast, scales of operation, automation in brewing. It also applies to marketing methods as well. When something new comes along that holds promise, that does not automatically negate something old.

Of course, this goes both ways. Just because things have been done one way for a thousand years does not mean that a new way could not possibly better. Repudiate not the modern methods either.

Also, things cycle. What was old becomes new again. New ideas get tried, and reborn after some adjustment. Everything is valid; nothing should be discounted or rejected.

This is not a philosophical exercise; it is a very worthy effort. If we think that because a sake is made a particular way, be it yamahai or by a large brewer or using modern yeast, then it cannot possibly be good, or as good, or definitely taste a particular way, then we rob ourselves of potentially enjoying something special.

Certainly, not everyone will agree. There are those that will insist that only the old traditional ways, methods and styles are proper. And there will likewise be those that disdain anything older than a decade or so. But heed them not. Like all things sake, balance is the key. Nevertheless, to “repudiate nothing” will surely make sake more enjoyable for you.


Sake Professional Course  in Denver, Colorado
August 28-30, 2017

From Monday August 28 to Wednesday August 30, 2017, I will hold the 27th North American running of the Sake Professional Course at the University of Denver, (Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality, Daniels College of Business) in Denver, Colorado. 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.

You can learn more about the course here, see the daily syllabus here,and download a pdf here. If you are interested in being in the mailing list for direct course announcements, please send me an email to that purport.

Testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well.


Sparkling Sake Assocation: awa Sake Kyokai

Announcing the establishment of the “awa Sake Kyokai”

On November 1 of last year, eight sake brewing companies formed the “ awa Sake Kyokai,” or the “Sparkling Sake Association.” On April 14, 2017, the awa Sake Kyokai had increased its membership to nine, and held its inaugural event in Tokyo.

With respect to the name: the word awa means foam, or bubbles. The official Japanese same keeps the word awa in English, with sake and kyoukai in Japanese. Furthermore the word awa is not capitalized. (Explaining this seemed better than just writing (sic) after the word awa. But I digress.)

The purpose of the group is to produce and promote high quality sparkling nihonshu. With the Olympics coming to Tokyo in a scant three years, the member brewers decided it would be good to have a type of sake that can be enjoyed in a toast much like a sparkling wine or Champagne.

Let us briefly look at the sparkling sake market as a whole, and then at the awa Sake Kyokai in more detail.

I have not found accurate numbers of how many sparkling sake products there are in awa sake kyokai certification mark

Japan right now, so the below is my own estimate. In truth, I doubt there are any hard stats, since sparkling sake is classified as sake, i.e. as far as the government is concerned, it is the same stuff. Still, I do have confidence in the numbers here, even if they are my own approximation.

There are 1200 breweries in Japan (1241 this year, to be exact.) Let’s say they average 20 to 25 products each, including seasonal variations. That is about 25,000 sake products in Japan. I think there are significantly less than 200 sparkling sake products on the market. So that means that sparkling sake, in terms of number of products, is less than one percent of the market. In terms of volume produced, it is way, way less than one percent.

The point is not to trivialize it; on the contrary, I do want to support the development of this sector of the sake world. However, it is important to point out that sparkling sake is not to the sake world what sparkling wine and champagne are to the wine world. Not even close.

Also, note that there are a handful of ways to make sparkling sake. It is legal to just pump regular sake with carbon dioxide, and fast and easy as well. As such, a good number of sparkling sake products are made in this way. It is also common to leave some sugar in the sake after pressing, and add a bit of the yeast-laden foam back into the bottle to do a secondary fermentation in the bottle, trapping the gas inside. There are variations and other methods as well.

Back to the awa Sake Kyokai, even though there are plenty of producers making sparkling sake, there are only nine members. While there are likely several reasons for this (some of which are beyond the scope of this newsletter), certainly one is the strict set of conditions to which sake made under this banner must comply.

Those conditions are:

1. Made with rice, rice koji, and water, and conforming to the legal definition of nihonshu.
2. Made with rice that has passed legal quality inspection.
3. Contains only naturally occurring carbon dioxide resulting from fermentation.
4. Transparent in appearance, with visible bubbles when poured.
5. Minimum ten percent alcohol.
6. Minimum pressure of 3.5 bar at 20C

Also, a further stipulation is that the flavors and aromas must remain stable for at leaest three months in the bottle.

So many products on the market do not meet one or more of the specifications above an so will not be marketed under the awa Sake Kyoukai organization’s efforts. It might be alcohol that is not high enough, cheap rice, methods that do not comply, or added fruit flavors (legally rendering them something other than sake) or more. In fact, there are many well known, well marketed and very visible sparkling sake that are not a part of this organization. Which is fine.

The nine breweries are: Tenzan, Hakkaisan, Chiyomusubi, Shichiken, Nanbu Bijin, Mizubasho, Kikuizumi, Fukumitsuya and Dewatsuru. The current chairman is Noriyoshi Nagai, president of Mizubasho. Some of these breweries have more than one conforming product available, while two do not yet even have a conforming product on the market. More members as well as more products from those members can be expected.

While there are various opinions on sparkling sake overall, it is a real and fast growing sector of the sake market and should be encouraged. Note, too, that relatively little sparkling sake is being exported. A bit is, to be sure, and that bit is growing. Certainly the efforts of the awa Sake Kyokai will help that.

While it may or may not rival champagne in the future, the sparking sake sector is bubbling up, and likely to come to a head at some point in time. At least, it is certainly moving in a positive direction.