Meigara & Arabashiri
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
February 4, 2004
INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
– The History of Sake “Meigara”
– What is “Arabashiri”
– Sake Events/Announcements:
The History of Sake “Meigara”
Currently, there are
about 2000 sakagura (sake breweries) licensed to brew sake in Japan (although not all of them are brewing actively). And, amongst these 2000 breweries are about 10,000 brand names, or “meigara.” Of
course, not all of these are actively being used, but on the average each brewery has the rights to about five brand names.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, until about 600 years ago, there
were no “meigara.” Sake was probably referred to by the name of the company (although admittedly branding was not such an advanced business concept back then), or even more likely the temple doing the
brewing. The average citizen back then might have simply called it the local hooch, or Joe’s sake (or Shinnosuke’s sake, as it were).
Back in 1425 there were in total 342 sake brewers in Kyoto
alone, many of these within Kyoto’s numerous temples. One of the most popular brews came from a temple named Nishi no Touin, and after time, its popularity led to a nickname born of affection. Next to the
gate at the entrance grew a willow tree, and the locals began to refer to the place as “Yanagi no Sakaya,” or “The Willow Sake Brewer.”
The noren (a short traditional curtain that
hangs at the entrance of shops in Japan that customers part and duck under when entering) at the gate of Nishi no Touin bore a crest of six stars. Eventually, the brewing priests there began to emblazon this
pattern on their wooden sake casks, along with the name “Yanagi-zake,” or “Willow Sake.” Thus, the first sake “meigara” was born.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, soon
everybody had one of these meigara thingies. Taking names from “waka,” (traditional Japanese songs), or requesting aristocrats and priests to decide on a suitable moniker, brewers everywhere began to
assign auspicious brand names to their sake. Some of the earliest ones on record include “Sazare-ishi” (Pebbles), “Mitarashi” (Holy Washing of Hands), and “Maitsuru” (Dancing
Crane). In those days, obviously there were no enforceable trademark laws, and as such many of these names were copied and used in several places. Some of the more popular copied names included
“Wakamidori” (The Green of Youth), “Otoha” (The Sound of Wings), and “Ariake” (Very Early Morning). Names were chosen for good luck and image, and often referred to auspicious
entities in nature, like mountains, pine trees, flowers, and turtles.
Today, there are about 5,000 meigara in active usage. The names of these are written in kanji characters, the pictographs that
comprise most of the written language. What is the single most common character in use in meigara today? That would be the character for mountain, pronounced either “yama” or “san.” Next on
the list is “tsuru,” the character for crane (as in bird. I doubt any sake are named after construction equipment.).
Number three and four on the list are “masa” and “mune,”
almost always seen together in the combination “masamune,” and have an interesting origin to them. There are countless sake that have “masamune” as the second half of their brand name, but
the very first one is said to have been Sakura Masamune from Nada in Hyogo prefecture. Sakura Masamune is a very old, famous and prestigious brewer, and eons ago their founder visited a friend that was the head
priest at a hermitage called Gensei-an. There, he looked up on a bookshelf and saw a book of scripture by the Rinzai sect Zen master Rinzai Masamune. In a moment of inspiration, he realized that the characters
for “masamune” could also be read “seishu,” which is a homonym for the legal term for sake. And so, the first of hundreds of meigara bearing the term “masamune” was born.
Note, there is also a theory that the name was taken from a famous sword maker named Masamune, although the homonym reasoning remains the same in this story as well.
Other commonly used
characters in the top ten include “kiku” (chrysanthemum), “o-” (big), “kin” (gold), “izumi” or “sen” (spring, as in water), “haku” (white), and
“hana” (flower), in that order.
Why, by the way, would a kura have more than one brand name? There are several reasons. They may have merged with another kura at one point in time in one of the
several economic and wartime decimations of the sake industry that have occurred. Or, they may have created a new brand with a better image, especially when distribution channels allowed their sake to get to
larger national markets, but kept the old brand name for the local fans.
The sake industry seems unique and can often be confusing since the name of the owner, the name of the company, and the brand name
of the product are all very different. Now you know the history behind the apparent obfuscation.
What is “Arabashiri”
After a tank of “moromi” (fermenting mash) has run its course, it is ready to be pressed through a mesh to allow the clear or slightly amber
sake to pass through, while the lees, the rice solids that did not or could not ferment, are retained behind. This pressing step is known as “shibori,” and there are several ways of doing it, each with
its own attendant degree of labor intensiveness and resulting quality of sake product.
While most sake today is pressed using a large machine that does a more than adequate job, historically and
traditionally sake was pressed using a simple box known as a fune that has a hole and short trough at one end on the bottom. Most fune are perhaps a meter wide, three long and two deep, and made of a
non-aromatic wood like paulownia, cherry or ginko (although today many are also made of steel, or even concrete). When the mash is deemed ready to be pressed, it is poured into meter-long cotton bags holding
about 10 liters each, which are then laid down in an orderly fashion into the wooden fune. The sake is then squeezed out as a lid is cranked down into the box. This process will lead to slightly noticeably
better sake than a machine pressed sake, but at a price: it takes perhaps three times the time and manpower to press sake using a fune.
However: at first, when the moromi-laden cloth bags are laid into
the fune, for a while, the sake will run out of its own accord, under only the weight of the bags, with no need to crank the lid down into the box yet. This free-run fresh sake is known as
“arabashiri,” which means “rough run.”
And slightly rough it is, in a brash and appealing kind of way. So appealing is it that many brewers market sake with the term arabashiri on the
label, and it is quite likely you will come across it from time to time.
After the arabashiri trickles to a halt, the sake is squeezed out with pressure from the lid. This sake, known as
“naka-dare” or “naka-dori,” is generally the most prized of the lot. After this long step, the bags are pulled out, rearranged in the box, and the lid is again cranked down to get the last
few drops. This final bit of sake is known as “seme,” and amounts to only about five percent of the batch. No one would market their “seme,” but rather it will likely be mixed into other,
lower grade sake.
Another interesting practice employed when pressing sake this way is to separate the sake as it comes out of the hole at the bottom of the fune into separate traditional sized 18 liter
bottles, known as “ittou-bin.” The sake in each of these bottles will be slightly different in aroma and flavor. Often, these will be handled slightly differently, and the best of the best will be, for
example, submitted to tasting contests.
Note these terms will vary from place to place, and are not legal definitions nor true industry standards. But in general, arabashiri refers to the free-run sake
that runs out under its own weight when sake is pressed using a fune.
Sake Events and
– Sake Seminar in Tokyo, February 14 –
On the evening of Saturday, February 14, from 6:00 pm until about 9:00 pm, Rob Yellin and I will
hold a sake and pottery seminar at the Mushu Mizuki, in Ginza. Note, the size, layout and ambience of Mizuki are significantly different from that of the usual venue, Takara.
The sake topic will be
“Brewmasters, Then vs. Now; the Role of Toji
in Sake Brewing,” and will focus on the role of “toji,” or master
brewers; what they do, why they are special and how things have changed
over the centuries. We will also cover the culturally important and
historically important toji guilds of the sake world, and how they affect
the sake world today.
Rob Yellin will discuss the
living national treasure system used to designate accomplished potters since the 1950s.
Mizuki is a bit smaller, and therefore attendance is limited to 35 this time.
The cost for the evening – half a
dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and
printed material – will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot
by emailing John Gauntner. No deposit is required.
Mushu Mizuki is located on Nishi
Go-ban-gai in the heart of Ginza. The
address is Ginza 6-7-6; more detailed instructions for getting there and a map
will follow with the confirmation email.
– Sakagura Visit, February 21
(rescheduled from last month) –
On Saturday, February 21, I will lead a small group to visit a sake brewery in Tochigi Prefecture, Dai-ichi Shuzo, brewers of Kaika sake. The group is limited to 15 people. We
will gather at Akasaka Station at 9:00 am or so that morning, visit the brewery for a tour and tasting, grab a late lunch and head back to Tokyo. There will be a modest charge for participation beyond the train
costs (which will be about 4000 yen round trip) and any lunch or sake you choose to buy. Those interested in attending should email John Gauntner.
– Sake and “Maiko Party,” Feburary 25
On the evening of Wednesday, February 25, The Sake Culture Forum will hold a “Circle of Friends Around the World” party at the Tokyo Kaikan near Yurakucho and Tokyo Stations.
will feature dinner and the sake of 16 different brewers, who will themselves be on hand for the festivities and to pour their sake. It will also feature a rare dance performance by two top-class Maiko
(“young geisha”) performers from Kyoto. After the performance (and before catching the train back to Kyoto), the two will grace the attendees with their Kyoto presence, mingling and pouring sake here
and there. This is sure to be a performance that many of us in the Tokyo area could never see.
The cost for the evening, with a sit-down meal, dozens of varieties of sake from among the 16 brewers, and a
rare chance to see a Maiko performance, is 12,000 yen (11,0000 yen when reservations are made in parties of three or more). Attendees will also receive a copy of John Gauntner’s book in Japanese
“Nihonjin mo Shiranai Nihonshu no Hanashi.”
Those interested can make reservations through John Gauntner. Payment can be made through me as well. Alternatively, reservations and payment can be
made in Japanese directly with the Sake Culture Forum.
The event will begin at 6:30, with registration beginning at 6:00. It will be held in the Gold Room on the 11th floor of the Tokyo Kaikan, at
Chiyoda-ku 3-2-1 (facing the Imperial Palace near Nijubashi-mae), 03-3215-2111.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of
formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake
pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a
romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake
production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the
labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan
is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly
recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO HANASHI, published by Shogakkan
This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from
a foreigner’s point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in
Also worth searching for:
– SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost)
A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
– Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper)
pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.
–Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo)
The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The
Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at arizona.edu. If you wish to contact Jim, please email me (John Gauntner) for his contact info. On this list, issues both stylistic and
technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his
experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently
successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved
results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.