Niigata Earthquake, Rice Milling
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
-Rice Milling Machines
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Sincere apologies to readers for the tardiness of this November newsletter. The fall is sake-tasting
season, and this again resulted in missing self-imposed deadlines. This seems to be happening a lot lately. I suppose I could restate the official publication date as the 7th, but then I would not likely get it
published until the 15th. Your kind understanding is appreciated.
On the evening of October 23, a devastatingly
powerful earthquake ripped through Niigata prefecture. In one area, it registered a 7 on the Richter scale. There were also several significantly powerful aftershocks causing further damage. In fact, aftershocks
were still being felt as late as November 7. Power was cut so thoroughly and quickly that safety systems on the Shinkansen (“bullet train”) malfunctioned, and one such high speed train had two of its
cars derail. Thirty-nine people lost their lives, and thousands are living in local school gymnasiums. Access to the region has been severely affected.
This earthquake has also dealt a crippling blow to
the prefecture’s well known sake industry. There are currently 98 active breweries in Niigata Prefecture, and of these no less than 40 sustained damage. Most sake breweries are old, old buildings built of
wood or earthen walls. Their gorgeous architecture showcases form with function: they are made to give optimum contact with the environment so as to provide ideal conditions to brew and store sake. They are not,
however, built to withstand earthquakes of such magnitude.
The brewing season had just kicked off. Most kura had just begun a few tanks, or were preparing to do so when the calamity struck.
However, many of the kura buildings were damaged to the extent that it was unsafe to enter them, much less continue brewing.
One of the most famous breweries from Niigata, Asahi Shuzo, brewers of the
very illustrious Kubota brand, as well as the Asahiyama, Esshu and Tokugetsu brands, sustained considerable damage. They were just about to ship this season’s sake when the earthquake hit. According to a
newspaper report, “tens of thousands of glass bottles, stacked 10-meters high and ready to ship, were either broken or had their labels damaged.” This constituted most of their stock
waiting to be shipped. Those of you that love your Kubota may have to wait a year or so.
The company had already began brewing this season, and fortunately, their 10-meter tall extra large tanks were not
damaged, although its foundations did sustain damage. More than 70,000 empty bottles were also smashed.
From the same newspaper report: “I can’t imagine the total damage,” said Shinichi
Matsui, 54, chief of the company’s public relations section. “It’s no exaggeration to say this is our company’s biggest crisis since its foundation in 1830. We’re going to do our best to
overcome this difficult situation.”
Kusumi Shuzo, a brewery I am particularly close with, also was hit quite hard. Damage was severe enough that they will not even begin brewing until mid-December,
whereas they usually begin October 1 or so. But here they suffered a double-whammy this year. An early powerful typhoon in July caused landslides that destroyed a 170-year old storage kura that happened to be
full with their stock of their famous Kame-no-O sake.
Obviously, there are many other kura in similarly desperate straits now. Let us send our hearts and prayers to them, as well as to all that have
suffered – and continue to suffer – in the wake of this natural disaster, and hope and work toward a speedy and full recovery for all so affected.
Rice Milling Machines
As readers surely know, the degree to which the rice used in brewing has been milled is an important factor in
the quality and style of a given sake. Why? Because in proper sake rice, the starches (i.e. the good stuff, that which we want, that which will ferment) is in the center, while the fat and protein (i.e. the
less-than-good stuff, that which we do not want very much of) surrounds that, sitting closer to the outside of the grains. The more we mill away, the more fat and protein we remove, leaving only the delectable
starch behind. And so, one very general rule of thumb about sake is “the more you mill the rice, the higher the grade of sake.” In fact, the main component of the legal definition of the various grades
is the degree that the rice has been milled.
Note, though, that this does not always mean more milling unequivocally leads to better sake. It does usually mean cleaner, more refined sake. But excessive
milling can grind away character too, and too much polishing can lead to sake that is a bit too ethereal. Also, the style of sake one prefers – or is most appropriate for a given situation – will surely not
always be the most light and refined sake. So always be sure to drink the sake, not the label, and not the milling rate!
“I wonder how they actually mill the rice,” is a thought I often hear
expressed. “Does some guy grind down the grains one at a time with a small file or something?” Nah, not quite. But the technology is indeed quite labor intensive.
Before talking about the
machines that do it, I would like to convey just how important the actual step of milling the rice is. It is the first step taken once the rice has been harvested and brought into the kura, and it drastically
affects each and every step on down the line.
For example, the ability – or lack thereof – of the rice to absorb water is affected by how gently or harshly the rice was milled. As the rice is milled, all
that bumpin’ and grindin’ leads to friction that generates heat which in turn first dries the rice, reducing its natural moisture content. It also then makes the rice harder and less able to absorb water
later. For this reason, when making good sake, painstaking steps are taken to minimize this, such as slowing the whole milling process down.
The rice will later be soaked in water, and its moisture
content will affect its physical condition after it goes through the steaming process. Unlike rice that is eaten, rice in sake brewing needs to be firm on the outside and soft on the inside. And, its
post-steaming condition will affect the quality of the koji, that magically moldy rice that is the heart of the sake brewing process.
Beyond the moisture issue is cracking and breakage. Cracked or broken
grains will not lead to (again) proper koji, and also will not ferment predictably or properly in the fermenting mash. As such, efforts are made to minimize if not eliminate cracked and broken grains during the
milling process. No mean feat, that.
So clearly, the milling process exerts massive leverage on the rest of the brewing process. And it is no exaggeration to say that what has really made sake take off
in the last 40 years or so is the development of advanced milling machines that accomplish all these objectives.
So how do they do it? What do these modern machines designed specifically for milling sake
rice look like, and how do they function? The rice sits in a conical hopper holding perhaps a ton (there are various sizes), from which it falls down a tube onto a spinning grinding stone. A bit of the outside
of the rice is nicked off, and a vacuum sucks off the powder generated. It is then carried back up to the hopper by conveyor belt, and goes around and around and around from anywhere from 24 hours to six days in
some very extreme cases. Each time it goes around a bit more is nicked off until eventually the desired amount will have been milled away.
Here is what a typical “seimaiki” (milling machine)
Obviously, they can adjust many parameters. They can let the rice cascade down in copious amounts onto a grinding stone set to high torque,
high rpms. This will get the job done faster, of course, but that aforementioned bumpin’ and grindin’ is not so good for the future of the rice. Or they can reduce the flow and amount of rice that falls,
and lower the torque and/or speed of the grinding stone, slowing the whole activity down into a kinder, gentler milling process. This latter approach is what is invariably adapted for the best sake.
There are a plethora of other tricks and parameters that can be tweaked as well, and often computers will control the whole kit-and-caboodle. How do they know how much has been milled away? One of two
ways: they either measure the amount of powder that has been removed, or from time to time the halt the process long enough to measure the remaining weight of the rice in the hopper, comparing that to the
original weight. The latter method is more of a hassle, but more accurate.
The grinding stone itself is interesting. It looks like a solid, squat stone hourglass, and the rice does not actually hit the
top, but rather gets sucked into and bangs up against the curved side. I was finally able to see one that had been removed from the machine, and managed to get a snapshot of it. See it for yourself here:
In sake brewing, with all of the modern gadgets and machines and tools, almost always the older, hand-crafted, labor intensive, stress inducing methods are
best. But the one area in which modern technology reigns indisputably supreme is rice milling.
Naturally enough, these contraptions are quite expensive. Not all kura own them. (In fact, I have been told,
most do not. But then again, almost all kura I have been visited seem to have their own.) Many kura – or groups of kura – will outsource to companies that do nothing but mill.
Finally, with all that
milling going on, many wonder what happens to the tons of powder generated as the rice is ground down. This is called nuka, and it is not wasted. It is used in various things from livestock feed to the
production of traditional crackers and sweets. And, in some isolated situations, it is fermented by large sake brewers for use in very cheap sake.
Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar and Sake Bash
November 13, 2004
On the afternoon and evening of Saturday, November
13, from 4:00 until 8:00, Haruo Matsuzaki, famed sake critic, sake author, and all-around great guy will hold a sake seminar and massive tasting at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, located on the 20th
floor of the Yurakucho Denki Building just outside JR Yurakucho Station. The event will celebrate his upcoming 70th “Sake Seminar for Regular Folks,” a series of seminars now in its seventh year. The
cost for the event, including a presentation in Japanese, plenty of food, and more excellent sake than you can handle is 8000 yen.
The schedule for the afternoon and evening is as follows.
Doors open, registration
4:30 pm: A lecture on the National Research Institute of Brewing on its hundred-year anniversary by Takeaki Ishikawa Sensei, a former director. Sure to be interesting.
Sake Tasting: 20 sakagura will be present to pour their fine brews and take on all questions related to sake. Among these are Hamachidori (Iwate), Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata), Urakasumi (Miyagi), Kikuzakari
(Ibaraki), Kikuyoi (Shizuoka), Hanagaki (Fukui), Fukuju (Hyogo), Mori no Kura (Fukuoka), and more. Hot damn!
6:30 pm: The festivities continue as dinner comes out in the form of a (standing) buffet, and
mingling continues, as does the flow of great sake.
8:00 pm: Alas, all good things must come to an end.
Attendance is limited to 150 people. Those interested in attending can email Haruo Matsuzaki
directly in English or Japanese at email@example.com, or can email me with questions.
French Food and Sake
November 19, 2004
On the evening of Friday, November 19, 2004, from 7:00 p.m., the
Four Seasons Hotel at Marunouchi will celebrate an evening of French food and premium sake, pairing six courses created by chef Takuya Iida with six distinctly unique and superb sake. I will moderate the evening
in both Japanese and English, and will include a basic presentation before and between the courses. The sake to be presented are Okunomatsu FN Sparkling Daiginjo, Kaiun Junmai Ginjo, Hakkaisan Daiginjo, Tenzan
“Hotarugawa” Junmai Daiginjo, Sato no Homare “Kakunko” Junmai Daiginjo, and Kamoizumi “Shusen” Junmai Ginjo.
The cost for the evening is 18,000 yen per person. Those
interested can contact the Four Seasons Restaurant Ekki at 03-5222-5810, and contact me with any questions.
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): A pocket
sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a Daimon Shuzo, a sake brewery in Osaka. He is the only non-Japanese certified master brewer in the history of the world. How’s that for
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is
available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: email@example.com, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
To subscribe to The
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is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake
events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.
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Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in
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Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at the email address above.
Copyright 2004, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003