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Sake Regionality and Climate


May 2008

In This Issue:

-Sake Regionality and Climate (Warm it in the north, cool it in the south)
-The 2008 US Sake Professional Course
-Sake Educational ProductsSake Events


To all in the merry, merry month of May. Much is happening in the sake world here, although most of that is kura around the country gearing down and preparing things for the half-year hibernation of brewing inactivity that has just begun. A good handful of industry tastings are happening, allowing us to see what is new and how the winter has treated the kura and the sake.

As explained in the last issue, publication will be a bit irregular until I catch up on things. Your understanding is appreciated.


Sake Regionality and ClimateWarm it up in the north, cool it down in the south.

Regionality in sake is a topic near and dear to my heart, perhaps because trying to understand it forces one to walk a fine line of frustration and delight. Never a dull moment involved.

I have written several times about regionality in the sake world, most significantly in issues 84 and 85 in late 2006, archived here and here. Rather than rehash those articles, let us look at how the sake of the various regions in Japan are affected by but one factor: climate. And, at the very real risk of being excessively general, let us look at Japan as if it were but two regions: north and south.

As an aside and caveat, we can’t really do this, since Japan has countless micro-climates, pockets of warm regions amidst cold ones and vice versa, with snowy, damp, and even arid-ish overtones to any one of these as well, creating endless permutations. Also, Japan doesn’t really run north and south, but more north-by-north-east to west-by-south-west. But we’re going to do it anyway, if for no other reason than it is often done by the industry here as well; so there is a precedent. Also, we will limit our observations today to one thing: ambient temperature.

As regular readers well know by now, sake is made using steamed rice, about one-fifth of which has been inoculated with koji mold, and after a two-week stretch in which the  number of yeast cells are allowed to massively multiply, it goes into a fermentation phase that takes 20 to 35 days. (How’s that for condensing 1700 years of craftsmanship into a single sentence?) Along the way, temperature and sanitation are everything, and the latter is quite dependent on the former.

Next, looking at the nature of sake from around the country, it is necessary to make another huge generalization that is allowable only because the industry here does it as well, and that is: sake from up north is tight, fine-grained, light, and clean, whereas sake down south is full, big-boned, rich and heavy.

Now, it almost hurts my fingers to tap that out, as it is stereotyping in a bad, bad way. But for the purpose of this discussion, it is applicable. Just remember there is so much more to sake regionality than that statement.

In the interest of “staying on message,” what we have are two parallel polarizations,  one that says sake styles can be divided into two, north and south, and the other that says the farther south you go the fuller, richer and more big-boned the sake gets. Now let introduce a third, a refreshingly simple and unassailable point: that it’s colder up north and warmer down south.

And that is the main point here, i.e. that the farther south one goes, the warmer it gets, and this is a huge factor in the generality describing sake flavors from north to south. There are countless other factors contributing to this generalization, and countless more exceptions to it as well. But the long and short of it is that colder winters up north lead to clean, dry, crisp and fine grained sake, but the warmer temperatures down south give rise to heavier, richer, earthier styles.

Part of this, by the way, is related to the fact that the myriad of bacteria that can get involved into a given fermentation tend to be more populous and active at warmer temperatures. The colder the air, the less bacteria and wild yeast there are strewn about. The warmer it is, the more of these buggers will unavoidably end up being a part of your sake.

One brewer with whom I was recently traveling in the US heard me give a lecture on sake regionality. Afterwards he augmented what I said by explaining to me how important a factor this was, and saying that the danger up north is the moromi (fermenting mash) being too cold; in the south, it was that the moromi gets too warm. “In the north, they are basically always trying to warm up the moromi (fermenting mash), but in the south, they are always trying to chill it down. Either way, sake brewing is always a struggle, ” he lamented with a wry smile.

Finally, let us note one more thing. Long ago, brewers were stuck with the ambient temperature of their breweries and their climates. Sure, the kura were built to stay consistent and cool even in the summer, but there are limits to this. These days, we have refrigerated rooms, entire cooled kura, cooling jackets on tanks, and even entire tanks enclosed in refrigeration units. Sure, the more advanced you get, the more expensive things are, and not every place can afford these things.

But the point is that brewers are no longer constrained to the ambient temperatures of the past, and this holds especially true for premium sake like ginjo. And, in fact, this is one reason why we see much less evident regionality in ginjo than we do in lower grades of sake: for ginjo, they will make efforts to use modern technology to control temperatures, whereas lower grades are more often left to fend for themselves in tanks et al that are less protected from the local whims of nature.

While there are many things that contribute to the vague concept of regionality in Japan, perhaps the ambient temperatures of the regions is one of the easiest to grasp and remember.

“SAKAYA” in New York City

While this may be very old news to anyone within a million miles of New York, the sake specialty store SAKAYA has opened in New York City. Located in the East Village, SAKAYA is New York’s only (and one of but three in the US) sake-centric retailer. Selling no beer, no wine, no nuthin’ but sake (and a bit of shochu and awamori, Japan’s indigenous distilled beverages), SAKAYA has been open about six months now, and is fueling the thirst for sake and sake-related information to the New York City area, and beyond.

The interior is comfortable and refreshingly uncluttered and simple. The 100-odd brands are either on shelves or in the refrigerator, and owners Rick and Hiroko, along with the other staff sometimes there, are very well versed in the nuances and anecdotes of all. Engaging conversationalists that they are, your visit will certainly be enjoyable.

2007 Sake Professional Course graduates Rick Smith and Hiroko Furukawa made their dream of a sake retail shop in NYC come true relatively quickly; the time from inception was but two years. They have also just begun online sales (see their site for more information.)

In the words of the owners, “As NYC’s first and only shop dedicated to specializing in premium sake, we also pay special attention to constantly refreshing our inventory and to seeking out new brews for our customers to discover via our network of resources in the U.S. and Japan. Finally there is a place in New York City to browse, sample, ask questions, discuss, and immerse yourself in sake. Please visit us and experience all that is sake at SAKAYA ? we look forward to welcoming you!”

SAKAYA is worth regular visits, thanks to their expert-led, weekly in-store tastings. It is also easy to find: just look for the perpetually green “sugidama” cedar ball hanging in front of the shop (a traditional sign indicating “sake within”), and is located at 324 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10003, 212.505.7253 (SAKE)

Hours are: Monday – Saturday: 12pm – 8pm, Sunday 12pm – 6pm. Learn much much more about SAKAYA, sake, Rick and Hiroko at www.sakayanyc.com.

The 2008 (US) Sake Professional CourseSan Francisco, August 10-12

The 2008 Stateside Sake Professional Course will be held in San Francisco on August 10, 11 and 12. The course will be held at The Firehouse in the Fort Mason Center, located in the historic piers and buildings of Lower Fort Mason, which is itselflocated between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco Bay. Attendees will be afforded spectacular and stunning views during breaks.
The course will run for three full days, after which participants will have an opportunity to take an exam for Level I Sake Specialist certification. The cost for the course is $750, which includes three full days of instruction, materials, all sake for tasting, and one shot at the exam. Meals, lodging an the like are not included in the tuition.
More information about content et al is available on the Sake World site, at www.sake-world.com/html/consulting-pro-course.htm.l Attendance is limited to 60 and is half-full (half empty?) at this point, and those interested can make a reservation by sending me an email.

Also, anyone interested in being notified by email of upcoming sake events can  sign up for said notification here.

Sake Educational Products from Sake-World.com
Just a remind to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. See  Educational Products at Sake-world.com. Currently, we have three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.

First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count ‘em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on www.sake-world.com known as “The Goodstuff” a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John’s personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.

Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to “The Goodstuff” comes with this product as well.

Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have – or give – both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.

Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.

Sake Events

On the evening of Saturday, June 14, I will be presenting only the second sake seminar of the year at Takara in Yurakucho. The topic will be the sake production process, and I will be using material never before presented at an evening Takara seminar, that is sure to lock the flow and intricacies of the brewing process in your minds forever.
The evening will begin at six pm sharp. The cost for the seminar, materials, six sake and dinner is 7000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me. Also, anyone interested in being notified by email of upcoming sake events can  sign up for said notification here.

Links to Sake Book Info and Archives

More information on the following topics can be found at

Sake Homebrewing
Books on Sake
Information on the archives of this newsletter
General information related to this publication

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at the email address above.