Sake Buzzwords Worth Remembering

Wooden Koshiki on its side

As we all move gleefully toward the inevitable World Sake Domination era, there are a handful of words that it would behoove us all to remember. And in truth, it is not all that hard to learn a few words outside our native language; it can be fun, and people do it all the time for other beverages and areas of interest.

So here are a handful of words you will see popping up again and again in the ever-increasing coverage about sake. Let’s keep it fairly simple: three sets of three words: must knowshould know, and helps to know.

“Must know” words:

1. Kura: Sake is brewed in a kura. Sure, we could use the word brewery, but the sake brewing Drip Pressing Sake process is different enough from the beer brewing process to justify it’s own word. Winery and distillery certainly do not apply, and while factory may apply in some cases, the term in Japanese is kura. The word sakery is a silly abomination. Note that this word (kura) can have other meanings (albeit with different characters, such as storehouse), and when it is necessary to differentiate a sake kura from another type of kura, the word sake and kura are put together, at which time the e sound of sake becomes an a: sakagura. Kura and sakagura can be used interchangeably.

2. Toji: A master-brewer. Behind every good sake is a good toji. The history, cultural lore, and stories of toji and their guilds can fill books and long discussions (while sipping sake). More artists and craftsmen/craftswomen than technicians, toji meld experience and intuition to guide and coax koji, yeast and rice into subtle and complex manifestations. Really, the importance of having a good toji at the reigns cannot be over-emphasized.

Rice just before harvest

3. Seimai-buai (pronounced “say my boo eye”): The milling rate of rice, i.e. how much the rice has been milled before brewing. In general, the more the rice has been milled, the better the sake. Well… technically anyway. Preferences skew that assessment.

Note, the number is a bit counter-intuitive in that it expresses how much remains after milling, NOT how much was milled away. (It’s just the way the math works in the definition; no conspiracy here.) So a sake made with a rice that has a seimai buai of 45% means that the outer 55% was milled away before brewing, leaving the inner 45% behind. This is well worth remembering.

“Should know” words:

1. Kurabito: A brewer, one that works under a toji in a kura. The word literally means “person of the brewery.”

2. Koku: A traditional unit of sake equaling 180 liters. Why is this important? Because although Moto Making all kura will communicate with the government in liters and kiloliters, they speak to everyone else in koku. A very small kura, of which there are hundreds and hundreds, might make 700 to a thousand koku a year. I myself cannot assess things in kiloliters; when I look around a brewery, and count the number of kurabito, and ask how much they brew in a year, if the number comes back in kiloliters, I need to translate that into koku to get a feel for the numbers. Note, one koku equals exactly 100 of those large 1.8 liter bottles. Also, although it is the stuff of another article, originally a koku was a unit of rice used as payment and tax in Japan’s feudal days.

3. Nihonshu: the word “sake” in Japanese can refer to all alcoholic beverages as well as the rice-based brew we all know and love. When it is necessary to differentiate, the word nihonshu is used. As a bonus, the word “seishu” is the word used for sake in official legal definitions. So: sake = nihonshu = seishu.

“Helps to know” words:

1. Kuramoto: A nebulous term that can refer to either the company owning a kura, or the president of that company. Useful when talking about the people behind a particular kura, like their personality, philosophy of brewing, or their history.

2. Nihonshu-do: The specific gravity of a sake, also known as the SMV (Sake Meter Value) in English. Usually between -4 and +12, it vaguely indicates the sweetness or dryness of sake. Very vaguely. Like, really very vaguely. Just remember: Higher is dryer. It is very commonly seen on sake labels these days, either as Nihonshu-do or SMV.

3. Nama: Nama means raw, or unprocessed, or that nothing has been done to the thing in Sake Confidential Imagequestion. When dealing with sake, nama means unpasteurized. More formally, the term nama-zake means unpasteurized sake. Note, way over 99% of all sake has been pasteurized. Nama-zake is not better than pasteurized sake, just a bit different. Also, nama must be kept refrigerated or its chances of spoiling are high. Not guaranteed; just high. As such, very little namazake gets out of Japan, as it is hard to care for and ensure that no one along a distribution channel mishandles it.

And there you have it. Three sets of three Japanese words that help make the sake world unique, easier to understand, and more enjoyable. As sake becomes more popular and appreciated, it will need a self-supporting culture and presence surrounding it, and these few words will contribute to that.

Sake Professional Course – June 1 -3 – Las Vegas, Nevada

JG_SPC-3SPCThe next Sake Professional Course will take place Monday June 1 to Wednesday June 3, at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is, quite simply, the most thorough sake education available today. “No sake stone remains left unturned.” Learn more here .

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