Yields from Fields: How much sake from a parcel of land?

Rice as it is now, in June - just planted!Have you ever looked over a golden brocade of ready-for-harvest rice andand wonder how many bottles of sake could be made from it? Maybe not. Regardless, it is not an easy question to answer, because there are so many variables involved.

The first of these variables is the typical yields a given strain of rice will provide versus another. Some varieties might yield only 450 kiligrams of rice per hundred-square meters, whereas another might yields as much as 600 kg or more. That alone is a 33 percent difference.

Next consider milling. If a sake is made with rice milled down to only 88 percent, i.e. discarding but 22 percent of the rice, it has a big-ass head start on yields over a sake made with rice milled down to 35 percent, wherein 65 percent of the raw material is cast aside.

Then there are the steps of the brewing process. For example, how far is fermentation allowed to proceed? Fermenting until every last starch molecule has been converted to sugar, and that subsequently to alcohol, will lead to much more sake for a given amount of rice than stopping fermentation earlier. Furthermore, we need to ask how hard was the fermenting mash compressed to squeeze out the resulting sake after fermentation.

Fermenting further and pressing it harder will lead to more sake! But fermenting to the Mixing Moromi - soon to be done for the yearbitter end and then squeezing out every last drop of yield takes a huge toll on quality. Also, whether or not alcohol is added – and if added, how much – has a huge affect well. Yields for cheap sake in which copious amounts of alcohol are added can be double what they are for premium sake.

With all this compounding error, it is very difficult to say how much sake can be brewed from, say, a ton of rice. Still, it’s an interesting question. So let’s see . . .

To do this, we have to set up a few boundary conditions. Let’s say the size of the batch is one metric ton of rice, and that we are brewing junmaishu, so no alcohol has been added. Let’s also say that the seimai-buai is 60 percent, so that the outer 40 percent of the rice has been ground away.

Finally, let’s assume (huge jump in the analytic process here) that the moromi (the fermenting mash, one ton of rice) was allowed to ferment to the extent that, when the sake was separated from the leftover rice solids, there were 2200 bottles of sake. (A number supplied by a brewer as typical.)

Now, on to the land. Rice is sold by farmers in 60-kg units called hyo. A basic unit of farming land is 10 meters by 100 meters, and is known as a tan.

Since every rice strain is different, and since things vary from place to place due to weather conditions, we are starting to compound errors again. But for much good sake rice, like Yamada Nishiki, one tan yields eight hyo of rice. (Got that?) In other words, you can get about 480 kg of Yamada Nishiki from a plot of land ten meters by one hundred meters.

But wait! Keep in mind that this is brown rice, and we are using rice milled to 60 percent. So, to get one ton of our polished rice, we need to start with 1.66 tons of brown rice.

Yamada Nishiki from Special A fields, as of yet unmilledFiring up the calculator again, we see that we need about 3.5 tan to yield the 1.66 tons of brown rice. So, in the end, an area of 35 x 100 meters (about the size of a football field) will yield about 2,200 wine-bottle-size bottles of sake. But note that this is genshu, i.e. undiluted. So adding a bit of water to lower the alcohol content from 18 or 19 down to 15 or 16 will bring it to about 2500 bottles of sake, 720 ml each, from our one ton of polished rice that came from a field the size of a football field. About.

Please allow me to reiterate that the assumed degrees of accuracy throughout these calculations is appalling from an engineering standpoint. But still, it’s kind of neat to be able to glance out over a golden field of rice, and think, “Now let’s see . . .”

* * * * * * * * *

For thoseDifferent rice types next to each other that are interested, rice fields in Japan are measured in traditional units of area with unique names. And they are very close to metric measurements. Interestingly, this ties in to room measurement sizes, which in turn ties into tatami mat sizes.


Two tatami mats together measure 3.3058 square meters. This P1020588-99unit is one tsubo. Three hundred tsubo is (300 x 3.3058) about 1000 square meters, which is also equal to one tan (10m x 100m). Ten tan, or a 100 x 100-meter plot, make up one cho. One cho is very close to one hectare. LIke, within one percent. Now you know.


Sake Professional Course in San FranciscoThe next Sake Professional Course will take place in San Francisco on December 8 to 10. Learn more here.

Meanwhile, the next Sake Professional Course in Japan will take place January 26 to 30, 2015. Learn more here.

Feel free to email me with questions about either!



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Unfiltered Sake vs. Unfiltered Sake

SH370479Amidst the veritable cornucopia of sake available today, a handful of them are labeled “unfiltered.” A small handful, admittedly, but the number of sake with this term on the bottle seems to be growing.

Amongst sake labeled as “unfiltered” in English, some are white and cloudy. This is easy to figure out; it is cloudy because they did not filter it. But other times we see unfiltered and it is totally clear. What gives?

The key to understanding this is to realize that there are two “filtrations,” but they are called different things in Japanese, but the best English translation for both is filtration.

Let us look at the cloudy stuff first. It seems obvious that it has not been filtered. Cloudy sake like this is nigori-zake, as many readers are aware. Nigori means cloudy, and nigori sake is sake that has in fact been filtered, but coarsely so.

When sake is made, the rice dissolves in the same tank in which the yeast converts the sugars (that are slowly trickled into the mash as the starch in the rice is converted) into alcohol and carbon dioxide. So when the 20 to 35 day fermentation is finished, the result is still full of undissolved rice solids. This is filtered out to yield clear sake.

When this filtration is done with a coarser mesh, i.e. one with bigger holes than normal, some (but not all!) of the rice solids are let through. This is nigori-zake. Note the term nigori can apply to any grade (although it is not commonly seen for higher grades), and while nigori is enjoyable, it is not nearly as refined as regular sake.

So, even though it is often called unfiltered, it is in fact coarsely filtered. (To be legally called sake, the fermenting mash must pass through a mesh of some sort.)

However, the word in Japanese for this step, shibori or jousou, does not mean filter, but rather means to squeeze or press, as that is what actually happens: the fermenting mash is pressed or squeezed through a mesh. Yes, the rice sediment is filtered out at this stage. But that is not how it is referred to in Japanese. And since there is another filtration later, often this step is called “ pressing” in English.

So one meaning of unfiltered is nigori, or coarsely pressed sake.

Sake’s original color

Kaseitan, or powdered active charcoalNext, after the sake is filtered…er, pressed, it sits for a bit to settle down, and at some point soon thereafter the brewer will dump a small amount of active charcoal powder into the just-made sake. This settles down to the bottom, pulling with it rougher flavors and elements that give sake its original and naturally beautiful lime-green-amber color. The sake is then passed through a series of paper filters to remove the remainder of the charcoal and the roughness it takes with it. This, obviously, is the second filtration, a charcoal filtration, and this step is called roka, which is the equivalent of the word filtration in English.

But some sake is made without this step, in other words, some sake is not charcoal filtered. There are those that feel their sake is clean enough to not need it. Others prefer the original goldenrod hue of sake and choose to retain it. Some sake is made so as to retain that mineral touch that can be present if charcoal filtering is eschewed. And some like to make sake (or market it) as close to its natural state as possible.

Reasons aside, if a brewer chooses to let everyone know the sake is unfiltered, the term muroka is used, indicating that the charcoal filtration step was skipped. This can mean a slightly more rambunctious flavor, but that is not a given! The difference may be in fact quite subtle, or even totally unnoticeable to most people.

Note, neither type is unequivocally better than the other. Charcoal filtering in the right measure is a good thing, but muroka has its appeal as well. And the differences are not that clear-cut in any event. That’s for sure.

Also, remember there is a lot of vagueness here. Sake can be filtered by solid state ceramic filters too, using no charcoal. But the term muroka is not legally defined, so some use it to mean no charcoal filtration even though a mechanical filter may have been used. Or not. It’s vague. It’s sake. We have to deal with that.

But to sum up and simplify, if the word “unfiltered” is on the label and it is white, it’s nigori. If the word “unfiltered” is on the label and it is clear, it is muroka. Chalk it up to linguistic idiosyncrasies, and enjoy your unfiltered sake.


Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, available now at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the other usual suspects. Please check out the customer reviews on Amazon:

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf

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National New Sake Appraisal Revisited

Gold medal  sakeI usually write about the “nationals” in June, right after the competition takes place in May of each year. But some recently gleaned stats have compelled me to address it again this month. The contest is called the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai, which is translated as the “National New Sake Appraisal” but for some curious reason it is officially known in English as the “Japan Sake Awards.”

As many readers know, it is a blind tasting of sake that is specially brewed for this contest, basically daiginjo on steroids, i.e. intense in aromas and flavors, but exquisitely if precariously balanced. It can be amazing stuff, as is the skill to brew it the way it is, but its intensity is, well, intense. One small glass is plenty for most folks.

But that is not the point! The contest was created to give the brewers a chance to polish their skills and develop techniques that would make all of their sake better. Ostensibly, that is. And in any event the yearly competition has taken on a significance of its own. It is far and away the most prestigious event in the sake industry, yet the average consumer has no clue it exists or what its significance might be. And I am at a loss to explain that.

Official Sake Tasting GlassesThere is an excellent sake promotion company called Fullnet in Tokyo, run by the inimitable Shigero Nakano. The small company runs big events that include massive junmai-shu only tastings and more. They also publish a handful of books with really good information that one cannot get elsewhere. For example, they publish a book that lists the company name, brand, address and contact information of every brewery in the country. And they include interesting tidbits like the 50-plus junmai only kura, or the kura brewing via women toji, or lists of the kura that ceased operations each year. And they also publish a yearly report in book form on the Japan Sake Awards. The below informaton has been culled from this year’s publication by Fullnet.

The contest started in 1911 and has run every year but two; as such, this year was the 102nd running. According to the introduction, the first 44 times they ran the contest, the results were not officially made public, nor were the records kept. That’s it. Kaput. The first 44 may as well not have taken place. In a country with such a sense and awareness of history, this astounds me.

In 1956, they started to keep records, and kept them for each year since then save (inexplicably) two. But of the 54 or so, about 20 have gone missing from official archives. Nothing sinister, just no one thought they were worth keeping (which is sinister enough). But records exist with the companies that participated, and results have been dug up and gleaned from those.

The fact that so few official records remain from such a historically and culturally significant series of events is mind-boggling to me. Still, having hung out with sake for 26 years now, it is not surprising to me.

There are many interesting statistics that exist – like longest runs of gold medals, or the Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery)most golds overall, or the most over the last ten years. About one fourth of the entries win a gold each in recent years, but nevertheless it is a significant accomplishment and hard to do with great regularity. As such, studying such data can help lead to a good idea of which companies have a significant industry presence.

As prestigious as the contest is, and as much as it has benefited the industry, it has had its dubious effects as well. The judges that assess such sake are with the central government and get transferred a lot. But the criteria they use to assess a sake are the same. So as they go from region to region, they end up influencing sake styles. And as such, traditional regional styles may have in some regions taken a back seat to winning medals and making ginjo-shu that would sell in the big cities.

For example, a sake that is rich and earthy and perhaps even a bit on the amber side might go well with the food, climate and culture of a particular region. But it would never win a gold medal, and would not likely sell in Tokyo. Often the judges would “ding” sake like that, influencing the style of that producer. These trends tend to gather critical mass, and the styles drip-down to lower grades of ginjo, and slowly regional styles fade into oblivion, replaced by more homogenous albeit tasty and refined profiles.

Everything in the Universe has a price. And that includes competitions that improve the image and quality of all sake as well.


Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, available now at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the other usual suspects. Please check out the customer reviews on Amazon:

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf



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Sake Yeast Shake-out

taka awaSake yeast choices are an interesting – if frustrating – topic of study. I have covered them many times in the past in this newsletter, should you be interested in perusing the archives and even older back issues.

In short, yeast converts sugar to alcohol, and the choice of yeast leads to varying aromas – among other things, most notably acidity. There are many other things behind the choice of yeast, including robustness of fermentation, tolerance to alcohol, preferred temperature range and more.

Studying yeast types is interesting since they do have tendencies that we can learn to pick out. It is frustrating because there are many types, with countless variations and mutations, and they are blended all the time too. It all gets hard to follow! But if we can maintain our sense of humor, it continues to be worth it and fun.

These days there are many sources for yeast, but the classic source for the classic yeasts is the Nihon Jouzou Kyoukai, or the Brewing Society of Japan, a research organization that makes great yeast in pure form available to brewers.

yeastcellsBack about 80 years ago when this organization was put together, they started to reproduce yeast that was known to be strong and predictable, and make it available to any brewer in the industry in little ampules. This helped ensure good sake, which led to good tax revenue. ;-)

They started, naturally enough, with what they called Yeast Number 1. Next came Yeast Number 2, and so on. These days, they are up to Number 19, although there are a handful that do not follow this simple numbering convention. The yeasts distributed by this organization are collectively referred to as “Kyoukai Kobo,” or “Association Yeasts.”

But the first five fell out of comparative disuse, as did many of the more recently developed strains. In fact, there seems to have been shake-out amongst these yeasts, to the point that the only ones we see on a large scale are #6, #7, #9, #14, and #18-01. (Number 19-01 is only recently developed and has not had a chance to make its presence felt in the industry.) The others have all but disappeared. Not totally, mind you, but they are much less commonly seen.

Number 6 was developed at Aramasa in Akita, a brewery that is now making the most of that yeast and is massively popular, and deservedly so. Number 7 was developed at Masumi in Nagano, where it is also used with great success. However, ole’ 7 was erstwhile the most commonly used yeast for regular sake in the country. It still may be!

Number 9 was developed at Koro in Kumamoto, and while more ginjo-esque than its Koro - source of Yeast #9predecessors, it now may be giving Number 7 a run for the money in how commonly it is used.

Number 14 is more recently developed, in the last twenty years, and while popular in some regions – in particular those in the center of the country, close to Kanazawa in Ishikawa were it was developed – is not all that widely used. And newcomer (comparatively) Number 18-01 is growing in popularity for daiginjo sake, much as Number 9 did twenty or so years ago. (Note, the -01 just means it is a non-foaming version of the regular yeast. So Number 18-01 is really Number 18 that does not foam up so much. But this is a topic for another time!)

So, what’s the difference? What might you need to remember? In its simplest essence, bear this in mind: the higher the number, the fruiter the aromas, and the lower the acidity. So, Number 6 has a solid acidity and not much fruit. Number 1801 is much softer due to lower acidity, but much fruitier as well.

Is it really that simple? Of course not. Nothing is, especially in the sake world. But that general rule of thumb will serve you well, and you can stick it in your back pocket when you go out drinking sake.

Also, while not mentioned above, Yeast Number 10 is an interesting topic. It is basically a descendent of a family of yeast strains known as Meiri, developed by a company, Meiri Shurui, brewers of a sake called Fuku Shobun, in Ibaraki Prefecture. The straight Meiri yeasts are massively aromatic and popular, and as such, the ancestors, relatives and descendants (remember, yeast generations are very short!) of this yeast are much, much more common than the actual Number 10 itself. In fact, it is hard to define what a Number 10 tastes and smells like, in my experience anyway, since it so hard to come upon one that is pure anymore.

Of course, there is much tinkering going on. Many brewers had what was once a Number 9, as just one example, but now has mutated and changed to be something else. But they still might call it Number 9. Which is fine!

Also, there are countless other yeasts, developed by various research centers or naturally occurring in breweries. Tons of ‘em. Oodles and oodles of ‘em. And they are blended in myriad ways on top of all of that.

Hence aforementioned frustration, and aforementioned fun.

But when it comes to the Association Yeasts, the classics, which still arguably are used in most of the sake in the industry, we’re down to Numbers 6, 7, 9, 14 and 1801 as the main ones, i.e. “the usual suspects.” And remember the higher number, the more the fuit, and the lower the acidity. It’s a great rule of thumb that will only add to your enjoyment of sake.


Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, available now at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the other usual suspects. Please check out the customer reviews on Amazon:

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.VDI391DO.dpuf

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Just What is a “Nishiki” Anyway?

…and why is it in so many sake rice names?

Different Sake Rice typesThere are, at present, perhaps 100 varieties of sake rice out there. A few new ones are born (crossbred) each year, and a few fall out of production, and therefore out of official existence. And of those 100, a disproportionately high number have the character for “nishiki” (pronounced closer to neeshki) in the name.

There is of course the most famous, Yamada Nishiki. But also there are Miyama Nishiki, Hattan Nishiki, Oyama Nishiki, Kinmon Nishiki, Saka Nishiki, Toyo Nishiki and even Hakutsuru Nishiki. Then there is Misato Nishiki, Kita Nishiki, Senbon Nishiki, Tosa Nishiki, Yume Nishiki, and yet a few more nishikis out there as well. You probably get the point by now. Interestingly, this character does not make an appearance in eating rice, just in sake rice. At least, as far as I can ascertain things.

So, just what is a nishiki anyway, and what is it doing in our sake rice?

The most commonly found translation in Japanese-to-English dictionaries
is “brocade.” Okay. Fine. But that doesn’t really help much either. I mean, what, really, is a brocade? A similarly typical dictionary check resulted in this: “A class of richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics, often made in colored silks and with or without gold and silver threads.” Oh; okay. That helped.

Ready for harvest! To me, a brocade is a beautiful cloth or tapestry hung on the wall, usually with some meaning involved in it – like, it represents something or has a story behind it. Kind of like a tapestry but richer in appearance. I learned a lot more about brocades in researching this, but never found out why they might be in so many sake rice names. But then I met a farmer who is also sake brewer.

Yuichi Hashiba is his name, and his brewery is Izumibashi Shuzo of Kanagawa, brewing a sake called Izumibashi. And he explained it.

Rice is planted sometime between April and June, and harvested sometime between August and October. Most sake rice is planted later and harvested later than most eating rice. Most, that is. But when harvest time comes around, be that August, September or October, one can stand on the edge of expansive rice fields and look out on the golden ears of rice that hang over in their ripeness, awaiting the sickle. Or a combine, which is more often the case these days.

When I visited Hashiba-san last fall, we strolled out on narrow lanes separating fields of Omachi, Yamada Nishiki, and Kame-no-o.

“Look out at all that,” he began. “See that beautiful golden expanse of sake rice? Look at all those hanging ears! Duddn’it all just tell a story? Duddn’it look like something you could hang on a wall as a show of glory and success?” You could see by the passion in his eyes that he indeed meant it.

Rice as it is now, in June - just planted!And as we gazed out upon these acres of golden ears of rice bending in anticipation, the wind blew, causing the whole scene to move in undulating, golden waves. It looked like… well, like a brocade of rice surging and swelling in gentle waves. It looked like a nishiki, actually.

All it took was one explanation with a rice farmer / sake brewer as we stood at the edge of his fields on an October evening as the wind gently blew. It was clear why so many sake rice types have the character for brocade in their names.

Being early July, it is still a couple-few months before we can see this again. But it is a beautiful scene, and one that will remind us when we see it that the next sake-brewing season is, again, just around the corner.

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Farewell to an old, chilled friend – my sake fridge!

Sake FridgeBack in 1991 I traded an answering machine that had a miniature cassette tape in it (remember those?) for a refrigerator. It was made by Sanyo, later absorbed by Panasonic. It was made for medicine. My friend found it left on the street in Tokyo, and it had been left there in such a way that someone who could use it would take it; the manual and key to the door were neatly left with the unit.

He no longer needed it, and I did. Conversely, I did not need the answering machine, but he did. We were both happy with the swap.

The unit was already at least a decade old, making it mid-Showa era. The Showa era seems so long ago; just the sound of the word feels nostalgic. Showa.

But I digress. I needed it for my stock of sake, which was currently taking up too much space in my normal refrigerator, which was empty of food due to the lack of space. At least I had my priorities straight!

It was perfect. It could fit dozens of bottles, if I crammed them in there right – and oh did I do that. Both big one (1.8 liters) and small ones (720ml) could get crammed in just fine.

And it was such a trooper. It stayed with me for 23 years, across five residences. It never stopped working! Sure, it got old and worn a bit – the double-paned glass doors did not fit or slide right and called for the omnipotent duct tape to keep sealed. But it kept my sake cold and in good condition. On top of the 20-plus sake in there earmarked for the short-term, I also had half a dozen or so sake aging away in there – the only part of my life in which I can exercise anything remotely resembling patience.

But finally, I had to let it go. It was so old that it used a ridiculous amount of electricity – something akin to $60 to $80 a month all by itself! And the aforementioned unrepairable gaps made that worse. So we decided to get rid of it and replace it, in time, with a new, modern sleek unit made for sake.

On yet another tangent, sake has been called “Hyaku yaku no chou,” or “The best of 100 medicines,” so in fact, this new machine too is made for medicine. But I digress. Again.

The new unit, as of yet not purchased although it has been identified, will fit many more bottles in a more functional space, and uses but $50 a YEAR in electricity. That is like 1/15th what my old friend used.

Also, it was a challenge to throw it away. It was so old that no one wanted to touch it, as things like that must be disposed of properly. And also, being originally for industrial medicine use, there was no rule in place for taking it from a normal consumer. Huh?

Farewell, old friend!

Finally, we worked through that red tape, and paid a 10,000 yen ($100) fee for the privilege of having my old friend hauled away. So, the change had to come. But I was surprised how attached I was to the old fellah. I will  miss it, for sure. In fact, I already do.



Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, available now at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the other usual suspects. Please check out the customer reviews on Amazon:

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “thesake cover truth about sake” is revealed. The truth about junmai types versus non-junmai types, the truth about the impossibly detailed craft of sake brewing, the truth about temperature, premium types, aging, purity, pasteurization and regionality are all touched upon.

How the industry works, its challenges and strengths, what really creates sake flavors and aromas, specs you can safely ignore, and what hype you can safely avoid are all fair game. You’ll learn what goes into sake pricing, and how brewers get their rice. How to choose sake, and how to improve your tasting ability are also part of the fun. Suffice it to say that nowhere else is so much detailed information about the realities of the sake world assembled together into one place.

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.5LOAMrBD.dpuf


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Terroir in Sake – Does it exist?

I have trouble finding one definition of terroir that more than a couple of people agree with.Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery) After scouring the bodies of wine knowledge out there (read: I poked around the internet for an hour) the ones that rang the most true were along the lines of “characteristics that are region or even parcel-of-land specific” or even more simply a “sense of somewhere,” or something that ties a wine to a very specific place. In other words, for any one or more of a myriad of reasons, the wine could not be exactly reproduced anywhere else.

The question of whether or not sake has terroir comes up with increasing frequency, with the main – and very valid – argument that it might not have true terroir stemming from the fact that the rice used in brewing can be brought in from regions far from the kura (brewery) itself. Heck, brewers from around the country brag about using Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo, even when they are half a country away from Hyogo. That’s a huge chink in the armor of any terroir or regionality argument.

There are those that say it is in the water. The argument goes that since the water cannot be moved, and since the water is tied to a parcel of land, then it is the water itself that defines the terroir of sake. And since sake is like 80 percent water in the end, the leverage is huge.

But, in fact, water can indeed be brought in from a distance, and while not commonly done, it does happen. Furthermore, any parcel of land can have half a dozen water sources and types, depending on where and how deep the well is dug. Also, the water in any one place is really sourced in mountains far away, and it drifts underground for leagues upon leagues before arriving at one spot, and as such there are many places along the way with very similar sources of water. So while the water-is-sake’s-terroir argument is not totally unfounded, I cannot buy into it fully myself.

So, then, does sake have that sense of can-only-be-done-here and cannot-be-reproduced-anywhere known as terroir? And if so, from whence does it hail?

I espouse that it does, and that said terroir is found in none other than the kura itself.

Yes, the kura is but a brewery building. At least on the surface. But integrated into that are the design elements of the toji, or the kuramoto (the brewery owner or business decision maker), and perhaps not even that of the present generation. But the layout/design they have, be it new or 400 years old, is what it is, and is unique in countless ways.

We need to expound on that a bit further, but also bear in mind that in my larger definition of kura here, I include the intention and personality of the toji and his or her supporting cast. Just how that crew works within the physical environment that constitutes the kura will be unique to that time and place, and be impossible to reproduce anywhere else.

We also need to include the nature of the kuramoto as well. Is the owner one who is willing to buy the best rice, in advance, and pay top yen to secure it, or instead string out the toji by pulling strings in the background to get decent rice at better prices. Both are valid approaches! And both will contribute to aspects of a kura that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, especially after having been factored into the overall permutation of things happening at a particular kura.

Also, when the kuramoto and the toji are the same person, or at least the same family, then one dynamic is eliminated. Or another becomes evident – depending on your viewpoint. (Half-full or half-empty?) As this is now the case for about a fourth of the industry, it is indeed a significant aspect of any conversation on sake terroir.

But back to the physical structure of the kura itself. To me, this is where a mark of indelible character is impressed upon what is brewed here. There are countless little things, the aggregate of which makes a given sake simply impossible to recreate anywhere else.

The task of trying to convey this is so daunting I shudder at the thought of where to begin. Let us start with size.

How big is the kura; what is its capacity? How many tanks? How big are the batches? Are they same size for cheap sake as they are for daiginjo? Do they have enough to start a tank a day, or just three a week, or perhaps only one a week? Do they have enough people to watch all of that closely or do they automate? What about temperature control? Is the kura in a cold or warm region? How thick are the walls?

Do they mill in house? How do they wash and soak their rice? How big is the koji room, f’gad’s sake? This is huge. Just how much they can make at one time, and what the attention to detail can be are massively leveraging.

Even little things like how far the koji room is from where they steam their rice is an issue. What about the foyer outside the koji room where they cool it down before adding it to a batch? How does that affect cooling and drying out the koji? Big, big, big in terms of effects on the sake!

What about the yeast starter room? Big or small, refrigerated or not, tightly sealed off orModern Tanks more open? And what of the layout of the fermentation tanks? How do they press the sake? Do they have more than one apparatus that lets the sake tell them when to press it, or do they need to coax the sake to be ready so as to keep on a schedule? How do they do that pressing – with a new machine or an older, traditional one?

Note, none of these factors is unequivocally better than another. All are just different. All contribute to the final terroir of the sake made there.

How do they pasteurize as a rule? How do they store? Distance, pipes, pumps, filters – all of these things have their say in the end.

Then there is the unexplainable. Some yeasts work better in some kura than others. No one knows why. It just is that way. One tank might make consistently better sake than another, by virtue of what no one really knows.

It’s in the kura

Remember that all this is before we even throw in the sake-making techniques themselves, or the skill and intention of the toji (brew master). What rice do they use, what yeast, how far do they mill, how good is their sanitation? What technical methods do they use for the yeast starter – normal, yamahai, kimoto or some variation unique to them?

This list could go on, and for a long time. But where it all leads is to the fact that in any one given kura, there will be a unique set of countless conditions that ensure that the sake made there cannot be reproduced anywhere else.
And therein lies the terroir of sake.

So yes, sake does indeed have terroir – a sense of place, a set of circumstances that ties a given sake to a single place, and it essentially cannot be reproduced anywhere else. And it’s in the kura.

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The 102nd Japan Sake Awards

Late last month, the 102nd running of what is officially known in English as “The Annual Gold medal  sakeJapan Sake Awards” was held. While I feel that the “National New Sake Tasting Competition” is much more accurately descriptive, nobody asked me. But I digress.

As most readers surely know, it is a national blind tasting of sake from most of the breweries in the country. It is prestigious if limited in its applicability to daily tippling. But it is fascinating and revealing of trends, technology, and individual skills. I have written about it almost every year, and so feel free to read about past contests, and different aspects of the completion, in the June issues of this newsletter over the past decade or so, all of which can be found in the archives.

This time, let us just take a perfunctory look at the contest this year. Although this was the 102nd running, the rules have changed from time to time, and apparently there are but 55 appraisals for which clear records exist, at least for contests run reasonably similar to the way they are today.

As a background, let us first look at the state of the sake brewing industry, in just as perfunctorily a way. There are 1818 brands of sake these days, made by 1563 sake breweries with licenses to brew, but of those only 1251 breweries are actively doing business (and less are actually brewing, but I digress again; let us save that for next time).

From amongst these, there were 845 entries this year. Each brewery is allowed one submission per brewing license (and a few do have more than one license). So, in the end, almost all will at least submit an entry. It’s has to be newly-brewed (not matured) sake, and it will almost always be a daiginjo.

So, 845 entries. Of those, there were 233 gold medals awarded for excellence. So, about a fourth. This is typical, I think.

The brewery that has won the most golds over the years is 34 for Saura Co., making the sake Urakasumi of Miyagi Prefecture. Next is 33 for Miyasaka Jozo, making the sake Masumi, from Nagano Prefecture.

The longest streak of golds is held by Saito Shuzo, brewers of Eikun sake, at 14 gold medals in a row. The current active streak is a tie, shared by

Takashimizu of Akita and Koganezawa of Miyagi. Both extended that streak to 11 this year.

All are wonderful accomplishments and a part of the long and rich history of this contest, and its significance to the sake industry.


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Sandan-shikomi: What’s the Point?

The sake-brewing process is fairly idiosyncratic. No other alcoholic beverage in the world isYeast Starter Fermenting Away brewed quite like sake is. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the ingredients are added in stages. The first two to four weeks see the creation of a yeast starter, to secure a high population of yeast cells, and after that, the rest of the ingredients are added, again, in stages.

How many stages? Three. Hence the term sandan-shikomi, or “adding ingredients in three stages.”

Once the yeast starter is ready, more rice, water and koji (the moldy rice within which enzymes develop that chop the starch in the rice into sugar for the yeast) are added to that small tank, which was itself created with the same three ingredients.

But it is not all added at once. After the starter has been prepared, enough rice, water andModern Tanks koji are added to roughly double the size of the batch. After letting that sit two days, the size of the batch is again doubled. And, one day later, more ingredients are added to again double the existing size of the batch. So in the end, the yeast starter is about an eighth or so of the final size of the batch. (This will of course vary a bit from place to place.)

What’s the point? Why not just dump it in there all at once, and be done with it? It comes down to strength and vulnerability of the yeast.

Bear in mind that there are only so many yeast cells in the yeast starter. Sure, it is like 200 million per cc of liquid, but apparently that is not enough. If that mixture is thinned out too much, then the yeast becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, from wild yeasts in the environment that will not lead to tasty sake, to other micro-organisms that can adversely affect or stop fermentation of the mash.

So one reason to add the rice, water and koji more slowly is to let the yeast catch up. It will reproduce at its own pace and thereby keep its strength in numbers and its ability to fend off less desirable micro-organisms. It helps reduce the vulnerability of the yeast.

Another way to look at it is in terms of strength. If all the rice, water and koji were add at once the yeast would either be overwhelmed by the sugar and eventually peter out before completing its job. Slowly adding it all lets the yeast handle it better. It is a bit like starting a fire: if you take a match and try to start a big log, your chances of success are not nearly as high as if you use some proper kindling, like leaves and small sticks.

Of course, these days, we can indeed light a big log on fire; all we need is something like a blowtorch or a good dose of chemicals. And, the equivalent of a yeast blowtorch exists in the sake world as well! It’s called kobo-jikomi, or yeast infusion (translation mine).

A freshly started "moto" yeast starterAnd it is what it sounds like: no yeast starter is used; instead, a comparatively huge amount of pure yeast is added to the batch right away, allowing it to ferment a full tank right off the bat. In truth, very little sake is made this way, and it is usually cheaper sake made in huge batches. It is a perfectly valid way to make sake, and the resulting sake is often quite good.

But it is almost never seen in smaller batches, smaller breweries, or premium sake.

So, the hassle-laden sandan-shikomi process of adding the ingredients in three stages is the traditional way to make sake, and one that is in fact unique to sake, and is done to help keep the yeast safe and active. That’s the point.

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Everything I needed to know I learned at sake tastings

Well, almost…

Every spring – and again every fall – it is tasting season here in Japan. What that means is Tasting, tasting, tasting...that those in the industry get to go out to three to five tastings a week of literally hundreds of sake. It is, without a doubt, way too much of a good thing. It’s really about as much fun as an icepick in the forehead. But it is for sure invaluable experience.

However, the countless sake available to taste and re-taste and take notes on are not the primary appeal.

What is far more important is what can be learned by talking to the brewers in attendance.

Sure, the brewers in attendance are the same ones as always. At this tasting, you will see so-and-so and whatsisface, but at that tasting you will see whodoyacallit and that other guy. Sometimes so-and-so will be at both tasting A and B, so I will strategically plan the order of tasting so as to maximize efficiency.

Of course it is fun to greet everyone; for some of the brewers from the boonies, it is the only time I see them. But what is more important and valuable is the information I can gather. Now that is where the real education is to be had!

For example, some of the problems plaguing the industry now include rice shortages and proper labeling. The very first booth at which I stopped is a kura with a famous female toji and that is not a million miles away from Iwate. Her labels all said “Domestic rice,” but nothing more about the variety. So naturally, I had to ask her: are you hiding the rice type?

“Nah, of course not. We’re not hiding it. It’s…” and told me a bit about the rice. So, I pressed onward, why don’t you list the rice on the label, then?

Tasting, tasting, tasting...“Because,” she continued in a matter-of-fact manner, “with all these rice shortages these days, if we cannot get all of what we ordered, we would be forced to use another rice to finish it off. That would mean we would have to reprint all of our labels to show that. We, as a small company, cannot absorb that hassle, so we avoid it altogether by just writing “domestic” on the label. But we are not hiding it! Just saving ourselves some trouble.”

Her decision – and that of others kura doing similar things – has been affected by a handful of mislabeling cases over the last two years. A couple of unscrupulous brewers have gotten busted labeling lower grades of sake as ginjo, or added-alcohol sake as junmai-shu. Some said it was an accident; at least one admitted to the wrongdoing.

In truth, it is but a few bad eggs doing that. But the potential loss of trust of an already-hurting industry, not to mention the potential loss of reputation for a good brewery, have made many companies extremely careful about anything that goes on the label. Not impossible to understand, actually.

Another brewer I know well was all smiles. “This year, we got all the rice we ordered, and Sake Competition 2012it dissolved properly for us. All is well in my sake-world this year! Rice shortages are passed on to brewers by the distributors providing less than what was fully ordered ten months previous to harvest. It is the only fair way to handle it – decrease all orders across the board, evenly distributing the pain. But this year, this kura at least got it all.

When the weather is too hot, the rice is too hard and will not dissolve in the tank, which means tight and restrained flavors. But this year, it behaved for him, and the sake flavors were full and expressive.

Yet another brewer that is geographically close to the one above was less ebullient. In fact, we was all gripes.

“Yeah, what we got fermented OK, but we did not get all we ordered. And this rice shortage is not about to end. We have the land, and the government regulations have changed to let us grow more, but we do not have enough seeds, and those farmers that grow it are graying fast – no young people want to get into rice farming now.”

Because the seeds must remain pure and can easily be affected by the rice growing nearby, or by what was growing in the same field the previous year, the seeds must come from the agricultural co-op if they are to be inspected. And if the rice is not inspected, rice cannot be labeled as premium. A racket? Sure, to some degree. But not one without its merits or its logic.

He also explained (but asked me to keep it quiet, which is why I am not mentioning the prefecture name) that the whole prefecture lost ten percent of their sake rice since some dork farmer accidentally mixed two rice types before inspection. That means the brewers cannot legally put the name of the rice on the bottle, and if they have two types mixed up in there, it will not likely behave in any way they have yet experienced. So for all intents and purposes, it was lost, further affecting their shortages.

I also found out, much to my surprise, that the powers that be can in fact analyze the DNA of a rice, to be sure that it is what a brewer says it is.

There were lots of other interesting things as well, beyond rice woes.

I continued to run into new rice types, like Tomo no Kaori from Toyama, and new yeasts such as Yuko no Omoi from Iwate that seemed fairly subdued, rather than bold, which was a very refreshing change (the concept, not the sake; although that was refreshing too). I found many more breweries using kensanmai, or rice sourced within the prefecture. While this is likely a result of attempts to ensure supply, it is also a great thing for many other reasons, and seems to be a fairly positive nascent trend.

Then there were a couple of technical things as well. One brewer, Gassan, had a whole new lineup in terms of flavors and style. The reason, interestingly, was that they changed their water source. The water from their own well is extremely soft water, and does not ferment very vigorously. So for decades they have been blending that with hard water brought in from a nearby source. And their sake has long been very enjoyable.

But they decided to bring it all back home, and from this season all of their sake is made with their own water, and in such a way that makes the most of the soft water. So, yeah, the entire lineup is new. It has led to a fascinating change.

There was much more, a lot of it fairly technical and isolated to the respective breweries.

Glasses like this will be used in hatsunomikiri

Kikizake-joko – Official Tasting Glasses

And I tasted some good sake too! But walking around and chatting as we tasted was, as usual, even more interesting than the actual sake itself. And I can’t wait until the fall, where there will more of what is already too much of a good thing.

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