End-of-season Festivities: Koshiki-daoshi and Kaizou

The sake brewing season is drawing to a close. Except for the handful of large breweries that brew year-round in climate controlled factories, most kura will be finishing up their brewing sometime this month. Naturally, there will be ceremonies tied in to significant activities within the kura. One such activity and ceremony is known as koshiki taoshi.

The large vat used to steam the rice in sake brewing is called a koshiki. In traditional breweries, the koshiki is made of wood (cryptomeria, or Japanese Cedar) and sits on top of a large iron pot of water called a kama that tapers a bit at the top. (If you have ever had kama-meshi, rice, vegetables and meat steamed in a small iron single-serving pot, the kama for this is  very similar in shape.) Beneath the floor, this kama is heated (long ago by coal, wood or oil) to produce the steam for steaming the rice.

When the final batch of rice for the season has been steamed – usually sometime in April – the koshiki is removed from on top of the kama and knocked over (taoshi) on to its side for a thorough cleaning. This is what “koshiki taoshi” refers to: knocking over the rice-steaing vat. In other words, the last of the year’s rice has finally been steamed.

But more takes place than simply knocking over the vat. It symbolizes the beginning of theA yeast starter in action end of a long season of brewing, and as such a party is in order. A big announcement is made. The kuramoto (brewery owner) and all of the kurabito (brewery workers) have a celebratory meal. Also, a bit of newly-made sake is offered to the gods in thanks for the blessings of the brewing season.

Note that just because the last batch of rice has been steamed does not mean there is no work left to be done. There are still several tanks fermenting away, and it can be as much as another month before these will be finished and pressed. Completely finishing the final batch of the year is referred to as kaizou. And after kaizou, there is naught to do but clean up and go home for the summer. But the koshiki-taoshi is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.

Today, things have changed a bit. Rare is the wooden koshiki sitting upon the coal-fired kama. Infinitely more common is a stainless steel koshiki with steam pumped in by hoses from a natural gas fired boiler. Often these are equipped in such a way that they can be turned sideways to make it easier to scoop out the rice. Kinda makes knocking them over a bit anticlimactic.

Large brewers sometimes have “renzoku jomaiki” (continuous rice steamers), huge Fermenting awaycontraptions that steam rice and pump it out onto a conveyor belt on a continuous basis. Some even use rice liquefying machines in place of steamers. Some concessions to modern times must be made, even in this feudally traditional industry. But nonetheless, the significance of steaming the last of the season’s rice is huge, and a ceremony and small party are held to acknowledge the significance of the last steaming of the season.

Also, the breweries that brew year round often shut down in July or so for yearly thorough equipment maintenance. This is the time when such breweries will celebrate their koshiki-taoshi.

After a cold winter of long days of grueling labor, a glimmer of the quiet half of the year to come must certainly be welcomed.

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 .

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.G2bYpFJF.dpuf

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Sake Buzzwords Worth Remembering

Wooden Koshiki on its sideAs 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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Naturally Occurring Yeast in sake – or the Lack Thereof

Yeast CellsThe yeast used in sake brewing is, with but a mere handful of exceptions, not naturally occurring yeast, but rather cultured stuff added at the yeast starter stage. Sure, it might be cultured at home, in other words, proprietary yeast strains that are kept and reproduced in house, but with just a very few exceptions it comes from an ampule, or a slant in a test tube, or some other pure preserved form. What it does not do is fall into the tank naturally, from the ambient environment, at least not in the last century or so.

The misconception that sake is brewed using the yeast that is clinging to the ceiling in the kura (brewery) is perhaps most prevalent amongst yamahai and kimoto styles, partly because these yeast starter methods were what was in use when natural yeast were the driving force behind sake, well over a hundred years ago.

But such is not the case now. However, as with everything in the sake world, there are exceptions. I thought there were none; in fact, I was sure of it. But then I ran into Furosen of Shiga Prefecture at tasting and found out there were indeed using only naturally occurring yeasts. In fact, they hadn’t directly added any cultured yeast in years.

Soon thereafter, the energy or vibes of this must have traversed the ethereal web that connects all sake brewers, because I have run into it no less than four more times since then. The first of these was Kariho of Akita Prefecture. The owner-inherit, Yohei Ito, caught the bug from his friend at Furosen, and wanted to give it a try. “Yamete kure,” (please, give up the idea) came the reply from the toji. “It’s too risky.”

Ito-san would have none of it, and made a couple of tanks of yamahai and added no yeasts.Most sake yeast foams up massively Yeast as brewers start with it The moto naturally bubbled up at the prescribed time, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. When they had the foam analyzed, they found there were two dominant yeasts: No. 10 and AK-1, both strains that are very, very commonly used in that kura.

Which is the point. It is a lot less random than you might think, since in a sake brewery the yeast hanging around in the air and (ostensibly) on the rafters is for the most part the stuff that has been being burped off of the yeast starters and fermenting mashes of the countless tanks made in that environment.

In fact, Kenbishi, one of the most storied breweries in the country and about the 15th to 20th largest maker uses a bit of cultured yeast at the beginning of a season, but then that’s it: the rest of the year they depend on the environment they have created and maintain, as all the yeast from then on out comes from the ambient environment. I had long ago heard it but chalked it up to urban myth of the sake world, until it was verified recently.

Then, there is Philip Harper, the toji at Kinoshita Shuzo in Kyoto, and the brewer of Tamagawa, made a tank of natural yeast kimoto. He did this the first year he was at his new kura of employment. Talk about guts and confidence!

It was intended to be a one-time deal, but has become one of the best selling products of that company.

Lastly, or most recently anyway, was Sugii-san of Suginishiki in Shizuoka, who lately has been into yamahai and kimoto style brewing to augment his already sharp, tangy style. His, too, was successful. But interestingly, he had different theories on where the yeast came from.

“Rafters, schmafters,” he began. “It sticks to the tools; to the poles you mix with, and to the dakidaru you use to adjust temperature.” Dakidaru are aluminum or traditionally wooden cans holding maybe ten liters (two gallons) of either ice or hot water put into moto (yeast starters) and mixed around to make the day-to-day single-digit temperature adjustments called for in some moto.

“No matter how well you wash ‘em,” he continued, “you have some yeast clinging to those tools. And as you put them in and out of the various moto, the yeast gets transferred. You only need a bit, and the conditions of the moto take over from there.”

Rafters, shmafters, or tools, tools, one place the yeast is not coming from on his batches is little ampules or test tubes.

Lone Yeast Starter dosed from raftersBeyond the above pioneering examples, there are a handful of other sake made this way. Certainly not enough to call it a trend; not even close. There is far too much predictability and goodness that result from precise selection of yeast strains. But while a scant few years ago there were but one or two, there are perhaps a dozen or more making at least some of their sake this way.

So: how do they taste?

All are deep, fairly indicative of the yamahai or kimoto styles, with sufficient gaminess and breadth, but surprisingly not nearly as idiosyncratic as one might expect. All are fairly true to style but nothing about having used drop-in yeast made them lean too weird in any one way.

Why do many feel these methods are risky? Because in truth there is no guarantee that the winning yeast will be what you want it to be, nor any that there is enough of that in the environment (or on the shmools) to make it all work. Or it might take its jolly old time, and not function on a predictable schedule (nature is like that), screwing up everything else on down the line. Nor can one ensure as much precise control over the style of the sake, left up to the whims of the cosmos as it is. It is much easier to get aimed-for or desired aromas, acidities, or flavors if you specifically choose your yeast and create environs within which the chosen ones flourish.

And this is why so few do it, and with the exception of Kenbishi, for just a tank or two. Surely there are more out there, but it is hardly widespread. And four small and one large brewer does not a critical mass make, so I do not expect things to change too drastically on this yeastern front. Beyond the aforementioned risks et al, using naturally occurring yeast is more hassle-laden and less precise, adversely affecting control over consistency.

As such, the main point here is, actually, that ALMOST ALL sake, including almost all yamahai and kimoto sake, is made using cultured yeast, and not naturally occurring drop-in yeast. It may be proprietary, but most of it is cultured and added.


                                             酒 酒 酒

Sake Professional Course in San FranciscoThe next Sake Professional Course will take place in San Francisco on December 8 to 10. There are about five seats open still! 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!

                                                     酒 酒 酒

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.m5a6uLig.dpuf

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Yamada Nishiki – better than expected harvest!

Bags of rice, inspected, just as brewers receive themYamada Nishiki is, quite simply, the most significant rice type in sake brewing today. It is not, by any means, the only game in town! But it is the most widely used sake rice, and shortages in recent years have indeed reverberated through the industry.

Last month, I presented some slightly surprising observations about Yamada Nishiki, in particular relating to the shortage situation. You can refresh your memory on that here.

At the risk of over-covering the topic, let us look at a few more interesting facts about this hallowed rice strain again this month. Bear in mind that while it is important to the industry, it is not as if there is a daily stream of news about it. However, because it was harvested just last month, and because much changed in response to shortages, there has been more in the sake-industry media than usual.

It is interesting to note, because for most of the world, rice is still “just rice,” and the care and precision with which it is grown for sake may go unrecognized by sake fans. With that in mind, let us consider the harvest of this year.

The word from the rice-growing community was that this year, Yamada Nishiki in Hyogo Rice as it is now, in June - just planted!Prefecture (from where the best comes) flowered three days later than normal. A scant three days is enough to attract attention. The weather in the summer and early fall were less sunny than average, hence the late flowering, but things looked up from there and the rice crop caught up just fine.

Two strong typhoons came through Japan in October. These can wreak havoc by knocking down the stalks before they are ready to be harvested, and blowing the seeds off the plants as well. But the prime Yamada Nishiki region was spared the brunt of Mother Nature, and this year’s harvest survived more or less intact.

Harvesting in Hyogo usually takes place October 10 or 11, but this year happened on the 18th to the 20th. Yes, it is that precise.

Note the flowering and harvesting dates are for Hyogo; these would take place either earlier later for other locales that are further north or south.

A year ago there were 23 thousand tons of Yamada Nishiki harvested, 17 thousand (74 How it will look come January!percent of the total) of which came from Hyogo Prefecture. Of Japan’s 47 prefectures there are 32 other than Hyogo that grow Yamada Nishiki as well. They combined for 6000 tons, i.e. the remaining 26 percent.

In response to shortages the past few years, a few rules changed that allowed and encouraged more sake rice to be grown, and thanks to that the take from Hyogo is expected to be up about 17 percent. If the other prefectures increase by about the same amount – which can be reasonably expected – then there will be about 27 thousand tons this year.

Since last year the shortages were about twelve percent, being up 17 percent is a good sign. And note, this is 30 percent more than the abysmal growing season of 2012 too.

However, volume alone is not the only issue. The quality of the rice is of paramount importance. While no big drop in quality is expected, until it has been inspected, not much can be said about the coming brewing season!

The path to a stable supply of enough Yamada Nishiki is still being traversed. While the agricultural rules are becoming more sake-friendly, sake rice is much more hassle-laden and challenging to grow than normal table rice, and many farmers will not make that change so quickly or easily.

                   酒 酒 酒

Sake Professional Course in San FranciscoThe next Sake Professional Course will take place in San Francisco on December 8 to 10. There are about five seats open still! 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!

                                                     酒 酒 酒

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/?p=410#sthash.zgcJNiRh.dpuf

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Sake Professional Course in San Francisco: 10 reasons you want to be there  

SPC sakeThe next Sake Professional Course will take place in San Francisco, December 8, 9 and 10, 2014. Here are ten reasons you really want to be there.

10. No sake stone remains left unturned. Every single aspect of the sake world is covered in *excruciating* detail.

9. Certification: you can become a Certified Sake Professional as recognized by the Sake Education Council.

8. Just one more reason to spend three days in San Francisco in the late autumn!

7. You have been working hard, and deserve a break that is but three days, fun and Sake Professional Course in San Franciscoeducational, and that will serve you for a lifetime.

6. The 1000-odd folks that have already taken the course across the past 11 years have good things to say about it.

5. It is organized, flows logically, and manages to get a massive amount of sake information internalized in three short days.

4. You’ll learn about koji, toji, yamahai, kimoto and muroku nama genshu – and taste them all! (Well, not the toji…)

3. It is the last Sake Professional Course to be offered in 2014 – and the next stateside course will not be until next April!

Flowering Rice2. This course opens the door to a lifelong romance with what is easily the world’s most interesting and steeped-in-culture drink.

1.  You will taste upwards of 90 (count ‘em!) sake across three days. Nowhere else can you get exposed to so many in a focused environment.


Learn more about the course here with more detail here Official Sake Tasting Glasses
Read testimonials from those that have taken in in the past here
To sign up, or if you have any questions, please send an email to sakeguy@gol.com .



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Yamada Nishiki Facts and Market Snapshot

Current stats and realities about the #1 sake rice

Yamada Nishiki from Special A fields, as of yet unmilledYamada Nishiki: One needs spend but five minutes in any conversation about sake and the name comes up. Hyperbole aside, it is the most widely grown sake rice, and arguably the best sake rice, or at least the most predictable one to the brewers. Of Japan’s 1250 brewers, almost 1100 use at least some Yamada Nishiki.

I recently met a representative from Hyogo Prefecture’s agricultural cooperative. Hyogo is where Yamada Nishiki was born, from where most of it comes, and from where the best of it comes. The distribution of rice in Japan is a complex topic about which a book could be easily written. The only problem with that is that it changes so often there would need to be constant updates and yearly editions. But I digress.

From this gentleman I gleaned some interesting facts about the revered rice. For instance, 80 percent of all Yamada grown comes from Hyogo. There are five villages from which the best stuff comes, and they use an old system of assessing prices that sets the price for one field as the best and highest, and each field is set as a percentage of that. In other words, the fields and land climate are ranked and tied to price.

Over the past few years, though, a combination of factors has led to a shortage of Yamada Flowering RiceNishiki. Such factors include a drop in overall rice consumption in Japan which led to changes in subsidies to farmers that led them away from growing it, combined with continued demand for Yamada Nishiki as the demand for premium sake grows. Of course, the real problem stems from a lack of communication between the rice-growing community and the sake-brewing community.

Positive and sure-to-be effective changes were put in place, but were expected to take several years to take effect. However, from two separate sources I have heard that there currently looks like there might be a surplus of Yamada Nishiki this year! This is baffling to me, and may not end up to be true, but a combination of more being grown, brewers switching to other rice types out of frustration, and the actual timing of sales may have led to this.

In any event, what I heard was that the agricultural co-op of Hyogo was calling around to see if any breweries wanted to buy Hyogo-grown Yamada Nishiki. They simply could not fill demand the last few years, and this year they have too much?

Different Sake Rice typesIt is tempting to think, well, just grow more, right? It is not that simple for one reason: seeds. It’s all about the seeds. In order to be officially Hyogo Yamada (or any other region) the seeds have to come from a special place, the co-op, to ensure purity. This is valid practice to some degree, and a racket to another degree. But if seeds from the co-op are not used, the co-op and government will not inspect the rice under the name of that particular variety. and If that is not done, the name of the rice cannot be put on the bottle. In other words, if the seeds are not properly sourced, it ain’t Yamada.

For Hyogo Yamada Nishiki, a small amount of blue-blood seeds are taken from a special field each year. These are grown to yield seeds that are used to grow more seeds which are used to grow more seeds that will then be used to distribute to farmers to grow the season’s Yamada Nishiki. Count ‘em: that is five generations of seeds needed to yield what will be used to make sake. If, that is, you want to put the name of that esteemed rice “Hyogo-grown Yamada Nishiki” on the bottle.

No wonder they cannot quickly ramp up production. And that makes rumors of a surplus simply baffling. It indicates just how ambiguous, fickle and complex the sake rice distribution world can be.

But, if true, it is of course a good thing for the sake industry, and for you and me.

                                                       酒 酒 酒

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!

                                                     酒 酒 酒


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Brewing Beginnings of Autumn

It all begins again…

Fall has fully entrenched itself, complete with its colors, cooler weather, and culinary delights. It is also the most significant time of the year for the sake world: the brewing season is about to begin.

Autumn LeavesExcept for a few dozen brewing factories operated by the largest sake brewing companies, sake is brewed in the colder months, generally from the end of October to the beginning of April, give or take a few weeks each way. Sake fermentation takes place at lower temperatures, and as such cannot be sustained during other times of the year. Larger brewers have facilities that keep fermenting tanks cold all year round, and although the quality of sake brewed in such facilities can be just as high, breweries with these facilities constitute the exception and not the rule.

Historically, tor taxation and accounting purposes, the sake-brewing year began October 1st of each year. (Currently, it is actually July 1.) Although this has always been the most practical time to begin, the shogun made it official in 1798 by dictating that no sake brewing was permitted before the Autumn Equinox. Stipends to samurai and taxes were paid in rice, and sake was brewed with what was left. Hey, first things first.

Much has changed over the last several centuries, yet much has remained the same. There are a number of *then and now* comparisons that can be made.

Tasting, tasting, tasting...One thing that has not changed much is the connection between sake brewing and Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto. Almost every brewery in the country has a small Shinto shrine on the grounds, and often a larger one nearby the brewery. At the beginning of the brewing season, the brewers, owner and other employees will gather with a priest for a ceremony to pray for a successful and safe brewing season. This takes place at even the largest breweries, amidst gleaming, modern equipment.

Until a scant few years ago, kurabito (brewers) and toji (brewmasters) were almost exclusively farmers from the rice-growing countryside with no work in the winter. They would travel a fair distance from their homes and live in the brewery throughout the six month brewing season. This is an integral part of how the culture of the sake world developed.

Wooden Koshiki on its sideTo some degree, this is still the case today. Most brewing personnel are fairly advanced in age, and still make the trek each season to live away from home. But things are indeed rapidly changing. It has become painfully obvious to the industry that young blood is desperately needed. As such, most places now use some local people as brewers, normal folk that go home at night to their families and in a few instances even punch a time clock.

Most kura actually use a bit of a hybrid system, in which the oldest and most experienced brewers and the toji are experienced journeymen from the countryside living in the brewery, but the heirs apparent, the next generation of brewers, are young and local. It is a phase of transition to the future of sake.

Still, many young brewers find it difficult to relate to their older sempai, and quit under the pressure of the harsh, feudalistic treatment of old.

The presence of women in the brewery is another interesting then-and-now comparison. Until quite recently, the presence of women in the brewery was anathema. Bizarre beliefs (or excuses expressed as such) dictated that the mere presence of a female amidst the fermenting tanks would cause all kinds of problems, both technical and psychological.

While many older male brewers still have some resistance to women in the kura today, many breweries have women helping in the day to day brewing tasks. There are even a handful of toji that are women (23 as of last year).

Yeast Starter Fermenting AwayYoung or old, male or female, any day now the brewers will gather at their brewery and begin the arduous task of preparing for the season. The first couple of weeks involve nothing but cleaning. Sanitation is paramount, especially with the open fermentation methods of sake brewing. Everything will be scrubbed, cleaned and sanitized.

Soon after, the milling of rice will begin, followed soon thereafter by the first batches of sake. Brewing begins with lower grades of sake. As the weather becomes progressively colder, higher grades of sake will be brewed, with the ginjo-shu brewing period peaking in January and February.

The inside of today’s sake breweries also contain a mix of ancient and modern. Much of the equipment is modern, things like boilers, fermentation tanks, and even the occasional computer. But much remains as it was long ago.

Most brewery buildings themselves are old, classic studies in Japanese architecture. Many of the brewing tools remain rudimentary. There are plenty of bamboo poles and brushes, and other implements fashioned from traditional materials, as they have yet to be bested by modern counterparts.

Drip pressing into special bottleYet, mixed in with these tools of old are modern gadgets, everything from temperature sensors and automatic mixers to full-on koji making machines and conveyor belt driven continuous rice steamers. Each kura draws their own line on how much automation to use.

Regardless, this time of the year holds great significance in the traditional sake-brewing world. And so, as the centuries-old traditional cycle begins again, let’s all hope for another safe and successful season.

                                                       酒 酒 酒

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!

- See more at: http://sake-world.com/wordpress/#sthash.qS5Zl0IP.dpuf

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Obsolete Sake Classification System: Ye Olde “Kyubetsu Seido”

Fall in JapanThese days, we know how to pick our sake. There are classes or grades of sake that are legally defined that exist to help us. And we know these well: Daiginjo and junmai daiginjo, ginjo and junmai ginjo, tokubetsu honjozo and tokubetsu junmai below these, then honjozo and junmai-shu, and futsuu-shu below that. They are all legally defined, even if those definitions can be vague in areas. And while these grades are legal definitions, when it comes to indications of quality, “they’re more like guidelines” as they say in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

In other words, while daiginjo is technically a top-grade sake, you might prefer junmai or honjozo sake in general. And no one – no one – can always identify the grade of a sake on taste and aroma alone. Often? Yes. Always? No. There is too much overlap between the grades.

"Gin" of Ginjo scribbled on a tank of  sakeBut still they serve a great purpose and fill a need – making selection easier for the consumer. But while these grades have been around as law since about ’91, and as industry self-regulated agreements since the 80′s or so, there was a system of grading sake that was in place before the current one.


It is now defunct, and has been since about ’90. It served its purpose but became outdated and even irrelevant. But it is part of the history and culture of sake, and has not yet been totally eradicated from some folks’ minds.

That system was known as the “Kyubetsu Seido,” which simply means “Classification System” and was in existence from 1943 to 1989, from which time it was phased out in favor of the current system. The Kyubetsu Seido was wonderfully simple: all sake was graded as Tokkyu or Special Class (the top), Ikkyu or First Class, or Nikyu or Second Class, which was the default for sake that did not make the cut for First or Special Class.

Note, the seimai buai (degree of rice milling) and whether or not it was junmai or added-alcohol, were irrelevant. With only three terms to know, no vagueness or hidden meanings involved, and with a good degree of reliability, what was the problem with the system? What as the catch? In short: price and excessive homogeneity.

The way it worked was that brewers that wanted their sake officially ranked as First or Chiyonosono DaiginjoSpecial Class would submit samples to the government. They would taste it and asses that yes, it was good enough for that rank, or no it was not. Those that passed the blind tasting assessment of a team of well-trained government sake tasters (great work if you can get it) were permitted to put Ikkyu (First Class) or Tokkyu (Special Class) on the label. And, of course, the tax on such ranked products was higher.

So it cost consumers more, but it did assure a certain level of quality. Consmers did not need to worry about brands so much, or grades, or milling rates or added alcohol or nihonshu-do or anything else: just buy Ikkyu or Tokyu and one would be assured of at least a certain degree of quality.

It was very useful in its time, since there were 5000 sakagura back then, and it helped consumers wade through all that. And of course, it helped the government too, since it led to more tax revenue from sake. And those that sought but a buzz need only seek Nikyu-shu (the default Second Class products) to ensure price performance. To a degree, it was win-win.

But it began to unravel and wane in relevance and usefulness as smaller brewers began to Official Sake Tasting Glassescome out with better and better sake, both in reputation and in sheer enjoyability. Not able to compete with the larger companies in national distribution, they kept things local. And as such, there was no reason to make their loyal customer base pay the extra tax for a Ikkyu or Tokkyu stamp on the label.

The loyal locals knew what was good, so the smaller brewers would not even bother with submitting sake for certification, and simply sell their fine brews as Second Class sake, saving their fans that extra cost. This tendency gathered momentum that lead to critical mass, and was a big factor in the elimination of the system.

Certainly there were more reasons. The fact that the curently-used system developed and came into use, albeit with no legal base but a strong de facto significance, had much to do with the change as well. There were also reasons that were related to how imports of other premium alcoholic beverages were taxed, somewhat unfairly due to the former system, and some say Japan was pressured externally as well.

Another problem was that since the judges were all looking for the same thing – a lack of flaws – that many brewers sacrificed some character and uniqueness that could conceivably be perceived as idiosyncrasies for which the sake could be faulted. As such what came to be known as premium sake was less character-laden and more homegeneously predictable.

For a combination of the above reasons, the Kyubetsu Seido was eliminated in 1989, being phased out so brewers could use up their stocks of Ikkyu and Tokkyu sake, and was subsequently replaced by the current system, replete with its own shortcomings.

While it may seem we just exchanged one imperfect system for another, that is likely best in the end, since we all need to make our own decisiosn anyway. If they were made for us, the fun would be taken out of sake, now wouldn’t it? ;-)

酒 酒 酒

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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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.

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