Announcing the Sake Professional Course in Chicago, August 12 – 14, 2014

Sake Professional Course
To be held at Sunda Restaurant in Chicago Illinois, August 12 – 14, 2014

From Tuesday, August 12 through Thursday, August 14, 2014, I will hold the 15th JG_SPC-3stateside version of the Sake Professional Course at Sunda restaurant in downtown Chicago. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries. The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.

JG_SPC-11The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore be somewhat technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. It is likely more than the average consumer needs! But the course is open to anyone with an interest and sake and will certainly be enjoyable. The course lectures and tasting will begin with the utter basics, and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days. Each of the three days will provide the environment for a focused, intense and concerted training period.

SPC JGThe goal of this course is that “no sake stone remains left unturned,” and my motto is “exceed expectations for the course.” Every conceivable sake-related topic will be covered, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting session. Participants will not simply hear about differences based on rice types or yeast types, they will taste and smell them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and regionality, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well. Participants will taste over 80 sake within five focused tasting exercises across the three days.

Wooden Koshiki on its sideLike its counterpart held in Japan each winter, it will be quite simply the most thorough and comprehensive English-language sake education in existence. Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

Also, as mentioned above, an exam is given at the end of the course for those that choose to seek certification. Those that pass receive a   “Level I Sake Specialist” certification from the non-profit organization The Sake Education Council.

Sugidama - half brownThe cost for the three-day class, including all materials and sake for tasting, is US$850. Participation is limited and reservations can be made now to secure a seat, with payment due by July 15, 2014. You can read Testimonials from past participants here. (Should that link not work, which is a possibility for technical reasons, I can send you the same by email.) For reservations or further inquiries, please send an email to 

 “No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”


Syllabus and Daily Schedule

Day I
9:00 – 12:30 Welcome, Orientation, Sake Basics, Sake Types, Terms found on Sake Labels
Tasting I: typical representatives of various grades, milling rates
1:00 – 3:00 Sake Production
3:00 – 4:30  Rice Types, Yeast Types, Water, Koji
Tasting II: Rice types, Yeast types

9:00 to 12:00 Sake Chemistry: nihonshu-do, acidity, amino acidity.
Yamahai and Kimoto
Tasting III: Yamahai and Kimoto.
12:00 to 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 5:00 All things nama-zake. Pressing methods. Aging and maturity. Non-standard sake types like nigori, low alcohol sake, sparkling sake, red sake, taruzake etc. Sake competitions. Vessels, temperature, toji guilds.
Tasting IV: Nama-zake, aged sake, various non-standard sake. The same sake in various vessels. Sake suited for warming. Competition sake.

Day III 
9:00 – 12:00 Sake regionality, sake and food, sake competitions, history, the state of the industry.
Tasting V: Sake Regionality
12:00- 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 Break
3:00 – 4:30 Exam

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Koshiki-taoshi and Kaizo – the light at the end of the sake-brewing tunnel

It was well into the evening when the phone rang, but my caller i.d. told me the call was Mixing Moromi - soon to be done for the yearfrom a brewer in Akita Prefecture. Since he fits into both the friend and business associate categories, I picked it up.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty ha-a-a-a-mmered.” Not your typical call from the owner of a prestigious sake brewery, to say the least.

And to what do I owe this honor? Surely there must be a reason you have called at this hour and in this, er, state?

Indeed, indeed. Today was ‘kaizo.’ It’s over. We are done for the season.

That’s it. Kaput! All we have to do is clean up and we are outta here until the fall.” He seemed to momentarily forget he lived in the old house attached to the kura. “And, thanks to your support,” he continued with typical Japanese uber-humility, “we managed to finish the brewing season this year without any major difficulties.” I was fairly sure I myself had nothing to do with that, and of course politely deferred.

“Wow,” I responded. “That’s great. Congratulations. Another season down! I am sure you are relieved, and I am just as sure your sake will be kick-ass again this year.”

Pasteurizer - soon this is all that will remain to be doneThe true reason behind their call, driven though it was by the unbridled exuberance of the “kaizou” party, was to thank me for a positive assessment of a new sake they came out with that I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste several days earlier. I had recently ran into the two of them by coincidence, armed with a bottle, at a sake pub the night before a big Tokyo tasting. Regardless, it was great fun to hear from them, and congratulate them on completing the season.

“Hold on. There is someone here that wants to talk to you.” The cell phone got dropped at least twice and bashed into something made of glass on its way to whomever it was destined. Things like that happen in a room full of happy, buzzed sake brewers. Actually, I knew who it was going to be before I even heard the familiar voice.

“Du-hu-hu-hu-de. I’m pretty hammered too-hu-hu-hu.” It was the relatively young toji (master brewer) at that kura. “We made it through yet another season. And thanks to your support, we finished without a hitch…”

It was fun to hear from them, late though it might have been, and they certainly deserved to celebrate.

As many readers certainly recall, sake brewing runs roughly from the fall until the spring. Just when a kura begins to brew sake and when they finish for the year depends on a number of factors, including of course how much they brew. On top of this, dynamics including the number of brewers, number of tanks, size of the batches, how old or new their equipment is, and how often they fire up a new batch will all combine to determine just when they start and end. But typically it runs from mid-October to mid-April.

As the season draws to a close, there are two significant days that the people in the brewery owners and brewers together will celebrate. One is called “koshiki-taoshi,” the other is “kaizou.”

“Koshiki-taoshi” means “overturning the rice steaming vat.” A koshiki is the large vat in which rice is steamed every morning or so. In days of olde, the koshiki was made of wood (sugi, i.e. cryptomeria) and sat on top of a large iron cauldron of water (called a wagama) that tapers at the top.

Today only a handful of kura use wooden koshiki anymore. The craftsmen to make them are also all but gone. Most are steel these days, and in fact, many are fully automatic. Long ago, when the last vat of rice had been steamed, the koshiki would be turned over onto its side, cleaned thoroughly, and left to dry and be put into storage until next season. This is the term to which koshiki-taoshi refers.

When the last batch of rice has been steamed for the year, the brewers can see the light at the end of the brewing-season’s tunnel, hence the celebratory nature of the day.

Of course, that last day’s vat of rice will then be added to the last tank still fermenting, and after that there is still three weeks or more of waiting for those last few batches to finish fermenting, and then be pressed and sent to mature for a while. So their work is far from done. Koshiki-taoshi means only that there is no more rice to be steamed. Within two days, there will be no more koji to be made, and soon after that it is simply a matter of waiting. They know they are getting close to the end of six months or more of long, hard days.

Often in these modern times, automated koshiki are equipped in such a way that they can Wooden Koshiki on its sidebe turned sideways to make it easier to scoop out the rice. Kinda makes knocking them over a bit anticlimactic. Also, large brewers have continuous rice steamers, large contraptions that steam rice as it moves along on a mesh conveyor belt over steam, and constantly crank it out. So at such places there is no koshiki to knock over. But nonetheless, a ceremony and small party are held to acknowledge the significance of the last steaming of the season.

The next milestone is “kaizo.” “Kaizo” is written with characters that mean “all (has been) made,” and naturally enough indicates the day on which the last tank has been pressed, and therefore all the sake for the year has been brewed. All there is left to do is to sweep up, tidy up, and pack up.

After one or the other – or perhaps even both – of these significant days, the brewers and other employees of a sake brewery will often have a little bash in the kura. The kuramoto (brewery owner) will prepare a nice dinner, there will be warm toasts to each other, and there will be plenty of sake consumed. Also, newly made sake is offered to the gods in thanks for the blessings of the brewing season.

While, from what I have heard, it is more common to have this little party after koshiki-taoshi, obviously the folks at some places (like my friend in the intro) wait until kaizo, when presumably they can sleep late the next day.

Back in the 1960s when several of the larger kura rode continued growth to mammoth-hood, they began to brew all year round, in what is called “shiki-jozo,” or “four-season brewing.” However, as sake consumption has dropped off, especially that of cheap sake, the need for year-round brewing has dropped off, and none of the big brewers are doing this any longer.

But interestingly, there are a handful of smaller brewers that brew basically all Koji-making year, freezing the rice for use in the summer, and brewing at a more manageable, mellow pace. This pace might be starting a batch once or twice a week rather than everey day. Just when these places celebrate koshiki-taoshi is not clear. But I am sure they work it in somewhere!



Be sure to look for my new book, Sake Confidential, due out in June. You can reserve your copy now at 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:


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Sake Confidential – my new book, out in June!

Sake Confidential: A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection, and Enjoyment

by John Gauntner, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley CA

Today’s sake drinkers are increasingly informed and educated. Most people that enjoy Sake Confidential - due out in Junesake know the basics of what sake is, how it is made, and what the grades are. So now is the time for a more in-depth look at the various aspects of sake and the sake world that make it the most interesting beverage on the planet.

In over two-dozen short essays presented in a very informal and conversational tone, “the 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.

The book is laid out in such a way that readers can jump around to topics that hold appeal, or read it from beginning to end. The very first chapter is a minimalist version of all things sake, after which each topic is covered in scrutinizing detail.

Sake Confidential will be available in bookstores in June; you can pre-order your copy at Amazon here:


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Arabashiri – what is it?

What is “Arabashiri” Sake? It is a term we can see on labels of sake, but is actually independent of the grade of sake itself. Let’s see what it really means.

After a tank of “moromi” (fermenting mash) has run its course, it is ready to be pressed Drip pressing into special bottlethrough a mesh to allow the clear or slightly amber sake to pass through, while the lees, the rice solids that did not or could not ferment, are retained behind. As alluded to in the article above, this “squeezing” or “pressing” step is known as “shibori” in Japanese, and there are several ways of doing it, each with its own attendant degree of labor intensiveness and resulting quality of sake product.

While most sake today is pressed using a large machine that does a more than adequate Fune pressjob, historically and traditionally sake was pressed using a simple box known as a fune that has a hole and short trough at one end on the bottom. Most fune are perhaps a meter wide, three long and two deep, and made of a non-aromatic wood like cherry or paulownia, although today many are also made of steel, or even concrete. When the mash is deemed ready to be pressed, it is poured into meter-long cotton bags holding about 10 liters each, which are then laid down in an orderly fashion into the wooden fune. The sake is then squeezed out as a lid is cranked down into the box. This process will lead to slightly noticeably better sake than a machine pressed sake, but at a price: it takes perhaps three times the time and manpower to press sake using a fune.

However: at first, when the moromi-laden cloth bags are laid into the fune, for a while, the sake will run out of its own accord, under only the weight of the bags, with no need to crank the lid down into the box yet. This free-run fresh sake is known as “arabashiri,” which means “rough run.”

And slightly rough it is, in a brash and appealing kind of way. So appealing is it that many brewers market sake with the term arabashiri on the label, and it is quite likely you will come across it from time to time.

After the arabashiri trickles to a halt, the sake is squeezed out with pressure from the lid. This sake, known as “naka-dare,” “naka-dori” or even “naka-gumi” and is generally the most prized of the lot. After this long step, the bags are pulled out, rearranged in the box, and the lid is again cranked down to get the last few drops. This final bit of sake is known as “seme,” and amounts to only about five percent of the batch. No one would market their “seme,” but rather it will likely be mixed into other, lower grade sake.

Another interesting practice employed when pressing sake this way is to separate the sake 18 liter Toubin or "Ittoubin"as it comes out of the hole at the bottom of the fune into separate traditional sized 18 liter bottles, known as “ittou-bin.” The sake in each of these bottles will be slightly different in aroma and flavor. Often, these will be handled slightly differently, and the best of the best will be, for example, submitted to tasting contests.

There is an important note to remember with these terms: they are not legally definedMachine press - how most sake is pressed definitions or even industry standards. That means that they way they are used can and does vary from place to place. So an “arabashiri” does not absolutely have to be a sake that was pressed using the fune box-pressing method. It can be any sake that a brewer wanted to call arabashiri, maybe for the rough-and-ready feel that the term has. So it can, in fact, apply to a drip-pressed sake or even a machine-pressed sake.

This lack of legally defined officialdom applies to the middle-pressing terms as well, which should not be surprising, seeing as there are three of them used more or less interchangeably.

But in general, arabashiri refers to the free-run sake that runs out under its own weight when sake is pressed using a fune. Just remember that there will be some vagueness and some exceptions!

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Charcoal Filtration in Sake-brewing

The concept of “filtering” in sake can be a slightly confusing one. One reason is that, at least in English, sake is filtered a couple of times.

For example, as most readers surely recall, sake is made by a process in which rice Kaseitan, or powdered active charcoaldissolves and its starch gets converted into sugar, and at the same time in the same tank a separate process is also taking place – that of yeast converting that sugar to alcohol. So starch-to-sugar and sugar-to-alcohol happen in parallel. What this also means is that when fermentation is complete, we still have a bunch of rice solids in the tank, components of the rice that could not be converted into sugar-then-alcohol.

So, that has to be filtered out. The mash is passed through a mesh of some sort – there are various methods – to hold back the solids and let the sake go through. So, it’s filtered. However, in the sake-brewing industry, a different word is used; this name for this process is translated as “squeezing” or “pressing.” And, in fact, many sake texts and articles in English also use the word pressing to talk about that first filtration of rice solids.

But there is a second filtration. After the sake has been pressed, and at some time during its maturation period, often it is mixed with a fine charcoal powder and/or diatomaceous earth, and after those particles settle out, it is passed through a series of paper filters to filter out the stuff they just put in.

The good news – and the reason they do this in the first place – is that these porous active charcoal particles absorb several things. These include elements that give a goldenrod color to sake, things that can contribute roughness to the flavor, and even some bacteria that would be detrimental to the stability of the sake.

Sometime about 40 to 50 years ago, some brewers began using this active charcoal, and the resulting clean and clear sake became popular. And as a result, most of the sake adopted the practice too. And it is a good one – it serves a purpose that leads to great sake. Of course, it can be overdone, and it can be done poorly. But when done right and in the proper measure, it is a good thing.

This step, by the way, is also a filtration, and this one is actually called as such by the brewing industry. Roka means filtration, and its opposite, muroka, means unfiltered in the sense that no powdered active charcoal was used.

Filtering machine, used to remove the just-added charcoalHowever, not all sake goes through this process. Not all sake needs to! It depends on the brewer, the method, the style of sake and even the water used. Some brew in a way that the sake comes out clear and clean, and simply do not need to do this step. Others prefer the goldenrod color deliberately avoid the charcoal. And others aim for a big, rougher, almost mineral-laced flavor and therefore omit this process.

There are also other ways to filter: ceramic filtration system and other solid-state mechanical filtration systems can be used. So charcoal is not the only way to go, but it does seem to be the most powerful way to remove color and roughness.

So, muroka refers to sake that does not go through charcoal filtration. Note, though, that this is not a legally-defined term, so that there can be and is some variance on the usage of the term. And we just have to deal with that. But I digress.

Bear in mind, though, this important point: Muroka is not unequivocally better than its charcoal filtered counterpart. It might seem that way to some, right? Natural. Unfiltered. Unsullied. And it is surely marketed that way by some. But it is not true. Sure, there is plenty of great muroka out there. If part of the deliberate design of the product, it often contributes to character and enjoyableness. But the charcoal-filtration process is a very precise, delicate and craftsmanship-laden one that contributes to better sake. So both are great for what they are.

This is one of those things that concerns me in the sense that a misunderstanding could Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery)hinder the growth of popularity of sake. It is like the thinking that says nama is better than pasteurized sake, or that aged is more special than young sake, or that junmai is better than non-junmai types (for any one of a myriad of silly reasons). Nama-sake (unpasteurized sake) is great! Aged sake can be fascinating and wonderful! And junmai-shu is without a doubt outstanding sake and an outstanding brewing philosophy! But these types are not at all unequivocally better than their (pasteurized, youthful, or added-alcohol) counterparts. Not at all.

And muroka sake is another one of these. Just because it says muroka on the label does not mean it is going to be … anything. It will not be better simply by virtue of that. It may not even be bigger or rougher. It might be – but nothing is guaranteed simply by virtue of the word muroka being present.

The best principle is of course to gather your own experience – try both and note your observations. You may end up preferring sake made using one method over sake made using the other. But chances are you will find that it depends much more on a dozen other things going on with the sake, and with your own preferences.

Sake Today – the world’s first sake-only magazine! Get yours today .

The character for sake

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Sake Meigara (Brand Names)

TenseiCurrently, there are about 1250 sakagura (sake breweries) licensed to brew sake in Japan (although not all of them are brewing actively). And, amongst these 1250 breweries are about 5,000 brand names, or “meigara.” Of course, not all of these are actively being used, but on the average each brewery has the rights to about five brand names.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, until about 600 years ago, there were no “meigara.” Sake was probably referred to by the name of the company (although admittedly branding was not such an advanced business concept back then), or even more likely the temple doing the brewing. The average citizen back then might have simply called it the local hooch, or Joe’s sake (or Shinnosuke’s sake, as it were).

Back in 1425 there were in total 342 sake brewers in Kyoto alone, many of these within Kyoto’s numerous temples. One of the most popular brews came from a temple named Nishi no Touin, and after time, its popularity led to a nickname born of affection. Next to the gate at the entrance grew a willow tree, and the locals began to refer to the place as “Yanagi no Sakaya,” or “The Willow Sake Brewer.”


The noren (a short traditional curtain that hangs at the entrance of shops inJapan that norencustomers part and duck under when entering) at the gate of Nishi no Touin bore a crest of six stars. Eventually, the brewing priests there began to emblazon this pattern on their wooden sake casks, along with the name “Yanagi-zake,” or “Willow Sake.” Thus, the first sake “meigara” was born.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, soon everybody had one of these meigara thingies. Taking names from “waka,” (traditional Japanese songs), or requesting aristocrats and priests to decide on a suitable moniker, brewers everywhere began to assign auspicious brand names to their sake. Some of the earliest ones on record include “Sazare-ishi” (Pebbles), “Mitarashi” (Holy Washing of Hands), and “Maitsuru” (Dancing Crane). In those days, obviously there were no enforceable trademark laws, and as such many of these names were copied and used in several places. Some of the more popular copied names included “Wakamidori” (The Green of Youth), “Otoha” (The Sound of Wings), and “Ariake” (Very Early Morning). Names were chosen for good luck and image, and often referred to auspicious entities in nature, like mountains, pine trees, flowers, and turtles.

Today, there are about 5,000 meigara in active usage. The names of these are written in kanji characters, the pictographs that comprise most of the written language. What is the single most common character in use in meigara today? That would be the character for mountain, pronounced either “yama” or “san.” Next on the list is “tsuru,” the character for crane (as in bird. I doubt any sake are named after construction equipment.).

Number three and four on the list are “masa” and “mune,” almost always seen together inChiyonosono Daiginjo the combination “masamune,” and have an interesting origin to them. There are countless sake that have “masamune” as the second half of their brand name, but the very first one is said to have been Sakura Masamune from Nada in Hyogo prefecture. Sakura Masamune is a very old, famous and prestigious brewer, and eons ago their founder visited a friend that was the head priest at a hermitage called Gensei-an. There, he looked up on a bookshelf and saw a book of scripture by the Rinzai sect Zen master Rinzai Masamune. In a moment of inspiration, he realized that the characters for “masamune” could also be read “seishu,” which is a homonym for the legal term for sake. And so, the first of hundreds of meigara bearing the term “masamune” was born.

Note, there is also a theory that the name was taken from a famous sword maker named Masamune, although the homonym reasoning remains the same in this story as well.

Other commonly used characters in the top ten include “kiku” (chrysanthemum), “o-” (big), “kin” (gold), “izumi” or “sen” (spring, as in water), “haku” (white), and “hana” (flower), in that order.

Why, by the way, would a kura have more than one brand name? There are several Yeast Starter Fermenting Awayreasons. They may have merged with another kura at one point in time in one of the several economic and wartime decimations of the sake industry that have occurred. Or, they may have created a new brand with a better image, especially when distribution channels allowed their sake to get to larger national markets, but kept the old brand name for the local fans.

The sake industry seems unique and can often be confusing since the name of the owner, the name of the company, and the brand name of the product are all very different. Confusing though it may be, at least there is a history to it!

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Acidity in Sake


okan3The acidity – or rather, the acid content, of a sake is from commonly listed on sake labels in Japan. While this is less common overseas, and that might not change (no great loss, really), it is still worth knowing just what it is and what it reflects. But it is not exactly an intuitive indicator.

The numbers that express the san-do (acidity) are generally between about 1.0 and 2.0 or so. That is not a wide range, and most often the number seems to be about 1.1 or 1.2. The question is, 1.1 or 1.2 what?

Years ago, I began a quest to understand this. In turned out to be a monumental effort. I searched high and low, and asked almost everyone I could (outside of sake brewers themselves). Responses to this question placed to those that “should” know gave rise to whole plethora of silly answers. “Well,, they’re units! Yeah, units.” Percent, tenths of a percent, and parts per million were some other replies, all expressed with sincerity and confidence.

It was truly hard to find anyone that knew in the world outside of sake breweries. Not that it is going to make that much of a difference in the enjoyment of sake, but you think people would be curious. Finally, I went straight to the source, and found out from a brewer.

Momentarily digressing beyond the normal scope of this newsletter and delving into a mercifully short chemistry lesson, here’s the explanation.

The number expressing the san-do of a nihonshu is the number of milliliters of liquid sodium hydroxide needed to neutralize ten milliliters of sake. It is, in other words, measured by titration, just as it is in wine.

So, what does all that mean to the average taster? Basically the acidity (and to a degree, the amino acid content) can give you at least a vague idea of what a sake might taste like just from looking at the label.

In particular, the acidity and the nihonshu-do are very often used together to give a pre-purchase indication of what the flavor profile might be like. A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

There are so many things that affect the fragrance and taste of a sake that to allow the description to depend on two parameters is limiting at best. But you have to try.

Modern Methods of Measurement

To a slight degree, the various grades of sake can be vaguely generalized by typical acid Sake Yeast leads to aciditycontent. For example, ginjo-shu often has slightly lower acidity, being light and fruitier. Junmaishu usually has acidity levels slightly higher on the scale. Sake made with the kimoto or yamahai method of preparing the moto will have even higher amounts of acid present, and can be quite puckering. But as in all things sake, there is great overlap here.

But all this techno-babble is really only moderately useful, and only before you’ve tasted a sake. Once you’ve tasted it, you know all you need to know about acidity, sweet and dry, fullness of body and anything else.

Also, the method of measuring acid in sake is very similar to the methods for measuring acidity in wine: titration. And if one wanted to, one can express the total (almost) acidity of sake in terms of, for example, tartaric acid by multiplying the acidity number by 0.075. For comparison, sake has the equivalent of about 0.1 to 0.2 gms/100ml, comparted to an average of 0.5 to 0.9 gms/100ml in white wine.

The level of acidity will not always match presence of acidic flavor (known as the san-mi) in

Rare shot of rice when flowering (Psst! It's Yamada Nishiki!)

Rare shot of rice when flowering (Psst! It’s Yamada Nishiki!)

the sake, due to alcohol, water quality, type of rice and other factors. Some sake will taste sharp and cutting, when in fact the acidity is not that high chemically. The opposite can also be true.

In the end it’s just a number, more useful to brewers than to consumers. At the same time, paying attention to acidity, amino acid content and nihonshu-do can be fun. Doing so can give rise to lively discussion, and help us pay more attention to our perceptions


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The New Kid in Town: My new favorite ochoko

There’s a new kid in town. Rob Yellin might diss the kodai (then again, maybe he won’t),Gorgeous and interesting color schemeand the fact that there is no box, but I love this piece. This ochoko is all I need for sake these days, having supplanted far more expensive pieces.

Subtle brown and green color nuances. Light. Delicate brushstrokes in the clay that actually make you wonder if (1) the artist did it on purpose or (2) did not have better technical prowess. Flaws and faults that straddle the realms of deliberate and unavoidable. Browns. Browns that might be blacks. Greens. Greens that might be lime. Flecks here and there. A thought-out base (the aforementioned kodai). And a signature of the artist for those that know how and where to look for it.


Made by a local Shonan artist, whose name I do not remember,The base, or "kodai" in spite of the fact that I have bought four of his or her pieces, one or two per year for three years. Picked up at Okeba, the gallery for local artists at Kumazawa Shuzo, producers of the inimitable sake Tensei.

Really, photos do not do this puppy justice. Holding it in one’s hand, looking closely at the details through sake in the cup itself, and sake coursing through the observer, reveal its true beauty.




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Warm Sake in the Days of Olde

Warm sake rocks!Today, we enjoy most of our premium sake slightly chilled. I hope that most readers are with me in the acceptance of that general concept. While certainly there are exceptions to this – many of them delicious – it is true that most ginjo sake especially sees its finest aspects highlighted when very slightly chilled down. The reasons for this are hardly rocket science: the delicate flavors and oftentimes fruity aromas that the brewers worked so hard to create are most prominent at these cooler temperatures.

But has it always been like this? Oh, heavens, no. Remember that ginjo sake, and sake made with very highly milled rice, has only been on the market about forty years or so. And the flavor profiles of sake before that were significantly different than they are today.

Does this mean that all sake sucked before the advent of ginjo? No; of course not. But it Modern tools for warming sake properlywas different: fuller, richer, at some periods of time a lot sweeter, and often with a significantly higher acidity. And it was, in fact, overall much more suited to warming than modern ginjo types. Actually, that is the real reason we see hot sake all around us in spite of the fact that so many are rightly intoning that premium sake should be served chilled: that is the temperature range at which the flavors and aromas of good ginjo are most easily enjoyed.

An important point is that while it is true that heating can and does cover blemishes in a cheap sake, that is not why they started doing it. No brewer or distributor ever said, “Wow, this stuff is pretty bad. Let’s tell everyone to heat it to get beyond that!” Again, for emphasis: Sake is not heated to cover faults!

The truth is that sake has been enjoyed warm since long ago, and many producers keep that tradition alive, in a sense. A longer treatise on the roots, rhyme and reason of warming sake stretching back about 1000 years can be found here , for those that are interested.

So in modern times, while we see inexpensive sake being heated all around us, we sit quietly enjoying our premium stuff gently chilled. And I reiterate that there are indeed exceptions: there are premium sake even in the ginjo range out there that have earthier, unique flavor profiles that benefit from a tad of warming.

okan3In fact, perhaps the one thing that has changed in terms of my own preferences for sake is that over the years, I have become increasingly fond of properly warmed, premium sake. Nothing beats it. Nuff said. Notice I did not say hot. Warming sake to lukewarm or slightly warmer temperature will benefit sake with the right flavor profiles. But overheating is another animal altogether. Obviously, nothing can be tasted or sensed when sake is overheated, so avoid extremes of heat.

If one were to wander in to a local pub sixty or more years ago, you would be given a choice of probably one sake: the local one, in but one or two manifestations. You might sit around a square charcoal pit with your companions that evening, and in a remote corner of the pub would be a man whose sole responsibility would be warming the sake for all the customers. Known as the o-kan-ban, he would take orders for sake, sometimes requested at warm, lukewarm, or hot temperatures, and sometimes for just “sake.”

He knew his regulars, and how they liked their sake. He would likely have a kettle of hot water into which he would immerse numerous sake flagons called tokkuri, watching and timing them all carefully until each was ready in turn to go to their rightful owner at precisely the temperature requested or preferred.

But we don’t see these journeymen any more.

Although it is only peripherally related to the topic at hand, during World War II brewers found their rice understandably rationed, and were forced to cut their product with grain alcohol to further decrease the potential to squander rice. It was an unavoidable situation resulting from the chaos in the world at that time.

Mr. Hideharu Ota, president of the brewery making Daishichi sake in Fukushima, once explained to me, “During the war, naturally, sake consumption and production dropped tremendously. After the war, slowly but surely, sake production returned to its pre-war level. But there was a 20-year gap in sake culture, in the culture of sake enjoyment, and even though sake production and consumption were restored, sake culture never returned to its pre-war levels. That gap was too big to fill.”

True, this permanent change in sake culture was aided and abetted by massive changes in society and lifestyle. But whatever the rationale, much was lost culturally. And not the least of these was the almost total disappearance of the o-kan-ban. While I do know of one place in Tokyo that has one (or at least had one, as I have not been there in a couple of years), and I am sure there are others, they are for the most part gone.

Recently I read an interview of an elderly gent that had been an o-kan-ban so many years ago. He described the complexity of his work, and mentioned too a few tricks of the trade.

“If I see I guy come in from the cold,” he began, “he might sit down, wipe his nose, and 2013 Sake Professional Course in Texasorder an atsukan (hot sake). Well, I know his body is chilled, and whatever I send him will seem hotter than it is. So I would serve it a little less hot than usual for him. But I am watching everyone all night. And let’s say I see someone glance at his watch and order what he thinks will be one last flagon of warmed sake. I would send it over that table just a tad less warm then he would like it. This would almost always entice him to order one last one to warm him for the road home.”

Something tells me that the pub at which this gentleman worked was a fun and profitable place.

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The 24 Grades of Yamada Nishiki

Ready for harvest! Certainly most readers are aware that rice is not just rice, and that sake rice is better for making sake than regular “table” rice. And surely most readers are also aware that there are various varieties of sake rice, each with its attendant flavors and brewing characteristics. And doubtlessly, most readers know that for lots of reasons, Yamada Nishiki is widely considered the best – even if it is decidedly not the only game in town.

But did you know that not all Yamada Nishiki is created equal, and that there are in fact twenty four different grades of Yamada Nishiki? Well, sort of, anyway…

The “sort of” caveat comes about because not everyone agrees on all aspects of the system that has been set up. On top of that, while there are indeed 24, there is not an absolute hierarchy or order amongst them, as some exist in parallel, and others exist only unofficially.

Let us start with the easy stuff. Rice is usually inspected by the government for quality. The things that are assessed are size, the number of grains with a visible shinpaku (starchy center), the number of cracked grains, the number of undeveloped green grains, and more.

Most rice for eating has three classes, san-to (3rd class), ni-to (2nd class) and itto (1st class). Sake rice has two more on top of that, toku-to (special class) and toku-jo (top special class). Then there is of course the inevitable amount of rice that is not even inspected, for one reason or another. This adds up to a total of six different grades of rice (including not even inspected, that is), and this will apply to any sake rice out there.

Bagged Rice showing inspection stampsNote, if a sake is not made with an inspected rice, the brewer cannot put a special grade name on the label. In other words, if the rice is not at least inspected then it cannot be sold as a ginjo, a junmai or a honjozo. (Let it suffice to say that this point is a rabbit hole to be saved for another newsletter.)

So we have six grades for all sake rice, grown anywhere in Japan.

Next, let us focus on Hyogo, the origin of Yamada Nishiki rice. Hyogo is also where it grows best – but note it can be (and is!) grown in many other prefectures as well. Even within Hyogo, there are a few villages nestled next to the mountains that have perfect climactic conditions for growing Yamada Nishiki, and a couple of villages – even a couple of fields – from which the absolute best stuff comes.

Over time, a system of ranking these regions came into existence. It was naturally enough created and driven by the farmers that produce Yamada Nishiki, through the local agricultural cooperative. It was and is also supported at least a bit by the Hyogo Prefectural Government.

In short, the few fields that consistently produce the absolute best Yamada Nishiki are designated at as “Toku A,” (Special A) fields. Those in the immediate vicinity that are almost as good but not quite there are called “A” fields. Others in Hyogo that are not in the area are called “B” fields. And fields growing Yamada outside of Hyogo are doing it in fields called “C” fields.

Yamada Nishiki from Special A fields, as of yet unmilledNote, though, two things. One, only the top two are commonly used. In fact, I only recently heard of a brewer speak of B and C fields, and know that there are others who do not use that nomenclature at all. It is not law nor obligatory. And two, even the “Special A” and “A” designations are based on agreements amongst the farmers. While they take practical and legal measures to protect and promote this system, it is not the law nor official in any other sense. Also, the fact that the system is recognized at all is proof of the quality of the rice that comes from that region. If the rice were not that good, everyone would just ignore them.

This ranking of rice paddies is another rabbit hole, albeit it a very interesting one. You can read more about that system, called the “muramaiseido,” here if you like:

One more thing to note: while the above ranking of fields is an unofficial system, the inspection of rice is a very official and very regulated system. There are concrete, objective points that are observed and recorded, and they are more or less the same for every inspector everywhere.

So we have four grades of fields, and six grades of rice. That gives a total of 24 possible grades of rice. However, most of them we will just never see.

If the ranking of the field is listed on the label, we only really see “Special A” or “A” on a label. No one will write “B” or “C” for all to see. This is for two reasons: one, no one brags about being second or third, and two, the field designation system is only officially recognized inside the “Yamada Nishiki Club,” (my term!) or those that own and till the best fields. No outside of their considers or calls their fields B, and no one outside considers their fields C fields. “That’s a Hyogo thing,” disdained one brewer north of Tokyo in response to my question about his home-grown Yamada.

Also, many that grow their Yamada Nishiki outside of Hyogo are proud of that. And rightfully so! “It’s local, man, and it’s good.” So we often see the region listed on the label, even when it is not Hyogo. My point here is that just because it is not Hyogo-grown does not at all mean it is not great. Hyogo just markets better as a region. But I digress.

Also, there is lots of overlap between these regional rankings and inspected grades. There Different Sake Rice typesis not a linear progression across all 24 types. In other words, it is very, very likely that the “special class” rice of a good field outside of Hyogo is better than the “1st class” rice of a Hyogo field, and that the “top special class” of a field in Hyogo but not from one of the “Yamada Nishiki Club” fields is better than lots of the special class from that hallowed region. The permutations of this argument are endless, and I think readers can see the complexities involved.

Paring it all down to what is really important, if you see “Toku A” field designation for Yamada Nishiki, and / or “Tokujo” grade rice listed on the label, you know you have something great in your hands. And bear in mind that there are, if we count ‘em, 24 different possibilities about sources for Yamada Nishiki. But just remember it is a great rice, and if it has been used to make the sake before you, it has a head start on many other sake.

Beyond that, absorb what information has been provided, and enjoy it. That’s enough.

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