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Tasting Competition; Sake to Rice

# 21

June 2001

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #21

June 25, 2001


- This Year's New Sake Tasting Competition
- Rice to Sake
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

This Year's New Sake Tasting Competition

Last month, on May 30, the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai, or National New Sake Tasting Competition, was held in Hiroshima. This year, 1133 sake were tasted blindly by a panel of government-employed, highly trained judges. Out of these, 382 were given a gold medal.

The contest this year was different from those in the past on several levels. Most significantly, until last year the tasting was handled by the Sake Brewing Research Center, a branch of the Ministry of Taxation. For budgetary reasons, however, that research center became a semi-private organization. As such, the contest took a slightly different format this year. It was held at a public gymnasium rather than the research center (which turned out to be a welcomed change, actually, as things were laid out in a very tight, efficient manner).

Also, usually a sake must receive a gold or silver in one of the 11 regional competitions before making it to the national finals. This year, this was not the case, and any brewery was permitted to send their sake directly to Hiroshima for this tasting. There were similar contests on the regional and even prefectural levels as well, and brewers knew about how well their sake would do based on the results of these contests.

The significance of this contest is dubious at best. One reason is that the sake submitted by the participating breweries is far from the sake they sell to us; it is specially brewed in small batches only for this contest, and is extreme in its manifestations of flavor and fragrance. It is brewed to exude extremely specific attributes - in short, what the judges this year are looking for.

Yet the fact that this sake is created with such deliberateness means that it is indeed indicative of a brewer's skill, especially when a brewer wins several years in a row. This, considered in tandem with the standard products of a brewery, tell a lot about overall quality.

For the first time, this year there were two categories: one for sake brewed with Yamada Nishiki sake rice, and one for sake brewed with rice other than the mighty Yamada. Not surprisingly, the king of sake rice prevailed, with 30 percent (308 out of 1059) of the sake made from Yamada Nishiki winning gold, as opposed to ten percent (a mere seven out of 74) of the 殿lso-ran rice sakes・taking top honors.

The results were partly as expected, and partly surprising. As usual, Niigata kicked butt this year, winning 30 golds. Nearby Nagano also did well, winning 25. A big, pleasant surprise was Shimane, claiming 13 (significant considering the small number of kura in Shimane, versus the large number of kura in Niigata). An equally huge disappointment was Hiroshima, another perennial butt-kicker, who this year took home but five gold medals. Ah, well, there is always next year. Hyogo and Kyoto, bolstered by the presence of most of the large brewers, also did well.

As there is a lot of prefectural pride around, many prefectures will, for example, develop special yeast strains, and the brewers will "be advised" to all submit sake brewed with them. This was behind both the success of Shimane and the downfall of Hiroshima.

What is, to me, most significant about the results of this contest each year is the fact that they serve as an indication of where sake flavor profiles are headed. One can tell by tasting a wide range of sake from the various regions how sake flavor profiles change.

This year, the differences were profound. Gone were hyper-fragrant sake expressing strawberry and banana essences in the nose. Gone too were super light and overly delicate flavor profiles. This year's sake, everyone agreed, had tighter, more solid, more well-defined flavor profiles ("shikkari shite-iru aji" was how folks were expressing it). Fragrances, while of course more prominent than average premium sake, were more subdued as well.

In the daylong tasting session opened to the public after the results were compiled, I found Niigata sake in particular to profoundly (well, OK, for sake that is) different from the past. It was significantly more settled and full in flavor - a wonderful departure from it's super light and dry days.

Of course, this also reveals one of the downsides of the contest: where things are headed sometimes seems like it is up to the whim of the 30 or so judges. Experienced though they may be, they can hardly be said to represent a huge slice of consumers.

In the end, the contest has its strengths and its liabilities. But the tradition and historical presence of the yearly event are important, as is its significance as a harbinger of sake trends and important brewers.

While it can be hard to find the actual sake that has won a gold prize at this contest, it is not impossible, and it is definitely worth the search. Should you be in Japan, be sure to poke around for it at good sake shops and pubs.

Those interested in more information on the contest and the winners can find it (in Japanese only) at

Rice to Sake

Did you ever look at a field of rice, and wonder how many bottles of sake could be made from it? Perhaps not. Regardless, it is not an easy question to answer. Why not? Because there are far too many variables in the brewing process that can affect yield, and affect how much rice goes into any one bottle.

One such factor is how much the rice was milled before brewing. Higher grades of sake are brewed with rice in which the outer parts have been ground away. The more is ground away, the lighter and cleaner the flavor profile comes, in principle anyway. Obviously if you grind away the outer 60 percent of the rice, your yield is much less than if you only grind away the outer 25 percent.

Another variable is how far you let the fermentation proceed. Fermenting until every last starch molecule has dissolved will give you much more sake for the rice than gently controlling fermentation so that it stops earlier. But squeezing out every last drop of yield takes its toll on quality. Also, whether or not alcohol and/or other flavorings are added, as is the case for cheap sake, can have a great affect.

When distilled alcohol is added in copious amounts to make cheap sake, as is often the case for bottom shelf sake in Japan, yields can easily double or even triple for a given amount of rice.

With all this compounding error, you can see that it would be very difficult to calculate just how much sake might come from a field of rice. But it's an interesting question. So let's see...

First, we have to set up a few boundary conditions. Let's say the size of the batch fermenting in the tank is one metric ton of rice, and that we are brewing junmai-shu, so no alcohol has been added.  Let's also say that the seimai-buai is 60 percent, which means that the rice has been milled so that the outer 40 percent of the rice has been ground away, leaving only the inner 60 percent before beginning. This, by the way, is the minimum qualification for ginjo-shu.

Finally, let's assume 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 2000 bottles of sake. This last assumption is a huge leap in logic, but the number comes from a brewer, so we can trust it. It expresses a typical degree to which fermentation was allowed to proceed, and also indicates just how much they squeezed the mash to get the sake out of it. In this case, the 2000 number expresses neither extravagance nor over-economizing.

Assuming all that is assuming quite a bit in terms of boundary conditions.

Now, on to the land. Rice is sold in 60kg sack-like units called "hyo." A basic unit of farming land is 10 meters  by 100 meters, and is known as a "tan". Ten "tan", or a 100 meter by 100 meter plot, make up one "cho."

Since every rice strain is different with respect to the size of the grains and the yield, and since things vary from place to place due to weather conditions, we are starting to compound tons of potential error with a vengeance again. But for much sake rice, one tan yields eight "hyo". This will vary somewhat depending on whether the grains of rice of a particular grain were larger or smaller than average.

Readers with the requisite math skills will see that one "tan" yields 480kg. 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.

Firing up the calculator again, we see that we need about 3.5 tan to yield the 1.6 tons of brown rice. So, in the end, an area of 35 meters by 100 meters - about the size of a football field - will yield about 2000 wine-bottle size bottles of sake.

Please allow me to reiterate that that the assumed degree of accuracy is appalling from an engineering standpoint, and there are a host of rice farmers and sake brewers alike that would frown upon my math skills. But still, just for the sake of fun conversation, it's kind of neat.


Sake to Look For

Kirin (Niigata Prefecture)

While almost everyone knows of the beer by the same name, precious few know of this excellent sake that takes its name from a nearby castle, which took its name from a nearby mountain. This kura has been brewing since 1880, but certainly must be making their best sake now. The current president worked for a while as a government taster (in contests like that described above), as did his father before him, and in fact this year Kirin won a gold medal in Hiroshima.

Kirin is, like most Niigata sake, clean and dry and light. It is generally less crisp and a bit more soft and approachable then most Niigata sake. However, sake flavor profiles sometimes change over the years, swinging to meet changing preferences. The general flavor profile of Niigata is, indeed, slowly changing, albeit subtly. Kirin has become, over the past couple of years, a bit more solid and tightly structured. Kirin is available in the US, as well as in Europe.

Rikyubai (Osaka)

While Osaka is not terribly noted for its great sake - it's always been too busy being a major metropolis - there are several to remember. Rikyubai is certainly one of these. The current president in his younger days wanted nothing to do with the industry, and left Japan for a seven year journey around the world, mostly to Europe and India. Eventually, he felt the call to return to his roots, are return he did - with a vengeance.

Over the past few years he has really done a lot with the kura, the community, and the sake itself. He has recently hired a new young toji (head brewer) which will secure the future of the brewery for some years to come. They are getting a lot of well-deserved media attention lately as well. Most of the sake they brew, known either as Rikyubai or lately by the sub-brand name Mukune, is soft and demure, but with an underlying richness and presence, with balance in spades. Some of the higher grades (of which they brew a lot) are fragrant and more lively in flavor. There are several Rikyubai sake that are currently available in the US, as well as in Europe.

Masumi (Nagano)

-San-ka (Junmai Daiginjo)
-Yumedono (Daiginjo)
Masumi is one of the most storied kura in all of Japan. They have been around since 1662, and crank out quite a bit of sake from among their two kura (one of which has the distinction of being the highest kura in all of Japan, located as it is in the mountains of Nagano). In 1946, in a national tasting competition that was similar to the current affair described above, Masumi won first, second and third prize from among entries all over the country; an amazing feat indeed. Their secret? The discovery and use of a special yeast, now known as Number 7, that soon became the most commonly used sake yeast in the country.

Masumi San-ka: San-ka means 杜ountain flower,・and while not cheap, is a sterling sake indeed. Light, refreshing, fragrant and gorgeously constructed, it never fails to astound or please. Slightly chilled, San-ka is fine all by itself.

Masumi Yumedono: Yumedono is another sterling, high class product. Yumedono has a bit more of a focused and lively fragrance, fruity and active. Yet, at the same time, the flavor is solid and full. Yumedono might work better with a meal of gentler flavors. Both Yumedono and San-ka are available in the US and Europe.


Correction: Daimaru Department Store at Tokyo Station

Last month I mentioned Daimaru Department Store as a great place to pick us sake in Tokyo. I then, in the article, referred to Daiei Department Store. Apologies for the error! Daimaru, and not Daiei, is the department store at Tokyo Station with the great sake selection.

Sake events and other miscellany...


July 14, 2001 (Japanese) Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, July 14, from 6:30 until the last train at Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho (a ten minute walk from Akebono-bashi station on the Shinjuku Line, or two minutes walk from Ushi-gome Yanagicho station on the  O-Edo line). The topic will be the sake of the Chugoku region of Japan, mainly Hiroshima but also Okayama, Shimane and Tottori. Seminars feature a short lecture in Japanese with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at

July 21, 2001 (English)On the evening of Saturday, July 21, I will be hosting a sake seminar at Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. This particular seminar will be more of "hands on" (noses and tongues on?) seminar, with the participants doing more thorough tasting and participating in discussions on tasting terminology surrounding various sake taste profiles. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 50. The cost for six to eight sakes, ample food, and printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

Know of a seminar or tasting or sake related event happening in the near future that might be worth mentioning in this newsletter? Please let me know by email in time for inclusion into next month's edition (by July 15).

September 2, 2001 (English)On the evening of Saturday, September 2, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I  will be hosting another sake and Japanese pottery seminar, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The topic this time will be sake rice, especially the rice Kame no O. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 50. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

Japan Times Article ChangesFor those of you that follow my articles in the Japan Times, either regularly or sporadically, please note the days on which it appears have changed. The articles until last April have appeared on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. However, as of this month they appear every other Sunday. The next article will appear Sunday, July 8.

FEEDBACKIf any readers at any time have any opinions on this newsletter, its format or its content, please do not hesitate to contact me at If there is anything you would like to see more of (or less of), I am always open to suggestions.

Sake books:

The Sake Companion, published by Running Press

A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

Also worth searching for:

-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): a  bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo

-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake

-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): a pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.

-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): the original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.

Home-Brewing Sake

If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: , and see their site at

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Look for the next issue of this newsletter June 15 - 20, 2001.



Publication Information

Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.


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Copyright 2001 Sake World


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