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Hatsunomikiri; Women Who Brew

# 22

July 2001

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #22
July 25, 2001


-Hatsunomikiri: the first taste of the previous seasons' brew
-The Women That Brew
-Hiroshima Photos
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information
Hatsunomikiri: the first taste of the previous season's brew

Sake breweries are usually fairly quiet in the summer. Except for the few large breweries where brewing continues all year, most places are dark and quiet and empty, as the brewers themselves have gone home for the summer. Traditionally, the kurabito (brewers) traveled great distances from their rural farmland homes to work at the kura (brewery), although today many places employ local people.

There is one yearly event, however, that livens the whole place up: hatsu-nomikiri. Held sometime between June and September, this is an event in which the condition of each tank of sake brewed the previous season is sampled and checked.

Until about 100 years ago, sake was brewed in cedar tanks with bamboo bindings. Gorgeous though they may be, such tanks are significantly less airtight than the solid stainless steel tanks used today, there was a greater possibility that the sake had "gone south."

This might mean one of several types of contamination, with the most common being "hi-ochi," a condition that can arise in unpasteurized sake. Sake suffering the dreaded hi-ochi becomes cloudy and yeasty, with the various flavors going haywire to the extreme.

And, so, each summer, most commonly just after the rainy season, the toji would trek back to the brewery. In front of a small gathering of insiders, the valve at the bottom of a tank would be opened, and a small stream of sake would be guided into a special tasting glass that allowed the fragrance to spread. This would first be offered to the owner of the brewery. After he gave the nod, the toji himself would sniff and assess. They would then proceed to the other tanks one by one, checking the condition of each in the kura.

This is precisely the situation, by the way, in which a traditional tasting cup, a 180 cc white porcelain tumbler with two blue concentric circles on the bottom, would be used. The blue circles on the white background allow one to easily assess the clarity of the sake.

Each tank brewed throughout the season will take on a short life of its own, and the way each matures in the tank over the several-month aging period will be slightly different. Some will seem more well-rounded and balanced, others more brash and immature. The flavor and fragrance will of course be slightly different for each as well. So one other reason for tasting from each tank is to determine in which order the tanks will be bottled and shipped, with the more mature-tasting tanks going first.

These days, ceramic or glass-lined stainless steel tanks are the norm, so that the worries of the past are not as much of a concern today. Still, the event takes place, with the toji and owner being joined by perhaps a few important sake dealers, and several 徒antei・(professional tasters) from the prefecture痴 sake research center, or similar such organization. These 都ensei・will record their opinions in detail, to be used by the brewery for internal reference only.

Things proceed much in the same way as the old days, with sake being drawn off from a valve at the bottom of the tank. The temperature is recorded, sometimes written in chalk on the ground or tank. The number of the tank is recorded, and the sake brought to another room for a formal tasting in a more official setting.

The results of this exercise will also help determine how the blending of the various tanks will proceed. For example, blending tank #4 with tank #21 may create precisely the type of sake aimed for, based on the tasting notes. Other information, such as whether or not a sake will benefit from pasteurization or extended aging, can also be inferred.

Naturally, things are vastly different from kura to kura. For example, most places have already completed their hatsu-nomikiri by the end of July. Many kura in Akita Prefecture, however, gear up for the event in September. Also, as this is the 塗atsu・(first) nomikiri, traditionally kura would then check the condition of the sake several times after that.

However, this is not something to be done haphazardly. When the tank is opened and sake drawn off like that, there is the risk that this act in itself will allow contaminating bacteria into the tank. It must be performed carefully, with clean implements.

Today, however, there is great diversity in the methods of each brewery. Many places age their sake in bottles, not in tanks. Also, some breweries age their sake a full year or two (usually at low temperatures) before even considering shipping it. Although the condition of such sake will also be assessed from occasionally, the actual hatsu-nomikiri might not take place for a while.

Although the timing and logistics of the hatsu-nomikiri have evolved and are adapted to each brewery's needs, the event takes place everywhere, with at least a bit of fanfare.


The Women That Brew

To describe the term toji as "head brewer" doesn't really do the term justice, much less the people it represents. Here we have a person whose senses have been honed by experience and polished by intuition. This is someone who can tell just how a sake is turning out by the taste and smell on any given day of the month-long sojourn from rice to ambrosia. In the end, the responsibility for the quality of the final product rests on the shoulders of the toji.

In fact, the job is so demanding, and calls for so much skill and perception, that it's hard to find people who can do it. It calls for intimacy with every step and aspect of sake brewing. As of about five years ago, the average age of toji around the country was a whopping 69.

Naturally, some things have had to change. Some younger blood has poured in; in some places, the toji system has grudgingly given ground to everyone cooperating to get the job done. On top of this, women have begun to accept the role.

In the olden days (no one's really sure when those ended anyway) there were many kura which adhered to the "nyonyu-kinsei," or "no women allowed" system. Women were not allowed to set foot in the kura. There were reasons given, but most were just nonsense. The men just wanted to do manly things in the presence of other men, that's all.

But necessity and common sense have joined forces to change all that. Women are now almost commonplace in the kura, and are actually doing the brewing in many places. Perhaps the first place to shatter this taboo was Omon of Niigata. Although the toji is a man, five of the kurabito are women.

One of the most well-known woman toji is Isae Mizuno of Hakubotan in Hiroshima. Hakubotan is a large company that actually consists of four breweries, and Ms. Mizuno is in charge of one of them. More then simply keeping the status quo and cranking out product, she has earned gold medals in the national Shinshu Kanpyokai (a tasting competition of just-made sake held each spring) as well as the Hiroshima toji inter-prefecture competition.

Also in Hiroshima is Miho Imada, toji and heir apparent to the brewery that brews the wonderful Fukucho. Miho worked in Tokyo at a department store for several years, then realized that if her family's centuries-old small brewery was to survive, it was up to her. So she headed back to Hiroshima and took up the reigns of both the toji and her father, the president. In time, she says, she will pass the brewing responsibility on to her understudy, a young and passionate man. But for now, she is "da man" at Fukucho.

Fukushima Prefecture began its 擢ukushima Seishu Academy・back in 1992 to actually train people specifically for the toji position. Lo and behold, there were three women in the first class.

In the Aizu-Wakamatsu region of Fukushima, there are several women working as toji. One is Kyoko Sato, of the 360-year old Kiyokawa brewery. She got into this mess first by marrying the owner's son.

Then, in 1993, the acting toji could not come to work for the winter due to health conditions. Somebody had to do the job while her husband was running around doing the selling. She stepped up to the plate and hasn稚 looked back since. In fact, in only her second year, she racked up a gold-medal in the national competition.

Naturally there are more. Across the country women are becoming more and more an integrated part of the sake-brewing world. As sake brewing can be very demanding, calling for continuous long days throughout the cold months, fewer young people are interested in joining the ranks. These voids are being filled by those with a passion for sake, and many of these are women. It's a far cry from the days of old, where simply their presence within the brewery was thought to cause the sake to go bad.           


Hiroshima Photos

For those interested in what the National New Sake Tasting Competition held in late May in Hiroshima might have looked like, there are a few photos posted on the Sake-World website at


Sake to Look For

Michi-zakari "Toku-jo" (No class designation given)

(Gifu Prefecture)

This brewery was brewing very dry and clean sake long before such sake became popular a couple of decades ago. The flavor is indeed very dry, clean, and light. Bolstering and supporting this is a solidly balanced acidity that further emphasizes the crispness of the flavor. Most interesting, perhaps, is the curious fullness of flavor found in the back end, in the recesses of the palate. A good sake to sip with slightly oily food or light meat, and also, methinks, nice when slightly warmed. Michi-zakari does not seem to be available in the US.

Umenishiki "Matsuyama Mii" Junmai Daiginjo

(Ehime Prefecture)

Umenishiki is a well-known brand, a pioneer from decades ago that has grown from a small brewer to one of the larger brewers in the country, yet has staunchly maintained brilliant standards of quality along the way. This particular product, Matsuyama Mii, is named for the sake rice from which it is brewed, a less-common strain from the island of Shikoku, where Ehime sits. This sake has a very slim and slender flavor profile but a lively dancing fragrance, tingling the olfactory senses as you taste it. Available in the US.

Chiyo Kotobuki "Sagae no Sou" Junmai-shu

(Yamagata Prefecture)

Two breweries are used to brew the sake here, and although they are not located too distantly from each other, the water at each place is very different. One has relatively soft water, and this is used for the moto (yeast starter) and for ginjo-shu. The other has harder water, and this is used for their regular sake. They make quite a few products, over a large range of flavor profiles, especially considering their comparatively small size. This sake (and much of their sake) is brewed with a revived rice strain native to Yamagata called "Toyokuni."

This particular sake is named for the city where the main brewery sits (Sagae City). It exudes an overall tone of elegance, immediately apparent upon first sip. The soft blend of flavors melt quickly into the palate evenly, propelled by a moderate acidity, then glide into a curiously dry and crisp finish. Not available in the US.


Sake events and other miscellany...


August 18, 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 Awamori, the alcoholic beverage unique to Okinawa. Note, Awamori is not sake, but rather a distilled beverage made from rice. It is significantly stronger than sake, and has a charm all its own. 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, or Matsuzaki-san directly at

September 1, 2001 (English)On the evening of Saturday, September 1, 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 and 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.

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.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

All of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted (or soon will be) in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded (either now or in the near future) and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,

Copyright 2001 Sake World




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