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Sake Index; Junmai Rule Changes

# 51

Jan. 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #51
January 1, 2004

-- The Sake Index
-- Junmaishu Rule Changes
-- Sake Worth Seeking
-- Sake Events & Announcements

Happy New Year to all Sake World readers. May 2004 be a year of happiness, health and prosperity for you all.



As 2004 opens, I want to present a snapshot of the sake world in an offbeat and interesting (albeit less than totally original) format. With all due respect and credit to Harper's Magazine, here is The Sake Index for the end of 2003.

-- Approximate number of sakagura (sake breweries) in Japan today: 1500

-- Approximate number in 1988: 2500

-- Number or sakagura in Hyogo Prefecture, the prefecture with more sakagura than any other prefecture in Japan, and the prefecture that brews the most sake: 150.

-- Number or sakagura (sake breweries) in Niigata Prefecture, the prefecture with the second highest number of sakagura, and 3rd in production: 105

-- Number of sakagura in Kyoto, 2nd in production but way down on the list in terms of number of sakagura: 48.

-- Number of sakagura in Okinawa: 1

-- Number of sakagura in Kagoshima, and the ONLY of Japan's 47 prefectures that can make this claim: 0

-- Percent of all sake produced in Japan that comes out of Hyogo and Kyoto combined (and mostly the Nada ward of Kobe city in Hyogo and the Fushimi ward of Kyoto city in Kyoto): 47.

-- Rercent of all sake brewed in Japan that is exported. 0.1

-- Approximate number of sake rice strains in existence: 75

-- Approximate number with enough distinction that most sake fans will encounter them often enough to want to remember: 12

-- Number of years it takes to develop through crossbreeding a new sake rice: 5 to 10

-- Average number of new sake rice types coming out each year (although many of these do not live up to expectations and fall out of use within a few years): 5

-- Very approximate number of sake yeast strains used on a practical level for on-the-market sake: 50

-- Approximate number with enough distinction that most sake fans will encounter them often enough to want to remember: 15

-- Number of years it takes to isolate through experimentation a useable new yeast strain: 3

-- Number of hours I have wasted trying to keep track of all of these rice and yeast types and their qualities: 1,000,000,000

-- Average seimai buai (rice milling rate, i.e., how much the rice is milled before brewing) of all sake brewed in Japan (including mass-production sake), expressed as a percentage of the original size of the grain: 73%

-- Percent of the grain ground away into powder before brewing to achieve the above seventy three percent seimai buai: 27%.

-- Average seimai buai percentage of sake brewed in Toyama prefecture, the region with the highest average seimai-buai (followed closely by Ishikawa, Fukui, Miyagi and Shizuoka): 61%

-- Very approximate number of wine-bottle size bottles of junmai ginjo class sake that can be made from one ton of rice: 5000

-- Average number of gold medals for excellence awarded in May over the past few years at the National New Sake Tasting Competition: 380
-- Average number of gold medals for excellence awarded in the National New Sake Tasting Competition in 1984: 120

-- Amount of sake imported into the US from Japan expressed as the number of wine-bottle size bottles of sake in 2002: 2,730,000
-- Approximate amount of sake imported into the US from Japan expressed as the number of wine-bottle size bottles of sake in 1990: 1,350,000

-- Average percentage increase in imports from Japan each year over the last six years: 12%



From January 1, 2004, a couple of new rule changes relating to the labeling of sake will take effect.

Until now, junmai-shu was defined as sake brewed with only rice, water, koji, with the rice used in brewing having a minumum seimai-buai of  70%.  With the rice used being milled down to at least 70% of its original size, a certain amount of quality can be maintained, or so was the logic behind that rule.

However, what this meant was that sake made with rice only, i.e. no added alcohol or organic acids or things, cannot be called junmai-shu (which means "pure rice sake") unless it has had that rice milled to meet spec. For this reason, brewers making pure rice sake not milled to spec were calling it "kome dake" (rice only) or other names with similar meaning, potentially causing confusion in the market. For this reason and other reasons, now any sake made with rice only can be referred to as junmai-shu. But (and there is always a "but"), there is a condition that applies: now, all junmai-shu must by law list the seimai-buai on the bottle. So consumers can now see whether it is a rice-only sake made with rice milled just enough to eliminate roughness, or whether it was made with highly-milled rice, thus leading to a more elegant and refined flavor and aroma.

While perhaps a bit of a hassle for brewers, the rule seems helpful all around. Brewers that want to make an olde-style junmai-shu, fuller in flavor perhaps, and less expensive due to less highly milled rice, can now do so, and rightfully put the junmai word on the label. Indeed, it should be recognized as such. And, we consumers will know just what we are getting in to when dealing with any junmai-shu.

Some brewers have said that not much will change, at least not on a practical level. Those that brew premium junmai-shu like that which was erstwhile available often listed the seimai-buai on there anyway, although it was not until now obligatory. And there are really just a couple of products on the market that were rice only and yet could not until now call themselves junmai-shu. So not too much will change at the end of the day for you and I, and the rule change made sense anyway. 

Note that the rice milling specifications for the other special designation sake types (honjozo-shu, ginjo-shu, junmai ginjo-shu, daiginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu) all remain what they were. However, from January 1, the seimai buai must be listed on the bottle for these as well. For a review of the specs for these grades, please see

While most readers surely recall, as a review, why do they mill the rice like that? What's the big deal?

In proper sake rice (which is different from normal table rice), starches - which is what eventually ferments - are concentrated in the center of the grains of rice. Surrounding this, closer to the surface of the rice grains, are found fats and proteins and things that adversely affect fermentation and in general lead to off-flavors, strange and generally unwanted components to the profile.

By milling the rice further and further, more and more of these unwanted fats, proteins, and nasties can be ground away before fermentation begins. This leads to cleaner, more elegant and more refined sake. It also allows more lively aromatics to come about. So, in general, the more you polish the rice, the higher the grade of sake.

Still, it is not correct to say only sake made with highly milled rice is worth drinking. On the contrary: fuller flavored sake has its time and place as well. Hopefully, this new rule change will make this more easily recognized by consumers everywhere.


-- O-toso
While O-toso is not a brand or type of sake, it is a special herbal preparation drunk only at the opening of the New Year. Curious and auspicious, those that are interested in this traditional sake should check out the in-depth article I wrote on O-toso last year at

-- Shichifukujin (Iwate)
Shichi-fuku-jin is the name that refers to a collection of seven gods collectively known as "The Seven Gods of Good Fortune." Ebisu, Benten, and Hotei are three of the more commonly heard names. As far as Shichifukujin sake, this is one of those well known brands that led (and still leads) sake from smaller breweries in the countryside out of oblivion and into ginjo-shu glory over the past 30 years or so. I am not sure how I have failed to introduce this brand until now in the past 50 newsletters. That transgression aside, the sake from this brewery has identity and character in spades, with a wonderful thread of distinction running through it. (They have a second brand, Kiku Tsukasa, that is more local to region, but is available to some degree elsewhere - and is just as recommendable.)

-- Shichifukujin "Tezukuri" Junmai Daiginjo
A very fairly priced daiginjo that was actually one of the very first daiginjo ever available on the market.  "Tezukuri" means handmade, and is really but a product name, not an official classification. Unfortunately, my most vivid memory attached to this sake is one of being horrified at having knocked over and broke the first bottle of it I ever bought before getting it home from that day's shopping. One-point-eight liters of bliss spread thin across the department store floor. All that eager anticipation scrapped in an instant... but I digress. Somewhat full on the palate, with a cleansing undertow of acidity and a rice-like feel and viscosity to it. Balanced and filling in flavor, it is nonetheless clean and elegantly structured. It seems at times lively overall yet tempered and understated at the same time.  The aroma is perfectly ginjo-esque but milder compared to much sake these days.

-- Juyondai (Yamagata)
Junmai Ginjo "Omachi"
Juyondai first came into popularity about ten years ago, then grew in popularity, then peaked in a frenzy of notoriety, where it pretty much resides today. So much so that it is all but impossible to get it on a retail level, but easy to find at restaurants and pubs. Is it that good? Yes, but especially at the junmai ginjo levels. Going as high as daiginjo is hardly worth it, in my opinion. It sacrifices much of its distinction for pristine refinement at the daiginjo levels. This junmai ginjo made with Omachi rice is, I was told, a new product and somewhat different from the one I had come to know and love, which was (and presumably still is) known as their "Nakadori" product. I was quite impressed. While maintaining the very fruity and lively aromatics Juyondai is known for, the overall light-n-lively profile was anchored and balanced by the decidedly herbal and grassy undercurrents contributed by the Omachi. While this is admittedly hard to find, it is not expensive at all and is well worth the search, even if it be but a glass.

-- Momo no Shizuku (Kyoto)
Junmai Ginjo. A quintessential Kyoto sake: elegant and refined. This kura is well known also for a well distributed junmai-shu known as "Matsumoto," the family name, and the generations-old brand "Hinode-zakari," or "Prosperous Sunrise." This ginjo product, "Momo no Shizuku," or "Peach Drips," is lovely in its staid character. It is simple, it is clean, it is soft overall. To say anymore about it would be to sully the perception I intend to convey.


Saturday, January 10, 2004
In the evening, I will hold a basic sake seminar at the sake pub Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The topics will be the basics of sake, with a focus on "Shinshu," or "new sake." Those that often attend my seminars will find some material repeated. While the seminar is geared toward those new to sake, all are welcome, and the sake served will all be unique in that it will all be "shinshu." The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing John Gauntner or No deposit is required.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Another seminar will be held on January 14, together with pottery expert Rob Yellin.

On Saturday, January 24, I will lead a small group to visit a sake brewery in Tochigi Prefecture, Dai-ichi Shuzo, brewers of Kaika sake. The group is limited to 15 people. We will gather at Ueno Station at 8:00 am that morning, visit the brewery for a tour and tasting, grab a late lunch and head back to Tokyo. There is no charge for the visit beyond lunch, transportation, and what sake you choose to buy. Those interested in attending should email John Gauntner or



THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.

THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and 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 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).

This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner's point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.

-- SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost)
   A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-- Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper)
   Pocket-sized well-written book by Harper, who brews sake at a kura in Japan.
-- Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo)
   The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes; good peripheral info


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, or see their site at


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