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Niigata Quake; Rice Milling; Events

# 61

Nov. 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #61
November 1, 2004

-- Niigata Earthquake
-- Rice Milling Machines
-- Sake Events/Announcements

Niigata Earthquake
On the evening of October 23, a devastatingly powerful earthquake ripped through Niigata prefecture. In one area, it registered a 7 on the Richter scale. There were also several significantly powerful aftershocks causing further damage. In fact, aftershocks were still being felt as late as November 7. Power was cut so thoroughly and quickly that safety systems on the Shinkansen ("bullet train") malfunctioned, and one such high speed train had two of its cars derail. Thirty-nine people lost their lives, and thousands are living in local school gymnasiums. Access to the region has been severely affected. This earthquake has also dealt a crippling blow to the prefecture's well known sake industry. There are currently 98 active breweries in Niigata Prefecture, and of these no less than 40 sustained damage. Most sake breweries are old, old buildings built of wood or earthen walls. Their gorgeous architecture showcases form with function: they are made to give optimum contact with the environment so as to provide ideal conditions to brew and store sake. They are not, however, built to withstand  earthquakes of such magnitude.

The brewing season had just kicked off. Most kura had just begun a few tanks, or were preparing to do so when the calamity struck. However, many of the kura buildings were damaged to the extent that it was unsafe to enter them, much less continue brewing. One of the most famous breweries from Niigata, Asahi Shuzo, brewers of the very illustrious Kubota brand, as well as the Asahiyama, Esshu and Tokugetsu brands, sustained considerable damage. They were just about to ship this season's sake when the earthquake hit. According to a newspaper report, "tens of thousands of glass bottles, stacked 10-meters high and ready to ship, were either
broken or had their labels damaged." This constituted most of their stock waiting to be shipped. Those of you that love your Kubota may have to wait a year or so.

The company had already began brewing this season, and fortunately, their 10-meter tall extra large tanks were not damaged, although its foundations did sustain damage. More than 70,000 empty bottles were also smashed. From the same newspaper report: "I can't imagine the total damage," said Shinichi Matsui, 54, chief of the company's public relations section. "It's no exaggeration to say this is our company's biggest crisis since its foundation in 1830. We're going to do our best to overcome this difficult situation."

Kusumi Shuzo, a brewery I am particularly close with, also was hit quite hard. Damage was severe enough that they will not even begin brewing until mid-December, whereas they usually begin October 1 or so. But here they suffered a double-whammy this year. An early powerful typhoon in July caused landslides that destroyed a 170-year old storage kura that happened to be full with their stock of their famous Kame-no-O sake.

Obviously, there are many other kura in similarly desperate straits now. Let us send our hearts and prayers to them, as well as to all that have suffered - and continue to suffer - in the wake of this natural disaster, and hope and work toward a speedy and full recovery for all so affected.

Rice Milling Machines
As readers surely know, the degree to which the rice used in brewing has been milled is an important factor in the quality and style of a given sake. Why? Because in proper sake rice, the starches (i.e. the good stuff, that which we want, that which will ferment) is in the center, while the fat and protein (i.e. the less-than-good stuff, that which we do not want very much of) surrounds that, sitting closer to the outside of the grains. The more we mill away, the more fat and protein we remove, leaving only the delectable starch behind. And so, one very general rule of thumb about sake is "the more you mill the rice, the higher the grade of sake." In fact, the main component of the legal definition of the various grades is the degree that the rice has been milled. Note, though, that this does not always mean more milling unequivocally leads to better sake. It does usually mean cleaner, more refined sake. But excessive milling can grind away character too, and too much polishing can lead to sake that is a bit too ethereal. Also, the style of sake one prefers - or is most appropriate for a given situation - will surely not always be the most light and refined sake. So always be sure to drink the sake, not the label, and not the milling rate!

"I wonder how they actually mill the rice," is a thought I often hear expressed. "Does some guy grind down the grains one at a time with a small file or something?" Nah, not quite. But the technology is indeed quite labor intensive. Before talking about the machines that do it, I would like to convey just how important the actual step of milling the rice is. It is the first step taken once the rice has been harvested and brought into the kura, and it drastically affects each and every step on down
the line.

For example, the ability -- or lack thereof -- of the rice to absorb water is affected by how gently or harshly the rice was milled. As the rice is milled, all that bumpin' and grindin' leads to friction that generates heat which in turn first dries the rice, reducing its natural moisture content. It also then makes the rice harder and less able to absorb water later. For this reason, when making good sake, painstaking steps are taken to minimize this, such as slowing the whole milling process down.

The rice will later be soaked in water, and its moisture content will affect its physical condition after it goes through the steaming process. Unlike rice that is eaten, rice in sake brewing needs to be firm on the outside and soft on the inside. And, its post-steaming condition will affect the quality of the koji, that magically moldy rice that is the heart of the sake brewing process. Beyond the moisture issue is cracking and breakage. Cracked or broken grains will not lead to (again) proper koji, and also will not ferment predictably or properly in the fermenting mash. As such, efforts are made to minimize if not eliminate cracked and broken grains during the milling process. No mean feat, that. So clearly, the milling process exerts massive leverage on the rest of the brewing process. And it is no exaggeration to say that what has really made sake take off in the last 40 years or so is the development of advanced milling machines that accomplish all these objectives.

So how do they do it? What do these modern machines designed specifically for milling sake rice look like, and how do they function? The rice sits in a conical hopper holding perhaps a ton (there are various sizes), from which it falls down a tube onto a spinning grinding stone. A bit of the outside of the rice is nicked off, and a vacuum sucks off the powder generated. It is then carried back up to the hopper by conveyor belt, and goes around and around and around from anywhere from 24 hours to six days in some very extreme cases. Each time it goes around a bit more is nicked off until eventually the desired amount will have been milled away.

Here is what a typical "seimaiki" (milling machine) looks like:

Obviously, they can adjust many parameters. They can let the rice cascade down in copious amounts onto a grinding stone set to high torque, high rpms. This will get the job done faster, of course, but that aforementioned bumpin' and grindin' is not so good for the future of the rice. Or they can reduce the flow and amount of rice that falls, and lower the torque and/or speed of the grinding stone, slowing the whole activity down into a kinder, gentler milling process. This latter approach is what is invariably adapted for the best sake.

There are a plethora of other tricks and parameters that can be tweaked as well, and often computers will control the whole kit-and-caboodle. How do they know how much has been milled away? One of two ways: they either measure the amount of powder that has been removed, or from time to time the halt the process long enough to measure the remaining weight of the rice in the hopper, comparing that to the original weight. The latter method is more of a hassle, but more accurate. The grinding stone itself is interesting. It looks like a solid, squat stone hourglass, and the rice does not actually hit the top, but rather gets sucked into and bangs up against the curved side. I was finally able to see one that had been removed from the machine, and managed to get a snapshot of it. See it for yourself here:

In sake brewing, with all of the modern gadgets and machines and tools, almost always the older, hand-crafted, labor intensive, stress inducing methods are best. But the one area in which modern technology reigns indisputably supreme is rice milling. Naturally enough, these contraptions are quite expensive. Not all kura own them. (In fact, I have been told, most do not. But then again, almost all kura I have been visited seem to have their own.) Many kura - or groups of kura - will outsource to companies that do nothing but mill.

Finally, with all that milling going on, many wonder what happens to the tons of powder generated as the rice is ground down. This is called nuka, and it is not wasted. It is used in various things from livestock feed to the production of traditional crackers and sweets. And, in some isolated situations, it is fermented by large sake brewers for use in very cheap sake.

Sake Events and Announcements

-- Sake Seminar and Sake Bash, November 13, 2004 --
On the afternoon and evening of Saturday, November 13, from 4:00 until 8:00, Haruo Matsuzaki, famed sake critic, sake author, and all-around great guy will hold a sake seminar and massive tasting at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, located on the 20th floor of the Yurakucho Denki Building just outside JR Yurakucho Station. The event will celebrate his upcoming 70th "Sake Seminar for Regular Folks," a series of seminars now in its seventh year. The cost for the event, including a presentation in Japanese, plenty of food, and more excellent sake than you can handle is 8000 yen.

The schedule for the afternoon and evening is as follows.
4:00 pm: Doors open, registration
4:30 pm: A lecture on the National Research Institute of Brewing on its 100-year anniversary by Takeaki Ishikawa Sensei, a former director. Sure to be interesting.
5:30 pm: Sake Tasting: 20 sakagura will be present to pour their fine brews and take on all questions related to sake. Among these are Hamachidori (Iwate), Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata), Urakasumi (Miyagi), Kikuzakari (Ibaraki), Kikuyoi (Shizuoka), Hanagaki (Fukui), Fukuju (Hyogo), Mori no Kura (Fukuoka), and more. Hot damn!
6:30 pm: The festivities continue as dinner comes out in the form of a (standing) buffet, and mingling continues, as does the flow of great sake.
8:00 pm: Alas, all good things must come to an end.

Attendance is limited to 150 people. Those interested in attending can email Haruo Matsuzaki directly in English or Japanese at kikisake @ (to thwart spam spiders, spaces have been placed around the @ mark. Please remove the spaces around the @ mark. before sending).

-- French Food and Sake, November 19, 2004 --
On the evening of Friday, November 19, 2004, from 7:00 p.m., the Four Seasons Hotel at Marunouchi will celebrate an evening of French food and premium sake, pairing six courses created by chef Takuya Iida with six distinctly unique and superb sake. I will moderate the evening in both Japanese and English, and will include a basic presentation before and between the courses. The sake to be presented are Okunomatsu FN Sparkling Daiginjo, Kaiun Junmai Ginjo, Hakkaisan Daiginjo, Tenzan "Hotarugawa" Junmai Daiginjo, Sato no Homare "Kakunko" Junmai Daiginjo, and Kamoizumi "Shusen" Junmai Ginjo.

The cost for the evening is 18,000 yen per person. Those interested can contact the Four Seasons Restaurant Ekki at 03-5222-5810, and contact me with any questions.


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