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Newsletter Archive 2008

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Sake World Newsletter


Feb. 2008


  • Toji Guilds
  • Hire-zake
  • Sake Educational Products
  • Sake Events

Top Story

Toji Guilds, Master Brewers

Toji Guilds - "Easy Now, Killer, Easy Now"
One of the biggest factors contributing to the quality of the sake from a given kura is the skill of the toji, or master brewer, in residence therein. And while technical texts and other means of advice and support are much more available to brewers today then, say a century ago, the experience, intuition, and decisiveness of the person in charge is still of paramount importance.

I have written in much more details about toji, their jobs, and their guilds, most recently here and here. Also, for a map showing the locations of the toji guilds, go here.

It is probably fair to say, though, that the industry is less dependent on the various guilds of master brewers than they were back in "da day." And in fact, I myself have been seeing less (not not zero, mind you, but less) significance in the differences between the various guilds themselves, beyond their formidable cultural and historical presence.

Sure, we hear about slight differences, like the Nanbu guild does it this way, but the Echigo guild does the same step another way. But in the end, the overall level of technical prowess is higher than it used to be, toji or no toji, guild or no guild. And so many other factors guide the decisions of any given toji - such as house style or modern consumer needs - that those little differences between the guilds get squashed in comparison.

Nevertheless, I am pretty sure there is a lot about sake brewing I have no clue about, and recently learned a bit about some of the real technical differences in the way different guilds of toji brew, and teach their proteges.

The toji guilds are centered around old farming regions (see map), and most of the toji of a particular guild would stay close to home. But as the number of guilds and therefore toji has declined drastically (many are gone for good, or have but a couple of members), those that have maintained their numbers begin to necessarily spread out a bit. More importantly, things are less clear cut then they used to be, both in terms of technology, methods, and logistics.

And so I found myself in Ishikawa Prefecture, on the Noto Peninsula, home to the Noto Toji Guild. It is a narrow strip of land so sparsely populated, mostly with tobacco farmers, that in some higher spots one can see water on both sides, a testament to how few buildings (and therefore people, and therefore potential sake drinkers) there are. (Again, see the map.)

One brewer I was visiting, a tiny operation, had as their toji the son of the owner, destined to take over himself in due time. But oddly enough, due to some affiliation from university, he was affiliated with a totally different guild, the mighty Nanbu Guild, basically centered in Iwate way up north. (See the map just one more time.)

So here sat this Nanbu toji in the middle of the home town of Noto toji. While it may not seem like much in writing, I was surprised and impressed. In any event, this particular gent had the chance to speak with many a Noto Toji as he was surrounded by them, and that juxtaposition made for great conversation as we strolled around his kura.

I found one particular technical difference big enough to surprise me and encourage further discussion.

When brewing a tank of sake, after the yeast starter is prepared, it is mixed with more rice, enzyme-rich moldy rice called koji, and water, added in three separate doses over four days. After that, the resulting fermenting mash - called the moromi - is allowed to ferment away for from 20 to 35 days or so. As it goes about its fermenting business, the temperature in that tank will rise. The highest temperature it reaches can be anywhere from 10C to 18C, depending on the grade of sake and ten million other things.

It was explained to me by this Nanbu Toji surrounded by Noto Toji that the Nanbu guild liked to let that temperature run up freely and of its own accord. "It gives us the fine-grained, clear flavor we are famous for," he explained. But the Noto guild prefers to hold that back, forcing the moromi to take as much time as is feasible to come up to that higher temperature. The words used to me were, "Osaete, osaete," or "They hold it back, as if saying 'Easy now, killer, easy now.'" As he explained to me, he held his arms out, palms facing me and pushing forward, as if holding back an invisible force. And again, there is a reason. "It gives them the full flavor and quick finish that is their trademark," I was told.

The differences are quite significant. We're not talking a day or two here, but more to the tune of a seven days. In other words, one school says the highest temperature can be hit in a week, another says hold it back and make it take 14 days or so. To me, having that much variance in the basic brewing methodology is surprising.

But they're right. If left on their own to brew sake as they like (i.e. without owner or consumer "suggestions" or "guidance"), Nanbu toji-brewed sake is indeed clear and fine-grained. And without a doubt, Noto toji-made juice is quite full - until the end, when it cleans out astonishingly quickly.

Well, I initially chalked this up to his particular perception. But the next day I had the good fortune to visit another brewery, this one firmly ensconced in the region's Noto toji hands. And as the evening's discussion with that toji wore on, we returned to this point. I began to describe to him what I had been told. "I have heard that the Nanbu toji let the temperature of the moromi run up freely, whereas you Noto guys tend to?" He cut me off at that point.

With his arms out, palms pushing toward me as if holding back an invisible force, he interjected "Osaete, osaete?" And added a bit more verbiage to the tune of "Easy now, killer, easy now. Gotta hold that puppy back a bit." Not only did he know where I was going, the words were the same. In fact, he took the words right out of my mouth, or rather, the other guy's. The gestures too, for that matter. This kind of indicated to me just how deeply ingrained their thinking is on the issue. It's what gives our sake the full flavor yet clean finish Noto Toji are known for.

I was impressed by not only the differences, but also by the acute awareness of those differences on the part of the journeymen themselves.

I reiterate, though, that these differences are likely less significant than they once were. Textbooks, computer-generated curves and the equipment to allow brewers to match them, and modern understanding of the processes have usurped much of the effect of those older, empirically driven methods. But still, the differences in the practices of the various toji guilds are alive, well, and infinitely interesting.

What is That Blowfish Doing in My Sake?
There are many types of sake that are far from orthodox. There is red stuff, sparkling stuff, low alcohol stuff and more. Sake made using sake itself, sake made using 100 percent koji rice, wood-dosed sake and old brews. While most of this is hardly a match for good or even just decent ginjo sake, they are gaining presence and acceptance, and I have sounded off about them in a past newsletter. One type I have not described, probably because I find it hard to take it too seriously, is hire-zake.

Hire-zake is actually more of a preparation than a type. While it is all but impossible to find outside of Japan, you can find it here and even make it yourself should you feel the urge.

In short, hire-zake is sake in which is steeped a blowfish fin. Naturally, it is most commonly found at blowfish restaurants, but can be seen elsewhere too. Said fin will have been grilled heavily, and will be quite hard and crunchy, perhaps even a tad charred. You take that puppy, put it into a medium sized teacup or steeping kettle, and pour extremely hot sake over it. Let it soak a few minutes and enjoy.

It is said that the collagen and amino acids in the blowfish fin melt amidst the heat of the sake, giving a characteristic earthy richness, and lovely amber color.

Needless to say, however, the character of the blowfish fin will overpower any remnant of delicate refinement that may have existed in the sake, as would the intense heating of the sake beforehand. As such, it is hard to recommend using premium sake, or at least not fresh stuff. Perhaps that bottle that has been sitting open for almost two weeks or so might be perfect.

Should you want to try hire-zake, and you live in Japan or have a connection here, the dried, grilled fins are available in most larger department stores on the specialty food floor. All you need is a bag of those, and a bottle of sake, and you will be golden. I believe that blowfish has become available in some countries outside of Japan, but I am not sure about the packaged dried fins.

I dunno. Piping hot sake? Blowfish fins? Seems a bit inflated to me. In fact the whole thing seems a bit fishy. But it does exist, and should you have the chance, it likely deserves at least one try. Kanpai: Knock yerself out.

New: Sake Educational Products from Sake-World
I am quite pleased to announce the opening of the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. See Educational Products at Currently we have three products.

  • The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
  • Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
  • Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.

Sake Events
On the evening of Saturday, February 9, which is admittedly in like three days, from 6pm until 9pm, Rob Yellin and I will hold our first Sake and Pottery Seminar of the year at Takara near JR Yurakucho station. As is customary, the topics will be the basics of the sake world and the world of Japanese ceramics. The cost for the evening, including two lectures with materials, six sake and dinner, is 7000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by sending me an email. Also, anyone interested in being notified by email of upcoming sake events can sign up for said notification here.

Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More information on the following topics can be found at

  • Sake Homebrewing
  • Books on Sake
  • Information on the archives of this newsletter
  • General information related to this publication

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link:

Copyright 1999

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