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Newsletter Archive 2008

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Sake World Newsletter


April 2008


  • Various Philosophies or "How Big is Your Shikomi"
  • Oya in Boston
  • Hasegawa Sake-ten in Tokyo Station
  • Sake Educational Products
  • San Francisco Sake Pro Course Aug. 2008

Top Story

Shikomi Philosophies

Welcome to the 100th edition of The Sake World Newsletter. Better late than never, as they say, or in this case, better really late than never. I was doing fine, closing in on number one hundred, topics in mind and feeling balanced about it, but perhaps the sheer magnitude of the number itself was daunting, 'cuz as I approached that coveted milestone, fate intervened. A combination of an unreasonable (albeit self-inflicted) workload and several other thunderbolts from a surely smirking Zeus threw everything off kilter, where it stayed resolutely for a month or so.
So late though it may be, please enjoy the 100th edition of this newsletter. May it continue to help make sake more enjoyable for you and yours. I plan to play catch-up, so the timing of the publication may from now on be a bit less regular than it has been. Your understanding is greatly appreciated. <John Gauntner>

Various Philosophies or
How Big is Your Shikomi?

There are many things that determine how good a batch of sake will be. And there are equally as many opinions about each and every one of those things. Factors that some brewers consider indispensable or key, others will downplay or even outright contradict - if not diss - with opposite philosophies. Depending on your threshold for vagary, it can either be frustrating or fascinating.

One of these factors is the size of the batch, or the "shikomi," measured in kilos of rice that went into a given tank to create that batch of sake.

Perhaps typical is a ton to a ton-and-a-half (a metric ton, mind you, so 1000 kg or 2200 pounds) of the combination of straight steamed rice and koji (the rice that has had koji mold propagated upon it). But there are those of the opinion that much smaller shikomi, say 600 kg or so, are infinitely better for super premium sake.

Perhaps the smallest size I have seen is 500kg on a practical level. But done at this scale, yields are quite low. And brewers need to ask themselves, from an economical point of view, is it worth it in the end? When considering the time required to do each of the many steps, then have it take up tank space, press it and filter it when fermentation is complete, bottle it and care for it and more - it would be so much more economical to double, triple or quadruple your yields; yea, verily I say unto thee multiply them by ten-fold for true efficiency. And many, many breweries function at such economies of scale.

Naturally, though, at some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vicious vengeance and quality begins to noticeably suffer. But just where that occurs, and how each toji (master brewer) feels about it, varies hugely.

For example, some do not think that smaller is always better, citing the truth that it is much harder to control parameters such as temperature in those smaller tanks over the long run. To achieve a given flavor and aromatic profile, brewers guide the moromi (fermenting mash) along a very tight temperature curve. Smaller batches are more subject to various factors that might send them out of spec, so to speak.

Conversely, a largish tank would lumber along so much more heavily that wild swings in temperature et al would not likely happen - assuming, that is, that the brewer fundamentally has his act together. But of course the counterpunch to this is that if your temperature and other parameters stray from the fold of the ideal, it is easy to bring them back into alignment with small batches, back to where you want them to be, whereas in big batches, it is merely an almost non-retractable statement of having screwed up. Or so say some.

Yet more dissention abounds. One hugely famous toji of almost unmatched accomplishment insists that larger batches of about 1.5 tons are ideal. He also insists on slightly customizing his tank dimensions, because by doing so the moromi mixes itself and he does not have to mess with using long poles to mix it up. It all occurs naturally in his kura as, inside the tanks, carbon dioxide bubbles stick to dissolving rice particles and the countless yeast cells, rising to the top, where the gas is released and the now-dense glob sinks again. And if your shikomi size is right, it all circulates perfectly, around and around and around...

One fact worth mentioning, however, is that almost always the more premium grades of sake are indeed made in comparatively smaller batches, compared that is to the shikomi size of the lower grades of sake for a given brewer. And contest sake, too, is almost without exception made in smaller batches. But this surely arises from the aforementioned ability to tightly control key parameters.

Normally, though, I would not consider this topic worth writing about, since - although I do tend to wax to the technical side from time to tme - the majority of us are more into tasting than the under-the-hood workings of the brewing process. But lately I have come across this information on the back labels of some sake bottles: they actually tell us the size of the shikomi.

Now what in the world are we supposed to do with this information? In the end, the flavors and aromas of a sake before us are either appealing, or they are not. Biasing our minds with such information before tasting will but encumber our enjoyment by unnecessarily prejudicing it. At least, that is how I feel about it.

But as always, there are a myriad of opinions. One big gun of a distributor in the Tokyo/Yokohama metropolis insists that it's gotta be 600 kg or smaller to be decent. He cites his ten-year convincing effort focused on one famous kura to lower their shikomi size from a ton to 600 kg, and when they did, they won a major international award. True, the smaller shikomi size might have had something to do with it, but so might a gazillion other things. But hey, what do I know.

So enjoy your sake for its flavors and aromas. And should you come across the shikomi size, now you know its significance, and its potential liabilities.

"Oya" in Boston
While restaurant reviews are hardly the mainstay of this newsletter, this one deserves mention. Oya in Boston was recently picked by the New York Times as the Number One restaurant in the US outside of New York City, selected over a ten-week, nail-biting countdown. Their incredibly presented food is "Japanese influenced," but so much more. On top of that they have a fine sake list boasting more than 20 primo selections.

In preparation for opening, owner-team husband and wife Tim and Nancy Cushman sent the latter to my Sake Professional Course in 2006, so I kind of have a bit more of an attachment - and bias - than I normally would. Still, the New York Times has augmented my opinion, and for what either is worth, there is no doubt a visit to Oya will not soon be forgotten. Enjoy the food, but by all means, enjoy the sake too.

"Hasegawa Sake-ten" in Tokyo Station
Great Sake Shopping in Tokyo

Lots of folks pass through Tokyo on business, and many are looking for places to pick up good sake. I usually direct them to one of several conspicuously located large department stores, often found at Tokyo loop-line hubs, and indeed these are the most convenient and user-friendly. For the hardcores and overkill types, I send them off the beaten path to a couple of distributors handling lots of hard to find stuff. This bi-level strategy was the best I could do... until now.

Hasegawa Saka-ten, that uber-distributor that has brought many a fine sake in from the boonies and put them on our radar (and continues to do so), has opened their fourth location, and this one may be the coolest sake shop in the entire Tokyo area, all things considered.

Why? Because - among a myriad of other reasons - it is located inside Tokyo Station, i.e. inside the gates, or "wickets" as they are sometimes called, within the area for ticketed passengers only. Sure, this can be a bit of a hassle for those of us not already in the immediate environs, but in the end almost everyone takes a train to get to that station (surprise, surprise), and for those that do parachute in or something, well 120 yen will get you inside the wickets anyway.

Transportation logistics notwithstanding, in the "Gransta" underpass shopping street, sitting open to the throngs is Hasegawa Sake Shop. It takes up a good chunk of real estate, the far right of which is a bar seating perhaps eight or so where one can drink premium beer, premium sake, and even shochu (but don't you even think about it).

More useful to most readers is the middle section, filled with shelves of excellent, heretofore hard to find sake. On top of that there is almost always a sake brewer there donning a ceremonial happi coat and pouring samples for tasting.

Finally, the left side of the store comprises a carry-out shelf filled with decent and better-than-average beer, and a whole host of small, 300 ml bottles of premium sake, sampling sizes of the same super stuff stored aside it, or much of it anyway. There is also some shochu (but don't you even think about it).

A couple of pictures are here, as well as a partial list, albeit it in Japanese, of what they carry:

But in the spirit of being useful, here are some of the great sake you will find there, at least at the time of this writing. Bear in mind that they change their stock often, and depending on when you reference this and go there, you may not find the same selection. But chances are good that much of it should be there. And, what is admittedly great about these, more than their inherent tastiness, is that they are otherwise pretty hard to find in retail stores. Herein lies the power, for better or for worse, of Hasegawa Sake-ten. 'Nuff said 'bout that.

They may or may not have English-speaking staff present. I think they are trying to fill that need but am not sure how comprehensive their program is in this area. While I have listed only brand names below, this is because they could/should have several manifestations of each. Use what you know about the grades of sake - or just base your decision on price - and you will be fine. (For more about the grades of sake, see Types of Sake)

And so, wi' no further ado:

  • Ho-Oh Biden (Tochigi)
  • Tosa Shiragiku (Kochi)
  • Isojiman (Shizuoka)
  • Kamoshibito Kuheiji (Aichi)
  • Toyo Bijin (Yamaguchi)
  • Atago no Matsu (Miyagi)
  • Hyaku Raku Sei (Miyagi)A Medium-ish Sized Tank
  • Kishou (Tokyo; yes, you read that right)
  • Yamagata Masamune (Yamagata)
  • Joukigen (Yamagata)
  • Hatsukame (Shizuoka)
  • Azuma Ichi (Saga)
  • Fukucho (Hiroshima)
  • Matsu no Tsukasa (Shiga)
  • Matsu no Kotobuki (Tochigi)
  • Bijobu (Kochi)

Remember, it is not that these are the best sake out there; they may be, they may not. But they are harder-than-usual to get, or were anyhow, until this shop opened. Remember too that there are many more here, and furthermore, remember that there are many more well-known, sterling products at the easily accessible department stores around town.

So next time you are in Tokyo, or just passing through, take a bit of time before boarding the Narita Airport Express train (and leave a bit of luggage space) to check out the Hasegawa Saketen store in the Gransta shopping section of Tokyo station. If you like sake, it will surely be worth it.

Sake Educational Products

Just a remind to check out 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, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.

  • 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
2008 Stateside Sake Professional Course in San Francisco
The 2008 Stateside Sake Professional Course will be held in San Francisco on August 10, 11 and 12. The venue and a few details have yet to be finalized, but enough has been determined to warrant an official announcement. More information is available on the Sake World site, at and while a more comprehensive announcement will be presented in the next newsletter, 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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