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Sake World Newsletter


March 2009


Top Story

Rice Growing, Part IV

Greetings to all,

First and foremost, apologies for the lack of a newsletter last month. Intentions were good, but February 1 found me overwhelmed, a situation that continued well into the last half of the month, a point after which logic dictated that simply waiting until March 1 was the best idea. If you wondered where the February issue was and maybe even missed reading it, thank you. If not, please accept my apologies anway.

This month will be the fourth installment of what I have dubbed "The Kome Khronicles," a series on growing, harvesting and understanding the significance - as well as the romance - of the raw material of sake, rice. This month we will look at Yamada Nishiki, that venerable and as of yet all-but-unchallenged variety of rice behind so much great sake, some amazing facts about it, and more. Enjoy.

With warm regards,

The Kome Khronicles, Rice Growing, Part IV

First, a bit of background. Over the last three issues we have looked at rice production, including planting, growing and harvesting. Those articles, by the way, are archived here. Most of the rice encountered in those articles happened to be Yamada Nishiki.

So, what is Yamada Nishiki? And more importantly, why is it what it is? It is a rice variety that has held the crown for best sake rice for over half a century. Sure, there have been and will be challengers, thank goodness, and as all crowns do, it may in time change noggins. But for now, based on how in-demand it is, and how it is used, Yamada Nishiki is still on top of the game.

It all starts with Nada, that neighborhood that sits half in Kobe and half out, from which a third or so of all the sake in the Universe flows. That small neighborhood is blessed with such an array of great sake-brewing conditions that it took over as the sake-brewing capital at the end of the 17th century and has held its ground ever since.

It is close to excellent rice growing fields with a perfect climate for sake rice, thus giving the people and farmers of long ago the much needed opportunity to work in the winter. It has six rivers running through it to power milling the machines of old, and also sits on the shore, facilitating almost instant shipping to the massive samurai-filled market of Edo, now Tokyo. And it has Miyamizu, chemically hard water that ensures fast, vigorous, healthy fermentation and a discernible, solid style.

Like all agricultural products, rice has ties to land and weather: each variety will grow differently in even slightly different environments. The first "real" sake rice was Omachi, from Okayama Prefecture, and although it is right next door to Hyogo Prefecture, within which Nada sits, it was a bit too far for Nada brewers to count on. So next they tried a version growing a bit closer, Mishima Omachi. This led to switching to a very local rice, Yamadaho, but it did not quite fit the bill. And this led to the development of Hyogo Agricultural Tech Center Yamada Nishiki.

It was crossbred (a simple pollen exchange) with one of its parent strains being the aforementioned Yamadaho. This took place at the Hyogo Prefecture Agricultural Technology Center back in 1936. It was created to support the sake of Hyogo (the lion's share of which came from Nada), and was supported, fostered and economically nurtured by the big brewers of Nada, God bless 'em. More on this later, but for now, with this as a backdrop, let us continue.


During a routine visit to Honda Shouten, the Hyogo-based brewers of Tatsuriki, I stumbled upon a wealth of rice information that I had been downplaying for years and years. While they make a reasonable range of products, the higher manifestations of Tatsuriki is made with the absolute best Yamada Nishiki grains from amongst the absolute best fields for growing said rice in the entire world.

I used to think the ranking system and reasoning for all this was nothing more than shameless self promotion and marketing, a circle of folks opportunistically patting themselves on the back as they sold more sake thanks to an inflated image. Just how wrong I was about that is the stuff of another story (perhaps next month), but for now, allow me to focus more on what three generations of the Honda family taught me when I casually dropped in.

In a sequestered room, the CEO, president and owner inherit explained to me more about rice in general and Yamada Nishiki in particular than I had ever fathomed. It was fascinating. The nearby Harima region was found to yield the best Yamada Nishiki, thanks to many factors, not the least of which is hot days and cold nights that help the starch-laden centers called shinpaku to develop well. The mineral content of the soil, supported by deeper layers of rock, also ensure that high standard. "If you want to grow rice," said Mr. Honda the CEO, "you have to study your rocks first."

The reasons it grows so well there are interesting, but even more so to me are the economics behind it, past and present. The big brewers of Nada needed it and fostered its development through agreements with farmers. Japan has complex post-war laws that (until very, very recently) did not allow sake producers to own rice fields, nor even buy it directly from any given farmer. It all had to go through agricultural cooperatives, and in fact almost all of it still does. But the Nada boys worked through and with these laws to still make sure they got it all. And in fact, today one can still drive through these farming towns and see large flags of the various gargantuan Nada producers, announcing they have dibs on all the rice from fields above which they fly.

Interestingly, over time, technological developments in brewing dictated that the mass producers could maintain quality with significantly less expensive rice. Many of them began to use a lot of rice from other regions, of other lineages, and of appropriately less cost. This resulted in the increased availability of more and more of that great Yamada Nishiki to other, smaller scale brewers. Just another reason to truly respect the large brewers of Nada.

The enthusiasm I showed was reciprocated, and I soon found myself being escorted by Mr. Honda the prez to the Agricultural Center mentioned above. Along the way, he explained a bit more history. Many prefectures, especially today, have rice varieties that were developed for local use by brewers within the prefecture. Eventually, though, the good ones will leak out and appear in other locales. While they may or may not grow as well there, often the sheer quality is sufficient even when the agricultural conditions are not optimum. This is perhaps more true with Yamada Nishiki than any other rice.

"Actually," Honda-san began, "Yamada has never officially been let out of Hyogo! But still, somehow it is being grown in 20 other prefectures." (Japan is comprised of 47 prefectures, most about the size of a county.)

We pulled up to the Agricultural Center. There it was: the birthplace of Yamada Nishiki. It was but a small building, a single-room, one-floored simple structure. No offices, no reception, no secretary. One big room with rice-growing and rice-assessing tools. It was surrounded by small rice fields, used for growing the purest of the pure, and experimenting a bit as well.

There are a handful of concrete parameters by which sake rice is assessed, both in terms of the quality of an individual harvest and that of the various strains. One of these is the weight of a thousand grains. Larger is better, at least on a fundamental level, and the thousand-grain standard allows this to be measured in a reproducible and reliable manner. I used to smirk and wonder to myself, "I wonder who the poor saps are that have to sit around and count out a thousand rice grains!"

Well, there they were, a roomful of the poor saps, counting away. As we walked into the building, there were perhaps a dozen seemingly gruff, busy gents wearing Agricultural Center jackets standing around the table counting out Yamada Nishiki rice grains, a thousand at a time. It was mid-November, just after harvest time for the big Y, and they were assessing the fruits of labor of local farmers' grains.

The poor saps collectively stopped their counting and looked up at me together, askance, and then shot a collective glance to Honda-san, as if to say, "Who is he and what is he doing here?" They knew very well who they were, what they were doing, and what they were dealing with. Honda-san saved me. "He's with me. He is interested in Yamada Nishiki." That placated the men, who returned to their tasks at hand. Smirk gone, I was humbled, to say the least.

Back to the "thousand grain" unit. The way they do it is ingenious in its simplicity. They use a simple square tray with a handle that looks like it might make a good omelet pan. Dug into the surface are 500 little divots just about the size of a large grain of rice. The poor saps shovel this puppy into a bag of rice, pull it out, and gently shake it until there is a single grain in each divot and no more hovering about. Voila! 500 grains. Do that twice and you have got your thousand grains, in all of about 30 seconds. Humbled again, I consoled myself with a couple of cool pictures. (To be continued next month.)


Sake Professional Course
Thanks to the support of countless, the 6th Japan-based Sake Professional Course concluded without a hitch in January, and the 2nd Level II SPC concluded a week ago under similarly positive circumstances. It will take me about six months to recover, just in time for the 3rd Stateside Sake Professional Course, this time to be held in New York City, in August, although the precise date and venue are as of yet undetermined. Those interested, though, can inquire by email to me. 


For Local Readers
Sake Events in China

This month I will be conducting several sake events at the contemporary North Asian restaurant, Bei, located in the luxury hotel The Opposite House in Beijing. The events will be held in Bei on:

  • Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 5pm (In English, Approximately 2 hours). RMB 388 (15% service charge) per person includes sake and hors d'oeuvres
  • Sunday, March 22, 2009 4:30pm� (In English with Chinese Translation, Approximately 3-4 hours).
  • Please note both courses will cover the same material.
  • RMB 388 per person includes sake and hors d'oeuvres.

In addition to a sake tasting course, a separate sake paring dinner will be prepared by Bei chef de cuisine, Max Levy. Dinner includes six luxurious courses paired with six distinct sakes from different producers. The sake-pairing dinner will be held in Bei:

  • Monday, March 23, 2009 from 6:45 (In English).
  • RMB 988* per person. Includes all food and beverage.
  • Limited seats available. Please call 86 10 6410.5230 for reservations or inquiries.


Tensei from Kanagawa
There is still some time to get involved in the Tensei Club mentioned last month. If interested, please shoot me an email.


Further Reading
Dancyu Blog. I have begun a blog on sake related ramblings for the gourmet magazine Dancyu. It is, however, in Japanese. Should you be interested and able to check it out, you can find it here.


Further Listening
I have also begun an audio program - five minutes at a time - that includes sake recommendations. The monthly posts can be heard at, a fascinating blog covering a wide range of arts and traditions of Japan, done by Steve Beimel, a decades-long resident of Kyoto. It is worth visiting for much more than the few measly sake updates!


Stay Subscribed!
Are you not getting this newsletter? I realize that is like asking that "those not present please raise your hand," but for future reference, should you spontaneously stop receiving this newsletter, please go here and sign up again. Should that not work, please visit this page and sign up again.

Email newsletter services are very careful not to be considered spam enablers, but the problem is that often very valid email addresses come back bounced as invalid. It is an unavoidable problem. So if you or someone you know is not getting this, or stop(s) receiving it inexplicably, please do take a moment to double check that you are still subscribed.

Sincere apologies for the hassle, mixed with gratitude for reading this newsletter. 


Sake Educational Products
Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. We offer 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.
First is 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.
Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.


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:
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.

Copyright 1999 - 2009

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