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Sake World Newsletter


April 2009


Top Story

Blending in the Sake World

I hope this newsletter finds you well. Whether weather plays a role your part of the world, spring springs warmth into the hardest of hearts. It is also the time when the brewers of the sake industry collectively sigh in relief as they look forward to a several-month well-deserved break. And, of course, there is shinshu, new sake, of which to partake.

This month we will take a break too, ours being from the Kome Khronicles, the series on rice growing et al that have been the main topic of this newsletter for the past several months. We will pick up next month where we left off last month. Today, let us tackle the topic of blending in sake, through the practices of one fine brewer. See also the first installment of a new section, "Did you know?," a short and to-the-point explanation of one facet of the sake world. Also find herein a schedule of some events, and the official announcement of the summer Sake Professional Course, to be held in New York this coming summer. Enjoy.

Warm regards, John


Blending in the Sake World
As understood through one brewer's tasting
Above and beyond the gorgeous wave of pink that envelops Japan as the gazillion cherry blossom trees bloom, spring is the time when sake brewing begins to wind down for the season. And on the tail of that comes a handful of tastings, mostly of shinshu - or new sake - not yet matured but brimming with potential and the ability to tell us a lot about how things went over the past winter.

Most of these are large-ish tastings comprised of many brewers and their wares. But one in particular that I look forward to and value highly each year is put on by just one small brewer, for a couple of hours, in the dim, less-than-extravagant office of his main Tokyo distributor. The fact that I am extremely fond of this kura's sake is surely a big part of my excitement.

The sake is called Hitakami, from Miyagi, and in short, what Hirai-san the owner does is to line up 30 or so sake, mostly pasteurized but some nama, all genshu, and all very young. But what is unique here is the chance for those of us outside of the kura to taste each tank brewed with all its sparkling individuality. No homogenizi ng blending, not at that stage anyway. No chance for the sake to mellow out. And nothing to equal the playing field amongst them.

Bottles are lined up on a long, narrow table approachable on both sides, and flanked with spittoons strategically placed every meter or so. Each sake is labeled with the number of the tank from whence it came. The handout received upon entering gives us the necessary information: "Tank #37, Junmai-shu, Hitomebore rice at 60%, Miyagi Yeast, Nama Genshu, Nihonshudo 5, Acidity, 1.5." And so on down the line. Furthermore, we were given the date on which the sake was pressed, i.e. the day fermentation ended.

Often, people ask about blending in the sake world. Are tanks blended to get the best of several worlds? Is each tank shipped out as is, in order, one at a time, with their uniqueness intact?

The quick answers to these are that, within a given brewery, all the sake of a particular grade and intended to be the same product will be blended together to ensure consistency, as there are some differences between tank to tank. But they do not, for example, blend tank #33 and tank #54 since that combo would be really great, as they might do in the wine world. The intention is different. You also sometimes see them blending a little bit of the end of one year's batch with the beginning of the next years's so as to smoothen the transition. But most often, they blend everything from one season and when that is gone (exercising precise inventory and production control, of course) segue into the next year's blended batch.

Are there exceptions to this? Of course there are. There are exceptions to everything in the sake world. But the above is, in general, how things are done.

So it is great to have the chance to taste through tank by tank the future offerings of a given kura's sake. On that day there were 16 junmai-shu tanks, of two different "recipes" that would later be two different junmai-shu products.

As we came in and greeted Hirai-san, the young president of the company, who has got one mean-ass palate himself, he explained a bit about the event, which is open only to a handful of industry types, and not the general populace. "The whole point here is to show our best customers how consistent our sake is. You will taste across each of those tanks, and while they are way too young, and may or may not be going through some growing pains just now, you'll see just how close they are in flavor and aroma. It indicates how tight our processes and brewing are."

And taste we did. As mentioned above, we could see when the sake was pressed, and each tank differed by one to three days. At this youthful moment, the differences were strong and apparent - just two days and one could taste more youth, brashness, tingling carbon dioxide even. In time, the differences between these tanks would ebb appreciably. But through that, we could also see, as Hirai-san foretold, that the sake was remarkably similar in quality, character, and style. Such consistency is the sign of a truly good kura.

A couple of tanks were nama (unpasteurized), as there was no time to pasteurize them before the tasting. As such, we were comparing apples to a couple of oranges. Still, through that nama-induced haze lurking around those few, we could still indeed see that thread of Hitakami firmly entrenched within.

A couple of bottles, as has been the case in past years, presented a distinct rubber-like nasty smell laced with lactic-like butter tones. Several years ago, I was shocked to come across that, and even more shocked that Hirai-san and that aforementioned mean-ass palate did not pick it up. But I eventually learned that this was a very natural stage of maturation in very young sake, and that it would very soon fade into the recesses of the cosmos. It has the interesting nickname "tsuwari-ka" in Japanese, meaning "morning-sickness smell." I am not sure I see the connection, nor do I know where it came from. Nor do I know how in the world the almost-exclusively male sake world of years ago could have come up with the term, but I digress. This year, although I sensed it in one or two, I now knew with what I was dealing.

Moving on to the junmai ginjo section of the table, things proceeded along the same fascinating lines. However, Hirai-san actually allowed distributors to buy sake from any individual tanks for which they felt strong affinity. And he was taking orders there on the spot, the clever buggah.

The table ended with a couple of fine, fine daiginjo and a contest sake. It was, as always, a brilliant tasting and exercise, and almost impossible to find elsewhere, without going to a kura on the appointed day for something like this. The direct and deliberate comparisons of sake so tight in their differences is immensely educational.

And so, bear in mind how and why blending in the sake world is most often done. Remember too how excessive youth can befuddle things, and the same goes for a lack of pasteurization (see the archives for more on that). And remember the name Hitakami. It is supposedly available outside of the US, but I have not actually heard of a sighting myself.


Did you Know?
This month, I am introducing a new section to the Sake World newsletter. Currently if tentatively called "Did you know?" (if it is not well received, I may need to change it to "Do you care?"), the section will highlight one small factoid or interesting tidbit about sake, the sake world, and peripherally related topics.

Koshiki-Taoshi and Kaizou. The sake brewing season ends for most places in April and May, as the weather warms up and (traditionally, anyway) farmers need to get back to their families and rice fields. The day that the last batch of rice is steamed for the year is known as "koshiki-taoshi," or "overturning the rice-steaming vat," appropriately named since they turn it on its side and clean it thoroughly to prepare it for storage until the fall. This marks the beginning of the end for that brewing season. Of course, after that the tanks still fermenting continue on their paths toward their destiny for upwards of another month, when they are pressed and processed in sequence. The day that all of that work is completed is called "kaizou," or "all have been made."


Announcing the Sake Professional Course
New York City, July 27, 28 and 29
I am pleased to announce the 3rd Stateside Sake Professional Course, this time to be held in New York City, on July 27, 28 and 29 (Monday through Wednesday). The location will be in Manhattan, with final details being wrapped up soon. The cost for the three day intensive program will be $775. Go here for more details. Those interested in more detail can contact me by email.


For Local Readers
The spring Ginjo-shu Kyoukai tasting in Tokyo will be held on Monday, May 11, at the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan in Ginza, just outside JR Yurakucho station. There will be two sessions, one from 2:30 to 4:30 and another from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening. The cost to taste several ginjo sake from amongst 59 (count 'em!) brewers is a mere 2000 yen (2500 yen on event day). You cannot beat that! More can be found here, albeit in Japanese only. You can, however, simply show up for the event without a problem.

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. Also, for those with the requisite interest, an article in English on yers truly.

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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