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Newsletter Archive 2012

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Sake World Newsletter


Nov. 2012


  • Blending Rice in Sake Brewing
  • Industry Snapshot
  • "Sake Tours" Expands Operations
  • Did You Know? Koshu (aged sake) vs. Koshu Wine
  • Events: Sake Professional Course in Japan 2013
  • Sake Education Central


Blending Rice in Sake Brewing

GREETINGS. Things are finally starting to cool down here in Japan, and this year's sake-brewing season is just starting to heat up. Certainly all breweries are up and running by now, and a few have even come out with their hatsu-shibori, or first pressing of the season. 'Tis the season for seasonal sake, too, in particular Hiya-oroshi, sake that is spared the second of normally-two pasteurizations so as to preserve just a hint of youth. Enjoyable and readily found, be sure to seek some out before it is all gone. Also, the Sake Professional Course in Japan, to be held January 21 to 25, 2013, is now open for registration. "No sake stone remains left unturned" in the most important activity of the year for me. It is easily the best way to learn all things sake in a very enjoyable setting. Learn more below. Keep warm as things cool down, and please enjoy the newsletter. John

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Blending Rice in Sake Brewing
...or rather, the lack thereof...

"Perhaps a hundred." That is the simplest answer to the question, "how many types of sake rice are there?" At any one given time, there are about a hundred.

Why the vague answer? First of all, because we are dealing with sake. It's just the way it is. But also, I say "perhaps a hundred" because at any one time, there are about a hundred being grown across Japan. Each year, few more sake rice types are created through crossbreeding or spontaneous change, and a few are abandoned by the growing and brewing communities. So, it might be 90, it might be 110, but about a hundred are used each year.

Of those one hundred or so, kind of like grapes used in winemaking, if you know of the top dozen or so, you're fine. Those dozen will make up the lion's share of the rice used. The usual suspects: Yamada Nishiki, Omachi, Gohyakumangoku, Miyama Nishiki, Hattan Nishiki – these are the most visible and oft-encountered varieties.

A natural progression along the lines of this topic will eventually meander to, "Do they ever blend these rice varieties?" And the short answer is, "no." Basically, a sake will most often be made with one rice and one rice only. Are there exeptions? Of course there are. There are always exceptions in the sake world. But most of the sake out there is made with one and only one rice.

Why? Why not blend? The biggest reason is that different rice types behave differently. The way they behave when being milled, being soaked and steamed, having mold grown upon them, and most importantly the way they dissolved in the moromi (fermentation mash) are different. And if brewers want one thing during sake making, it is some semblance of predictability, a way to know that things are proceeding in the way they hope.

Living things like moromi (fermenting mash) do not always behave like we expect, so the way to counter that is to remove what variables you can. And if you have two different rice types going about their own business with their own idiosyncrasies in the same tank, it is much harder to deal with the other countless variables, and create the sake with an aimed-for level of consistency.

There are other reasons as well, but in the end, more than one rice is not usually used in a given tank. But as stated above, there are exceptions. What of those exceptions? Why and how? In short, very often a better rice is used for the koji, and a lesser rice is used for the kakemai. In other words….............

Many readers surely recall that about 25% of all the rice going into a given batch of sake has a mold (aspergillus oryzae) grown onto it. The resultant moldy rice is called koji, and from it come the enzymes that chop the starch in all the rice into sugar, which can then be fermented by the yeast. The remaining 75% of the rice added to the batch contributes more starch albeit no more enzymes, and is known as kakemai. And it is the koji, and by extension the rice used to make it, that holds much more leverage over the nature of the final sake. 

So back to our blending topic, in the rare occasions that we do see more than one rice used in a single batch, the most common example is that a better rice is used for the koji (the more important moldy stuff), and a lesser for the kakemai (the still-important-but- less-so starch-contributing stuff).

Stated conversely and perhaps a bit less appealingly, one way to lower the cost of a sake is to use a lesser rice for the kakemai. And this is when we might see blending.

Note that rice is almost never blended for flavor-related reasons, like grapes might be. Sure, while different rice types do have differing flavor profiles, the rice-to-sake flavor connection is not as tight as the grapes-to-wine flavor connection. So the practice of blending would not yield such pronounced or predictable results. But note  -- there are some exceptions to this principle too.

Also, as a quick yet deceivingly important point: sake brewers are not obligated to list the name of the rice used on the label. Many do, especially for premium sake, but there is no obligation to do so. But if they do in fact choose to list the name of the rice, they are then obligated to say what percent of the total amount of rice used corresponds to the listed rice. "Yamada Nishiki 100 percent," for example. Or "Yamada Nishiki 25 percent, Kita Nishiki 75 percent," might be another commonly seen example.

Finally, this might change. I have heard from more than one brewer that – especially for small, boutique brewers, blends of individual tanks that yield the most enjoyable, unique and premium sake – may be the way of the future. There is nothing preventing this, and I personally think it would be a welcomed move that would improve sake's appeal and specialness.

Still, at least for now, blending rice types and blending discrete tanks for one-of-a-kind flavor reasons is not at all a common practice in sake brewing. Just beware the exceptions.

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A Snapshot of the Sake Industry
As it is today: Statistics and Politics

In a change of pace from the technical - cultural - historical topics most commonly covered in this newsletter, let us look a snapshot of the sake-brewing industry in Japan, the stats that surround it, and the politics that suffuse it. In short, the sake industry in Japan is not exactly thriving. Yet things of recent are at least a smidgeon better than they were. Unless they're not.

Statistics. We all know the clichés surrounding statistics. They can indeed be confusing. For example, if I look at the statistics for the sake brewing community published in industry rags, there are just tons of 'em. We have stats for calendar years (January to December), fiscal years (April to March) and "Brewing Years", a period unique to the sake world that runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following year. Then there are monthly statistics as compared to the same period last year, and year-to-date stats as well. Some go up, some go down, they often contradict each other, and lead to radically different interpretations.

And all of these exist for each prefecture, and each major region in Japan as well. Furthermore, they are broken down for cheap sake and premium sake too. While each statistic is in and of itself significant to somebody somewhere, taken together they are just overwhelming. What's a budding analyst to do?

Cutting to the chase, the sake industry overall was in decline for 16 straight years before rising a whopping one percent last year. But the upward trend has seemingly continued into this year, although not every prefecture was up every month. I then read that demand was mysteriously lower this fall, the period when sake usually sells the most. Yet, year to date numbers are still up for 2012 as a whole.

Next, the big talk is how the larger brewers are not raising prices due to price wars on their cheapest sake, sold in 2-liter boxes to the supermarkets. As such, revenues are way, way down. If volume is up but revenues are down, things cannot be said to be improving.

And, since 75% of the market is inexpensive sake, these things cannot be ignored. But the numbers for premium sake (junmai-shu, and the four classes of ginjo-shu, but NOT including honjozo-shu) are up an average of 5% almost without exception. Which is good news… right?

In the end, all we can do is take a bird's eye view and assess things in the broadest terms, using statistics over the longest term. And things do, from that vantage point, seem to be subtly improving.

Next, a few months ago, the then-State Minister for National Policy, Mr. Motohisa Furukawa, designated sake as Japan's "National Alcoholic Beverage" and began the "Enjoy Japanese Kokushu (national alcoholic beverage)" initiative. However, a few weeks ago, Mr. Furukawa was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle. Will his replacement, Mr. Seiji Maehara, pursue the sake-aid initiative with the same requisite alacrity? Hard to say. But also, even if he does not, it seems like at least some momentum for the program has been created. Let us hope that that has some positive effects.

Then there is "Special Clause 87." This is a clause in the alcohol tax laws that gives a significant tax break (it began at 30 percent but was gradually decreased) to smaller brewers in the industry (read: 90 percent of the brewers!). It was meant to be temporary, to help smaller brewers modernize their equipment and infrastructure. And it has been repeatedly extended but is due to expire at the end of this year. Now, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers' Association is appealing to the government to make that permanent, and to return it to its erstwhile 30 percent. If it is not extended again, some say a third or more of the industry could disappear overnight. While it means about five billion yen (about $62.5M US) less revenue for the government, it also helps local economies to come closer to thriving. It is expected to be at least extended, but one never knows until all is said and done. Let us cross our collective fingers!

As an aside, there are currently just under 1300 sake breweries in Japan. However, less than half are reasonably profitable! On the somewhat brighter side, exports are doing very well, up 14 percent on the year. However (and there is always a "however") this accounts for only about two percent of all sake produced. Compare this with about 30% of the wine of France and Italy being exported. If the industry is to return from the brink of continued contraction, then domestic consumption has to improve too!

And so, at the end of the day, what does this snapshot of the industry reveal? In an nutshell, it seems that the winds have indeed begun to shift in a more positive direction for sake. But until those winds blow strongly enough to clear out the fog, it may be a bit too early to break out the sparkling sake.

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Sake Brewery Tours Expands!
Akita! Kansai! More than just sake!
Make 2013 the year you participate! 

In 2013, you have more opportunities to experience sake. Sake Brewery Tours will have two 5-day tours: one to Akita and one to Kansai (Kyoto, Nara and Shiga). Kansai has been added as a new destination this year! In addition, Nippon Travel Agency, one of the largest travel agencies in Japan, just announced the schedules for two tours for their "Exclusive Sake Tour" program to central Japan, for which they will be partnering with Sake Brewery Tours. Don't miss the chance to sign up early registering before November 30. Space is extremely limited, so act now. Learn more here.

Details of the Akita and Kansai regions are as follows.

  • Akita – four breweries
    February 23 (Sat) - 27 (Wed): Yuki no Bosha, Ama no To,
    Manabito/Mansaku no Hana, Kariho
  • Kansai – 3 breweies
    March 4 (Mon) - 8 (Fri): Tsuki no Katsura (Kyoto), Shichihon Yari (Shiga), Harushika (Nara). In addition, the Kansai tour will include an optional visit to Tamagawa in Kyoto to see the only non-Japanese toji in history, Mr. Philip Harper on March 9th.

Both tours will include some very special features. In addition to learning from the world's best sake sensei, John Gauntner, we will spend a lot of time at sake breweries, dine with kuramoto, and dive into cultural activities, which include:

  • Akita - making soba at the Kariho brewery, a cooking lesson from a local expert at a farm, a visit to Mr. Ito's (the owner of Kariho) historic private residence, a private minyo folk music performance and a tranquil stay at Tsuru no Yu onsen (hotspring). Learn more here.
  • Kansai - Food and sake parings only available in the area, using local delicacies such as funazushi and a lunch with local game meat with the owner of Shichihon Yari, a one day excursion to the Shigaraki pottery region with Rob Yellin, a visit to a yuba (a creamy soy vegetarian food, a by-product of tofu) maker, and join the Goma fire ritual performed by Ajari, a Buddhist monk who went through the Sennichi Kaiho-gyo, a seven-year marathon pilgrimage and spiritual quest.

This is really the ultimate Japan experience - all packed into five days.
Learn more here. To find out more about Nippon Travel Agency's Exclusive Sake Tour in January and March, visit this site.

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Did You Know?
Koshu (aged sake) vs. Koshu Wine

Over the past few years, wine from a region of Japan historically known as Koshu has begun to attract at least some attention. A bit more about that can be read here. But let that not be confused with the koshu of the sake world, which means "aged sake" In truth, deliberately matured sake is often formally referred to as "Choki Jukuseishu," but the word koshu will do in a pinch. Note, though, that koshu can also refer to last year's brew when comparing it with this year's new stuff!. And, in truth, the pronunciation of the two are slightly different. The "o" and the "u" of the word Koshu, referring to the grape-growing region, are both subtly elongated. One could, ostensibly, write them as "Ko-o Shu-u" but that is as confusing as it looks. And there is no official way to render Japanese into English, so most just write Koshu and be done with it. Conversely, the "o" and "u" of koshu the aged sake are both short, i.e. not elongated. Sure, the difference is subtle to most of us, but not to native speakers. The characters used to write the two words are different as well, eschewing confusion amongst the locals, even if it does not help folks that do not read the language! So, should you be interested in aged sake, be sure to try koshu and not Koshu. Got that?

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Sake Professional Course
Japan, January 21 ~ 25, 2013

The next Japan-based Sake Professional Course will take place the week of January 21 to 25, 2013, in Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka, Japan. This is it, folks, the most important thing I do all year. The Sake Professional Course, with Sake Education Council-recognized Certified Sake Professional certification testing, is by far the most intensive, immersing, comprehensive sake educational program in existence. The course is identical to the US-based course, with two days of brewery visits tacked on to the end. Furthermore, each evening is spent eating in fine restaurants with the best sake in the world. The five days together leave "no sake stone unturned."

The tuition for the course is JPY180,000 (at 80 yen to the dollar, about $2250). This includes dinner each night as well as all course materials, but does not include transportation or lodging. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation.

Sake Professional Course Level II
The Level II Sake Professional Course, with SEC-supported Advanced Sake Professional testing, is scheduled for February 11- 15, 2013. Note that this course is only open to graduates of the Level I course. Should you be interested in attending, please contact me directly.

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Sake Education Council
Please take a moment to check out the website for the Sake Education Council, the organization behind the Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional certifications. We plan to grow steadily, strongly and continually, and we will need the support of all those that love sake to do so. Follow us through the "usual suspects" of social media.

Sake Homebrewer's Online Store
Please be sure to check out for supplies, information and a forum, including lots of supporting information on everything from recipes to history. I have been meaning to mention this site and the gentleman behind it, Will Auld, but have repeatedly forgotten in past newsletters. The site is replete with instruction, augmented with videos, schedules, and more. If you are even remotely interested check this site out right away.


For Your iPhone & iPod: The Sake Dictionary App.
Newly improved, now with audio, and drastically reduced in price to $0.99!
Get it here:

There you are, perusing a menu, or standing in front of a shelf of great sake, or perhaps reading a sake newsletter… and up pops one of those hairy, pesky sake terms in Japanese. You know you have heard it many times, but dammit, you just cannot remember what it means now…

No problem! Just whip out your iPhone or iPod and fire up your trusty old version of The Sake Dictionary. In a matter of seconds, you'll be amongst the cognoscenti once again. But… if only you could pronounce it properly. Now that would really rock!

Done! Just tap on the term and you will hear a clear example of how to pronounce the term in Japanese. Repeat it a couple of times and the term is yours for eternity, to toss about and impress your mates.

What's more, it's less! Less than what it cost before, much less. Like less than one-seventh less. For a limited time only, the audio-enhanced version of The Sake Dictionary iPhone app is available for a mere $0.99.

The Sake Dictionary is a concise little package of all the terms you might ever come across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well. And now, with the new audio component, you can listen and learn just how to pronounce those terms properly.

Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!

Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms - or how to pronounce them - again.

Get it here:

(Note if you have already purchased it, this upgrade to the audio version is free. Just go to iTunes and get it!)      


Sake's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased to announce the publication of my new ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories, subtitled The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew.

Sake's Hidden Stories ($14.99) will give you a view to what goes on in the sake industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew.

For more information on content and get your copy, go here.As with any ebook or informational product I offer, satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. If you don't like it or feel it was worth what you paid for it, I will cheerfully refund your money. Finally, for a nice third-party review of the book, check out this cool blog.


Sake Educational Products
Jump-start your sake savvy

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 1999-2012

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