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Great Moments in Sake Brewing History

# 15

Nov. 2000

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #15

November/December, 2000



Great moments in sake-brewing history
Kinpaku-iri, Gold-flake sake
Sake in Canada
New sake books (Shameless Self Promotion), new sake pubs
Sake Home-brewing Scene: Koji for home use
Subscribe/unsubscribe information
Publication information

<<<<Happy Holidays to all readers!>>>>


[Great moments in sake-brewing history]

Sake has a long and storied history, going back centuries and centuries. Just how many centuries is a matter of interpretation: exactly when did the rice-based giggle-mash look and taste enough like today's brew to call it sake? The answer likely depends on who is trying to convince whom of what.

But regardless of the answer to that question, it cannot be denied that the last century or so has been fairly exponential in terms of gains in sake-brewing methods and technology. For four or five hundred years, sake remained basically the same. But from just about 100 years ago, technology and science began to aid the well-entrenched experience and traditions of brewers.

Often, we hear that the sake of today is leaps and bounds better than the sake of yesteryear. That is why, for example, today's premium sake is rarely heated, or why today's sake has complexity of flavor and fragrance that allow it to be appreciated as a premium beverage. Let's look at some of the more significant contributions over the last century to what has become today's sake.

1895: Sake yeast was first isolated. Until this time, yeast cells were allowed to simply fall into the vat from the ambient environment. Finally, brewers were able to see just what the yeast cells looked like, and to study their life cycle.

1904: The Ministry of Finance forms the National Sake Brewing Research Center. Here, research geared toward helping producers make better sake continues to this day.

1910: Sokujo moto, the fast-starting yeast starter, is developed. Until this point, creating the "Moto" yeast starter was a long, exhausting process and an extremely labor intensive part of sake brewing. When it is discovered that the result of the techniques was to create a bit of lactic acid, researchers found that putting a bit of pure lactic acid in at the beginning accomplished the same thing, saving significant labor and time. A biggie in terms of significance to the industry.

1911: The first Shinshu Kanpyoukai, or New Sake Tasting Competition, was held. The longest-running competition of its kind in the world, this yearly tasting continues today and has driven major advances and trends in sake profiles over the years.

1923: Stainless steel tanks begin to replace traditional cedar tanks. As the woody flavor imparted by cedar tanks can be strong, sake brewed in stainless steel tanks is now free to express a myriad of new and delicate flavors, fragrances and nuances. Another biggie.

1933: Modern vertical rice milling machines are introduced. The condition of the rice after milling "how much it has been milled, how much heat was generated during milling, how many of the rice grains fractured or broke" affects every single step on down the line. With this major advance, rice could be polished more accurately, carefully, and efficiently. A huge biggie.

1936: The mighty Yamada Nishiki, the king of sake rice strains, is born. It is created as a cross breed between two other sake rice strains, Yamadaho and Wataribune. Although expensive and relatively hard to grow, Yamada Nishiki is quite often the sake rice of choice when brewing ginjo-shu. There are other rice strains that make character-laden and wonderful sake, but Yamada has yet to be dethroned. A biggie in terms of enhanced sake flavor and fragrance profiles.

1943: The sake classification system of Special Class, First Class, and Second Class is created by the Ministry of Finance. All sake is designated as one of these three, with First and Special classes requiring government tasting and certification, and (of course) higher taxes. (Second Class is a default for all those not qualifying for First or Special Class.) This system is later abolished in 1989 for several reasons, one of them being that many brewers simply did not submit their sake for certification, thereby keeping prices of great sake lower. As such, the system lost much of its meaning.

Also in 1943, it became legal to add at least some distilled alcohol to sake at the end of the brewing process. This can enhance flavor and fragrance and stabilize the brew, but can also be used to simply produce cheaper sake.

1946: Yeast Number 7 is discovered and isolated by Masumi Brewery of Nagano. This yeast is still today the most used yeast in the country. That year, Masumi sake wins every single award in site for their sake.

1948: Rice shortages force the legalization of Sanzo-shu, sake effectively tripled in volume during production by the addition of distilled brewers alcohol in copious amounts. This practice was never entirely discontinued in the industry.

1953: Yeast Number 9 is discovered in Kumamoto Prefecture, by the brewers of Koro sake. Yeast Number 9 produces fragrant and fruity sake, with a decent acidity. It is today the most widely used yeast for ginjo-shu, although it has a lot of competition these days. A biggie on the flavor and fragrance fronts.

1968: The first post-war junmai-shu (sake brewed with no added distilled alcohol, nor any additives of any kind) is brewed. Although two brewers, one in Kyoto and one in Kumamoto, claim to have done it first, it marks a move of great significance (i.e. a biggie) by members of the brewing world toward quality and better sake, and profit margins be damned.

1974: National sake production hits an all-time high. Unfortunately, since that point it has been all downhill, with production volume decreasing each year.

1975: The Jizake boom begins. Jizake is a vague term that means sake from smaller brewers in the countryside, or at least sake not from large national brands. Such sake began to gain popularity for its supposed character and regional distinction.

1981: The Ginjo boom begins. Premium sake begins to increase in both popularity and production from this point. Even today, while overall sake production declines, ginjo-shu production increases, albeit by very little.

1989-2000: Dozens of new strains of yeast and new sake rice strains are developed and come into use in sake brewing. Many of these are proprietary, and many are kept within the prefecture of origin. These factors alone contribute to a new and wide range of sake profiles.

All of the above have built upon each other to create sake as it is today. But modern equipment and microbiology alone could not have lead to the ambrosia that is the sake of this era. Just as much credit must be given to the craftsmen and their decades of accumulated skill and refined senses. Indeed, their craft all too often goes unappreciated.                                                           


[Kinpaku-iri,Gold Flake Sake]

Occasionally, people receive as a gift a bottle of sake with gold flakes inside, floating inside the bottle like a golden snowstorm. What, they ask, is this all about? Does this make the sake better? Does it make it worse? What is the meaning and/or significance?

Sake with gold flakes added is called Kinpaku-iri.The additions of these gold flakes to a bottle of sake does not make the sake any better. However, as gold will not chemically react with the sake, it does not adversely affect the product either. In short, the gold is added simply to make the product more of luxury item, to add a sense of extravagance. This is not a wide practice, and in fact is somewhat rare. But the sake used for this exorbitant practice is not usually top-grade sake, as the gold would steal all the attention from the sake. Yet, it is generally perfectly enjoyable sake, so fear not and enjoy the gold and the sake.


[Sake in Canada]

One of the biggest complaints from Canada residents is that good sake is hard to get since the government must first officially purchase all imported alcoholic beverages. Although Canada does not suffer from the drawbacks of the three tiered distribution system of the United States, persuading the local liquor control board and wading through red tape can indeed be quite the barrier.

On a recent trip to Canada with the Sake Export Association, however, Mr. Mark Latham, Director of Special Services with the LCBO, explained that anyone, a consumer or a restaurant, can indeed import sake for personal use. There is a form that needs to be filled out, and it is likely that there is a bit more red tape involved, but apparently it can be done by anyone, and for any sake. One catch is that it must be done by the case, not just single bottles. However, Mr. Latham pointed out later that the definition of the word case is apparently flexible. It does not have to be a 12 bottle case, or even a six bottle case. It can, in theory, be a two bottle case.

Those interested should contact Mark Latham (or his office) for more information and the proper form(s). They can be reached at 416-864-6822, or

Good luck!


[New sake books]

Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but my latest book is out!

Announcing the release of The Sake Companion, published by Running Press Book Publishers. A hardbound, beautifully designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not as thoroughly as in The Sake Handbook. A full 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered as it is in The Sake Handbook. But the feel and almost-coffee-table-book design with make The Sake Companion a great gift for either yourself or someone else.

The Sake Companion is shipping any day now from the publisher, and I was told it would be in bookstores nationwide in week or so. You can also order it on

Tastes of 1635: Nihonshu Guidebook, by Haruo Matsuzaki

If you can read Japanese, you need look no further than this book for your sake bible. Matsuzaki is perhaps the leading sake authority in Japan. The humble, quiet 40-year old Matsuzaki does nothing but write and taste, and easily has one of the most superior palates in the country for sake.

Three to five sake are reviewed from about 500 breweries from around Japan. This is an updated, expanded and improved version of his 1995" tastes of 1212" book. There is not single a photo or drawing in the book, but each brewery is introduced in detail, with information on several of their products that includes everything from detailed tasting notes to yeast, rice, acidity, seimai-buai, and price.

There is little in the way of technical explanations, but there is a short glossary in the back. This small volume is a guide for active tasters. Indeed, if you can read Japanese, it may be the best 2000 yen you can spend to further your sake study.

Tastes of 1635 is available only in Japan, at any bookstore, and is published by Shibata Shoten. The ISBN number is ISBN4-388-35218-7.


[New Sake Bar]

Mega-Decibel in New York City

This fall, a new sake bar opened in New York City. Mega-decibel, a sister shop to longtime favorite Decibel, gives sake fans yet another venue in sake-friendly Manhattan to sip and sample great brew.

Mega-decibel and the original Decibel are somewhat different in their interior, although the sake the carry is for the most part the same. From the outside, the otherwise normal building front has a lattice of sake bottles filling the front window. Upon entering, Mega-decibel looks more like a typical American bar on the first floor, with a long bar along the left as you enter, and two very long and very narrow tables to stand near and put your drink down. Beneath the glass covering these tables are laid kimono cloth, and a bit of Japanese art decorates the walls.

Behind the bar is a pyramid of sake bottles reminding you where you are at all times. They do indeed serve other drinks, but naturally sake is the main thing. Downstairs are there large rooms. One of these is a small bar, with a concrete floor and neon lighting. A second is a series of booths to sit with a small group and eat with a bit more privacy. The third is an open room of tables for jovial and loud conversation. The combination creates several atmospheres in one place. 

The original Decibel, however, is a bit different. For one, it is smaller. It is located in a basement space. You need to ring a doorbell/buzzer to be let in. Rather than a western bar, Decibel is laid out more like an izakaya, with booths and perhaps a dozen tables spread out in the low-ceilinged room in back. There is a low bar in the back, but it is more like the counter of a nomiya than a bar. Akachochin hang here and there.

Most of the food at both Decibel and Mega-decibel is Japanese Ootsumami.Various grilled fish like katsuo, kohada and saba, as well as spicy squid go well with the many sake selections available. There is also heavier dishes, like okonomiyaki, soba and udon.

But that is where the comparison to a Japanese nomiya ends. The music is loud, either funky rock and roll or reggae, and lights are very low. It is very much New York in atmosphere.

Although some effort is made to teach the customers about sake, most people are there to have fun, and not be too serious. There is some information about sake on the menu, with a map and sake type definitions, but the atmosphere is not the best for concentrating; it is better for eating, drinking and talking. If you are interested in a quiet place and studying sake on a more serious level, Sakagura (also in Manhattan) might be a better choice.

The sake selection at Mega-decibel is large and very well cared for. The staff are on the ball and care about their sake. Some of the selections include Wakatake, Takaisami, Otokoyama, Umenishiki, Harushika, Dewatsuru, Daishichi, Suehiro, Tsukasabotan, Tamanohikari, Bizen Sake no Hitosuji, Yaegaki, and many more. They obviously bring in sake from among several different importing groups.

Should you have the chance to visit New York, dropping in to either Decibel or Mega-decibel is certainly worthwhile. It will provide you with an in-depth glance at how sake is progressing in popularity in the US.

Mega-decibel is located at 71 University Place, between 10th and 11th, just north of Washington Square Park. 212-260-6407. Decibel is at 240 East 9th, in the East Village between 2nd and 3rd. 212-979-2733. The web site is at



[Sake Home-Brewing Scene]

If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, often generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: , and see their site at

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word Subscribe・without the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send theword "help", less the quotes, to Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to

I think this sake home-brewing effort needs to be encouraged and supported, as it will lead to a faster grass-roots knowledge of sake and its complexities, which in turn will lead to more consumer demand for the good stuff, which will lead to more availability and lower prices. Or so we hope.


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Note: The next issue of the Sake World email newsletter will be sent on January 15, 2001. We are ALWAYS interested in hearing from readers with comments and questions. Yoroshiku!


[Publication Information]

Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

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Copyright 2000 Sake World




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