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Water and Sake Brewing

# 17

Feb. 2001

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #17

Feburuary 20,  2001


-Water and Sake Brewing
-Sake, the Word Itself
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information


[Water and Sake Brewing]

Sake in its completed form is about 80 percent pure water. The amount of water used in all the steps of the brewing process, including washing, soaking and steaming the rice, plus that added to the moromi, and that added to thin out the final product adds up to be more than 30 times the amount of rice by weight. It deserves a bit of attention.

Most of the traditional sake brewing locations, like Nada (Kobe) and Fushimi (Kyoto) came about because of the abundant supply of good water in the region. In fact, it is safe to say that most breweries were set up where they were because there was a good source of water nearby.

The most famous example of this is the water known as" Miyamizu" (Shrine Water), that rushes down from Mount Rokko in Hyogo Prefecture into Nada, a section of the city of Kobe that produces more than a fourth of all the sake in the world. A quick look at the history of this Miyamizu is interesting.

In 1840, Tazaemon Yamamura of the Sakura Masamune brewery (one of the largest and oldest brewers in Japan) made a discovery that took already-coveted Nada sake to a whole new level. Old Taz owned two breweries in Nada, one in a neighborhood called Uozaki, one in a neighborhood called Nishinomiya. For some unknown reason, the brewery in Nishinomiya produced significantly better sake than the one in Uozaki. This was despite the fact that everything was the same: brewers, rice, tools - everything but the water.

Amidst the snickering of his competitors, and at great expense, he hauled enough water from Nishinomiya to Uozaki to brew a single tank. The mystery was solved: "It's the water, stupid." The discerning consumers in Edo went nuts over sake made with Miyamizu, and soon everyone in the region was using it. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than a million casks of this Miyamizu were being shipped to sake brewers elsewhere. Chemical analysis was not exactly in its heyday in the 1880s, but the final product told the story, and everyone rushed in to set up shop where success had been proven.

Miyamizu is no longer hauled up from farmers' wells and schlepped over to other  breweries. But that small neighborhood remains the sake-brewing capital of the universe.

Eventually science caught up to intuition and experience, and found ways to determine what exactly makes "Good water" for sake brewing, as well as what does not. There are a number of elements whose presence is indispensable, as well as some that are only detrimental.

The worst of the lot is iron. Iron in water will darken the color of sake and adversely affect its taste and fragrance. This happens because it chemically attaches itself to the center of a normally colorless compound attached to an amino acid produced while the koji is being made. Also, as sake ages, the residual sugars react with amino acids present to change the flavor and smell, and the presence of iron hastens this reaction.

Manganese plays a different but equally despicable role. When sake is exposed to light, in particular ultraviolet light, manganese promotes a chemical reaction that will discolor and de-luster the appearance of a sake. In direct sunlight, this change can be seen in just a few hours

Although there are others, the presence of these two components, more than anything else, makes water unusable for sake brewing.

Then there are the good guys. In particular, potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid are necessary to aid the propagation of the yeast in the shubo (also called the moto, the yeast starter), as well as in the proper development of good koji. If these are not present in sufficient amounts the yeast cells will not multiply as well or as quickly, throwing the timing off of the entire fermentation so that it cannot be properly controlled.

One of the problems here is that potassium is water soluble, and can be washed away during the rice washing and soaking processes if the kurabito (brewers) are not careful. Also, phosphoric acid is generally attached to fat and protein molecules, and must be removed by enzymes donated by the kind koji before it can by used by the yeast, thus tying various aspects of the brewing process even more tightly together.

Leaving the chemical chicanery behind, where do kura (breweries) get their water? More of it comes from wells than any other source. The stable temperature of deep well water gives it consistency, although the individual qualities of a well vary with depth and the land.

Rivers flowing from the mountains as well as lakes and other bodies of water are also used, but the less-than-positive changes in the environment over the last century or so have rendered many of these useless. Still, many kura brag about their region's Meisui(famous water), insisting that it is one of the secrets of their fine brew.

Naturally, water can be chemically altered and filtered to make it more suitable for brewing. But their are limitations to that practice.

Once, while dining in a well-known Japanese restaurant in a certain city in the US with several brewers, one of them stopped the waitress as she walked by. "Excuse me, was this tea brewed with tap water?" She looked around for a moment, as if having been accused of something."Yes",she replied. The brewer nodded. "Thank you."

This attracted my attention. "Excuse me, why did you ask that?"    I asked him. "Yah? Ah, the water is not very good for sake brewing. Too rich in the wrong minerals. It's kind of heavy." I found this amazing.

"You mean you can tell how good the water is just by sipping the tea?" I asked him.

"Easily." He looked at me for a few seconds, first bewildered, but then as if pondering whether I were ready and deserving of the answer. "If you brew sake, you know water ."

"But can't water be doctored, chemically adjusted and filtered?" I asked.

"To some degree. But if you don't start with good water in the first place, you will never brew good sake." With that, he returned matter-of-factly to the group conversation.

Water in the Japanese archipelago is a little bit soft (chemically speaking) compared to water  around the world. While harder water (a low pH) is actually better for fermentation, sake in Japan developed the way it did largely due to the type of water that was available.

Even within Japan's overall soft (high pH) water supplies, there are harder and softer water sources. Hard water is known as Kosui,and soft water is known as Nansui. Often, information about the water source "especially whether it is nansui or kosui " is often listed on more informative labels.


[Sake, the Word Itself]

The etymology of the word Sake

"Sake" has not been around forever, and at one point in time, they had to come up with a name for this new stuff. Hooch, da good stuff, giggly juice... it is likely that the Japanese equivalents of these have all been used, but there must have been some point when the word "Sake" itself came into being.

The character for sake is said to have come from a picture of a jar. The water radical on the right side indicates that a liquid would be involved. As the character itself came from Chinese, eventually a Japanese reading came to be associated with it.

There are four current theories on the etymology of the word sake itself.

One is that "Sake"is taken from "Sakae mizu" The key root here is "Sakaeru", which means to prosper, to flourish, or to thrive. Seeing how this might relate is almost a no-brainer; we all seem to flourish and thrive a bit when drinking a glass of good sake or two. The "Sakae-mizu" eventually became "Sakae" and later "Sakei" before becoming truncated into its present version, "Sake".

The second possible source for the word sake is from "Sakae-no-ki. Although the "Sakaeru" root here is the same, the Ki is taken from O-miki. O-miki is a Shinto religious ceremony in which a small amount of sake is drunk in a prayerful act of symbolic unification with the gods. This ceremony is performed with a Shinto priest in a shrine using unique white porcelain tokkuri (called miki-dokkuri) and cups that can be seen on the altars of shrines everywhere.

In the word O-miki, the reading Ki is assigned to the character for sake. As such, the final meaning would again be akin to "he sake that helps one prosper", but perhaps this time there is a bit more of a religious association involved. Linguistically, sakae-no-ki changed to sakae-no-ke,  sakae-ke, and sake-ke before arriving at the vernacular manifestation we use today.

The next theory is a bit closer to daily life. This theory suggests that "Sake" came from the word "Sakeru" which means to avoid. Sake was believed to help one avoid catching colds, hence the association. (Curiously enough, sake is also believed to help cure colds, when drunk hot and mixed with an egg, a concoction called tamago-zake. Any excuse will do for some, I guess.)

Finally, long ago, sake was known as "Kushi". Originally "Kush"imeant something mysterious or strange. Before proper fermentation existed, folks would eat the fruit that had dropped into a hollow tree or stone and had naturally fermented. Although the alcohol content was low, they felt a little bit, well, kushi.  "Kushi no Kami" is an old name for the god of sake.

Wherever the word has come from, it is sake today. Indeed, it can help us flourish, keep us healthy, and give us religion. And we all need to feel a little bit kushi sometimes.


[Sake to look for...]


>Gikyo (Aichi Prefecture)*

Junmai Ginjo

Gikyo is recently enjoying quite a bit of popularity in Japan. And rightly so; it is light, vibrant and fragrant, yet well-rounded and  bound tightly into wonderful balance. Almost everything at this brewery is aged two years before releasing. Gikyo is not the easiest sake in the world to find, but worth the search. Keep an eye out for their extremely popular (and accordingly expensive) daiginjo called Yorokobi.


>Hananomi (Shizuoka Prefecture)*

Junmai Ginjo

This brewery began to brew the same year the last shogun relinquished power and returned it to the emperor:1868. A relatively fragrant sake (even more so in its higher manifestations), light and elegant yet with fairly solid, rice-based underpinnings. Hananomai, or "Flower Dance" is available in the US.


>Dewazakura "Karesansui" (Yamagata Prefecture)

Jukusei (aged) Honjozo

Dewazakura is more likely known for its nama-zake products than sake like this. Karesansui is actually a honjozo that has been aged at low temperatures for three years. At cool temperatures, it has a soft, honey-laden nose with flowers and a slight earthiness in the recesses. It exhibits the well-rounded touch of an aged sake.

When warm, a rice-like touch comes alive in both the nose and the flavor. Karesansui has a fairly centered flavor when warm, neither too gamy nor too dry. This sake is extremely popular in warm-sake circles lately. Alas, as it is a honjozo and not a junmai-shu, it cannot be feasibly imported into the US due to its added alcohol.


>Koshi no Kanbai (Niigata Prefecture)*

"Cho Tokusen "Daiginjo

"Kin-muku" Junmai Ginjo

"Muku" Tokubetsu Junmai-shu

"Kokusen "Ginjo-shu

Ah, Koshi no Kanbai. Following the surge in popularity of smaller sake brands from the countryside, known as "jizake", Koshi no Kanbai became instantly quite famous. The hype continues today.

Which is not to say Koshi no Kanbai is undeserving; not at all. It is in fact quite wonderful, especially for fans of the dry and light style for which Niigata sake is known. Very mild fragrances and ultra clean flavor profiles describe this sake best. While Koshi no Kanbai sake is not all that hard to find, there are many grades, and the four premium grades above will call for a bit of searching. It can also be a bit expensive. Muku and Kin-muku are available in the US.


[Sake events and other miscellany...]


March 17, 2001 (Japanese)

Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, March 17, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho; you can take the brand new O-Edo subway line!). The topic is related to the sake production styles of the various regions of Japan. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at


March 17, 2001 (English)

On the very same evening, Saturday, March 17, I  will be hosting a sake seminar at Chihana, right by Tokyo Station, from 6pm to 9pm. Note, there is no pottery involved in this seminar, it is a sake-only tasting/seminar. This is also the first one to be held at the sake pub Chihana. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me at Participation is limited to 30 as Chihana is smaller and more funky in its layout.

The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

I will speak on sake "Vital statistics" like nihonshu-do, acidity, seimai-buai, and the pros and cons of junmai vs. non junmai sake (adding alcohol or not).


Sake books:


The Sake Companion, published by Running Press

A hardbound, well 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 in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 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.

This morning (February 21) In the New York Times, Florence Fabricant gave a short but favorable review of "The Sake Companion", calling it a "handsome" directory.

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.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).


[Home-Brewing Sake]

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, regularly 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 Subscribewithout the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send the word "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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Look for the next issue of this newsletter March 15 - 20, 2001.


[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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