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Sake Rice Grades

# 37

Nov. 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #37
November 1, 2002


-Sake Rice Grades
-Announcement: The Sake Professional Course
-Good sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information


Sake Rice Grades

Rice is not, as most readers know, simply rice. Good sake is made from proper sake rice, and cheaper sake is made from much less expensive rice. In fact, most run of the mill average sake is made with rice bought from the local agricultural co-op, and often the purchaser knows nothing about it other than it came from within that prefecture.

Among the 50 or so types (a few more are added each year) of officially designated sakamai, or sake rice, there are many differences that make each type more suited or less suited to sake brewing: size, starch content and location within the grain, and physical hardness are but a few of those considerations.

And even within one sakamai type, there are greater and lesser manifestations. Let's look at some of these differences, as well as how they are measured and conveyed.
When the rice arrives at the sake brewery, it comes as genmai (unmilled, brown rice) in 30 kilogram brown paper bags. Each of these has a printed panel of information like that shown here:
On this panel is listed all that the brewer needs to know about the rice within.

The rice type, Yamada Nishiki, and its prefecture of origin, in this case Hyogo, is printed above the two stamps. But while Yamada Nishiki may be recognized as the best sakamai by many, just because it says Yamada on the bag does not guarantee anything. Below that, in a big, bold stamp, it says "tokujo," which indicates it is the highest of the five classes of rice. The others below it are toku,  itto , nitto  and santo, in that order.

The differences between the various grades are characterized by things like size. And while size *does* matter, other things matter too, such as a lack of broken grains, and a lack of aomai, or grains that have not ripened and remain green. Size, by the way, is measured by the weight of 1000 grains, or senryuju.

Note, that just because it says tokujo does not mean that every grain in that bag is of tokujo class. There will always be a certain amount of smaller grains, cracked grains, and aomai as well.

Next to this stamp is a smaller one indicating the inspection date and name of the inspector. The stamp in the upper left shows it has been officially and properly weighed.

Finally, note that the name of the farmer and the township are also noted in the bottom half of the box. This is important since sake rice - like all rice - is very particular about it soil and sunlight. The oval sticker indicates that this particular rice field is rated as a "Special A region" for Yamada Nishiki. This "ranking" is based on soil and climate conditions, including such things as sunlight exposure. While this designation may be a tad dubious, rice from such regions does command higher prices.

Good Yamada Nishiki like this is expensive, as much as 30,000 yen or so for a 60kg unit known as a hyo. This is three to five times more expensive than fine table rice. Keep in mind brewers then mill away the outer 50% or more of this expensive stuff and it is a wonder sake is affordable at all.

In fact, rice is 70% of the cost of sake overall (at least premium sake). The fastest and easiest way for a brewer to make sake less expensive is to use lower quality rice.

Related to this, many brewers will use rice for their koji production that is superior to the rice used in adding to the fermenting mixture later. Since koji exerts immense leverage on the final flavor profile, it makes sense to use the best rice in creating it. 

And again, it is not all about imparted flavors. Each rice strain has an innate hardness to it, and this can have huge effect on the sake it creates, or more importantly, how easy it is to use in brewing. Yamada Nishiki is said to dissolve quite nicely and easily, making it easy for brewers to bend to their will. Omachi, another great rice (my personal favorite) is much more difficult to brew with as it simply does not dissolve so easily. Even more difficult to work with is a rice from Shiga and Tottori called Tamazakae. An old but flavorful rice, one reason it is so rarely seen is that it is quite hard and stubborn during brewing.

But again, nothing exists in a vacuum, and on top of the above there are other considerations, like the chemistry and hardness or softness of the water, regional style and more.

Perhaps the point of all this is that there is much, much more to the rice world than most of us are aware of, and the methods of quality control and selection for sake rice can be interesting.

There are also various philosophies, and those that think outside of the box, with good results. One Okayama brewer has his own ideas about things. He told me upon a recent visit that he does not buy his rice from his contracted farmers by weight, but rather by square meter of area of field.

Why? Because the farmers will not then be tempted to maximize yields by getting as much rice as possible out of every little piece of land. This will then allow more nutrients to be available for the rice that does grow there, and even if yields are reduced, the rice itself will be stronger and make better sake. (His sake is called Chikurin, by the way.)

Sake Professional Course to be held in January, 2003

Announcing the first Sake Professional Course, to be held in Japan in January of 2003.

Sake is poised to take its rightful place amongst premium alcoholic beverages, but there is a dearth of proper education and training related to sake. Wine professionals and others with a deep interest need a source of accurate, thorough and useful information, plus an opportunity to leisurely and thoroughly taste the wide range of sake available. This course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. The one week course will consist of daily lectures with tastings, several sakagura (sake brewery) visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food. .

Participants will stay together at a hotel in Osaka. Lectures will take place nearby, with a dedicated tour bus providing transportation to kura (breweries) and other related sites. Evening meals will be off-site at various sake-related establishments (sake pubs of all shapes, sizes and environments). A one-day guided tour to the historic city of Kyoto is included, as is one night at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn).

This course is geared toward wine professionals and other industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, but anyone is welcome to participate. It will certainly be fun! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the basics and will thoroughly cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake both in class sessions and with evening meals.

More information, including a detailed schedule, syllabus, and pricing, can be found at Just click on the Professional Course link found on the main page.
Good Sake to Look For: Yamagata and Fukuoka Sake
In the August issue, I spoke at length about the sake of Yamagata Prefecture, in the northern part of Japan. Here are a few more Yamagata sake that are worth the search.

Kiku Isami "Sanjurokuninshu" ("Gang of 36") Junmai Ginjo
Light and delicate, with a rather young and brisk touch to the flavor, with a soft touch to the flavor indicative of the Yamagata yeast they use almost exclusively.

Juyondai Junmai Ginjo (Yamada Nishiki)
Layered, complex, deeply-recessed, with fruity fragrances and finely wrought overall balance. Detractors claim it to be too ostentatious, but fans (including this one) love it. Almost as good is the Omachi version.

Koikawa Junmai Daiginjo Full and weighty flavor, yet dry and straightforward. Available in the US.

Hatsumago Junmai Ginjo
Hatsumago is one of the most well-brewed sake in Japan, they almost never fail to win a gold in new  sake competitions, and have brilliant off-the-shelf sake to boot. The flavor/aromatic profile is fairly compact and hardly flamboyant, but solid, consistent, and exquisitely congruent. The junmai version at least is available in the U.S. , and the Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo products may be as well.

Fumotoi "Madoka Honkarai" Kimoto Junmai-shu
Oranges and strawberries compete in the aroma, and the gamy flavors and spread out with a sense of urgency. They have used the kimoto method of preparing the "moto" (yeast starter). For what it is worth, the Hatsumago brewery was originally part of this brewery.

Jokigen Junmai Ginjo
A tiny brewery where the president doubles as the toji, a near impossible feat. Very rich yet compact flavor, clean and well-chiseled, with a fairly prominent aroma for sake from this region. He experiments with a wide variety of styles and rice types, and I have found his Omachi rice products to be superb.

Sake events and other miscellany...

NOTICE: My column in the Japan Times has been discontinued for budgetary reasons (on the part of the Japan Times, not myself.) Please check this newsletter and the site itself for information on upcoming events.

On the evening of Saturday, November 30, I will hold the first sake seminar at the new Mushu, in Ginza. This one will sake only, no pottery and no Rob Yellin. The topic will be Sake Brewing; Then vs. Now, and will focus on how things have changed over the centuries in sake brewing, what remains the same and what changes have been beneficial. This will be the first seminar at the new Mushu, so we have to feel out the atmosphere, food and ambience. Since they have no room large enough to hold 40 like the old Mushu, attendance is limited to 30 this time. The cost for the evening will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing me at

Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.

Sake books:

The Sake Handbook
SECOND EDITION published by Charles Tuttle.
The second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information. Although the subject material is the same, this second edition is written in a much more cohesive style, the result of several additional years of writing experience.

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. (say again: A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

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).

Also worth searching for:
-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Sato no Homare in Ibaraki) in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


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 "subscribe" without 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

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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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