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New Year Sake & Yeast Madness

# 38

Dec. 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #38
December 1, 2002

In This Issue:
-Sake for the New Year: Otoso and Taru-zake
-Yeast Madness
-Announcement: The Sake Professional Course
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

It's a rare occasion and ceremony that does not include some sake in Japan, and that harbinger of renewal, New Year's Day, is no exception. Although sake figures prominently in O-shogatsu (New Year's) celebrations from morning to night, opening the year with a prayer for health in the form of drinking O-toso is perhaps the most interesting.

O-toso is sake that has been specially prepared by steeping a mixture of herbs in it for several hours. Drinking it with family in ceremonial fashion first thing on New Year's day is said to ward off sickness for the entire year ahead, as well as invite peace within the household.

The tradition of O-toso originally came from China, and originally the mixture consisted of eight herbs. Things have naturally changed slightly over the years, and some of the herbs have changed as a couple in the original concoction were deemed too potent. But most remain true to the original recipe.

Included in the mixture are cinnamon, rhubarb and sanshou (Japanese pepper), as well as a few not commonly seen in the west, like okera (atractylodis rhizome) and kikyou (platycodi radix). It's stuff you never knew you needed, much less existed.

O-toso was adopted in Japan back in the ninth century during the reign of the Saga Emperor in the Heian era. Back then, on December 19 of each year the herbs were placed in a triangular bag and hung from the branch of a peach tree hanging over water. At four in the morning on New Year's Day, the herbs were put into sake and steeped for several hours before being partaken of in the morning.

During the Edo era (1603-1868), the custom became common among common folk as pharmacies would give out the O-toso mixture (known as O-tososan) to patients as year-end gifts. This practice continued to some degree until about 20 years ago.

The custom has evolved into a fairly ritualized form over the years. After morning greetings on O-shogatsu, the O-toso is drunk using a special set of three lacquered vermillion cups sitting on a small dais. The three cups fit inside each other, and are drunk from in order of size: small, medium then large. It is poured not from a normal sake tokkuri, but from a special vessel resembling a kyusu (teapot).

The O-toso is drunk in order from the youngest in the family to the oldest with the intention that the older members of the family can share in the joy of youth imparted as the cups are passed.

Drinking O-toso is said to ward off infectious diseases like colds for the year. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks O-toso, everyone in the family will be free from illness. If the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year. (What a deal! Why didn't we hear about this earlier!?)

Making it at home is easy, provided you know where to go and pick your wild bekkatsu (smilax China), bofu (ledebouriellae radix) and uzu (aconite root). Combine those with the five mentioned above and you're golden.

A simpler solution if you happen to be in Japan is to go down to the local drugstore and pay 200 yen for an elaborately packaged teabag of O-tososan. On New Year's eve, stick that puppy in about 300 ml of sake and let it steep for seven or eight hours. It will be ready first thing in the morning.

It is also possible to use mirin (a kind of cooking sake), which has less alcohol, or a mixture of mirin and sake. While this may make it taste a bit sweeter, the taste of O-toso made with good sake is not bad at all. A bit medicinal and slighter bitter, perhaps, but interesting.

Also, should guests visit during the first three days of the new year, they are first given a glass of O-toso, and after that a glass of sake.

As is the fate for many traditional rituals, the O-toso ceremony is not as commonly practiced these days as it has been in the past. Many younger people, in fact, may not know all that much about it. Although all things run their natural course, it would be a pity if O-toso were to totally fade away.

Those not in Japan should be able to find the O-toso teabags at drugstores or grocery stores in Japanese neighborhoods.

Another common type of sake enjoyed at New Year's time is taru-zake. Like O-toso, taru-zake is not a brand of sake, and almost all brewers make some. Taru-zake is made by taking regular sake and letting it sit in a taru, or wooden cask for (usually) a couple of days. It then takes on a fairly strong and pleasant cedar taste and aroma. While this usually overpowers any subtler flavors and aromas (which is why premium sake is rarely used for taru-zake), it can be very enjoyable and tasty.

Just after New Year's Day, when people gather for traditional year-opening ceremonies in communities, families and companies, taru-zake is often the sake of choice. Very often, taru-zake is enjoyed from the small wooden boxes called masu, and with a pinch of salt in one corner.

For those outside of Japan, both taru-zake and masu are available if you poke around. At least in North America, one recommended brand of taru-zake is Ichi no Kura from Miyagi, although at least one domestic brewer makes some as well.

Be it O-toso, Taru-zake, or something else, Happy Holidays!

Yeast Madness
The choice of yeast in sake brewing exerts marvelous leverage on the aromas and style of the final product. And, while creativity and diversity lead to better sake over time, things can indeed get out of hand. Today, there are so many different yeasts - and ways of combining them - that it almost ceases to be worth the effort to study or try and follow developments.

Without yeast, there is no alcohol. Yeast takes the sugars converted by the koji mold from the starches in the rice and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast also creates an array of chemicals that give sake its body, fragrance and to some degree its flavor.

The Japan Central Brewers' Association has isolated these yeasts as they were discovered over past 100 years or so, and has made them available to breweries. The first half dozen or so that were discovered are no longer being used, but at present there are still about a half dozen Association yeasts that are commonly seen. These various yeasts are identified by a number, such as Association Yeast Number 9 (Kyokai Kyu-go. Each has unique qualities, and inherent strengths and weaknesses.

For example, one yeast may produce a lot of flowery and fruity aromatics (like Number Nine), while another is particularly strong in fermentation at lower temperatures (like Number Ten). The amount and type of acids, too, make each one different. Brewers match yeasts to how vigorous fermentation is (a function of rice, water and ambient temperature) as well as a sought-after style, aroma and flavor.

Alas, gone are those simple but happy days when all we had to worry about were the Association yeasts. Ginjo was made with Number Nine, almost everything else was Number Seven. Today, almost every prefecture as well as many kura themselves have isolated unique sake yeasts, often for proprietary or local use. Now, beyond the 16 or so Association yeasts, there are over 40 other well-known yeasts, and tons of offshoots, derivatives, and proprietary yeasts. There is even sake brewed using yeasts derived from flowers!

And gone too are the days of simple naming. It used to be just a number. Now, there are funky names like F701, KKK-9, ssu (all small characters), and Σ-β (Sigma-Beta, but written in the original Greek, for some reason).

It is practically impossible to keep track of all of them, much less of the characteristics of each, and the style of sake they create (at least with only seven days in a week, and only one liver).

And, as if that weren't difficult enough to follow, some brewers have begun to mix yeasts, mostly on an experimental basis for contests, but also to some degree for commercial sake. To make matters even harder to keep up with, the way the yeasts are mixed varies greatly.

Recently, I asked someone working at the Jozo Kyoukai, or Brewer's Association, the organization that distributes these Association Yeasts, about this mixing of yeasts. How do they do it? "Well, some places mix the finished sake made with two different yeasts, some mix moto (yeast starter) made with two different yeasts, and some places just throw two pure cultures of different yeasts in at the start." So what you're telling me, then, basically, is that nobody has a clue, and everyone is just winging it, right?

In the mad search for very subtle product differentiation, brewing is getting more difficult to understand. Fortunately, that kind of mixing does not usually take place in sake commonly found on the market.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Masumi brewery in Nagano. Masumi is a sterling sake, an excellently-run company, and staffed by warm and wonderful people. It is also where yeast Number Seven was discovered, the most commonly used yeast for non-ginjo sake. As Mr. Miyasaka, the director, led us around, he motioned toward a small corner of the brewery with a commemorative plaque on the wall. It stated that this is where tank sat from which ole' Number Seven was originally drawn.

Mr. Miyasaka commented, "Dr. Yamada from the Brewers' Association bent over that tank on that fateful day in 1946, and said, 'You've got something good here.' Then he scooped some of the foam out and went back to his office. While we won all honors in all competitions that year and the next, we never made a yen off that yeast, but they did! If we had a yen for each bottle of sake sold using that yeast…"

Later, as we tasted his sake, he commented on another yeast strain commonly used for fragrant ginjo sake, especially in Nagano, the so-called Alps Yeast.

Shaking his head slowly, he lamented that "This Alps yeast is *so* different from what it was ten years ago. It's qualities have definitely changed. And with all these new yeast strains coming out, this is relevant. We must wait a good while to see if they have the stability of the great ones like Seven and Nine or if they will change over the years into something different."

In the end, knowing the characteristics, pros and cons of sake yeast is interesting to a point, but after crossing a certain hassle threshold, it becomes too hard to follow and calls for too much effort. It is worth it to simply bear in mind the most important yeast names, and  try to remember their main qualities if you are into it. They are the ones that will pass the test of time.

For those that are interested, there is an in-depth description of many of the most important yeast strains, Association or otherwise, at

Sake Professional Course to be held in February, 2003

The Sake Professional Course has been moved to February, with new pricing. This will be the last notice before registration closes; those interested should contact me as soon as possible.

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.

Although geared toward wine professionals and other industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, anyone is welcome to participate. It will certainly be enjoyable! 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, can be found at Just click on the Professional Course link found on the main page.
Sake events and other miscellany...

On the evening of Saturday, December 14, Haruo Matsuzaki will hold a year-end "Bonenkai" party under the auspices of the Nihonshu Shimin Kouza, his regular regimen of seminars. Although there will be no seminar per se, there will be quite an education of the palate, based on the stellar arrangement of fine sake and curiosities he has lined up, as well as a couple of tasting contests. Participation is limited to 30, so those interested should let me know ( as soon as possible.

As the year dies down, regular events are less common as brewers dig in to make sake, and everyone else enjoys year-end festivities.

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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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.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,
Copyright 2002 Sake World


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