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Bubbles, Foam and Froth; Nara Sake

# 31

May 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #31
May 1, 2002


-Bubbles, Foam and Froth
-The Sake of Nara Prefecture
-Good sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

Bubbles, Foam and Froth

Sake brewing today has become very scientific. But long ago, before the
days of thermometers, hydrometers, and barometers, brewers relied
entirely on their five senses to gauge the progress of a fermenting tank
of sake.

Although they might not have known the scientific causes for the
phenomena they were observing, experience and intuition told them how to interpret what they saw, tasted and smelled. One of the most reliable of these empirical yardsticks - and one that is still used today - is the
appearance of the foam on the top of the moromi (fermenting mash).

Throughout the 18 to 35 day ferment, the foam will change appearance quite regularly, and very clearly reflect what is taking place inside the tank. Over the centuries, names were given to the foam at each stage that made it easy to assess and convey the status of the work in progress.

After the yeast starter has been created, and after the three additions of water, rice and koji over four days have been completed, foam will begin to develop as the yeast cells process the sugars in the tank, and give off carbon dioxide. This will rise to the surface, often still attached to the yeast cells. This is why the foam has two and a half times as many yeast cells in it as the liquid beneath.

Two or three days into the ferment, small striations will appear on the surface, similar to taught muscle under skin; hence the term suji-awa (muscle foam). Next, a think layer of soft foam will begin to cover the entire tank; this is known as mizu-awa (water foam).

The timing of these changes of course depends on a myriad of factors, such as how much the rice has been milled, and the temperature of the tank. But soon after this the ferment will enter its most active stage, and foam will rise in great swaths, so that it looks like huge rocks tumbling over each other. This is known as iwa-awa (rock foam).

This continues into the highest stage of foam, known as taka-awa, with the bubbles themselves at this stage being very small and fine. This usually occurs about the tenth day or so, but there is great variation depending on a plethora of factors.

The foam rises so high that brewers usually rig a simple rig consisting of a piece of wire that gently spins on a motor with the sole purpose of gradually beating down the foam as it rises. This spares them the need for extremely high-walled tanks. It also aids in sanitation, as one of the greatest sources of sake-spoiling bacteria is foam that has dried on the inside of the tank.

As the fermentation begins to wane, the foam too falls back, leading to the stage known as ochi-awa (falling foam). This segues into a stage with very large, soapy-looking bubbles known as tama-awa (ball foam).

After this foam, too, fades away, the surface of the moromi is referred to as ji, or ground. This stage has many sub-conditions with their own names. Small wrinkles in the surface are referred to as chiri-men (a type of rough cloth). A totally smooth surface is known as bozu, in reference to the shaved head of a priest. If rice solids that did not ferment have risen to the surface, it may look like a lid is on the moromi, and this is referred to as futa (lid).

Much can be told about the quality of the sake at this stage from observing this surface. For example, if the lid is thick (kogai, or thick lid), it indicates that a significant amount of wild yeast ended up in the moromi and survived.

This is because the fibers in rice tend to attach themselves to many types of wild yeast, and rice to the surface when pulled by the carbon dioxide molecules, giving that thick-lidded appearance. Brewers know, then, that a thick lidded moromi in its final stages will often lead to a sake that is rough, acidic and less refined.

Naturally, today these observations are combined with chemical measurements such as acidity, residual sugar, and temperature to create the precise and wonderful flavor profile they aim at.

For those interested in a  bit more than words, the below links offer some excellent photos of the foam at every stage, corresponding to the explanation above.

It is also interesting to note that there are some yeast strains that do not create foam during fermentation. Although the first such "awa-nashi" (foamless) yeast was actually isolated at a sake brewery in Hawaii, there are several strains of awa-nashi yeast in use today.

The advantages of these strains are that brewers can get more sake out of a given tank, as they do not need to allow extra space at the top for the rising foam. Also, as mentioned above, the top part of the tank where the foam has clung to the walls is a huge source of contaminating bacteria. Foamless yeasts eliminate this concern.

There are awa-nashi strains that correspond to many normally foaming strains. For example, Yeast #901 is a foamless version of Yeast #9. Yeast #1001 is a foamless version of Yeast #10. As you may have guesses, adding a -01 suffix to a yeast name is a conventional way of indicating it is a foamless version.

Most brewers say that other than the foam, the yeasts are exactly the same, so that a 901 will produce the same array of aromatics, ferment with the same vigor, and work in the same small temperature range. However, there are a few that say that awa-nashi versions are just not the same.

Finally, many brewers simply prefer the foam, as it gives them one more source of all-important input that can be used in assessing the progress of a fermenting tank, and when a sake is ready to be pressed. The five senses are, after all, the most reliable tools of the sake-brewing craft.


The Sake of Nara Prefecture

Nara prefecture is, in one sense, the heartland or origin of modern Japan. The first permanent capital was set up in Nara the eighth century, although it would move to Kyoto in 794.

Nara can also be considered the historical heartland of sake for similar reasons. Historically and culturally, Nara is an extremely significant sake-brewing locale.

In 689, the then-imperial palace in Nara established a brewing department within its walls. Obviously, this was the first attempt at systematizing and improving what had already become Japan's national beverage.

Often, it is technically hard to pinpoint just when sake became sake. But it was certainly close to what we know today by this time. Certain steps of the process had yet to be refined and improved upon, and in fact major steps like koji production and the use of yeast starters had not yet come into being. Also, in that Imperial Brewing Department, there were something like 13 different sake being produced, all for different occasions. White sake, black sake, and sake of higher and lower alcohol were some of the variants. As sake was (and is) tied in so closely with the Shinto religion, each of these variations was used in a different ceremony, festival or event.

Eventually sake brewing moved from the palace to temples and shrines, and then again to the common folk. So technically advanced was the sake of Nara that even into the Muromachi period (1333 - 1573) the term "Nara-zake" signified great sake.

Nara is also the location of Omiwa Jinja, said to be the oldest Shinto Shrine in Japan. Enshrined here is the god of sake brewing. The sugi trees on the grounds of this shrine are used to make saka-bayashi, the green or brown globes seen hung at sake-related establishments all over Japan.

Also, each year on November 14, brewery owners and toji from the region gather for the Sake Matsuri (sake festival), to pray for a safe and successful brewing season. As Nara is close to both the brewing centers of Fushimi (Kyoto) and Nada (Kobe), this has historically been a very important event.

Because Nara is so close to the two brewing centers mentioned above, until recently many of the small makers engaged in "oke-uri," or "tank selling," i.e. brewing sake for other large breweries. This practice has died down lately, both for economic reasons (not as much nihonshu is being consumed) and for reasons of local pride.

There are currently just over 50 breweries in Nara. Almost all are very small brewers. Overall the sake from Nara is slightly soft and light, neither too sweet nor too dry, yet with plenty of flavor and character. Although not always easy to find outside of Nara, some names to look for include Yamatsuru, wonderful Tama no Tsuyu, the excellent Hanatomoe, Yatagarasu and Hyaku-raku-mon. More commonly found sake include Harushika, Hoshuku, and sterling Ume no Yado.

See more about Nara sake in the Good Sake To Look For section below.


Good Sake to Look For
A bit more about some of those good Nara sake.

Ume no Yado
A fairly small brewery with a long and storied history and a fine reputation. Here, they use lots of Bizen Omachi rice as well as plenty of Yamada Nishiki, giving an interesting balance of profiles to their products. Most recommended is their eternally drinkable Ume no Yado "Kobai" Junmai Ginjo and their "Nara" Ginjo. Ume no Yado also has at least one product in the US; another junmai ginjo.

This brewery keeps ties to the past and eyes on the future. They were quick in bringing computers into some aspects of the brewing process, like rice polishing. Yet, they helped revive a very, very old brewing process called Bodai-moto, which was used back when monks in temples brewed sake in Nara. Most recommended is their fruity and layered "Banri" Junmai Daiginjo, and their Junmai Ginjo, which can also be quite nice gently warmed.

Another very tiny kura (they abound in Nara) that focuses on premium sake made with premium rice. Their *average* seimai-buai is 46%, meaning that the sake they make is brewed using rice with on the average the outer 64% milled away. The water they use is quite soft for this region, giving them a rather uniquely light and delicate flavor profile. Indeed, their several daiginjo products (using a couple of different rice types) exemplify the best things about Yamatsuru.

Harushika's  "Cho-karakuchi Junmai" is a wonderful and universally appreciated sake, being widely available both in Japan, and well distributed in the US and Europe as well.  The brewery is very, very old and has a distinguished past. An ancestor of the family was once the head priest at the oldest temple to be brewing sake, Kasuga Taisha. This sake is, as its name Chokarakuchi indicates, very dry, but with enough body and presence to make it wonderfully drinkable and enjoyable.

One more very, very tiny producer. They have always felt here that it is better to put money into good rice then new fancy equipment, and so combine traditional techniques with lots of great rice. Even their honjozo is brewed with Yamada Nishiki. Their sake is both light and clean, and lively, balanced and flavorful at the same time. Their namazake (unpasteurized) products seem to particularly excel, such as the "Yamada 50" Junmai Ginjo.


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.

In the US:
It's not too late! On Saturday, May 4, 2002, the first annual Sake Summit will be held at the Rihga Royal Hotel in New York City. Hosted by the International Sake Institute, the Summit will give event goers a rare opportunity to taste dozens of top-tier sakes under one roof. Consumer judging will take place from 12pm to 5pm. Educational seminars will be offered throughout the day, including "Sake in Japan" by John Gauntner, "Sake 101" (in Japanese) by Haruo Matsuzaki, "Sake 101" (in English) by Grif Frost, "Sake Food Pairing" by Randy Caparoso, and "Sake Home Brewing" by Fred Eckhardt. Home brewers will be submitting their home-brewed  sake for judging in a special contest as well. A limited number of 400 tickets go on sale March 28. Tickets are available through the ISI at

Boston, Tuesday May 14, 2002
The Japan Society if Boston will host a lecture and sake tasting, with a presentation by John Gauntner on Nama Junmai Daiginjo, and The National New Sake Tasting Competition. A tasting will follow, attended by a dozen sake brewers from the Sake Export Association. For more information contact the Japan Society of Boston at 617-451-0726; or email

New York City, Thursday May 16, 2002
The Japan Society will host a lecture and sake tasting, with a presentation by John Gauntner on Nama Junmai Daiginjo, and The National New Sake Tasting Competition. A tasting will follow, attended by a dozen sake brewers from the Sake Export Association. For more information contact the Japan Society at 212-832-1155; or visit


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. (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:
-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.
-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 (Rikyubai in Osaka) 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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