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Storage in Wood or Glass; Sugidama

# 40

Feb. 2003

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #40
February 1, 2003

- Of Wood and Glass
- Sugidama
- Sake events, etc: Kansai sake brewery visit
- Subscribe/unsubscribe information
- Publication information

Of Wood and Glass
You don't hear much about the tanks used for brewing or storing sake. In many other beverages, the type, age and source of the wood used for the tanks often contributes a major component to the flavor. Although sake is now fairly independent of these factors, this was not always the case.

Originally, all sake was brewed in wooden -- sugi (cedar), to be exact -- tanks. It wasn't until 1923 that enamel-coated steel tanks came into use, and many more years until they became the industry standard. Very rarely do you come across wooden tanks anymore.

One reason this all changed was that the flavor of the sake was sometimes overwhelmed by the fragrance and taste of the wood. As sake emerged from its rough flavor-profile days (thanks to better rice-milling techniques and other technological advances) and became more delicate and refined, the woodiness started to become a problem.

I once tasted a set of three sake brewed by Gekkeikan -- one brewed just as it was in the Meiji Era (1868 - 1911), one from the Taisho Era (1911- 1925) and one from the early Showa Era (1925 or soon thereafter). The wood was incredibly overwhelming, most evident in the Meji sake and next in the Taisho sake. They were barely drinkable (although the lower milling, no doubt, contributed to this, too), although I am admittedly spoiled with modern sake. It's no wonder they warmed the stuff back then.

Also, beyond the tanks for brewing and storage, sake was shipped in casks of various sizes, again made of sugi. These casks, known as taru, also imparted a strong woodiness to the sake. Although the use of glass became possible as early as 1869, the taru were irreplaceable to some degree.

This was because so much sake was shipped from the Nada region of Kobe to Edo by sea, on huge, fast ships called taru-kaisen. These ships, which carried innumerable taru, made the trip in 20 days and were an important aspect of sake commerce back then. Using glass casks on these ships as they zipped along the rough seas was too much of a risk for the big brewers.

Once the sake arrived in Edo, it was tested to ensure it hadn't gone off from being cooped up in the taru for too long and usually blended by the sake-donya (distributors) to ensure consistency. As it was shipped as genshu, i.e. totally undiluted sake, a very small amount of water was added at this time as well. Note that some less scrupulous distributors of the time would cut the product with a much more than a little bit of water while they were at it. This led to the derogatory term kingyo sake, or goldfish sake, suggesting the sake was thinned out so much that a goldfish could live in it.

Much changed in 1910, with the adoption by industry leaders of the 1.8-liter issho bin bottle, starting with Gekkeikan, and followed by Hakutsuru and Sakura Masamune. Note, this was all supplanted by the demise of the taru-kaisen and the rise of the railroad system, giving Kyoto and Nada easy land access to the Tokyo market. All of a sudden, sake no longer needed to be blended on site, and less woody and more refined sake was born. This, in fact, was a deliberate strategy on Gekkeikan's part: to become known for its more refined - and less woody - sake.

But don't despair. Sake with that old woody flavor and fragrance is still available. Even if it is not quite premium sake, it has a definite appeal (if the woodiness is not too overpowering). Known as taru-zake, sake like this has been stored in a cedar taru to deliberately induce a woody touch. While it may not have the fine, subtle notes and tones of finer ginjo-shu, it certainly is enjoyable.

Next month we will look at the current status of wooden tanks in the brewing world. They are not *all* gone!

There are certainly a great number of symbols in the sake world; images and things that evoke perfectly Pavlovian pangs for a glass of good sake. It might be a blue dyed curtain hanging in front of a sake shop, waiting to be parted as you enter. It might be the rising smell of yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers, a standard sake accompaniment) or just the right fruity or flowery essence reminiscent of a good glass of ginjo. Or, it might be the sight of the sugidama, arguably the oldest and most often-seen sign of where sake is to be found.
Certainly you have seen them hanging around (pun intended): green or brown spheres of tightly bound leaves suspended by a cord, dangling in front of sake shops and pubs. A quick glance at the photo here should evoke a "Oh, those things! Yeah, I致e seen them" response from readers that have spent time in Japan.

Sugidama originated in the Edo Period (1600 to 1868), and have taken many shapes and sizes over the past centuries, sometimes appearing more like bales or bound stalks of thin branches.
What are they, these sugidama? Also known as sakabayashi, they are - as they appear to be - balls constructed of the needles of the sugi, or Japanese cedar tree. (The more precise name for this tree is, actually, cryptomeria.)
The sugi holds religious significance in the Shinto religion, particularly in connection with a shrine named Miwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, wherein resides a deity related to sake. Although today not all sugidama are made from cedar boughs from this shrine (these days there are even kura that make sugidama themselves), it certainly is the traditional source.

Although there are several stories, one says that if the leaves (needles, really) of sugi are soaked in sake, that sake will not go bad. Until about 60 years ago, tanks for sake brewing were made of this wood, as are the small boxes called masu traditionally used for drinking sake. This wood is seen as being best for protecting the sake from spoiling.

Long ago, sugidama were hung just outside the front entrance to a sake brewery immediately after the first sake of the year had been pressed. As this was late fall or early winter, the sugidama were still green, having been made only a few months earlier. Over the next several months, however, the green needles slowly faded to brown. It was said that when the color had changed to brown, the sake had aged enough to be ready for drinking.

During a visit to one kura in Yamagata, Kamenoi, brewers of Kudokijozu, the president Mr. Imai pointed to a large sugidama hanging by the entrance. "See that, there? As you know, it should turn brown by the fall. Well, back in 1995, we had a sugidama that somehow miraculously stayed green; it never changed colors. While that alone is a mystery, recall that in that year the rice harvest was horrendous, and as such the sake that year was bad as well. Somehow, the sugidama knew the sake was never quite ready to drink, and so it never turned brown." While I would need to see it to believe it, it sure makes a great story.

For a couple of photos of what a sugidama looks like, check out:

Although accounts differ subtly from source to source on the details, the above is the basic gist of the saga of the sugidama. But it has evolved in its use if not its symbolism.

Today, sugidama appear not only in front of kura (breweries), but also in front of sake retail shops, as well as sake pubs and other places serving sake all over the country. A few are even found outside of Japan. 

Note that in general the terms sugidama and sakabayashi are used interchangeably. One reliable source, however, mentioned that sakabayashi are about 40cm in diameter, while sugidama are generally 70-80cm in diameter. This appeared in a dictionary of sake terms put out by a Nada (Kobe) brewer's organization; and while you can't question their qualifications, it was the only place I saw this distinction made.
They are not so hard to find, either. In fact, basically anyone can buy them, should you have the need for a large ball of cedar needles in or around your home. Should you be in Japan, ask your local premium sake retailer where they got theirs.
One of the most charming sites of winter ・if you are into sake ・must be a sugidama with freshly fallen snow resting on the top. If it doesn't evoke an inner warmth, try viewing it with a glass of sake. It soon will.


Good Sake to Look For
It is February 1, and it is the peak of the sake brewing season. It is also one of the coldest winters in a long, long time in Japan, and this makes for great brewing. Temperatures are easier to control, bacteria are on the retreat, and it all adds up to high expectations for the brewing world.

Accordingly, I find myself extremely busy, on the road to take advantage of the season and weather, and presenting the first annual Professional Sake Course this coming week.

As such, time constraints have dictated that it was best to pass up the sake tasting notes for this issue. Please be assured that this section will be back in full force, bolstered, focused and detailed, in the March 1 issue. Also, look this month for the new Sake Tasting Notes section of the web site at


Sake Events and Other Miscellany...

Announcing a Sake Brewery Event in Kansai
On Saturday, February 15, there will be a half-day event at a sake
brewery in Osaka, brought to you by, Daimon Brewery, and John

This is NOT for sake fans alone. This is an event that will allow those of us from other cultures and countries to see the "old Japan," the "real Japan," through the sights of an almost 200-year old sake brewery and its sixth generation owner. Enjoy stepping through this small doorway to the traditional life of old Japan.

The event will begin at 2:00 pm and run into the evening, so those
coming from Tokyo or other parts of Japan may want to make reservations
at a hotel (we can help you with that).

The event will unfold as follows.
2:00 - 3:00 Lecture on sake: sake basics and sake history, especially
that of the Kansai region.
3:00 - 4:00 Presentation by Mr. Yasutaka Daimon, 6th Generation owner of
Daimon Shuzo, with a short video, followed by a tour of the brewery led
by Mr. Daimon himself. As this is the peak of the brewing season,
participants will be able to see how and where every step of the brewing
process happens. It is also daiginjo season, so the most labor intensive
techniques will be in use.
4:00 - 4:15 We will all enjoy a short break
4:15 - 5:15 There will be a sake tasting contest with prizes.
5:15 - 6:00 Participants can shop for sake, create original labels for
sake, and take photos.

6:00 - 8:30 Dinner at the beautiful restaurant Mukune-tei, on the second
floor of the 100-year old brewery. The main dish will be Mukune-nabe, an
original one-pot stew made with sake kasu (sake lees), guaranteed to
warm you to the core, and of course, plenty of Daimon Brewery's top
quality ginjo-shu, sold under the brand names Rikyubai and Mukune.

The cost for the event will be 7,000 yen, including a 500ml bottle of
freshly-pressed Shinshu (new sake), a masu (small wooden box for
drinking sake), and dinner with sake. For those that choose not to stay
for dinner, the charge will only be 2,000 yen.

Reservations can be made by sending an email to:
John Gauntner at,
Mr. Yasutaka Daimon at
Or by calling Daimon Brewery (in Japanese) at 0728-91-0353


Japan Jizake Cooperative Second Annual Sake Tasting
On March 2, 2003, from 5:30 to 8:00, the Nihon Jizake Kyodo Kumiai (Japan Jizake Cooperative) will hold a tasting at the Imperial Hotel in Hibiya. There will be 50 sake from all over the country available for sampling, and plenty of food in an informal atmosphere. The cost is ケ0,000 for all you can drink, all you can eat, and a bottle of ginjo sake to take home as a gift. Those interested should send an email to, note that attendance is limited to 80 people.

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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