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Pros-Cons Wood Tanks; Sake Rice

# 41

March 2003

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #41
March 1, 2003

In This Issue:
- Pros and Cons of Wooden Tanks
- Sake rice strains: the current scene
- Good sake to look for
- Looking for a publisher
- Sake events
- For readers using ATT broadband
- Subscribe/unsubscribe information
- Publication information

Pros and Cons of Wooden Tanks
Last month, we looked at how wooden casks were replaced by glass bottles, and how wooden tanks were replaced by ceramic-lined stainless steel tanks. While these changes took place over decades, it has been about 50 or 60 years since "ki-oke," or wooden tanks, have disappeared and about 80 to 100 years since bottles became the norm. But this does not mean that wooden tanks have *entirely* disappeared.

There is a group known as the "Oke-jikomi Hozonkai," or the "Society for the Preservation of Wooden Barrel Brewing and Fermentation," started by American Sarah Marie Cummings, that is working to preserve, obviously, the use of wooden fermentation vats in sake brewing.

When wooden vats were still the norm for sake brewing, barrel-making was still an important industry, and wherever there were sake breweries, there were coopers nearby as well. Many breweries had their own in-house coopers, even. Naturally, as steel tanks came to be standard, the cooper trade began to die out. In fact, it is now on the verge of extinction. The Oke-jikomi Hozonkai hopes to rectify this situation to some degree by encouraging brewers to again use wooden tanks to at least a certain extent.

Although their goals are admirable, the group has their work cut out for them. There were sound reasons that the sake-brewing industry switched from wood to metal so long ago.

As mentioned in the last newsletter, the flavor of the sake was sometimes overwhelmed by the fragrance and taste of the wood of the tank. As sake became more refined in flavor and aroma, due to better rice-milling techniques and other technological advances, becoming more delicate and light, the woodiness started to become a problem. Also, the wood absorbed a lot of sake, as much as four percent of the volume of the tank. It was practical reasons like this that eventually saw the demise of the coopers and their craft.

While trapped in a long taxi ride with one of the brewer-members of this society, I asked a few frank questions about the movement and its pros and cons. It seems as if the latter way outweighs the former when it comes to sake brewing in wood.

The brewer-member, Mr. S. explained: "First of all, a wooden tank does not have to impart a strong woody flavor to the sake. But in order to avoid this, you cannot use a new barrel for a while; you have to let it sit for a couple of years to dry out and get that fresh woody scent out.

"So, after a cooper makes a tank, it is coated several times with kaki-shibu (an dark-brown extract of a type of persimmon that hardens and protects the surface of the wood), and allowed to dry outside. Then, once it is ready for use, it calls for massive effort to maintain. They spring leaks and the bamboo bindings loosen over time. We have to constantly repair them. "

Cleaning cooper creations is no barrel of fun, either. "They must be scrubbed thoroughly by hand and dried after each use, otherwise bacteria left over in the little minuscule cracks and fissures of the surface can ruin the next batch." He grimaces as he speaks, thoroughly conveying the hassles involved.

"And, after all that, they still offer no major advantage over stainless steel tanks, which we can use the day we buy, with no tweaking needed, and we wash them simply by hosing them down with hot water. The difference in the bother factor is like night and day."

Despite all that, Mr. S. still believes the wooden-vat making trade is worth saving. They brewed one tank last season in a wooden vat, and intend to do several more this year using this traditional method. The vats themselves are used for a very long time; after retiring from sake brewing they are adopted by producers of miso paste, and after that by pickle makers. Their intrinsic beauty and the atmosphere they promote is worth protecting as well.

For those interested, the Oke-jikomi Hozonkai has a web presence at:

Sake Rice Strains: The Current Scene
Most readers are certainly familiar with my oft-intoned admonitions that all rice is not created equal. At the risk of bordering on nagging, the current situation with respect to sake rice is worth looking at anew.

While most inexpensive "table" sake, regular sake known as futsuu-shu, is made with normal rice bought in bulk from agricultural co-ops, premium sake like honjozo, junmai-shu and ginjo-shu are made with proper sake rice. In fact, in premium sake, the rice is about 70% of the cost of the final product. The easiest way for brewers to lower the cost of the sake is to use cheaper rice.

As a quick review, how is sake rice different from normal table rice? One, the size. The grains are about 25% bigger, as are the stalks. The plant itself is top-heavy, calls for more water and nutrients and space, and must be harvested by hand as it is too tall for harvesting machines like combines. Two, it has a higher starch content (remember, this is what eventually ferments, after being converted to sugar) and a lower fat and protein content (which can hinder fermentation and lead to off flavors). And three, this starch content is physically located in the center of the grain, allowing the fats and proteins to be removed (while the starch remains intact) through more milling.

Furthermore, just like grapes, each strain of sake rice will lead to discernibly different flavors and aromas in the final sake product. Granted, these differences are not as distinct as they are in the grape-and-wine world, and the skill and intent of the brewer affect the final flavor immensely as well. But there are generalities of flavor and aroma that are easily identifiable for each strain of rice.

There are more differences related to the technicalities of brewing. For example, some rice strains dissolve more easily than others, making them easier to work with during fermentation.

For all of the above considerations, sake rice, known as sakamai, is naturally much more expensive than regular rice, to the tune of about three times as much. A 60-kilogram unit known as a "hyou" of the best sake rice, Yamada Nishiki, goes for about 30,000 yen in peak season.

The main varieties of sakamai are well known amongst sake fans, and make for considerable conversation and lively discussion. Here are a few of the most important strains.

1. Yamada Nishiki
Production volume: 5319 hectares, down from 5527 hectares last year. Yamada took over the top spot in terms of production from Gohyakumangoku only last year. Main prefectures: Hyogo, Okayama, Fukuoka, all out west. Yields complex, fragrant sake, fruity, flavorful very well rounded sake. Generally considered the best sake rice.

2. Gohyakumangoku 
Production volume: 5230 hectares down from 5443 hectares last year. Mostly grown on the Sea of Japan side, especially Niigata, Toyama, Fukushima, Ishikawa. Yields clean and light sake. This is the rice behind much of  the very dry and famously refined sake of Niigata.

3. Miyama Nishiki
Production volume: 1452 hectares down from 1556 hectares last year. A rice strain very suited to colder climates, such as Akita, Yamagata, Nagano, Miyagi, Iwate. Yields slightly richer sake with a grainy texture.

4. Omachi
Production volume: 414 hectares down from 456 hectares last year.
A pure strain (the oldest, in fact) discovered in 1859. Grown for the most part only in Okayama, and Hiroshima. A formidable foe of Yamada Nishiki. Yields layered, mildly fragrant, but earthier, herbal-toned sake.

As you can see, after the top three, the amount of production drops off significantly. Below is a list of others you may come across should you choose to look for such information. While these rice strains may yield character-laden sake, they are only grown in small quantities.

-- Hattan Nishiki (Hiroshima) Yields light-flavored, slightly earthier sake.
-- Tamazakae (Shiga) Plenty of character, but challenging to work with (say the brewers).
-- Dewa Sansan (Yamagata only): Layered structure, herbal, dry and even.
-- Kame no O (Niigata, Yamagata, Akita): Revived rice with lots of romance surrounding it, lots of character, yields complex and earthy sake.
-- Hattan (Hiroshima): Light yet mildly earthy flavors.
-- Gin no Sei (Akita): Even and crisp flavors.
-- Kura no Hana (Miyagi): Mellow but flavorful.
-- Hitogokochi (Nagano): Soft and billowing.
-- Iwai (Kyoto): Full, very soft,  and gently herbal. Very Kyoto-esque.
-- Yume no Kaori (Fukushima, created just last year): Soft yet full in the background.
-- Ginginga and Gin-Otome (Iwate): Somewhat grainy, varied flavor.
-- Kumamoto Shinriki (Kumamoto): Very interesting meaty, full flavor. Revived rice.

Note several of these, like Omachi, Kame no O and Shinriki, were "revived" rice strains. Here, a revived rice refers to a strain that was grown long ago, like 50 to 100 years ago, but fell out of favor with the farmers for one reason or another, usually because it was just too difficult to grow and/or harvest. In several such cases, these strains all but disappeared from the planet but for a few thousand grains in agricultural research centers. These few grains were borrowed and the strain revived.

What about the new ones? Where do they come from? They are crossbred. (I am not sure how this takes place, but I do know that it is fairly straightforward and does not call for anything like genetic modification. ) In fact, the various rice strains all have family trees of sorts, tracing their lineage back 100 years or more to pure strains.

Why all the rice? Why doesn't everyone use Yamada Nishiki if it is so good? Because rice is tied to region, and each rice type has a region in which it grows best. Outside of that region, quality suffers.

Also, local rice is a tie to locale. Many brewers want to make a sake unique to their region, with less of a homogenized taste. Creating good sake rice that grows well locally is a way to make sake with regional distinction.

Brewers are not required to put the type of rice on the bottle (but if they do, they must say what percentage of the total was the listed type). However, especially with premium sake, more and more brewers are indeed doing so. Over time, with enough tasting, you can begin to see the generalities of flavor imparted by the various strains.

Looking for a Publisher
I am currently looking for a publisher for three new books on sake in various stages of completion. Publishing companies I have previously worked with have said that while the books look potentially interesting, "in the end we feel that the market is just too small for us to successfully publish these books." As such, I am in search of a publisher that might feel otherwise about the potential for books on sake. I express my gratitude in advance for any help readers can provide.

One book is a detailed look at sake breweries and the personalities behind them, another is a "sake reader,"" with topics on sake covered more in depth than in my first books, and the third is a book on sake and food: cooking with and cooking for sake. A more in depth proposal for these can be found at

Any help that readers might be able to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Good Sake to Look For
This month, I would like to introduce a few brands that have become popular in Japan over the last few years. Perhaps the one thing they have in common is that they are all brewed by extremely enthusiastic if not maniacal (in a good way) brewers, many of them young and representing the next generation of sake. While they may or may not be available outside of Japan, their names are worth knowing.

- Kikuyoi  (Daiginjo class, Shizuoka Prefecture)
In short: Creamy yet light, but fragrant.
A character-laden and memorable daiginjo with a milky, rice-laced mildly sweet aroma, not overtly in your face but just enough. Creamy absorbing and full, even a tad voluptuous, yet clean throughout though. An ever so slightly grainy feel, with a slight residual sweetness in the background.

Recently, a "lesser" version of this sake, Kikuyoi Tokubetsu Honjozo, received major accolades from the gourmet magazine Dancyu. The son of the current owner (and owner inherit) is deeply involved in the actual brewing, and takes it all quite seriously. He refuses to use email or a cell phone as he is concerned it might dull his five physical senses - crucial in sake brewing. He is actually very cool, kind and pleasant, and his sake is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

- Kamikokoro (Junmai Daiginjo class, Okayama Prefecture)
In short: Sweet, sensual, fruity. Pears and melons, cantaloupe maybe, in the gentle but solid aroma, with a very mild acidity. Soft on the palate initially, with very decent weight, a slight sweetness in the top part of the flavor which very quickly absorbs into the palate leaving quite the clean underbelly. Better decently chilled, methinks.

Wonderfully typical of courageous Okayama sake that insists on maintaining the original style of the region, sweet sake, despite those the overwhelming popularity of dry sake in recent years.

- Iso no Sawa "Yuu" (Junmai Ginjo class, Fukuoka Prefecture)
In short: Mild, rich, mature. The aroma is faintly nutty and yeasty, but well-rounded and mature. Soft up front on the palate, endearing from the start, transparent and absorbing until the flavor-laden recesses takeover.

My only gripe with this brewery is that they tend to give their various products names above and beyond the main brand name and grades, and while this is common and no problem, they have a propensity to choose obscure kanji characters that I can never read. A small price to pay for fine sake, I admit.

Rikyubai (Junmai Daiginjo, Osaka Prefecture)
In short: Firm, fruity, subdued. Rikyubai is a wonderful sake with a brilliant balance between sweet and dry, and a richness and weight that make it eminently enjoyable alone, yet subdued enough to not obstruct simpler flavors of mild dishes. It all starts out with a flowery aroma tinged with cinnamon and wood. The flavor itself if fairly tightly constructed, firm and full yet compact. Much more flavor comes out at temperatures closer to room temperature.

Hayase Ura (Yamahai-shikomi Ginjo, Fukui Prefecture)
In short: Solid, structured, clean. Actually, this particular product is very light and clean for a yamahai-shikomi (that alternative method of making the yeast starter that leads to a gamier flavor profile). This brewery is quite popular these days, but they are very, very tiny, making only about 54 kiloliters a year.

Yamato Kotzuchi (Junmai Ginjo Namazake, Hyogo)
In short: Buttery, solid, creamy. Although this sake is not really seen that often in the Tokyo area, I do not know why it is not more popular. Overall, its flavorful character is very characteristic of sake from western Japan, in particular the Harima region of Hyogo, which has considerably more liveliness to it than the staid brews of Nada in Kobe. The toji (master brewer) has been in charge there for more than 25 years.

Abekan (Honjozo, Miyagi Prefecture)
In short: Soft, approachable, textured. Another sake of which not much makes it into the mainstream retailers, but is worth the search. Light and snappy like Miyagi sake often is, but textured with a lovely dab or richness in the recesses. Nice gently warmed, too.

Also, look this month for the new Sake Tasting Notes section of the web site at

Sake Events and Other Miscellany

Not much is happening in March, really. But April is chock-full of events, be they cherry blossom viewing parties (hint: it's the sake, stupid), seminars, or public tastings, so be sure to again read this section in the April 1 issue.

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.


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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, 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.
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 2003 Sake World


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