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Sake Vocabulary; Sake Judging

# 43

May 2003

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #43
May 1, 2003

- Sake Vocabulary
- Sake Judging
- Sake Events/Announcements: Takara, Midori Mushi

Sake Vocabulary

As the rest of the world begins to learn about sake on a real level, in order for a true level of understanding to take hold, there are a few words that it behooves us to learn in Japanese. Sure, we could try to avoid learning them, but doing so keeps sake from being unique enough to occupy a special place in people's minds, which keeps it from being a viable alternative, which inhibits enjoyment.

OK, maybe that is a stretch in logic. But really, it is not all that hard to learn a few words outside our native language, it can be fun, and it has been done before with wine.

So here are a handful of words you will see popping up again and again in writings about sake. I have, up until now, attempted to convey the meaning of these words in my newsletters by deliberately alternating them with their English alternatives, or by using parenthetical interludes. Hopefully, I can soon pull away from that and use only the Japanese words, confident that readers can easily follow.

"Must know" words:
1. Kura: Sake is brewed in a kura. Sure, we could use the word brewery, but the sake brewing process is different enough from the beer brewing process to justify it's own word. Winery and distillery certainly do not apply, and while factory may apply in some cases, the term in Japanese is kura. Note that this word can have other meanings (albeit with different characters, such as storehouse), and when it is necessary to differentiate a sake kura from another type of kura, the word sake and kura are put together, at which time the e sound of sake becomes an a: sakagura. Kura and sakagura can be used interchangeably.

2. Toji: A master-brewer. Behind every good sake is a good toji. The history, cultural lore, and stories of toji and their guilds can fill books and long discussions (while sipping sake). More artists and craftsmen/craftswomen than technicians, toji meld experience and intuition to guide and coax koji, yeast and rice into subtle and complex manifestations. Really, the importance of having a good toji at the reigns cannot be over-emphasized.

3. Seimai-buai (pronounced "say my boo eye"): The milling rate of rice, i.e. how much the rice has been milled before brewing. In general, the more the rice has been milled, the better the sake. Ginjo-shu is defined by this milling rate, and any brewer discussing his or her sake will state the seimai-buai in the first breath as one of its most defining factors. The number is expressed as a percentage, such as 70% (the requirement for junmai-shu and honjozo-shu), or 60% (the requirement for ginjo-shu) or 35% (usually the most highly polished rice encountered).

Note, the number is a bit counter-intuitive in that it expresses how much remains after milling, NOT how much was milled away. (It's just the way the math works in the definition; no conspiracy here.) So a ginjo must have a minimum seimai-buai of 60%; this means that at least the outer 40% of the rice must have been milled away before brewing. And if a daiginjo has a seimai-buai of 35%, that means that a full 65% of the outside of the rice grains were milled away to remove a maximum of fat and protein. 

But since it comes up so often in conversation, it is a great word to know.

"Should know" words:

1. Kurabito: A brewer, one that works under a toji in a kura. The word literally means "person of the brewery."

2. Koku: A traditional unit of sake equaling 180 liters. Why is this important? Because although all kura will communicate with the government in liters and kiloliters, they speak to everyone else in koku. A very small kura, of which there are hundreds and hundreds, might make one or two thousand koku a year. I myself cannot assess things in kiloliters; when I look around a brewery, and count the number of kurabito, and ask how much they brew in a year, if the number comes back in kiloliters, I need to translate that into koku to get a feel for the numbers.

Note, one koku equals exactly 100 of those large 1.8 liter bottles. Also, although it is the stuff of another article, originally a koku was a unit of rice used as payment to samurai retainers in Japan's feudal days.

3. Umami: Umami is a flavor-descriptive word, and is important because it has no direct English translation, yet describes a bona fide flavor element. Also, it has worked its way firmly into wine vocabulary, and thus achieved currency. It indicates a savory-ness, a deliciousness, a satisfying yummy-ness. Foods rich in umami include parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes (especially versus unripe tomatoes), and scallops. Some sake has great umami, lighter sake has less. Neither is inherently better, but rather the point here is that the word umami is very useful when objectively assessing sake.

(For more on umami, see the April 15, 2000 issue of this newsletter, archived at

"Helps to know" words:

1. Kuramoto: A nebulous term that can refer to either the company owning a kura, or the president of that company. Useful when talking about the people behind a particular kura, like their personality, philosophy of brewing, or their history.

2. Nihonshu-do: The specific gravity of a sake, also known as the SMV (Sake Meter Value) in English. Usually between -4 and +12, it vaguely indicates the sweetness or dryness of sake. Just remember: High is dry. It is very commonly seen on sake labels these days, either as Nihonshu-do or SMV.

3. Koku: Koku, as used in describing flavor, is another hard-to-translate term. (Note it is a homonym with "should know #2" above, but otherwise unrelated.) Usually, I translate koku as earthiness, but more precisely it refers to a settled, staid, grounded touch to the flavor, with perhaps earthy, peaty, tart or bitter tones being involved. While this is not really as indispensable or as irreplaceable as the word umami, it comes in handy when tasting sake.

And there you have it. Three sets of three Japanese words that help make the sake world unique, easier to understand, and more enjoyable. As sake becomes more popular and appreciated, it will need a self-supporting culture and presence surrounding it, and these few words will contribute to that. I will continue to incorporate them into my newsletter et al; so look for them and allow them to convey on their own distinctive meaning.


Later this month, the 91st Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai, or National New Sake Tasting competition will take place at the National Research Institute of Brewing. I am quite fond of this event and its significance, both historically, culturally, and for what it indicates about the current state of sake brewing and the sake industry. I will delve into this topic a bit more next month, after I return from the competition in Hiroshima. But before then, I would like to convey what such official government tasting competitions can be like for the judges.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Fukushima Prefecture Seishu Hinpyokai (sake evaluation tasting), a local version of the national competition. This was actually the first (and only) official government tasting I had participated in, and since a good amount of importance is placed upon these events, I felt a bit of trepidation heading up for the event.

I had been recommended by a brewery I have worked with in Fukushima, Yamatogawa. There was a bit of concern as to whether my, um, lack of experience would allow me to be discerning enough. There had been no precedent for a non-Japanese being a judge in an official government-sponsored tasting.  But sufficient assurances were made and I was in.

I was instructed in the ways of judging and tasting at these events on the trip up from Tokyo. Basically, it's the same in all such official tastings.  You smell and taste; and assess a score of 1 to 3. If it's outstanding, it gets a 1. If something somewhere seems a tad off, it's a 3. Anything else gets a 2. This allows you to move quickly enough to work through 224 sake from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., our quota for that day.

After the first round, those with a score lower (remember, a "1" is the best score) than some vaguely defined value get sent again through the gamut, and the lowest scores of the second round are the winners.

We were ushered in to the second-floor tatami-mat room of the Fukushima Brewing Research Center, and I took my designated place at the low tables set up in a quadrangle atop the tatami. Folded neatly on the table, on top of the various printed materials needed for the day, was a white lab jacket. "You've got to be kidding, we actually wear these?" I thought, but figured ah what the hell.

I had read beforehand the list of attendees, and felt just as intimidated as I thought I would. My co-workers for the day included two toji from Fukushima kura, the former head of Niigata's Brewing Research Center (that's Niigata, for heaven's sake!), a gentleman of similar stature from Saitama, three tax department official tasters, and Haruo Matsuzaki, sake critic, author, and consultant extraordinaire. Not a dullard of a palate in the bunch.

After confirming that everyone (read: me) knew how to proceed, we were cut loose. The sake was laid out in a separate room, in identical glasses, with nothing but a number on a small card in front of the glass. Tables with full glasses lined the four walls. On a portable chalkboard crammed into a corner near the door, the temperature of the room and the temperature of the sake were both listed. Silent, polite young men in traditional, high-fronted, blue sake-serving aprons emblazoned with names of various  Fukushima sake buzzed about the 11 tasters, making sure the glasses always remained full. Those that became drained were taken to another room to be filled, to ensure no one knew what sake was in what glass. 

On a table in front of the chalkboard, laid out neatly, were a pitcher of water and requisite glasses, two dishes of white powder, and (get this) a bowl of eggs. It didn't take a genius to figure out this was the palate cleansing station.

Acting as if I had a clue as to what I was doing, I would occasionally wander over, place a pinch of one white powder or another on my tongue, then swish and spit with water. The powders proved to be salt and baking soda, and were quite effective in helping my tongue forget temporarily the barrage of ambrosia it had just been exposed to.

But how the eggs were to be used still evaded any semblance of understanding I might try to muster. Fortunately, one of the other shinsa (judges) kindly explained. The egg is cracked, the yolk is manually separated from the white, swished around the palate and swallowed. Of all the options available, this was (surprisingly) the most effective in absolving the taste buds of any previous experience.

Naturally, none of the sake was actually swallowed. Spittoons were strategically placed every meter or so, since consuming the specimens would inhibit one's ability to assess objectively rather quickly. In fact, sake submitted to these tastings is usually about 17-18 percent alcohol, a bit higher than regular sake. This allows the sake to present it's package with a bit more of an impact.

Eventually, perhaps due to inexperience, a thertain numbneth thet in to my tongue. I became grateful for the white lab jacket after inadvertently drooling on it several times, and an over-stimulated tongue necessitated several breaks.

After completing about half the rounds for the day, I began to think, "OK, that's cool, I have tasted enough for the day.・But no, there are another hundred or so to go. Then it struck me: "Hey, man, this is WORK.・You need to concentrate, and do your best to be discerning until it's all over. Provided you do indeed expectorate everything, you don't really feel the alcohol, but the sensory overload is enough to truly tire you out.

After all the tasting was complete, we sat around and discussed, one by one, the average scores for each sake tasted. Everyone had naturally taken a note or two along with the recorded number. This proved to be the most educational and interesting part of the day.

Things were much more relaxed and jovial at this stage. A couple of sakes got dinged pretty harshly. "Whoa! Did you smell that? I wonder what got loose in that tank!" "How did *that* sake get in here? Heh heh, heh heh." But for the most part, the comments were positive, focused, and constructive.

There were only 11 of us, which made the math easy. Although I was with the pack 99 percent of the time, there were a couple of occasions when the numbers showed that there had only been one dissenter. Gee, I wonder who that might have been? Naturally, I kept my mouth shut.

In the end, the clear winner was a sake called Yuki-komachi. In second was Yumegokoro (made by one of the two toji present.). After that, several sake were tied for third through sixth. While this tasting was several years ago, both those sake are solid and staid Fukushima brands worth remembering.

These  tastings are made on several levels and on several occasions. In the spring, each region in Japan has a tasting sponsored by the tax department, followed by a national contest for the placers in each region (see next month's newsletter). Most prefectures also sponsor similar event, like this one in Fukushima. Why does the tax department run these, as well as fund brewing research centers in most prefectures? Because in the end, better sake means more revenues. 

Keep in mind that the sake submitted to these tastings is  from special, isolated batches, brewed exclusively for contests. There is not necessarily a direct correlation between the sake submitted here an the off-the-shelf stuff. But, in general, especially when results are viewed over time, the finest sake a kura can make will be at least somewhat indicative of their run-of-the-mill sake.

While this is but one day in the life of a judge, each prefecture and the national government both keep a staff of dedicated sake tasters for this and other events, and to provide guidance to the brewers. Now that can't be too bad of a job.


Sake Events and Announcements

Midori Mushi in San Francisco
Midori Mushi is a small, cozy, creative sushi bar attached to the Days Inn at 465 Grove Street in San Francisco. I recently stopped by to check them out, having heard from them that they were putting a lot of effort into the sake menu. Owner/chef Gerard Dumuk is personable and fun, and they have put together a very fine list of about ten sake or so, with the help of sake-knowledgeable Namiko Nakatani . Very, very much worth checking out. I think, though, that they have now become popular and are basically full all the time ・so call ahead. It is a very funky space, a bit different from most sushi bars, with a lounge-type atmosphere on the second floor. The food is artistic and very tasty, and the sake list is excellent.

Midori Mushi ("Green Bug") is at 415-503-1377. Open for dinner 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Cash only. Private lounge available. For more information and an informative food newsletter, email

New Sake Restaurant: Takara
In late March, the new sake restaurant Takara opened in the basement of
the Tokyo Kokusai Forum conference center right outside JR Yurakucho station. It is new, spacious, elegantly designed, and unique. It is owned by the owners of the former Mushu, as well as nine sake breweries. The angle is tapas, with a wide range of Spanish-influenced food and lots of Spanish wine. Naturally, there is plenty
of sake (about 20 selections), shochu and awamori. They also have what is surely one of the best beers in Japan on tap: Baird Beer from Shizuoka. (That alone is worth the trip, and this is supposed to be a *sake* newsletter.) It is very conveniently
located, and they have a totally English menu. It has been crowded every night since opening in March, so you might want to call ahead. 03-5223-9888.

On the evening of Saturday, May 24, from 6:00 to about 9:00, I will
hold the 2nd Sake Seminar at Takara. (Rob Yellin will not be there this time.)
The topic will be the sake brewing process, to be described in depth. What makes it unique? What makes it special? How does it turn rice into fruity, elegant aromas and flavors?

The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing me at No deposit is required.

Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention
center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for
getting there will follow with the confirmation email.

Sake World Website Overhauled
Please take a moment to check out the newly created and totally overhauled site at Navigation and content have been revamped and improved. Thanks to Mark Schumacher and Onmark Productions for the masterful navigation and layout design. Note, Mr. Schumacher is available for website design, in English, Japanese, and bilingual designs. Go to for more information.

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.


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

Copyright 2003 Sake World


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