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Sake Day; Fukui Sake; Sake Stats

# 60

Oct. 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #60
October 1, 2004

-- October 1 is "Sake Day"
-- The sake of Fukui Prefecture
-- Some Sake Statistics of Late
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements

October 1 is "Sake Day"
October 1 of each year is officially designated "Nihonshu no Hi," or "Sake Day." While this point would have been much more poignant and relevant had I managed to get out this newsletter on the first of the month, the reasons behind the celebration are still worth looking at, if a few days outdated.

First of all, as most readers surely know, the word "sake" in Japanese can - and does - refer to all alcoholic beverage in general. By default it often ends up meaning the sake that we all know and love, as other options like wine are beer and called wine and beer respectively. However, when differentiation is necessary, as it often is, the word "nihonshu," loosely translated as "Japanese-sake," is used. It was created and adopted by the industry in the 1970s to differentiate sake (as we know it) from sake (the overly general term). At the risk of going off on one of my all too common tangents, note that legally sake is known as "seishu," which could be translated as "refined sake." Why refined? Because sake must pass through a mesh at the final stage of its production to make it easy to differentiate it from rice-based moonshine. The combination of these factors is the reason we see the unwieldy term "The Refined Japanese Sake" on so many sake labels. "As opposed to what, unrefined Aleutian sake?," many of us think. Well, now you know the logic behind it all.

But I have once again digressed. Back to Sake Day. Why October 1? Several reasons. The biggest is related to the written character for sake. (For those that do not know what it looks like, go to my site at and look in the lower left-hand corner. It is the first of the three characters below the "search site" box.) Long ago, it consisted of only the right half of its current form; it did not contain the three short lines on the left that represent water. It consisted only of the part that was made to look like a jar, indicating something holding liquid, which was of course an alcoholic beverage of some sort in the mind of those reading the character. Enter the Chinese zodiac: 12 animal signs that are traditionally used to number years in sequence, as well as months, as well as consecutive two-hour periods in each 24-hour day. The tenth of these, corresponding to the tenth month (and the tenth year and the tenth hour) is tori, or chicken (or perhaps rooster or cock). However, the written characters assigned to each of these animals are not the standard characters for the animals themselves, but rather special characters and readings applied only for these zodiacal instances. This is where my detailed knowledge of Chinese characters and their adoption into Japanese breaks down and fades into near oblivion. For some reason, the ancient character for sake described above has been assigned to the tenth animal. It currently does not have any other use in either language. (The character, that is. Not the chicken. Chickens have lots of uses. But I digress again.)

So, by fortuitous coincidence, October is represented in the ancient Chinese zodiac system, also embraced by Japan, by the old character for sake. Well, isn't that *convenient*. Sake brewing begins in the fall, usually in October. In fact, until a few decades ago, the fiscal year for sake brewers began on October 1 for that reason. As technology advanced to the point that brewers were able to start brewing much earlier and continue much later in the spring than before, that tax-related fiscal day was changed to July 1, but the original date of October 1 was certainly more apropos until recently.

Indeed, October represents a beginning in the sake world: the beginning of a new brewing season. And the first day of this month is certainly a day worthy of note and some celebration in the sake world. And that is why October 1 is known as "Nihonshu no Hi," or "Sake Day," in Japan.

The Sake of Fukui Prefecture (Sort of)
I have, of late, been extolling the virtues of, and bemoaning the demise of, regionality in the sake world. I have written about it a good bit in this newsletter, and (actually by coincidence) have been asked to speak about it on recent presentations in the US. While I have explained that many prefectures have a very easily identifiable regionality to them, and have shown what contributes to that, as well as what detracts from that, I perhaps have neglected to point out that there are some prefectures with no true thread of distinction or identity running through their sake. And, that is just fine. It is not a factor that at all takes away from the quality or reputation of the sake from that region. Fukui Prefecture is a prime example of this point. I was recently invited out to Fukui to give a speech to the brewers of that region, known as Hokuriku, and comprised of three prefectures: Fukui, Ishikawa and Toyama. Because it was held in Fukui, at the end of the evening I found myself invited for one (?) more glass of sake with the brewers of Fukui only.

As I sat with the 20-odd brewers present that evening, one of them, Mr. Nanbu from the kura making Hanagaki, a natural (if unofficial) leader amongst them, stated "we all need to more actively promote the sake of Fukui, don't we guys?" They all grunted and nodded in agreement, then fell into a collective uncomfortable silence. But in the next moment, I timidly raised my hand and asked,  "Uh, er...excuse me, but in general, what is Fukui sake like? How would you describe it? What would you Fukui brewers say the defining nature of Fukui sake is?" It was an honest, sincere question. Even naive, perhaps. I have had almost all the sake brewed in Fukui at one time or another, but I was hard pressed to identify its overall nature. So, I figured, go to the source: ask the people that make it.

They all kind of looked around at each other, and after a lot of noggin scratchin' and another prolonged, pained silence, Nanbu-san again spoke up. "Well...there really isn't one. Is there guys?" he said, glancing at the others for confirmation. "No, not really," they all collectively mumbled. And this came from the brewers of the region themselves. Nor was this perceived as a problem. Simply the way it is. So much so that the conversation soon moved on to other topics.

But in spite of a definable, cohesive nature to the sake of the region, Fukui is quite the significant brewing locale. For one, there are many, many reputable brewers of fame and sterling reputation among the 39 mostly small kura currently making sake in Fukui. (See these mentioned below in the "Good Sake to Look For"section.) That much I knew. But very surprising to me was how much sake rice is being grown there. In fact, Fukui is tied for third in the amount of sake rice grown. Behind only Hyogo and Niigata, Fukui is tied with Nagano in terms of the amount of sakamai they produce. Most of this rice is Gohyakumangoku, which grows best in the colder regions along the Sea of Japan, and which is used by many Niigata brewers (most notably) to yield dry, clean sake for which that region is so well known. While much of it is indeed used at home, a great deal of it is sent to Hyogo and Kyoto to satiate the needs of the large brewers there. Beyond the rice, the water of much of Fukui is of the slightly soft variety that so well typifies sake overall. It is, in sense, ideal water for sake brewing.

And so, getting back to the main point of this meandering diatribe, not every region in Japan make sake of identifiable character, but rather there are a few like Fukui that - while having many well-known and highly respected producers - do not have an overall easily identifiable style. And that is just fine. It does not detract from their reputation or quality in the least.

Some Sake Statistics of Late
While sake is doing very, very well in the US, looking only at those statistics paints an inaccurate picture of hat is really happening in the sake world these days. In truth, things are hurtin' in Japan, and while it does no good to dwell on this, we should at least acknowledge the current reality.

First, let us look at how much the market is growing in the US for sake imported from Japan. Over the last eight to ten years, sake imports from Japan have been increasing somewhere between 8% and 12%. And, the first half of this year was a whopping 18% up from the first half of last year. There are close to 400 brands registered, and although not all of these are being actively distributed, certainly most of them are. Coverage by the main wine magazines, lifestyle magazines, and major publications like the New York Times indicate that this lovely trend is likely to continue.

Yet, things are not nearly as rosy in Japan. On the contrary, sake consumption continues to decline, as it has since 1973. Granted, what is dropping off is the cheap stuff, inexpensive "table" sake and honjozo-shu. And, in fact, premium sake is more or less stable, or at worst declining slightly with the entire market. Nevertheless, when we look at the bottom line, sake consumption is down, down, down.

Why, why, why? There are many reasons, but the most plausible is simply that consumers have so much more to choose from today than they did a few years ago, not mention compared to 1973. Wine from both the old world and the new is well distributed and inexpensive. Shochu, Japan's other indigenous alcoholic beverage, a distilled drink made from a wide range of materials, is also hugely booming in both its "single malt" premium manifestation and its multiply distilled "white liquor" mixing version. And beyond this, every alcoholic beverage known to man has become easily available as well.

And, admittedly, the other main reason is that the image held of sake by young people in particular is hardly a fashionable one. This is indeed a pity, and need not be the case, but the sake industry has never taken the initiative to deflect this. They will need to do so soon.

For the brewing year ending June 30, 2004, sake production was 836,684 kiloliters, down 7.8% from the previous year. Ginjo-shu (including its legal subclass, daiginjo-shu) was down 4.4%, while junmai ginjo (and its legal subclass, junmai daiginjo-shu) was down 2.0%. Junmai-shu, the lone star this past year, was actually up 2.7%. Hurray!

I was recently with a brewer that exports quite a bit of sake. With a chagrin-tinged smile, he lamented "the only market that's healthy is the overseas market!" Indeed, sake consumption continues to grow almost everywhere outside of Japan. Although it is far from the level where it could have a positive effect on the domestic situation, in time, it certainly will. Be it actual volume of consumption, or be it simply that young domestic consumers come to view sake with a fresh eye thanks to the attention it gets overseas, we must continue to do our part. So get some good sake and enjoy it. I'll drink to that!

Good Sake to Look For
This month, let us look at a few sake from Fukui Prefecture.
-- Born, Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo --
Actually, this sake has about every descriptor in the book on its label. It is actually a: Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo, Nakadori, Muroka Nama Genshu. Got all that?  Let's look at that again, since in the end it is all useful information. It is a "junmai daiginjo," so it's the top grade of sake. It is a "yamahai," meaning the yeast starter was made in a less-than-common way that yields a slightly gamy, rich flavor. "Nakadori" means it was separated from the lees in an old method, and that this sake was taken from the best (middle of the pressing) part, "muroka" means un-(charcoal)-filtered, "nama" means unpasteurized, and "genshu" means undiluted, so slightly higher in alcohol.

The doctorate you need in language and brewing studies just to read the label notwithstanding, it's quite a good sake. While all that "stuff" happening together (being a yamahai as well as a muroka nama genshu) would initially put me off big-time for fear of a far too busy and humongous flavor, this sake is on the contrary slightly restrained compared to what it could be. It is big, to be sure, but not out of control. More concretely, it exudes a spicey, cinnamon touch, with a fresh fruity initial impact, and a gently tart and gamy touch to the recesses. Very enjoyable indeed.

Also: the name would have been better rendered as "bohn," at least for those of us speaking North American English. Then again, "Born" invites all kinds of marketing angles, so more power to them.

-- Hanagaki, Junmai Ginjo-shu --
I recently went to visit this brewery, and was told I had to take a long bus ride because the train tracks had been washed away by extremely heavy rains during last spring's rainy season. Along the way, from inside the undulating bus, I saw the damage. It was amazing. An entire concrete bridge and the single set of steel tracks that ran along it had been wrenched from where it sat for decades by a river that, as innocuous and gentle as it appeared now, had risen to a mighty torrent after a sudden, unexpected and explosive half-day rain. Apparently the water was so fast and furious that it undermined the foundation of the narrow bridge's pillars, and took the whole thing along in its fierce flow, snapping the steel and concrete on top. The line runs to villages that are *way* out in the boonies, so much so that the "commuter" train only made four trips a day. Rumor is they won't even replace it, but the show of the force of nature was astounding. Back to sake.Hanagaki has been around exactly 100 years as a sake brewer. The family business goes back 270 years, but for the first 170 years they were a purveyor of metallic goods for the 400-year old town of Ono. In front of their kura, along the main road from where the castle once stood, several days a week folks gather for a morning market of mostly locally-grown produce. Amazingly, this has been going on for 400 years, and is one of the oldest such markets in Japan. Back to sake.

Using slightly soft water that is ranked as one of the best 100 sources in Japan, Hanagaki makes a wide range of sake for such a small brewer. Particularly recommendable is this junmai ginjo. The prominent aroma is suffused with a blend of apple and peach, with a soft, full texture and a fine-grained set of flavors. The elegant and refined feel imparts quite a sense of value for the 2000 yen price tag.

-- Ippongi, Yamahai Junmai-shu --
Ippongi has long been a bit ahead of the crowd in Fukui, being the first to introduce ceramic-lined steel tanks instead of wood, and refrigeration equipment into the brewery back in the early 1900s. This contributed to their developing a relatively dry if rich style, especially in comparison with other sake from this region. This sake is mild for a yamahai, dry and straightforward. It is definitely best near room temperature, where the slightly sweet, tart, chewy, gamy and smoky elements blend to yield a wonderfully balanced and satisfying sake that lends itself nicely to session drinking, although it's a pleasant if subdued accompaniment to dinner as well.

-- Kokuryu, Junmai Ginjo-shu --
"Black Dragon," as the name of this sake translates, is as popular a sake as there is in Japan, asking no quarter of Kubota, Koshi no Kanbai, or even the inimitable Juyondai when it comes to brand recognition and quality. Soft and mildly fragrant at first, the sweet nutty aromas melt into a soft-textured flavor embracing a decidedly cocoa touch in the center. Unmistakeable and very enjoyable. As with all such superb but hyper-popular sake, I highly recommend *not* going higher then junmai ginjo, as at super premium daiginjo levels the defining nature fades from that of "Kokuryu" into that of just "daiginjo."


Of the above, only Ippongi (the largest brewer in Fukui) is available in the US. Kokuryu may become so in limited amounts soon, or at least such a rumor my way has come wafting. The brewer of Born is looking for an importer, but he is taking his time so as to find one that will handle his beloved sake according to his wishes. Any takers? 

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar, Saturday, November 6, 2004
On Saturday, September 23, I will hold a sake and pottery seminar together with Rob Yellin at Takara in Yurakucho. The topic will the "vital statistics" of sake: the nihonshu-do (SMV), the acidity and amino acidity, and the seimai-buai, plus a few more. Their significance, lack thereof, and usefulness to we consumers will be tried, tested and discussed. 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 sending me an email through my web page 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.

Ginjo-shu Kyokai Tasting, October 26, 2004
On Tuesday, October 26, from 5:30 to 7:30, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai will hold its annual (formerly twice yearly) sake tasting at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. Come taste six or so sake from each of 73 brewers, or as many as you dare within the two hour period. The cost (provided you pay in advance) is a mere 4000 yen, but you receive a bottle of ginjo-shu from one of the participating kura, rendering the tasting effectively free. Note, no food is available, just lots and lots of sake. Those interested should contact the Ginjo-shu Kyoukai at 03-3378-1231, fax them at 03-3378-1232, or email them at Their web site (in Japanese only) is at . You will be sent an invitation and form for paying through the post office. You can also just show up on that day, but it will cost you 500 yen more. Not to be missed!

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

All material Copyright 2004, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003


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