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2005: "The Year of Sake"
How much rice in one bottle of sake.

# 63

Jan. 2005

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #63
January 9, 2005

-- 2005: "The Year of Sake." Well, sort of...
-- How much rice goes into a bottle of sake?
-- Official "Kiki-choko" Tasting Glasses
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements

2005: "The Year of Sake." Well, sort of.

Happy New Year to all readers. May 2005 be blessed, healthy, prosperous, happy and most of all peaceful for all of us.

In the October 2004 issue of this newsletter, now posted in the archives, I wrote about the reasons that October 1 has been designated as Sake Day in Japan. In short, long ago the written character for sake itself consisted of only the right half of its current form; it did not contain the three short lines on the left that are actually a stylized representation of a river, and 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 any self-respecting student of calligraphy. For a side-by-side view of both characters, go to:

As I wrote in that October newsletter, the tenth of the 12 animal signs in the Chinese zodiac used to count various periods of time is a rooster or cock, but 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. And, the archaic character for alcoholic beverages, i.e. the current character minus the stylized river on the left, has been assigned to this tenth animal.

What I had forgotten when writing about the first day of the tenth month being Sake Day due to that character association was that we were just about to enter the tenth year of the current twelve year cycle, the year of the rooster. What this means is that the zodiac character assigned to 2005 is the old character for sake.

Which leads to this year's resolution, hope, and wish: that 2005 will indeed be the Year of Sake, and that this will be the year that sake continues its growth overseas, and rebounds to its erstwhile rightfully elevated status as Japan's premier indigenous beverage. May 2005 truly be the Year of Sake. Kampai!

How much rice goes into a bottle of sake?

I recently saw a statistic on how much rice goes into a bottle of sake. It was in the promotional material for a given kura's products, so the authenticity might be questionable in a court of law, but let us give them the benefit of the doubt and consider the question.

Before going too far, we should look at a few of the boundary conditions and assumptions that affect these kinds of calculations. For example, obviously how much the rice has been milled affects the rice-to-sake ratio. For a given amount of harvested rice, if you mill away only the outer 30%, you will get a lot more sake in the end than if you were to mill away the outer 65%. However, this variable is rendered moot if we are talking about how much white rice - i.e. already milled rice - goes into making a bottle of sake. The discussion here indeed assumes we are dealing with already milled, white rice.

Other factors, such as how far fermentation is permitted to proceed (i.e. do they try to squeeze every last drop of sake out of the rice, and quality be damned, or do they go for quality over quantity at the expense of yields) and the final alcohol content (conversely, how much if any water was added to potentially help subtle flavors become more noticeable) exhibit some influence over the calculations as well.

But the biggie here - and the intended point of the brewer whose promotional material presented the data - is whether or not alcohol has been added in the brewing process, in other words, whether or not the sake is of junmai type or non-junmai type.

As readers surely recall, cheap sake (about 80% of the market) has been cut with sometimes copious amounts of pure distilled alcohol. While much of this kind of sake is still very tasty sake, it is undeniably done for purely economic reasons in this realm of non-premium sake: to make more sake with less rice.

However, when we are speaking of premium sake, or the top 20% or so of all that is produced, sometimes *small* amounts of this distilled alcohol are added for technical reasons, as it can enable the brewer to pull out flavor and aroma a bit more easily, aid in stability during maturation and storage, and lighten or smoothen flavors overall. Nevertheless, such added alcohol will obviously affect how much sake you
 get from a given amount of rice.

Premium sake types with the word junmai in the grade (junmai-shu, junmai ginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu) were made using rice only. Premium types without the word junmai (i.e. honjozo, ginjo-shu, and daiginjo-shu) were made using a bit of added alcohol as a brewer's tool, a kind of crowbar for cranking out a bit more aroma and flavor. There is a graphical representation of all of this that might be easier to understand at:

Back to rice and sake. Based on the information in the promotional leaflet I came across, it takes about 1.5 kilograms of rice (3.3 pounds) to make one large 1.8 liter bottle of sake. But that is for junmai types. For inexpensive sake made with liberal use of added alcohol, it takes only 900 grams (2.0 pounds) of rice, or 60% of the rice. Also, based on the leaflet information, in the final product only 74% of the total alcohol content will have come from the fermentation of the rice, the remaining 26% will have been added distilled alcohol.

It is important at this juncture to again point out that the above example compares premium sake with cheap-ass schlock. This is not to insinuate that premium sake grades like honjozo, and (non-junmai) ginjo and daiginjo have been made this way. Rest assured, they have not. While I have mentioned that there is plenty of fairly tasty cheap sake out there, one can still tell the difference between sake with generous dollops of added alcohol and that made from rice alone, or with just a tad of added alcohol. They are indeed worlds apart.

These days, most consumers encounter 720 milliliter bottles more frequently than the larger 1.8 liter bottles. Into each of these went about 600 grams (1.32 pounds) of rice if it is a junmai type, but only 360 grams (0.8 pounds) if it is cheap-ass schlock.

Now, in the spirit of inanity, consider that the average bowl of rice eaten with meals is about 150 grams of rice (before cooking). This, then, indicates that about ten bowls of rice go into a large bottle of junmai type sake, and about four bowls of rice go into a smaller bottle of junmai type. I will leave the calculations for bowls of rice in cheap sake to readers with the requisite interest.

As if I had not gone far enough already, just to be silly, let us consider how many grains of rice might go into a bottle - or a glass - of sake. Again, a million boundary conditions must be assumed, but wading through them all to one workable assumption, let us say that they use Yamada Nishiki rice milled to 57%, thereby qualifying it as a daiginjo (as it is 60% or below). Yamada Nishiki weighs about 26.5% per 1000 grains when harvested, which is how they measure the size of rice varieties (i.e. the weight of 1000 grains). This would then mean that there are 1000 grains in every 15.0 grams after milling. The resulting hairy math will tell us that there are about 40,000 grains of rice used in brewing a 720 milliliter bottle of sake made from Yamada Nishiki milled to 57%, give or take a grain or two. Forty thousand. Now you know.

And, since there are four 180 ml (six ounce) servings in one 720 ml bottle of sake, what this all leads to is that in that about ten thousand grains of rice went into that glass of daiginjo you are hopefully enjoying as you read this. Ten thousand grains in a glass of daiginjo.

Again, subsequent calculations for cheaper sake and larger bottles are left up to the reader.

The point, here, through the admittedly facetious set of calculations above, is twofold. One, to show how many variables affect how much rice goes into making sake, and two, to introduce some of the standards of measurement involved in rice and sake production.

And finally, the issue surrounding junmai type sake and non-junmai types is *occaisionally* a contentious one here in Japan, one that I shall touch upon again in a future newsletter. In my humble opinion, we should let those that enjoy such arguments to slug it out while the rest go by one standard of measurement: without looking at the label, do I like this sake, or not? In the end, that is what it is all about.

Official "Kiki-choko" Tasting Glasses

Sake cups, glasses and flasks come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Traditional implements include all sorts of designs, and the variations involved are not only in motif, workmanship and size, but also in shape, function and overall design. While most are small, ceramic cups, the ubiquitous small wooden boxes called masu also fall into the traditional sake implement category. More recently, wine glasses, tumblers, and small bowl-like glasses are common as well.

It often seems that sake drinking vessels are all over the map when it comes to the apparent objectives and the thinking behind them. There most certainly does not appear to be any consistency in design. There are big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones. There are those with smooth surfaces and those that are earthy and swarthy in feel and complexion. There are glazed and unglazed cups, those with paintings and some with simple, softer colors.

All this variety begs the question, is there anything official? Surely there must be comparative tastings for sake; in order to compare any two or more sake properly the vessels need to be identical to eliminate variables. You cannot taste one sake from a short, squat cup and the next from a tall piece of stemware with a bowl and expect them to exhibit comparable facets. What do they use at such events?

Indeed, there are official sake tasting glasses, used for the most part only at proper, serious tastings. And if you have had your fair share of sake on the town, there is a good chance you have seen a replica of them.

These tasting glasses are known as "kiki-choko." (Some might pronounce it "kiki-joko.") The verb "kiku" here refers to tasting sake critically (Note to linguists: the written character is unique to this word, and different from its homonyms, such as "ask."), and "choko," or "o-chokko" refers to the small sake cups we all know and love. Kiki-choko are markedly different from the tasting implements used for other alcoholic beverages throughout the world.

For starters, they are opaque, being made of white porcelain. The bright white background allows assesment of color, albeit with a different sensibility than that performed with a transparent glass. Next, they do not have stems as wine glasses do, but are simple, squat tumblers holding about 180 ml, or six ounces. Also, there is no bowl or chamber; the walls of the tumbler are very straight. And finally, the most distinctive point of kiki-choko is inside the glass itself.

When one holds a kiki-choko and looks down into it, one beholds a set of blue concentric circles, a "bullseye" pattern covering the bottom surface. What is this, and what is it doing in my glass of sake?

In short, it is a traditional means of checking the clarity and luster of a glass of sake. Just about a century ago, when the Japanese government formed a research center to aid in the brewing of better sake throughout Japan (Altruistic motives? Perish the thought! Sake was then the biggest source of tax income, and Japan was in and out of war with China and Russia back then.), there were problems with sake spoiling during storage and maturation. While this is hardly a concern these days, back then the sake had to be checked regularly.

When sake is put into a kiki-choko, with proper lighting, judges can look down into the glass and focus on where the edge of the blue emblazoned concentric circles meet the white background. If this looks diffused or less than crystal clear, judges know that the sake has either begun to head south, or is already way beyond that border. When this blue-white border is sharp and clear, so then is the sake.

As these cups are admittedly a bit boring and sterile in feel, they are rarely seen outside of a kura or tasting room. They are also a tad large for practical use, especially in Japan where the custom of pouring for those you drink with necessitates the small cups to which we are all so accustomed. And this is why we often see miniature versions of kiki-choko in restaurants and pubs. Certainly many readers have come across these in their sake travels: small, white o-chokko with a blue bullseye pattern on the inide bottom. Many, many sake brewers will distribute these with their brand name printed on the side as little gifts. 

For a view of proper kiki-choko and the mini-version as well, go to:

Another question waiting impatiently in the eaves for its chance to be asked is "Why are the sides straight? Would not a tapered wall or a bowl-like construction help focus the aromas?" Well, yes, they would. But not all sake has the same degree of aroma, nor are all sake intended to be aromatic. This depends greatly on region, style and brewer. This was even more true 100 years ago. So, to use a tapered tumbler or glass with a bowl would horribly skew general assessment of sake, favoring some while inadvertently dissing others. A straight-walled tumbler allows an even playing field, even if it is not the best choice for olfactory enjoyment.

There are, of course, cheap kiki-choko available as souveneirs, and expensive ones used by kura and tasting bodies. The expensive ones will *generally* be thin-lipped, and the blue bullseye will have been fired into the surface cleanly and sharply, so that it is flush to the bottom surface. Cheaper manifestations will have painted bullseyes that can be a bit uneven along the bottom.

Also, when a kura or organization orders these kiki-choko, they do so in fairly large quantities, and keep these as a set. The point is to use a group of kiki-choko that were all made and fired together in the kiln. This is to minimize even slight differences in structure, such as rim thickness, dimensions and surface area, so that all sake are tasted from essentially identical glasses. This is one reason it is hard to get these glasses from kura that have printed their name on them for internal use. They are loathe to let go of one of the set since it is for all intents and purposes irreplaceable.

Returning for a moment to the majority of tasting implements and their seeming lack of consistency in design, there is in fact great consistency in design, especially in traditional Japanese pottery. It is just that the consistency is with less tangible things, like the seasons, or the clay used, or the region of origin of the pottery, or in finer pieces, the  will of the artist. Still, for all their beauty and aesthetic pleasure, their myriad shapes and sized do not lend such pieces to real comparative tasting efforts.

Finally, please remember that these "official" tasting glasses are not likely the best choice of vessel for your daily tasting pleasure. While cool in a traditional and cultural way, they are very focused in design and application. Still, you will likely come across these or their miniaturized manifestations from time to time, and knowing the origin can only but bring a smile.

Good Sake to Look For

-- Kamoshibito Kuheiji
-- Junmai Ginjo (Aichi Prefecture)
While the name of this sake is a mouthful, so it the sake itself. Heh heh. What it means is simply "Kuheiji the sake brewer," and amongst those in the know (which includes sake pubs and retailers) all you really need to say is "Kuheiji." In a recent tasting sponsored by a big Tokyo distributor, Kuheiji scored very near the top in blind tastings by both the professionals and consumers. In short, everyone likes it. What is very interesting about this is that Kamoshibito Kuheiji is not an ostentatious, highly aromatic sake, but rather subtle and alluring, and almost intuitive in its goodness. Soft in texture, honey-tinged autumnal fruit in the balanced and restrained aromas, and a slightly weighted (but not quite "heavy") feel suffuse the mildly sweet, oats & honey melon-laced flavor. Highly recommendable. Kuheiji is not, to my current knowledge, exported out of Japan. However, these things are changing so fast these days that it might be, and if it is not yet being exported it is only a matter of time. So remember the name.

-- Kikuhime (Ishikawa Prefecture)
-- Yamahai Junmai-shu
Kikuhime is simply a classic, a name to know in the sake world. There is so much to say about this kura, but their pursuit of quality and subsequent surge in popularity that has remained fully sustained has included efforts such as making a decision to brew every drop of their sake from Yamada Nishiki rice, from the cheapest schlock to the highest grades. Admittedly, I am not sure if they still do this, but either way it is a wild way to do things. Some of their top brews, such as "Gin" daiginjo or "BY" daiginjo can be very, very expensive, but exquisite as well. Yet they make plenty of reasonably priced, immensely enjoyable, character laden sake as well. Much of their style is defined by the hard water of the region. This lends itself well to the yamahai style of brewing, and Kikuhime's yamahai is the yamahai of yamahais, so to speak, and is not for wimps. Tart, sweet, acidic and very wild and gamy, it is surely one of the strongest representatives of this style out there.
But keep in mind that Kikuhime, the "Chrysanthemum Princess," is not only about yamahai. They make a range of styles and flavor profiles, and a lot of balanced, mellow and subtle sake as well. Much if not most of their success is due to the presence of perhaps the currently most famous toji (master brewer) in Japan, Mr. Naohiko Noguchi. But a few years ago, for reasons that, while the subject of gossip and rumors I am not privy to, left Kikuhime, only to be replaced by the immensely able erstwhile assistant, Mr. Ryoji Matsumoto. While their styles are different and so are the resulting sake, both are works of art. Noguchi-toji has since moved on to:.

-- Jokigen (Ishikawa Prefecture)
-- "Fujin" Junmai Ginjo
Jokigen sake has taken on a new life, a stronger presence of flavor and aromas since his arrival about six years ago. Yet, it differs from his style at the previous kura as well, being softer and fruitier overall. This particular junmai ginjo is laced with pear and apples in the aromas, soft, full and luscious but with a palate-clearing acidity that kind of ties the whole sake together. Full and billowing, it accompanies subtle Japanese cuisine quite well. 

Sake Events and Announcements

Sake Seminar at Takara, Saturday January 22
On the evening of Saturday, January 22, I will hold the first sake seminar of the year at Takara. As always for the first seminar of the year, I will be covering the basics of sake. Those that have attended my seminars before will find some material repeated, but the sake and food will be unique to that evening. There will by coincidence be several brewers from Miyagi Prefecture there that evening, which always makes the event more interesting.

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. 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.

Stay tuned until next month, when I will hopefully announce the beginning of a set of new seminar-events at a different location, a very famous and very traditional sake pub in another part of Tokyo. Details are being hammered out as you read this.


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