Nav barEmail eSakeeSake Site MapJapanese Language eSakeSake Links - Other Web ResourceseSake HomepageStore Help, FAQ, Legal Issues

Sake Brewers Sake Knowledge Sake Store Sake-Food Sake Links About eSake

eSake Logo

Newsletter Archive 2005

Types of Sake
Making Sake
Pub Guide
Sake FAQ
Sake Glossary
Sake Tasting
Serving, Storage
Vital Statistics
Free Newsletter

   Newsletter Archive red check
 Japan Times Archive

Kanji for Sake




Index to All Stories




Top Story

Dassai (Part 3); Plus
New Book; Year-end Notes

# 74

Dec. 2005

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #74
December 1, 2005

-- Dassai: A Unique and Innovative Kura (Part III)
-- Year-End Hodge-podge
-- Announcing the Third Sake Pro Course
-- New Sake Book !! Where to Drink Sake in Tokyo
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events & Announcements

Dassai: A Unique and Innovative Kura (Part III)
(This is the third part of a story on Asashi Shuzo, Brewers of Dassai. For those that missed the first two parts, click the above PRIOR button to view newsletters #72 and #73.) 

A tour through Asahi Shuzo with Sakurai-san is a technical lecture on brewing, and can be immensely educational if you can keep up. Of course, not all of us are so geeked out on the technical details, but if you want 'em, Sakurai-san's got 'em. Not that he tows just anyone through there. You kinda have to know someone. "I basically don't allow anyone in here unless they have been introduced by someone I trust," he explains almost apologetically.

One of the many ways in which this kura expresses its peculiarity is in its systematic approach to sake brewing, espoused by Sakurai-san himself. His angle on this whole sake making thing is that great sake can -- for the most part - be brewed using a very systematic, by-the-book set of instructions. And he backs it up with his great-tasting product. This is in blatant contrast to what most of the rest of the industry believes, and has believed for hundreds of years. Most will speak of experience and intuition being the driving magic behind great sake, of eebie-jeebie-based decisions that only a master brewer with decades of experience could make.

In response to this, Sakurai-san shakes his head slowly and convincingly. "No." he states with finality. "It's not like that. You can indeed brew sake in a systematic, straightforward, step-by-step way. I know. We are doing it." Indeed, here almost everything is laid out in simple steps, with clear directives on how to proceed in almost any situation that might arise. And, to streamline and support this line of thinking and acting, they limit as many variables as possible along the way. For example, most breweries might have ten or fifteen different products, with each one being a result of some permutation of a rice type, a milling degree, and a yeast strain. Many breweries will use half a dozen or more types of rice, just as many levels of milling, and again as many yeast strains. The combinations are endless, and this affords them flexibility and originality in their brewing.

But Dassai is made from one of only two different rice types. Eighty percent is made from Yamada Nishiki, and the remaining twenty from Omachi. (He could not have selected two better!) It all comes from one of two locales. This rice is then milled to either 50%, 45%, 39% or the astounding 23%; nothing else. The choice of yeasts, too, is almost always good ole' Number 9; as orthodox as it gets.

This is how Sakurai-san limits his variables. The rice will behave differently throughout the process depending on (among other things) how much it has been milled. How fast it absorbs water, dissolves during fermentation, and intermingles with the koji mold will all vary with milling. So by limiting the number of milling levels they use, they limit the number of unforeseen conditions.  His processes, too, are uniform and controlled for the same reason Everyone does each step in more or less the same way. For example, all the rice is soaked by hand to achieve the 30% or so water content needed before steaming. It is all done in 15 kilogram bags, no exceptions. Why? Because it eliminates one more variable, allowing the brewers to focus on ever-changing circumstances within those boundary conditions. 

Instructions are actually posted on the wall, near most of the work stations, for even the most esoteric processes, like the making of the sacred koji. This keeps the process as close to the same as it can get, no matter who might be doing it on a given day. And, in the end, after tasting his sake, you realize that at least for him, at least here, he is right. He makes a statement with his sake: no matter what some say, it is indeed possible to brew sake by the book.

Sakurai-san continues today as the de-facto toji. He has, of course, a right hand man amongst his five brewers, whose average age is 31. He was himself involved in the day to day aspects of brewing until several years ago; now he basically leaves it to them, but still keeps tabs on progress. For example, wherever he is in the world, he has the fermentation progress charts for each and every tank faxed to him, so he can keep in touch with what is happening. It is a superhuman effort. "As I said, 70% of sake brewing is systematic. The remaining 30% is dangerously unpredictable, though!," he laughs. "And, as I am basically a layman in this world, I have set it all up so laymen  can do it."

Asahi Shuzo was also the first kura in Japan to use a newfangled method for separating the completed sake from the unfermented solids, a machine that spins the mash to use centrifugal force to send the solids out and away, leaving the sake behind in the center. Tasting this sake side by side with one pressed in a more traditional manner makes it very clear that while *usually* the more traditional methods are best, there is still plenty of room for innovation in the sake-brewing world. See a picture of this wild contraption, as well as the Asashi Shuzo kura building itself, at:

We walked into what could be known as "Dassai Central," kind of a mission control for the brewery. The walls are covered with charts of each tank, showing alcohol and sugar levels, as well as acidity and other parameters. I had never seen such a systematic approach to assessing the brews-in-action before. Anyone and everyone in the brewery has a grip on each and every tank, not just the toji. This in itself is amazing.

Sakurai-san had two tasting glasses brought in. He had them placed before us. "These are both from the same tank, number 57," he began. "The only difference is we pressed half of it by the usual method, by regular machine, and this one was done using the centrifugal force machine." As we both sipped, he reminded me that they were the first kura in Japan to adopt the new centrifugal-force machine. "It took a bit of guts," he admitted, "to adopt it first. But then again, it came out of the Akita Sake Research Center, so I knew it had to be pretty good at least."

Indeed, the sake separated by centrifugal force was subtly more focused. The traditionally pressed sake was slightly heavier, brasher, and with a bit of carbon dioxide tingling inside. The difference was very faint, but noticeable nonetheless. It is, if nothing else, very delicate. And, in fact, this might be the one thread of continuity running throughout all Dassai: delicateness.

Naturally, in maintaining his "limit the variables" philosophy, there is little room for experimentation, especially with something like aging. Sakurai-san has a strong opinion on this one. "We like to maintain the concept that originally sake was made to be drunk soon. Sake in Japan has always been made right, so as to be consumed soon, not made rough so as to improve with age. But that's just my take on things," he adds.

Later, we walk into the shubo-shitsu, the closed-off room where the all-important yeast starter stage is created. Sakurai-san begins to describe the dynamics of their brewing, and more uniqueness is exposed. The numbers began to get a bit hairy, but were worth the extra concentration it took to follow it all. "We basically make about 40 tanks of junmai daiginjo, each using 600 kilograms of rice, and then about 60 tanks of junmai ginjo, each using 1200 kilos. One of these yeast starters," he said, indicating one of the meter-high tanks in front of us, "is used for 2400 kilos of fermenting mash. So, it might get split up into two 1200-kilo junmai ginjo batches, or one 1200, and two 600s. It all depends." I have never heard of this curious, but systematic, way of making the yeast starter. But it seems to be working just fine here.

I comment about how all 100 tanks they brew each year are either junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo. This I know to be extremely rare, brewing only such top quality sake. Sakurai-san comments, "well, our whole place here is set up to brew only that kind of sake. The dregs of this, the worst two to three percent, will get dispatched to the 'average sake' ranks, and sold locally under our original brand name, Asahi Fuji."

Not only this, but all of the sake they brew is of the junmai variety, another rarity. Sure, some of that aforementioned Asahi Fuji might get cut with a bit of alcohol as most sake of that grade does, but again, it was not originally intended to be that way, it just happened to be the worst of the best. But even this was just part of a natural flow of events that have combined to make Dassai a wonderfully odd kura.

"We never really planned to do only junmai, it just kinda happened. Along the way, we came to realize this is better for us, we sort of feel more comfortable brewing only junmai. But in the end, there was never any necessity, no need to force this, or any other aspect of our brewing. We just kind of went with the flow," shrugs Sakurai-san sheepishly. "And that," adds Sakurai-san, "is how we became such an odd kura."

(Note to readers: this is an excerpt of an upcoming book on the history, culture, and hand-crafting methods of the sake world, as told through the colorful personalities inhabiting the kura. Details to follow in an upcoming issue of this newsletter. Parts I and II of this story can be found by clicking the PRIOR button at top of this page to see #72 and #73.

Year-end Hodge-podge
Here are several bits and pieces of sake flotsam and jetsam that as a whole are somewhat interesting. Informational sake stocking stuffers, if you will.

-- Sake USB Memory --
For those a bit over the edge in their sake appreciation, here is the perfect gift -- USB memory in the shape of a sake bottle. The sake shown, by the way, is "Ku" junmai ginjo-shu, made by Sekiya Jozo, brewers of the well-known Houraisen in Aichi Prefecture, a tad outside of Nagoya. The character "Ku" means "empty." This may refer to the "to do list" of whomever conceived this computer peripheral. The character can also mean "sky," and more relevantly, is a wonderful sake, albeit one that does not make it out of its region too much. Check it out at:

-- Sake on the Rebound in Japan? --
An article in the "Joukai Times," an alcoholic beverage industry newspaper here in Japan, reported that the shipments of sake for the summer were up over the previous year, the first time there has been an increase in a *full two years.* The following month, however, things were back in the red, i.e. the sake market contracted again versus the previous year. Well now; that was short lived, wasn't it. In truth, however, it does seem that things are really starting to turn around, based on a number of esoteric factors, such as the degree and quality of sake-related coverage in the various media, as well as talk on the street and in the pubs on changing attitudes related to sake and other beverages like the dreaded shochu. Admittedly intangible and merely my (tainted) take on things, it does truly seem like sake is set for a rebound. Brewers and other industry folks have felt the buzz too, and all agree it would be best if demand return and then grow at a fairly slow pace, so that it is more of a steady trend of growth, rather than a boom that is doomed to collapse at some point in time. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, sake sales and growth in every way continues to be brisk overseas, in particular in the US. The Ministry of Taxation (more formally, the National Tax Administration Agency) in Japan is going way out of its way to promote export and help brewers succeed at expanding overseas. Initially this would seem curious since they make zero yen in taxes on any exported sake. But it all becomes clear when we remember that an enlivened industry means more sales at home, which is where the Ministry will eventually see the return on their investment.

-- The "Average" Nihonshu-do -- (details) (details)
Most readers are surely well-versed in the "nihonshu-do," sometimes called the "Sake Meter Value," or SMV in the US. It is, as most will remember, the specific gravity of sake, and more practically is a very vague indicator of sweet and dry. While theoretically open ended, it usually runs the range of -3 or so to +12 or so, with "higher is drier" being the phrase to remember. A value of zero indicates sake that is identical in density to that of pure water, but this does NOT mean a sake that is neutral in the sweet-dry department. This concept of neutral in terms of sweet-dry, of course, varies with many factors, most notably the tastes of the times, and the average nihonshu-do of sake on the market has naturally changed greatly over the years. Generally, sake is much drier overall than it was long ago. But what is the average today, you might ask? The recently reported answer (based on a national survey performed by the National Tax Administration Agency) varies slightly based on the grade of sake. For ginjo-shu and its sub-classes (ginjo, daiginjo, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo), the average nihonshu-do is 4.00. For junmai-shu, it was slightly lower -- and therefore slightly sweeter -- at 3.50, and honjozo was between these two at 3.90. Non-premium sake, which constitutes about 80 percent of the market, was drier still at 2.60. (Note: rarely is this number given to us consumers in any thing more precise than a single integer, i.e. we usually never see anything on the right side of the decimal point.) This is actually fairly interesting data to me. Not that one can do much with it other than compare the sake at hand to the national average, but still, this alone can be instructional. But since this number does not exist in a vacuum, the average acidity for sake is also interesting and important. After all, for a given sweetness level, the more acidity a sake has, the drier it will seem. The average acidity level for ginjo as well as honjozo today is 1.3, and for junmai-shu it is slightly higher at 1.5. The nihonshu-do and acidity are not always provided to consumers. And when they are given, often they are of very limited usefulness to us. Still, as one more facet of sake to be studied and enjoyed, it is valuable to at least know what they are. And now you do. Average nihonshudo? Four. Average acidity? One-point-three.

-- Resurgence in Cup Sake --
Over the last year or so, there has been a huge resurgence in "cup sake," single servings of sake that are basically a 180 ml glass cup with a pull-off lid. These are most commonly sold at train stations and the like for those that like a drink on the train ride home. Until recently, the contents of these nostalgic vessels ranged from rotgut to somewhat passably drinkable, but lately, thanks to the prompting of some innovative distributors, premium sake like junmai-shu and ginjo-shu have been finding their way into these cup-sake products. So much so that there was actually a tasting competition for these products. One would think it would have been a tongue-in-cheek event, but it was actually fairly serious, with some well known tasting "sensei" on the panel. For economic reasons, I doubt we will see many cup sake products getting to the US. Having said that I think there are one or two already, and at least one distributor wants to actively export a line of them. But some have pointed to the resurgence of this semi-traditional medium, and more importantly the increasingly expensive single-serving contents, as further indication of sake's imminent return. This is especially significant when combined with the fact that "pack sake," or two- to three-liter "sake in a box" products are a-hurtin' in the marketplace. In other words, tradition and quality are gaining ground on progressiveness and quantity. Look for more on the cup-sake phenomenon in a future newsletter.

Announcing the Third Sake Professional Course
From Saturday morning, January 7, 2006 to the evening of Monday, January 9, 2006 (a national holiday in Japan), I will hold the third almost-annual Sake Professional Course here in Japan, in Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. The course will continue with an optional two days (January 10 & 11) in the Osaka - Kyoto - Kobe area visiting three breweries. Open to anyone with an interest in sake, this course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. It will consist of classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions, and will include one sakagura (sake brewery) visit in the Tokyo area, with three more in the optional last two days, as well as exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food.

The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will be fairly technical in nature, but anyone is welcome to participate. It will certainly be fun! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake both in class sessions and with evening meals.

The cost for the three-day course, with all instruction, materials, sake, and evening meals with sake is JPY120,000. Participation is limited to twenty (20) individuals. The cost for the five-day option, which includes the two day trip to visit breweries in the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto area, is JPY170,000. Please note that transportation, accommodations and morning/afternoon meals are not included. (The evening meal, however, and all the sake that entails, are included!) For details on signing up and a day-by-day syllabus, please visit:

New Sake Book!!!
Where to drink sake in Tokyo.
On December 1, "Nihonshu no Umai Otona no Izakaya" (Sake Pubs with Good Sake for Grown-ups) will go on sale in bookstores throughout Japan. Written by myself (the English bits) and Akihiro Yorimitsu (the Japanese parts), the book introduces in depth 40 sake pubs all over Tokyo. All 40 pubs were selected by me based on various parameters, including food, reasonable prices, the sake list (of course), and that all-important ambience. Convenience of access was also taken into consideration. The selection runs the gamut from old and traditional to modern and funky, but with a bit of a lean toward the former. If you visit Tokyo even once in a while and enjoy sake, this little handbook will prove indispensable. Most of the text is in Japanese, as the book is geared toward Japanese people wanting to take overseas customers and guests out drinking sake. However, there is enough English in it to ensure those that do not read Japanese can find and enjoy all 40 pubs. The book is chock-full of revealing photos that speak a thousand words each, showing the nature and feel of each place introduced. It also includes an English chapter on what is what in Japanese sake pubs, in terms of both food and sake.

Currently, distribution is limited to bookstores in Japan, but it is also listed on Amazon-dot-com. I am not sure just how soon or easily it will be available through Amazon in the US, but the ISBN number is 4-900901-61-X. The book costs 1600 yen in Japan, so will likely be about $20 in the US, I would imagine. If you simply must have this book (and I think you do) and cannot get to it through Amazon, send me an email, and I will see what I can do.

Good Sake to Look For
Below Dassai sakes all exported to US, Europe & parts of Asia.
-- Dassai "Niwari-Sanbu" Junmai Daiginjo. Enough has been said about Dassai here over the last three issues for readers to know that this "niwari-sanbu" (23 percent) is their junmai daiginjo made with rice milled down to but 23 percent of its original size. It is, in short, elegantly delicate. Light and dancing with aromas and flavors redolent of melon and green apple, it's fine-grained and well trimmed package is enjoyable all on its own.

-- Dassai "Go-juu" Junmai Ginjo. "Go-juu" means 50, which as you might have guessed the milling degree for this sake. Although it *could* qualify as a daiginjo, Sakurai-san prefers this be known as his ginjo grade sake. Predictably, "Dassai 50" has a bit more substance and (I daresay) style, having much more flavor to throw around the palate. More fruit, fuller things like pear and peach, pervade the aromas and flavors, and a more textural, viscous feel helps keep the focus. Perhaps my favorite of the Dassai products, albeit significantly less expensive than ole' twenty-three.

-- Dassai "Go-Juu" Nigori. Yes, folks, a junmai ginjo nigori, a cloudy sake made to junmai ginjo standards, with a seimai-buai of a whopping 50 percent. This sake was passed through a fairly coarse mesh but otherwise unfiltered before being bottled. For the sake of stability, just before shipping, it was pasteurized by showering the bottle in warm water, but then chilled quickly to keep in freshness. This leaves it with typical ginjo-shu fruit-tinged aromas, but a big-boned, solidly constructed sake with a rice-like sweetness suffusing it all.

-- Houraisen "Ku" Junmai Ginjo. Sekiya Jozo, the company brewing Houraisen, is an extremely interesting and solid company deserving of much more than the few lines written here, but it would be inappropriate not to introduce the kura behind the sake USB memory. They were one of the first to employ master brewers and brewing staff on a year-round basis, not just seasonally. They do an amazing and outstanding job of fusing modern technology and innovation with traditional principles, sometimes literally taking machines apart to use only the best parts of them in the process, and they maintain a tiny second brewery in the mountains for average folks that want to brew a tank of their own sake (albeit aided, abated and supervised by their staff). Light-ish and crisp with a very firm and dovetailing finish, Ku is permeated with heavier fruit essences like ripe figs and apricot, but punctuated with a cleansing, focusing acidity. A small amount of Houraisen and (I think) Ku make it to the US, and other countries as well.

Sake Events and Announcements
Year-end Sake Party December 10 at Takara. On the evening of Saturday, December 10, from six pm until about nine pm, Rob Yellin and I will host a "Bounenkai," or "year-end party," at Takara, in Yurakucho. The format will be the usual one, i.e. dinner with six sake, but this time there will be NO LECTURES. No, none. No John Gauntner getting rabid and foaming out of the corner of his mouth over some ridiculously minute aspect of sake brewing, no Rob Yellin droning on about some millennium old tradition of baked mud. Nah; we're gonna party. In place of this, there will be GAMES. Well, maybe more like activities. We'll raffle off a bit of sake, a piece of something or another, and ave a couple of tasting contests or other such tom foolery. The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, and a chance at prizes and more, will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email. No deposit is required. To send email to John, please visit:

Sake Books
-- THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by Charles Tuttle. This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.

-- THE SAKE COMPANION, published by Running Press. This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and 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 an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember. 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).

-- NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO HANASHI, published by Shogakkan. This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner's point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.

-- 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 Daimon Shuzo, a sake brewery in Osaka. He is the only non-Japanese certified master brewer in the history of the world. How's that for qualifications?

-- Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


Bottom NavbarHomeSake BrewersSake KnowledgeeSake eStoreSake and FoodAbout eSakeSake Workshop