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Newsletter Archive 2008

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Sake World Newsletter


Sept. 2008


  • Panel Discussion Amongst Toji
  • Taru-zake
  • Saijo Sake Festival in Hiroshima
  • Educational Products from

Top Story

Panel Discussion Amongst Toji

Panel Discussion Amongst Toji

It had been weeks ago. I had nonchalantly flipped the postcard with a good twist of the wrist into the pile of papers and documents just to the right of my desk, a void from which few things ever emerge, much less emerge intact. It was daunting to look at, and downright scary to reach toward. But I had to do it; I needed the information on that mailing.

Displaying a weird, innate sense of just where everything is that defies logic and reason, I pulled it out within seconds. Funny how many folks with similar lack-of-organization skills have the same intuitive ability.

It was a simple postcard that advertised a "Sake Symposium" to be held in a couple of days. Sake symposium. Sheesh. Just what do you sympose they could yak about for the better part of a day, spread across several panel discussions and speakers, I thought. I got, like, stuff to do.

However, the small company behind it, Fullnet, and the man behind that, Nakano-san, have supported me and helped me in countless ways over the years, and the whole event was being held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the sake-promotion company's founding. So I had planned to go to the evening tasting and dinner (now we're talking!) to show my support and express my appreciation. Right now, I just needed to confirm the details, like time, place and cost. But fortunately, my eyes wandered to the content for the day, and I about fell out of my chair.

One of the panel discussions was to be amongst four toji (master brewers), but not just any four toji. No siree, the ones here can easily be counted amongst some of the most famous toji in the industry, ever. Two were old school, i.e. they were advanced in years, and associated with a guild, and had spent every fall and winter of the past 50 (that's fifty) or more years living in the kura and brewing. The other two were sons of brewers that had to jump in and take over the brewing reigns all of sudden, were independent of the traditional guilds, but displayed prodigious skill and intuition, and who now made some of the most famous and sought-after sake in Japan.

The older, traditional toji in question were Naohiko Noguchi, originally from Kikuhime in Ishikawa, but now with nearby Jokigen, and Shokichi Hase from Doi Shuzo in Shizuoka, brewing Kaiun and Takatenjin. These two alone were a massively powerful draw. They are two of a group of four famous toji known as the "Noto Toji no Shiten-oh," or the "Four Guardians of Heaven of the Noto Toji Guild."

The other two were Kenji Hiroki of Hiroki in Fukushima, and Akitsuna Takagi of Juyondai in Yamagata. The former is popular and hard to get, the latter is uber-popular and impossible to buy retail. Both are very, very good sake.

Having these four on stage together seemed an impossibility; indeed, something that only Nakano-san could pull off. And it was something I could not miss. It's like having the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin on one stage for one show; there is just too much talent to have together at one time. (Forgive me for showing both my age and my musical preferences.) 

And to boot, the panel discussion was all going to be moderated (read: driven) by the inimitable Kousuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin in Iwate. Why is this significant? Because toji are almost universally laconic buggers averse to saying much, generally humble and quiet, and of very few words even when in their most loquacious moods. A panel discussion amongst toji borders on an oxymoron; they just don't discuss. Enter Kuji-san, a man who could talk a starvin' dog off a meat wagon. If anyone could get these taciturn toji to talk, it'd be him. 

I had to be there. A quick call to Nakano-san ensured I had a seat. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Kuji san led them through a range of topics over their two hours on stage. He encouraged them to talk - thereby comparing their experiences for all of us - about both the significance of the guilds and how they are waning in importance. Both the career toji agreed they did not want the guilds to disappear, but all four said they really had no choice as to how things had unfolded for them, so it was a pretty moot point as far as they were concerned.

They spoke of brewing techniques and what they consider important across a whole brewing season, as well as in any one given tank. The answers were predictably vague and not surprising: soaking and washing the rice, koji making, temperature control, and sanitation. They then discussed the value of the national tasting competitions, which was a bit more interesting as each had their story.

For example, Hiroki-san only began to submit to the contest two years ago, and has won a medal both times! While Juyondai is incredibly good and popular in the market, Takagi-san does not win that often in the contest sake realm. Noguchi-san worked for decades at Kikuhime where they as a traditional rule do not submit at all.

Then there is Hase-san, making Kaiun as their toji since 1968. This gent wins a gold almost every year; Kaiun is one of the more decorated sake in the country. But get this: Hase-san makes one tank for the contest; that's it. One. And he wins almost every year.

When Kuji-san the moderator heard this, he flipped. "What? One? Aw, man! I make seven each year just for that contest (and submit from the best of those). You have that track record with one?" To be sure Kuji-san wins his share, but has to put seven times the effort into it.

As I know Hiroki-san and Takagi-san (the two young, home-grown toji) pretty well, I heard what I kind of thought I would hear. As such, I was a tad more intrigued with the Two Guardians of Heaven. I just wish I could tell you what they said.

What was the issue? Well, they're from the Noto Penninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, and their local accent is as thick it gets. I had to struggle to keep up, and in truth, could follow only part of it all. The fact that the Japanese folks around me were picking up only minimally more was not much consolation.

At the end of this most interesting part of the Sake Symposium, what we all walked away with is the renewed awareness that there are "rock stars" in the sake world, although their humility (real or feigned) makes them seem diametrically opposed to many of their musical counterparts.
We also were reminded that that the modern ways of doing things can indeed work; in other words, it is not absolutely necessary for a great toji to have worked up his or her way from the bottom or have spent umpteen years doing it (although that's not a bad way either).

Thanks to Fullnet and Nakano-san. I'm sure I'll not see a show like this for a while again.

For more information on the Buddhhist Shiten-oh, but not the Noto Toji ones, see
Taru-zake is one of those styles or types I tend to neglect. This happens partly because I almost never touch the stuff, and partly because it is not really the realm in which the finest or most subtle of sakes exist. But it is traditional, and it does have its fans, and it can be damn tasty too.

What is it? Taru-zake is sake that has been stored in small wooden casks (called taru), usually holding 72 liters, rather than in bottles. This is done to deliberately impart woody aromas and flavors. As you might imagine, the woodiness can be pretty… well… woody. This usually (but not always) overpowers everything else so that the wood is all you taste. As such, one rarely sees ginjo taru-zake, for example, and in fact its taru-ness so to speak is mutually exclusive of grade.

Note too that very little of it is made, especially as a bottled product marketed as taru-zake. Rather it is more commonly encountered at ceremonies when casks are broken open with much fanfare, and all in attendance share the sake that had been put inside (usually a scant few hours earlier).

It is also interesting enough to point out that bottling came to the sake industry very late, and until the 1930s brewers would commonly ship their sake to distributors and retailers in these taru, and consumers brought their reusable ceramic bottles to fill from the taru. Back then, though, sake was brewed in wooden tanks, was heavier and sweeter, and would stand up to the wood better. Today's light and subtle ginjo would lose to the imparted woodiness.

Sitting in a Hiroshima pub the other day with a couple of brewers after we slipped in with a bottle of taru-zake that had been snuck in for the proprietor from a party we had just left, it was explained to me how much difference the taru itself could make.

The wood used is sugi, or cryptomeria, which smells just like cedar, but botanists insist is closer to cypress. Whatevuh. But I was told that taru can be made from different parts of the trunk. My teacher-for-the-moment drew it out on the back of a chopstick wrapper.

"You see," he began, "the wood in the center of a sugi tree trunk is white; the further toward the outside you get, the more red it becomes. The red part has more aromatic oils in it. The best taru, called "koutsuki" taru, are made with wood from about here," indicating the halfway point between the center and the bark, "where it is not too red but not too white. That gives it a good healthy woodiness, but if done right it's not over the top."

Currently there are but a few brewers putting marketing effort into taru-zake. Kikumasamune, a large brewer from the brewing Mecca of Nada, makes a good amount and distributes it in-taru, so as to sit on the counter of traditional pubs in Japan. Pretty cool, actually, but pretty woody as well.

As far as exported taru-zake, there are Ichinokura Junmai, Kikuzakari and the aforementioned Kikuzakari. There is also my favorite, Taruhei from Yamagata, where all the sake sees some taru time, but the woodiness is controlled and restrained so that it is truly tastefully taru-ized.

Again, it is important to emphasize that most taru-zake is indeed pretty woody, so much so that wood is about all you smell and taste. Certainly there are times when this is enjoyable. But most of the time, when we want to enjoy premium sake, you might be better avoiding it. But be sure to give it a taste at least once if the chance arises.
For Japan-based readers:
The Saijo Sake Festival
If you're anywhere near Hiroshima...

Should you be in Japan on October 10 and/or 11 and anywhere near the western city of Hiroshima, you'll surely want to get to the Saijo Sake Matsuri.

Saijo is a section of Higashi Hiroshima City, half an hour by train from the JR Hiroshima train station. It is one of the most significant sake-brewing regions in Japan, from whence spring the likes of Kamotsuru, Kamoizumi, Senpuku, Haku Botan and Kirei, as well as Saijo Tsuru, Fuku Bijin, Chiyo no Haru, Sanyo Tsuru and Kamoki. Some famous, some not. Only two are currently exported. All are quite good.

These remaining ten breweries sit on a very narrow and cramped strip of land that every year draws several hundred thousand people for two days of open-kura visits and lots (and I do mean lots) of sake. There are things to see, activities to do and view, and sake to drink. The kura themselves are all old, traditional and gorgeous in their original Japanese architectural splendor. Oh, and there's lots of sake to taste that day.

More information can be found here , and while it is currently in Japanese only I am told they will be getting an English page up soon. Should you want to go, though, and need more information but cannot decipher it, feel free to drop me an email. If you live in western Japan, going there is a no-brainer. If you live in the Tokyo area, it's still worth considering. See ya there.

Educational Products from
Also Announcing the release this fall of the new e-book
"Kuramoto: The People, Philosophies & Culture Behind the Sake"

I am thrilled to announce the impending release later this fall of my new (OK, my first) e-book, to be entitled "Kuramoto: The People, Philosophies and Culture Behind the Sake." The book will tell the stories of over a dozen brewers, dropping bits of technical expertise and culture along the way. More in next month's issue, including sample chapters, a firmer publishing date, and what will be inside.

Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. See  Educational Products at . Currently, we have three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.

  1. Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
  2. Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
  3. Bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.

Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier. See Educational Products at

Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More information on the following topics can be found at

  • Sake Homebrewing
  • Books on Sake
  • Information on the archives of this newsletter
  • General information related to this publication

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link:

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