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Sake World Newsletter




  • Rice Growing, Part II
  • Wanna Work in a Kura ?
  • Sake Events
  • Forthcoming Ebook
  • Educational Products from
  • Odds and Ends

Top Story

Rice Growing, Part II

Year-end greetings to all.

Ah, the hustle and bustle of this time of the year. Even for those of us that try to keep it mellow, the energy suffusing just about any place we spend time is usually frenetic. Enjoy some sake from time to time to keep things in balance.

From what I have seen at the handful of breweries I have visited thus far this season, things are smooth. The rice is good, it is not as warm as it has been the past few years (some have even used the word cold), and in any event brewers have learned to adapt. While the sake market itself continues to contract (and the economic pressures all over the world are not helping), there are also signs of consumers moving back toward sake. Let us hope that feeling carries over into the new year.

This month, let us look again at growing rice. While it is hard to do this topic justice in this humble newsletter, we of the sake-loving world must start somewhere in our appreciation of the raw material of our beloved ambrosia.

Enjoy the holidays, as well as the newsletter and be well. <John>

The Kome Khronicles, Rice Growing, Part II
"Kome" (ko-meh) means rice in Japanese, and I could not resist the alliterative pun just once. As I began to collect thoughts and notes Harvesting Yamada Nishiki for this newsletter, I realized I have just too much to say to finish in only one more article. So for the time being, this series will continue within this newsletter, be it once each issue in a shorter form or once in a while in a longer one. Either way, it is high time we all come to a better understanding of the raw materials behind sake.

While usually articles herein stand on the their own, for those readers that did not read last month's article on rice growing, this month's might make more sense if you do give that one a quick read-over. You can do that here .

When last we left our rice plants, the seedlings called "na-e" had been transplanted into water-filled paddies, this taking place anywhere from April to June. The plants are then allowed to grow to maturity, with very regular weeding and plenty of fertilizer given.

Note, though, that here the conversation could go off in a million directions. Are pesticides used? Is the fertilizer used, and if so is it of chemical or organic nature? How much is given and when? There are countless permutations, methodologies and philosophies here. And while it is not possible to cover them in thoroughly, we need to address them at least a bit.

For example, most rice (not limiting the discussion to sake rice) is grown using both pesticides and fertilizers, much of it chemical. T his certainly improves yields which is important to the agricultural communities and industries, not to mention making us consumers happy, since we like stability and low prices. But everything exacts a price, and I ain't talking about money.

The opposite extreme is, of course, organic, but this has its formidable and inherent difficulties too. Certified organic rice must be grown in paddies where no contraband chemicals have been used for a whopping three years. Every time one enters such an organically designated paddy, one must sign a form! The tools and the boots worn even must be separate from those used in other paddies, or at least washed down first. Not only that, but the peripheral one meter or so of each field cannot be used for growing, so as to ensure even further that nasties from all around cannot leak or otherwise make their way into the field. (The example of a truck crashing into the paddy and leaking oil and gas was offered as one remote possibility.)

Also, very commonly, water sources are shared with Ready-for-harvest Yamada Nishiki Rice other farmers. And water is both let in and drained out from paddies, with that drainage often going right back into the flowing source from which it came. And since you cannot be sure what the yahoo up the hill is putting into his rice paddy, it gets more difficult, since that water will ultimately flow downward into yours. So as admirable as certified organic rice is, it is no walk in the park to grow. 

Waxing into my own personal opinion, in the end, rice for sake is milled, often to a high degree, so that the outer portions of it are not a part of the final equation anyway. Furthermore the real issues of sustainability too are not all that black and white. And let's face it folks: it gets turned into alcohol. So I am not sure how much of a difference the organic issue makes. But like I said: that is only my opinion.

Back to the main gist: there are countless variations between the extremes of heavily doped and purely organic. Most use at least a bit of insecticides, and at least some fertilizer, although a great portion of that is indeed non-chemical in nature. But even here, more is not better.

"You can indeed overfeed rice, in particular with nitrogen-based fertilizers," explains Niichiro Marumoto, the oft-quoted brewer from last month that grows lots of his own Yamada Nishiki. "It ends up getting so tall that it topples before you harvest it, and then it's done for."

Indeed, as we traveled around his 'hood in Okayama last October, at least two of the 50-odd parcels on which he was producing rice had suffered that fate. "It's my own f ault," he chuckled wryly. "I was putting in lots of sake kasu (lees from the fermentation process) as fertilizers and it worked a bit too well. Rice paddies are not simply big-ass composters: that's what I learned - and at great expense!"

He went on to explain in semi-hushed tones that a lot of farmers will dose the stuff with plenty of fertilizers, then dose it again with something else to keep it from growing too tall. "But that leads to way, way too much protein, which we cannot have in our sake rice."

He is, in fact, big on little protein. "Too much protein is worse than most other faults in the rice. I'll take smaller grains with less shinpaku rather than high protein. You'll not make great sake with too much protein in your rice," he laments. ( Readers will like recall that a shinpaku refers to the visible white heart indicating a concentration of starch in the center of the rice.)

And so it goes. The rice is allowed to grow through the summer and into the fall. Different strains will ripen at different times, some based on an internal clock and others based on the ratio of light to darkness as summer turns to autumn.

Next month we will finally look at harvesting, how the rice is handled after that, and "post paddy processing." In the meantime, be sure to refresh your memory from seedling to harvest with the slideshow on the Sak e-World site.

Wanna Work in a Sake Brewery?
For a Week? Got your attention? I am privileged to announce a very special event.

Industry pioneer Yasutaka Daimon of the Daimon Brewery in Osaka is offering the first and only week-long sake brewing experience opportunity in the history of the sake-brewing inudusty - open to anyone. Participants will arrive on a Monday afternoon, and depart the following Sunday.

Daimon-san, the owner-toji (master brewer) brews sake using the innovative "shuu-jikomi" method, meaning one batch a week is made over a long season. Doing it this way reduces the workload to a low roar, and streamlines if not simplifies the process somewhat. But it also allows participants in a program like this to see all steps of the process over a week's time without getting (too) confused.

Preparing to Steam the riceThe weeklong experience will happen three times, the week of February 9, the week of March 9, and the week of April 6, 2009. Each time, the number of participants is limited to three. Those interested in applying should first read the thorough description below, then check out the production schedule, and follow through with the application if appropriate. To learn more, please go to:

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Sake Events

  • Sake Events for Japan-based readers:

    Sake & Pottery Seminar, December 20, at Takara
    On the evening of Saturday, December 20, from 6 pm to 9 pm, Rob Yellin and I will host another Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara in Yurakucho. The sake topic will be pasteurization, how it is done when it is done, what its significance is, how it can adversely affect sake, and the truth about nama-zake. Those interested in attending can make a reservation by sending me an email.
  • 2009 Sake Professional Course in Japan. All Seats Full. It is that time again. I am officially announcing the 2009 Sake Professional Course to be held in Tokyo (with a trip to Osaka, Kyoto, & Kobe) January 26 to 30, 2009. This is simply the most thorough and finest sake educational program on the planet. For more information, please go here. All  seats for this seminar are taken; however, there is a waiting list if interest still remains.
  • Japan-based Readers - Support Your Local Sakagura
    Should you live anywhere in Japan and be interested in hard-to-get sake, consider this special offer from Tensei in Kanagawa.

    Tensei is a small kura with a great story behind them. In short, the current president was hitchhiking around the US about 15 years ago when he called home to say hi. "We're throwing in the towel," he was told. "Sake is not selling so we're going to shut the place down."

    "Wait," he responded. "I'll come back; I'll take over."

    "Be our guest!" came his family's response. "Knock yerself out."

    Which he did. He made massive changes, including drastically cutting their production, streamlining the brewery itself, putting in several restaurants, a micro-brewed beer operation, and a bread shop. He then renamed the sake, from Shokou to Tensei. And, he hired a young, smart, able toji named Igarashi.

    They then began a club in which for 10,000 yen you could be a part of a group that would have made for them a tank of the best that toji could do. Yama da Nishiki rice at 35%, excellent water from the Tanzawa range, and shizuku (drip pressed) to ensure the best quality possible. That brought you three bottles you could enjoy over the course of the year. The club has long enjoyed great popularity, and a few loonies have even saved a bottle from each and every year.

    This year marks the 15th anniversary of the club's efforts, and the first time ever that they have raised the price. So, for a mere 11550 yen you get three 720ml bottles of Tensei Junmai Daiginjo made to the aforementioned spec, and this year, as a bonus, one is nama (unpasteurized). As another li'l bonus, you will receive a bag of sake kasu (lees) from the production as well. (Just don't put it in your rice field.)

    The sake will be delivered to you in May of 2009, and participation is limited to 500 sets, and to domestic addresses. Those interested can email me for how to participate, or contact Yamadaya Honten in Japanese at 0467.22.0338. Every year I have tasted this sake, and every year it has been outstanding.

    For the record, I am not at all involved in this effort, but I do feel an affinity of proximity for this brewery, as they are the closest to me. (So maybe the  subtitle above should read "Support my local sakagura.") While indeed good and indeed hard to get, there are many breweries around  Japan doing special things like this, not just Tensei. So poke around  your local  sake world as well, should that interest you.

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Forthcoming Book
Available this month!! I am thrilled to be able to finally and definitively announce the release of my first e-book, to be entitled Kuramoto: The People, Philosophies and Culture Behind the Sake, available later this month in pdf format by download from the Sake-World site. The book tells the stories of a handful of sake brewers, dropping bits of technical expertise and culture along the way. It begins with a general treatise on all things sake, and this is followed by an in-depth introduction of the breweries, as well as the personalities behind them. Each of the kura highlighted has a story that fills in all the gaps of our understanding about sake, and takes it away from the "this is ginjo, this is junmai" world and into the human side of it all. It's not too short, nor is it too long, and will be downloadable from this site for a mere $10. Surely this book is the best and fastest way to feel even more familiarity, understanding, and knowledgeable about sake and the world suffusing it.

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Educational Products from
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

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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:
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.

Copyright 1999

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