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Sake World Newsletter


May 2009


Top Story

Rice Growing, Part V

The Kome Khronicles, Rice Growing, Part V
Yamada Nishiki and Micro-climates

When we last left our "Kome Khronicles" (remember, kome means rice), I had just been humbled. It happens a lot, but this particular incident was related to me smirking at the poor saps that had to count out 1000 grains of rice (the weight of which is the standard in measuring size), then seeing how simply they did it. We were talking about Yamada Nishiki, how it grows so well in the land of its birth, Hyogo Prefecture, and my visit to Honda Shouten, brewers of Tatsuriki. And we spoke of the large brewers of the Nada neighborhood in Kobe (which is in Hyogo, of course) and how much they contributed to making Yamada Nishiki what it is. Those that want to (re-)read that article in its entirety will find it here, in the archives.

In essence, though, this Hyogo (Prefectural) Agricultural Tech Center is the source of the purest, best Yamada Nishiki rice. After seeing folks culling the best from the best inside, we (Mr. Honda, owner and president of Tatsuriki and I) then headed further into the hills, into the region known as Harima.

As we descended again into the plains we began to pass rice fields above which flags flew bearing the names of large sake brewers of Nada. These tall banners indicated that the companies named therein had "dibs" on the rice of that field. We were now in the heart of Harima, and traveling between the three villages that are recognized as making the best of the best of the best.

As I alluded to in the past, the producers around here devised a ranking system for their local rice between 1952 and 1964 that determined just which plots had the best rice, and priced all rice of the region based on that standard. Known as the "Muramai Seido," or "Rice-village based system," there was one village that was generally accepted to be the best.

The other villages in the Harima region, then, had their rice priced lower in direct relation to the price of top dog. For example, if the best village had a price of 100, the next ten closest in quality would be priced perhaps two to three percent lower, and so on down the line to the lowly ones (bearing in mind they are still amongst the best in the country) that might be ten percent cheaper. A chart showing the pricing model of the Muramai Seido can be seen here. Anyone can at least read the numbers, and see the big circle in the center and how the prices go down as one moves away from those. The example shown is from 1938.
To me, what is interesting is that it was and is more or less universally accepted; all the farmers kind of bought into this system. You'd think they'd argue about re-assessing the ranks or scrutinize the standards, but no, everyone agreed for the most part on the quality levels that came out of these villages. What this goes to show - and herein lies my main point - rice responds to micro-environments, and just a couple of kilometers and small changes in soil, climate, and surroundings can make all the difference in the world.

So these rice producers in Harima eventually came up with ranking grades for the rice fields, like A, B and C, and within that A-A, A-B and A-C. But again, these were not used elsewhere, only within this tight little group, and only for their Yamada Nishiki. On top of that, the government also has inspection systems for rice, official ones, and all rice is graded by said inspectors based on clearly defined standards. And these two existed separately and in parallel.

How were they able to pull this off? Because of the sponsorship of the big brewers of Nada. Those brewers needed that rice, and were in full support of the system to see that they got what they wanted, for a price of course.

The villages, by the way, were called Yashiro-cho, Tojo-cho, and Yokawa-cho. Some of the names have recently changed due to annexation for administrative reasons unrelated to the sake world.

Remember too that most brewer and rice growers in the country have nothing to do with this, and may know nothing and care even less about its existence. It is pretty much something limited to the brewers of the region, especially Nada, and the few brewers that can afford and do insist on the absolute best Yamada Nishiki, or at least one opinion of it.

But it continues intact today, supported by the quality of the rice that results. Interestingly, while there are concrete, measurable standards of quality, a lot of it is just simply appearance as judged by those that grow it and brew with it.

After cruising amidst the fields of these three villages, the rice having been harvested a month previous, we headed back to Honda-san's brewery, where the inimitable Tatsuriki is brewed.

As is the case when touring many a brewery, the first stop was the milling room. It was filled with 30-kg bags of Yamada Nishiki, some of it Special A-A fields, and within that, of top "Special Top" grade. Folks, rice does not get any better than this, and I must admit, the appearance was totally different.

Size, sure. Color too. But what shocked me was the luster of the stuff. It was beautiful. I wanted to run it through my fingers and caress it for hours on end… I had never felt this way about rice before. I almost felt like disrobing. Just when I was about to feel I should talk to someone about this, Honda-san beckoned me on to the next stage of the brewery tour.

While there is even more to say, and I will get to that in future articles in this newsletter, the main point to be conveyed here is that rice can and does indeed vary in quality to very small changes in climate and surroundings. On top of that, of course, is the skill of the producer. And, before it is all done, the skill of the brewer will wield at least as much influence too.

We will wrap this up with a few more pertinent and interesting observations next month. For now, if you are interested in sake made with Special A-A Special Top grade rice, look for Kikhime Daiginjo or Tatsuriki "Akitsu" Junmai Daiginjo. Just be prepared to pay for it.


Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai
National New Sake Tasting Competition

Later this month, the industry and government will have this year's New Sake Tasting Competition. While it is no longer fully governmental, for close to a century Japan was the only country in the world that had a government-run blind tasting competition of its indigenous national alcoholic beverage. It began in 1911, and as the contest was twice not held, this is the 96th running of the prestigious event that awards gold and silver prizes to sake of high quality.

However, most of that sake is not normally found on the market and in fact is brewed for the contests alone, with one main goal being to give brewers a forum where they can polish their skills.

Long ago, in particular, they could not sell this sake as it would be exceedingly pricey and was far too ostentatious for the normal consumer. So usually this "ginjo on steroids" was blended in with lesser sake, often enabling the blend to qualify as a higher grade in the old "Special Class, First Class, Second Class" system that was repealed in 1989.

Today, though, we can look for contest sake in the stores starting in late spring; while it may be intense, it is always worth a sip.


Announcing the Sake Professional Course
New York City, July 27, 28 and 29
I am pleased to announce the 3rd Stateside Sake Professional Course, this time to be held in New York City, on July 27, 28 and 29 (Monday through Wednesday). The location will be in Manhattan, with final details being wrapped up soon. The cost for the three day intensive program will be $775. Go here for more details. Those interested in more detail can contact me by email.


Dancyu Blog
I have begun a blog on sake related ramblings for the gourmet magazine Dancyu. It is, however, in Japanese. Should you be interested and able to check it out, you can find it here. Also, for those with the requisite interest, an article in English on yers truly.   

Audio Program on Sake
I have also begun an audio program - five minutes at a time - that includes sake recommendations. The monthly posts can be heard at a fascinating blog covering a wide range of arts and traditions of Japan, done by Steve Beimel, a decades-long resident of Kyoto. It is worth visiting for much more than the few measly sake updates!


Sake Educational Products
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. We offer 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.
First is The 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.
Next is The 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.
Third is a 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.


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 - 2009

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