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Newsletter Archive 2009

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Sake World Newsletter


July 2009


Top Story

All I Really Need to Know

All I Really Need to Know
I Learned From Sake-Brewing

Many readers may have read of the sake-brewing apprentice program run by Daimon Brewery in Osaka last winter and spring. For those not aware of it, here is a quick background.

Daimon-san, a sixth generation kuramoto (brewery owner), has spent much time overseas and speaks English fluently. (You can read more about him and his brewery in my ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories. About two years ago he took over as the toji as well at his kura, Daimon Shuzo.Then, this past season, he decided to take things up a notch in his efforts to spread worldwide understanding of sake, Japan and the culture that ties them. And he created the Mukune International Sake Brewing Program.

On the last day of the week-long program, there was a bit of a party. Actually, the whole week was a party, but this time it was more or less official. Daimon-san invited a few outside friends, including other kuramoto, an outspoken Buddhist monk, and his own technical mentor, one Yasuo Takahara Sensei, a special technical advisor to the Brewers' Association of next-door Nara Prefecture. To begin the afternoon, Daimon-san gathered us all in a room and gave the half-dozen participants the chance to ask Takahara Sensei any technical questions that might have arisen as they dirtied their hands and mucked about through the past week. I was asked by Daimon-san to be the interpreter. "You are the only one here - and that includes myself - who can handle the technical terms and concepts in both languages," he felt.

Indeed, it was quite the enjoyable hour or so, as I learned tons. Much of it was focused and very specific in its technical nature, yet much of it was vague as well. And after a particularly long series of technical questions about how much to do this or how far to take that in the brewing process, Takahara Sensei kind of leaned back almost imperceptibly, thought a moment, tilted his head to side a smidgeon, then continued.

"It's like, well, when brewing sake, you are constantly holding back nature just a little bit; you are always stopping things from going as far as they might naturally go, you keep reining in what seems like nature's compulsions." Huh?

Fortunately, he elaborated. "Look," he began, "if you mill rice way down, the way you do to make ginjo-shu, it's much softer. If you then soak that in water, it will absorb a lot, and quickly. But when brewing good sake, you back it off, you kind of rein in that compulsion to absorb water and limit it to a bit less than it would normally absorb. This helps the texture after steaming be better for koji mold growth and for dissolving in the tank more controllably." It began to make sense… perhaps.

"And," he continued, "this principle and practice applies to the whole sake brewing process. You don't let things go as far as they would like, as far as nature might want to take them; you always control and temper things, if just a little bit. You always hold them back a bit, not letting them go as far as they might otherwise. And all of these things lead to better sake."

He then continued with a few more examples.

"When making koji, we keep the maximum temperature to about 42C. It would go much higher if we let it, but we cool it down and control that. The yeast, too, at least for ginjo, would love to ferment at a higher temperature and go nuts eating sugar and giving us alcohol and more; but we rein it in and stress it out, by forcing the temperature to one lower than it would normally go. We control the compulsion of the process, so to speak.

"And," he continued, "we can see that at every step of the process. F'r instance, most moromi (fermenting mash) could be fermented a lot longer, more days that is, than it is allowed to go, but they control it, rein it in, and that leads to better sake. When the sake is pressed from the kasu (rice solids remaining after fermentation), you can squeeze the heck out of it to get every last drop, but holding back a bit and squeezing a little less hard, you get better sake. At the expense of yields, yes, but the sake is better. Good sake rice, even, is not always allowed to grow to its maximum size as that could yield too much protein."  

And it struck me right there as I was listening: if only we (read: I) could do this too. If only we could temper and control compulsions and tendencies; if only we could rein in - if just a tad - the degree to which things normally go. One less glass of sake, one less helping, a bit less of an outburst than might normally take place… and then it hit me. "All I really needed to know in life I could have learned from sake brewing."

Well, almost. But I digress

More relevant to the purpose of this newsletter, the sake-brewing process is a miracle of nature, especially when we look at what micro-organisms come into play and their timing. Yet it is a very controlled process as well, controlling what nature herself might otherwise dictate. Like much about sake and the sake world in general, it's quite the paradox. 


Did you know? "Hatsu-nomi-kiri"
Lone Big Event at Sake Breweries in Summer

Hatsu-nomi-kiri is an event that takes place traditionally in mid-summer, and is a gathering of (typically) the kuramoto (brewery owner), the toji (master brewer), perhaps a few special customers, and a government sake professional or two. The objective is to check that the sake brewed the previous season was maturing properly and not spoiling.

A century or so ago, there was great concern that the sake in the tanks would spoil because of bacteria and heat. Today, with modern sanitation techniques and refrigeration, this is not really a problem. But the event is still held to at least check on maturation and so decide what gets shipped when or what gets blended with what.

Today, many breweries do not even bother with the event, and those that do might not treat the event as importantly as they used to.


Guided Sakagura Tours
How  would you like to go on a guided tour of a sakagura (sake brewery) with a skilled interpreter that can guide you through the depths of the sake world? No need to worry about which doors to knock on, where to go, or how to leap the language chasm. You get here, and we take it from there.

And how would you like a seminar before the visit to better prepare you to absorb all that information (among other things...)?

Soon, you too will be able to tap into the depths of the sake world, and see how it is made at artisan breweries, smell the smells, taste the tastes and hear the hears.

While we are still in the planning stages, I am putting together a program that will enable travelers to Japan to avail themselves of the opportunity to experience guided tours. While the costs involved, the logistics, the options (such as a pre-visit seminar, or multiple breweries in a day) and the details have yet to be hammered out, we are at this stage trying to get a feel for how much interest there is in such a program.

As such, if you think you would be interested in in participating in a program like this, feel free to send an email and let us know. We will keep in touch with you as things develop throughout the summer and into the fall, when the brewing season and the program begin.


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, at Astor Center. 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. Attendance is limited but there are a few seats open as of yet.


Sake Events

  • Nihonshu Festival, July 12, 12 to 3:30 & 4:30 to 8:00,
    AKA "The Kawashima Tasting," Tokyo Prince Hotel
    On Sunday, July 12, the owners of the very small, very special and very excellent sake pub Kawashima will hold their annual tasting, dubbed "The Nihonshu Festival," but I just call it "The Kawashima Tasting." If you are anywhere near Tokyo on this day you will want to be at this tasting. A bit more about it (in Japanese) is here.  try not to miss it, but sometime it does not jibe with my summer traveling schedule. There are basically a ton of sake that one rarely gets to taste, hidden stuff from the boonies that they bring in for the event. Sure, plenty of well-known and popular if not downright famous brands are there, but on top of that are a bunch we never see or hardly hear of. The only complaint I have is the lack of spitoons. I dunno; they may have them this year. We will have to see. But starting the day with a bit of resignation will help.

    Tickets are 7000 yen for one session, 10000 for the whole day when bought in advance, and 9000 one session and 12000 in advance on the day of da big show. If you live here or  plan to be passing through and want to go but need a hand navigating the info, let me know.
  • Elements of Sake Class, July 2009
    Wednesday, July 29 at 6:30pm.
    On Wednesday, July 29, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, Tim Sullivan of Urban Sake will host another Elements of Sake Class at Astor Center in New York City. It is "a fun, informative & tasty way to dive into the world of premium sake." To read more details and RSVP, go here


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's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased, if not relieved, to finally announce the publication of my new ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories, subtitled The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew.

Sake's Hidden Stories ($14.99) will give you a view to what goes on in the sake industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew.

For more information on content and get your copy, go here.As with any ebook or informational product I offer, satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. If you don't like it or feel it was worth what you paid for it, I will cheerfully refund your money. Finally, for a nice third-party review of the book, check out this cool blog.


Sake Educational Products
Jump-start your sake savvy

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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