The Cost of Sake; The Cost of Rice
If only sake were cheaper! While certainly this can be said of many things, somehow premium yet inexpensive sake seems much less common
than most of us would like. There are a multitude of reasons why this is so, but perhaps the most relevant and obvious is the cost of the rice. Couple this with the fact that no sake brewers own rice fields that are
used to grow the rice used in brewing, and you have a situation in which brewers must outlay large chunks of cash each fall to buy that expensive rice just to brew the coming year's brew, outlays they will not
see begin to flow back for at least a year.
In truth, there are one or two breweries that can and do own fields and grow their own rice, but none of this was the case until a few years ago. However, the
history, reasons and logic surrounding that are the stuff of a future newsletter.
The cost of rice, in fact, is a major portion of the cost of the final product. How much so? Well, like all things sake, it
depend on a gazillion things, including who you ask.
According to Masumi Nakano, the president-owner of Dewazakura, about 70% of the cost of a sake is the cost of the rice. "That'd be for your typical
junmai ginjo sake," he clarifies. Other brewers have given me numbers closer to 40% as well. And, without a doubt, those brewing lower grade sake will have numbers much lower than that.
So just how much of
the price of a sake is the price of the rice depends on many factors. Let's look at a few of the more tangible ones.
First and foremost is the quality of the rice involved. Not all sake rice is created equal!
Usually sake rice is about three times more expensive than table rice, but top quality sake rice can fetch more than lower grades from lesser growing regions.
Even within sake rice, different varieties will
command different prices too. As will timing: buying it in a seller's market will cost a brewer more than buying it late in the season when demand is low. The differences imparted by all of these factors can be huge.
So first is the cost of the rice. Next is the milling. If two brewers start with the same rice, and one mills it down to 60% but another down to 35% of its original size, the latter will need to use about 25%
more rice to make the same amount of sake.
While the ground-away powder (called nuka) does not go to waste, the brewers make almost nothing on it when they sell it.
After quality of rice and milling
come production issues. For example, does the brewer ferment the rice to get the absolute maximum amount of alcohol out of it possible, and then squeeze the lees hard and tight so as to wring every last drop out of
the mash? Or does he or she rein it back a bit, stopping before the bitter end during both fermentation and pressing, so as to preserve a bit more refinement and delicateness? The latter will cost you more rice per
bottle. that's for sure.
As a specific example, a brewer that gets 20% alcohol out of his fermentation and then waters it down to the normal 16% will need less rice per bottle than one who tapers fermentation
off at 18% or less and waters down less - if at all. Also, non-junmai sake, sake cut with distilled alcohol, will see even higher yields, i.e. less rice cost per bottle, since after adding alcohol to pull out aroma
and flavor they water that down as well.
The plot thickens further yet. Consider the scale of a brewery and its equipment. A large brewery can spread out its fixed costs over more tanks, and fixed costs can be
spread out even further when sake is brewed in larger tanks. The difference between, say, 750 kg of rice per tank and 5 tons of the same can be staggering, as can those between a kura making 200 kiloliters a year and
those that make 200 times that. This point is what makes so much of the largest brewers' sake such wonderful cost-performing product.
But look, for example, at Sato no Homare sake from Ibaraki Prefecture. They
make only junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo there, and on top of that they ferment in small tanks for like 40 days or longer -
much longer than average. That ties the tanks up longer and limits yields. All this is
reflected in his pricing that, while not cheap, is surely worth it.
Another brewer, when asked about how he determines his pricing, lamented thusly. "It's a game. In order to make any money on a product, I
know what I need to charge. Let us say for example that is 3000 yen for 1.8 liters. But if everyone around me is charging but 2800 yen, there is no way I can sell it for the price I would prefer; sales will decline.
So I am to some degree limited by what everyone else is doing for a given type of product."
Then, if we want to really push the envelope, consider margins. Sure, if we are talking prices sold out of the
kura, before any markups, then the ratios of rice to price are stable. But different countries take different margins. Domestic distributor and retail margins in Japan are much less than those in the US, as one
example, so that rice-cost-to-retail is higher in Japan than it might be for the same product in the US.
So as you can see, it is an appropriately complex answer. Rice grade, milling rate, brewing goals and
methods, scale of operations and psychology of the market all hold some sway over just how much of the cost of a given sake comes directly from the cost of the rice. Just suffice it to say it is significant.
And this is why it is seemingly challenging at times to find cheap yet truly premium sake. But let us take solace in the fact that rarely is sake prohibitively expensive either. Like sake flavors and aromas, there
seems to be a plethora of stuff available in a comparatively narrow price range. Bear all this in mind, and be willing to throw down just a pinch more on your next glass or bottle of sake. You'll enjoy it and
appreciate it more when you know what is behind what you pay for it.
Did you know? "Aki-agari"
Hot Damn! It's Ready!
Traditionally, sake was matured about half a year and released in the fall. Surely this basic formula had much
variation, since they obviously could not release everything at once, and also there could be half a year's difference between sake
completed at the beginning of the previous season and that completed at the
end of it. But the basic kernel of principle was to lay it down about six months, until the fall.
The sake first released in early autumn after having been brewed the previous season is known as "Aki
Agari," or "released in fall." It is touted for its finely wrought balance between youth and maturity, and extremely suited in an uncanny way to the changing feel of the season itself. Note, however,
that the term itself is mutually exclusive of grade, i.e. you can have aki-agari cheap sake or aki-agari daiginjo. Practically speaking, though, junmai-shu and junmai ginjo are most commonly found aki-agari.
Look for it starting next month at better sake retailers and department stores near you.
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.
Sake Professional Course Las Vegas
November 2, 3, and 4, 2009
The 4th Stateside Sake Professional Course will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 2, 3, and 4
(Monday through Wednesday). The venue, schedule and a few more details are being hammered out as you read this, but the content will be
identical to the course just held in New York City, and the curriculum
and details of that program can be noted here .The cost for the three day intensive program will be $775. Those interested in more detail can contact me by email. Attendance is limited and is expected to fill up
quickly with the local industry. If you missed New York or cannot make it to Japan, here is your chance to learn about sake, with "no sake stone left unturned." Send us an email if you are interested in participating.
- 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 www.japanlivingarts.com 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 Bar "Nihonshu" in Melbourne
A new sake pub has opened in Melbourne, Australia. Owned by Sake Professional Course I and II graduate Andre Bishop, more info is available here for those readers close enough to check it out. While I have not had that pleasure yet, I hope to soon.
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.
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 www.sake-world.com 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: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.