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Newsletter Archive 2009

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Sake World Newsletter


Oct. 2009


Top Story

Brewers of Nada, Boyz of Nada

October Greetings To All Readers
As fall falls fully into stride here in Japan, the sake world is gearing up for the start of another season. Despite economic and other challenges, the 1400 breweries around Japan are about to re-open their doors after months of inactivity, and as soon as the kurabito (brewery workers) and toji (master brewer) arrive, it will be time to clean, sanitize and organize the joint for the beginning of another half-year of brewing.

This month we look again a bit of the history and significance of the Nada region in Kobe / Nishinomiya. Be sure to note too that the information on the upcoming Sake Professional Course offerings, and the start of Sake Tourism here in Japan. Enjoy the newsletter with a nice glass of da good stuff. <John> 

Brewers of Nada, The Boyz of Nada
In July, I was privileged to have given a speech to the "Nihonshuzo Kumiai Kinki Shibu," or the "Kinky Division of the Japan Sake Brewers' Association." For better or for worse, the term "Kinki" means the same as Kansai, i.e. Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe and the surrounding prefectures (Wakayama and Shiga to be precise).

But more relevantly to this newsletter, it is the home of Nada and Fushimi, the two largest sake producing 'hoods' in Japan. In fact, almost 50 percent of all the sake in the universe comes from these two areas put together. And that does not include the rest of the sake from Hyogo Prefecture (within which sits the Nada neighborhood) and Kyoto Prefecture (within which sits the Fushimi Ward of Kyoto City). Almost fifty percent.

So I was giving a presentation on sake's popularity outside of Japan to a group of 250 Kinki people that are collectively responsible for a huge chunk of the sake on the market. After the presentation, there was the inevitable but immensely enjoyable wrap-up party, amongst the guys in charge and a few others. It was a simple affair, in a simple, small room of the hotel where the event took place. What was interesting, though, was who was in attendance.

Those in charge of the whole event were, of course, the larger, more visible, and generally more prestigious large brewers of the area. So I was surrounded by 15 to 20 folks, all of which had taken over or were set to inherit the largest breweries in the industry. It would have been quite intimidating if it weren't for the fact that I was older than all of them. By far. Which was another interesting aspect of it all.

Japan is well known for its family businesses, and how many, many businesses carry on over generations and generations. In the US, from whence I hail, I have heard that less than ten percent of all businesses make it to the third generation of a family. Here, that makes you still a youngster. Of Japan's just-under 1,400 remaining sake breweries, all but like 30 are family owned. That's it.

And, interestingly enough - it must be coincidence - but right about now seems to be a time when a whole lot of brewers have handed the torch off to their heirs, i.e. a lot of sons seem to be taking over from their fathers. When I got involved in the sake industry here 15 years ago I was always the youngest in any industry crowd. Now, rarely - RARELY - am I not the oldest. The point is not my age, but rather the fact that the whole sake industry is undergoing a generational change. All things considered it is a great thing.

So there I am surrounded by these young whippersnappers, and then it hit me. Hakushika… Kenbishi… Hakutsuru… Kikumasamune… Sakura Masamune… Sawanotsuru… Ozeki… Hakutaka… yikes. I was sitting amidst the brass of about half the sake produced in the world. To confirm, I looked at Tatsuma-san of Hakushika and asked. "This room is, like, full of folks responsible for most of the sake in the cosmos, isn't it?"

He nodded with more nonchalance than should have been permissible, like it was an everyday occurrence. "Yeah. That's right. Interesting, huh?"

To make it even more so, they were all about the same age, and remember that the "Nada Gogo", or "five villages of Nada" is not a huge place. You can walk it end to end in about 40 minutes, tops. The point is, these kids grew up together.

In fact, there were four or five of them that were exactly the same age, and - get this- had gone to kindergarten, grade school, high school and college together. Then they graduate and go back to the family businesses to compete against each other. Yet they still drink together from time to time. Man, talk about a complex scene.

In truth, each company has its focus and its markets. Some focus on Tokyo, others more locally. Some do one-cups, others put more effort into boxed sake. Some have breweries overseas, others own the traditional pub scene. All make great sake when they put their mind to it, and all have great price performance at any level. So each has their turf, sorta, and while this overlaps for sure, it likely allows them to co-exist in such close quarters.

And, to demonstrate just how intertwined they all are, some of them are related, as in blood relatives. For example, Hakutsuru (#1 in size) was founded in 1859 by a branch of the Kano family, and current owners of Kikumasamune (#7), founded one hundred years earlier in 1759. In Japan, the oldest son takes the business, but it seems like number two (or so) wanted to get into the sake business too, and a full century into the dynasty, split off and did so. So now, the presidents of both are named Kano, and 150 years ago would have been cousins.

As another irrelevant tangent that I cannot resist, the founder of judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, was from the Hakutsuru family. His older brother got the brewery so he went and founded a major martial art, it seems. Hey, we all gotta keep busy.

For those interested, more about the Nada region and the Fushimi region, their history and signifance, the criticism leveled against them, and their sizable contributions to the industry, can be learned by scouring the archives on the Sake World web site. Read more there to discover more about this significant part of sake history and culture.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Did you know? "Sake Day 2009"
Nihonshu no Hi = 日本酒の日
The character for October 1 of each year is officially designated "Nihonshu no Hi," or "Sake Day." Why? There are several reasons.

Modern Character for Sake
The biggest reason is related to the written character for sake. Long ago, it consisted of only the right half of its current form; it did not contain the three short lines on the left that represent water. It consisted only of the part that was made to look like a jar, indicating something holding liquid, which was of course an alcoholic beverage of some sort in the mind of those reading the character.

Old Character for Sake
Enter the Chinese Zodiac, or the 12 animal signs that are traditionally used to number years in sequence, as well as months, as well as consecutive two-hour periods in each 24-hour day. The tenth of these, corresponding to the tenth month (and the tenth year and the tenth hour) is tori, or chicken (or perhaps rooster or cock). However, the written characters assigned to each of these animals are not the standard characters for the animals themselves, but rather special characters and readings applied only for these zodiacal instances.

So, by fortuitous coincidence, October is represented in the ancient Chinese zodiac system, also embraced by Japan, by the old character for sake. And, coincidentally, sake brewing begins in the fall, usually in October. And that is why October 1 is known as "Nihonshu no Hi," or "Sake Day," in Japan.

So where ever you are each year, settle down on October 1 with a glass of sake. And if you miss October 1, well, raise a glass to Nihonshu no Hi anyway. Better late than never.   


Sake Brewery Tours: we are live NOW!
Sake Tourism has begun!

Want to visit sake breweries in Japan? Now you can!

I am pleased to announce the starting of the Sake World Sake Brewery Tours program. Now, anyone can access the inner workings of the sake world. Visit Japan, start off with a bit of formal sake education by yours truly, then you are off to see several sake breweries while under the care of an experienced sake-savvy interpreter. Events include sake-centered meals and other cultural sight-seeing options - and even a bit of free time. This brewing season, there are two tours planned:

  • Tour I:  Feb. 23 to 27 in Kansai (Osaka / Kyoto / Kobe area)
  • Tour II: March 15 to 19 in San-in (Shimane / Tottori area)

For more information, pricing and reservations please go to Participation is extremely limited this season for the two tours that are scheduled.  


NEW. 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) at the MGM Grand Hotel. All details have been hammered out, and can be read about here. The cost for the three-day intensive program will be $775. Participation is limited and is about half full. (Or half empty... depending on your frame of reference.) The course is expected to fill up quickly with the local industry. Note, too, that the MGM Grand will be offering rooms to participants at a special rate. If you cannot make it to Japan, here is your chance to learn about sake, with "no sake stone left unturned."

Sake Professional Course in Japan
January 25 to 29, 2009

The 2010 Sake Professional Course will take place in Tokyo (and Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) Japan from Monday January 25 to Friday January 29, 2010.This is it, folks: simply the most thorough sake education on the planet. Three days of instruction and tasting are augmented by two days of sake brewery visits, with evenings filled with good food and the best sake Japan has to offer. Reservations are being taken now, and are expected to go fast. For more information please go here, and/or to reserve, please email me at  



  • 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 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.

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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