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Newsletter Archive 2009

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Sake World Newsletter


Nov. 2009


Top Story

Contest Sake

November Greetings To All Readers
Ah, November. It is always hard to believe the better part of yet another year is gone. Just about now the many fall tastings begin to taper off and the industry looks inward to focus on brewing good sake for the next six months. Rumors indicate that some sake rice, like the inimitable Yamada Nishiki, are good this year, whereas others, such as the light-flavor producing Gohyakumangoku are not as good. But I am sure that we can count on the master brewers of the sake world to do their best. This month, enjoy a story gleaned from a brewer during one fall tasting, read about sake events in Tokyo short and long, and learn a bit about rice harvest timing and its relationship to quality. Enjoy the newsletter with some gently warmed o-kan, or perhaps your favorite holiday brew. <John> 

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Contest Sake
In the movie "Something About Mary," Ben Stiller sat in the backyard of his friend Dom whose wife doted upon them ridiculously. Beer, freshly baked cookies and more were brought in succession, and Ben's character expressed how much he wanted something similar in his own life. Dom shrugged, glanced down complacently, and said, "Every day's better than the next."

Lost on many a viewer, I am sure, the line was a harbinger of what was to come. Every day is better than the next. Odd as the wording may be, there are actually some sake that are like that. Namely, contest sake made with massively milled rice and brewed using modern yeast strains.

I was at a ginjo tasting, one of many in the fall, and most of the 85 brewers there had a contest sake in their lineup for the day. One particular brewer, never at a loss for words (a fact that apparently bugs some of his more taciturn industry colleagues - but I digress) and I were chatting about his contest sake. It was the fall; the national contest for which it was brewed was held last May.

"It's been in a deep freeze since then," he began, "kept at -5C (23F) the whole time." The contest is over, at least the one for which it was brewed, and they just have what remains hanging around for small sales, for tastings, and for the fall version of the spring contest.

…that spring contest being none other than the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai, or National New Sake Appraisal, at which this sake in question won a gold last year. There are various regional competitions around the country in the fall, using that specially brewed sake after it has been laid down for six months.

My brewer friend continued. "Sake like this, made with special contest yeasts and very highly milled rice will never get better than the moment it's born. After that it's pretty much a long, slow demise."

And why is this? Because those yeasts, as ostentatious and attention-getting as they are, do not provide the components of body and aroma that age well. "Sake like that Naraman over there," he said, selecting one very good sake from amongst many in the brewer-manned booths along the far wall, "made with things like yeast Number Nine, that sake will taste better after a few months. But not this stuff."

Again, it is a matter of its composition and its constitution. Contest sake is like daiginjo on steroids; intense, sharp, clean and focused in both flavors and aromas. (And good, mind you! This is not meant to be a detraction!) "Regular" sake has more components like amino acids, sugars, proteins and various acids that interact and meld, allowing richness, flavor, balance and well-roundedness to emerge over a few months. There is much less meat on the bones of contest sake, whereas normal sake has meaty stuff that you can grab onto and whack with a car antenna. And this leads to positive changes over a few months of maturation.

As the brewer of that gold medal winner pronounced, "You press it, you pasteurize, you deep chill it. And from there, it basically deteriorates. After six months at that cold temperature, perhaps the corners will be a bit more well rounded, but we'll not see much improvement in flavor or aromas, you see."

Such delicate sake matures and changes quite fast. And, in fact, this is part of the skill of winning a contest. Not only does a brewer have to brew good sake, he or she needs to know just how it will be handled, and how it will change between the time it is submitted and the time it will be tasted. For example, they would need to know how a sake will change over two weeks at room temperature, after they have brewed it and kept it cold. Skill in this arena is important as well.

At the risk of sounding confusing, though, let us remember that almost all sake should be drunk young, and generally not aged (with a few exceptions, of course!). In other words, more aging is not better. But at the same time, most sake benefits from six months to a year of in-brewery maturation for the above-described reasons. It can lead to balance, depth, richness and more at first. But once they ship it to us, they want us to drink it fairly soon. So while contest sake starts to fade away right away, most sake matures gracefully for a short spell, then levels out before heading south for the long haul.

With the ever-present exceptions that pepper every part of the sake world notwithstanding, most sake needs a short period of maturation, after which it should not be aged. That is the short version of the story. But contest sake is different. For such sake, every day is indeed better than the next.


Did you know? Rice Harvest Timing...
"Yamada Nishiki vs. Gohyakumangoku"

Of the approximately 100 varieties of sake rice currently in use, there are those that are harvested early in the fall, September or so, and those that are harvested later, like the end of October. This depends on the strain, the locale, the weather and more. Generally speaking the better varieties are harvested later. But that is an arguable call.

How was this year's crop? Well, that depends. Those varieties that are harvested early in the season, such as Gohyakumangoku which grows on the western shores and a bit to the north, are mediocre. Why? Because  there was lots of rain and not enough sun near the end of the summer. Conversely, varieties that are harvested later, like the mighty Yamada Nishiki, ended up quite fine since the early autumn warmed up and got sunny, giving that rice just it wanted for a few solid weeks. So we have much to look forward to this year as well. And, as is always the case with sake, there will be exceptions and vagary. The above is an approximation based on hearsay. A good toji (master brewer) can work his or her magic with any given rice and make superb sake. So let us wait and see, with great expectations.


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.  


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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