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Sake World Newsletter


Dec. 2010


Top Story

Rice to Sake: How Much?

Greetings to All Readers.

Japan has always had its own way of doing things. Some of those ways survived the tides of time; some did not. But one thing that remained transferable across the cultural upheaval of the centuries and at the same time traversed cultural boundaries was the awareness of the seasons. One that did not was the seasonally-attuned naming of the months of the year. Currently, Japan uses names for the months of the year that are simple in that they are all named for the numerical order in which they occur; January is "1st Month," (Ichigatsu), February is "2nd Month," (Nigatsu). And so on. But it wasn't always this way. In fact, there is an old calendar, an officially defunct but culturally still alive system of naming the months. Rocket science it ain't: it works with the moon and the tides of the seasons like all traditional calendars do. But culturally revealing it is.

Most relevantly, December is "Junigatsu," or "12th Month" in modern parlance, but is known by the etymologically appealing term "Shiwasu 師走" in the old calendar. The word Shiwasu is composed of two characters, the first being teach or mentor 師, the second being run 走. Much becomes clear right there. In other words, the name for the final month of the year - or perhaps more relevantly the last month before the start of the new year - implies that everyone is so busy that even the teacher (who usually has things done by underlings) is running around. There are, of course, other interpretations, but this is the most common and the most interesting. And, as usual, the Shiwasu season is living up to its billing. Happy running-around to all readers. Enjoy the newsletter.

Warm regards, John      


Rice to Sake: How Much?
Does some sake use more rice than other sake?

I recently received an email from a Japan-based reader that asked about how much rice goes into a bottle of sake. It read: "I am drinking a ginjo at 60% - it tastes fine, but watered down. (It was cheapish.) I am wondering how much (little) rice was used. I want a percentage stated on the label. My question: Is it possible to grind rice down to a low value to attract buyers, call it ginjo, and use less rice than usual? Any standards for this? Does ginjo use more rice than futsu?"

The short answer is that yes, some sake uses more rice than other sake, for sure. This is true, even though it is not how they measure it. They (the sake-brewing industry) could, but it is not the angle that they take. Rather than talk about how much rice went into a bottle or batch, they speak of how much milling, how much post-fermentation dregs, added alcohol, and amino acid content. And not surprisingly, it is a deceivingly complex question. To answer it properly, let us look at it a couple of ways. First off, when talking about how much rice goes into a bottle of sake, we need to specify brown (i.e. before milling) rice or white (i.e. after milling rice).

For example, take a ton of brown (unmilled, just harvested) rice. For cheap sake they might mill just 20% away, leaving 80% of the raw materials for the tanks. For daiginjo they might mill away 65%, leaving just 35% of the original raw materials for the same tanks. If the yields were the same for two given batches, then right then and there we see much more brown rice would be needed to make a one-ton batch if you end up milling more of it away before beginning. But that much should be fairly obvious. So let us look at after milling, i.e. the already-milled white rice that goes into a batch.

The next factor to consider is almost as obvious: is it a rice-only sake (junmai, junmai ginjo, or junmai daiginjo) or did they add alcohol to it (honjozo, ginjo, or daiginjo, or even a lowly futsu-shu)? When alcohol is added to sake, they do it at the end, stretching out yields. While that yield improvement is not the objective in premium sake, it nevertheless is real. So yes, if you are drinking a junmai style sake, if all other things were equal, they would have used much more rice in making it.
So, our friend's watered-down, cheapish ginjo may have been a non-junmai. This would indicate less rice was used.

A caveat is important here: this is not meant to imply that adding alcohol thins out flavor. It might. It can. But it does not have to. Too many other things affect flavor. Most significantly, it may just have been a regional or brewer-specific style.  

Next on the list is: how fully did they ferment the rice that was used? In other words, a brewer can let or force a tank of fermenting mash go so long that they get every possible drop of alcohol that is physically possible out of the rice. Even within this point, there are several sub-points, but let us say they control starch to sugar conversion so as to maximize the amount of sugar from every grain of rice, and let the alcohol run up to 20%, whereupon the yeast throws in the towel and dies. The other end of the spectrum is sake in which not all the starch was even saccharified and/or the fermentation was curtailed at, say, 17% alcohol. Trust me, the latter will taste better. But it will call for much more rice to make a bottle of it. Even though that is not how they measure it.

How do they measure it? Most relevant to the above example, they weigh the dregs after brewing (kasu) and compare it to the weight of the original rice. The lighter the dregs, the more they got out of their rice, and the less rice they had to use to get it. And the heavier the dregs, the less they got out of their rice, and the more rice they had to use to get it.

Finally, there are other factors that affect the sensations of heaviness, richness, thickness and the lack thereof in a sake. For example, amino acids created by the koji, acids created by the yeast, and non fermentable touchy-feely-to-the-tongue sugars created by the enzymes from the koji can all add to the sense of thick or thin, heavy or light, clean or cloying, in a sake. So two sake with the same rice, same milling, and even same amount of dregs remaining can taste different in this aspect based on any or all of the above factors. It is not just the rice.

And just to be annoying and to complicate things more, maturation, pasteurization, filtration and half a dozen other "-ion" steps involved can have the same affect on the thick/thin heavy/light, rich/light, clean/cloying continuums. And these have nothing to do with the amount of rice used.

So back to the original questions as stated:

  • Is it possible to grind rice down to a low value to attract buyers, call it ginjo, and use less rice than usual? Answer: Yes, it is. They can add more or less alcohol, or ferment the rice they choose to use more or less thoroughly.
  • Any standards for this? Answer: No, no standards for this. But since they measure the same thing in other ways, none are really needed, methinks. That is why we cannot depend on the milling rate alone!
  • Does ginjo use more rice than futsu? Answer: Hell, yes! No matter how you slice it, yes!

So yes, some sake does use more rice than other sake. And some ginjo uses more rice than other ginjo. But while this is true, there are many things that affect flavor and quality before this, and rather than measure how much rice goes into a bottle, there are a dozen other things (weight of the dregs, how far fermentation is allowed to proceed, compounds produced during fermentation) that they do look at and keep track of.

Like most things sake related, there is a simple short answer, and one that is much more deep and complex. And, like most sake itself, the only really factor worth measuring is the "I-like-it-meter" reading once you've tasted it. If that puppy is pegged, you're golden.  


Sake Basics - Multiple Parallel Fermentation
Sake is the only marketed alcoholic beverage in the world that is produced by "multiple parallel fermentation." Just what does that mean?

Wine is made using grape juice that has sugar in it already. Yeast takes in this sugar and gives off alcohol. This is chemically a simple fermentation. Beer starts with barley that has starch, which yeast cells cannot deal with. So enzymes in the malted barley chop the starch to sugar first. After that is done, then yeast converts that sugar to alcohol. So, in beer, starch-to-sugar and sugar-to-alcohol are sequential and separate.

In sake, enzymes from the koji mold chop starch in the rice into sugar, but this happens in the same tank and at the same time as the yeast converts that steady stream of developing sugar into alcohol So in sake, starch-to-sugar and sugar-to-alcohol take place at the same time, and in the same tank. This is called in Japanese heikou fuku hakkou, or "multiple parallel fermentation," and is unique to sake in marketed alcoholic beverages.  


Did You Know? Sake Kasu.
Nothing goes to waste in the sake-brewing process. After fermentation is complete, some of the rice that did not or could not ferment (or was not permitted to ferment!) remains. When the slightly amber sake is pressed away, these lees, or "kasu," remain. Kasu can be very tightly packed, or somewhat loose, depending on the pressing process used. They are in great demand today!

Kasu can be used in many ways in cooking, and its health benefits are being touted quite a bit. While some of those have yet to be scientifically authenticated, the liveliness and pizzazz it can bring to food is tremendous. It is most commonly dissolved in miso soup (often with salmon) in what is called kasu-jiru. It can also be spread on fish as a marinade before grilling (yum!), and also mixed with water, honey and ginger to make one form of a drink called ama-zake, drunk warm on cold winter nights at festivals and such. There are many other non-traditional and just plain creative ways to enjoy kasu too. One I like is to spread miso on firm kasu and lightly fry it. A great sake accompaniment!

Sake kasu is fairly easy to find at Japanese grocery stores, particularly in the winter.     


Announcements and Events

  • Sake Professional Course 2011, Japan.
    January 24-28, 2011. It is my pleasure to announce the 8th annual Sake Professional Course to be held in Japan. This is it, folks: the most important thing I do all year, and far and away the best possible sake education in existence. Three days of lecture and tasting, each evening  capped off with dinner and fine sake, then two days spent visiting four sake breweries of different size and scale - punctuated again with fine sake and a great meal each evening. Of course, certification testing for a Certified Sake Professional is a part of the event.

    Word travels fast, and most of the 20 spots have already been reserved. If you are interested, please send an email to me at right away. Feel free to ask any and all questions or make any inquiries about the course as well. To learn more about the schedule and details, check this out. Trust me when I say - for sake education - it does not get any better than this. Alternatively you can see what others have said.
  • Sake Tours!
    Please join us for a very special journey through the regional brewing and culinary traditions of Japan. Tour destinations are filled with moments you cannot experience otherwise. In 2011, we will return to San-in, the land of myth. And, we are adding a tour of the northern snow country of Akita for special breweries and onsen. Meet and speak directly with artisans to appreciate their history, philosophy, and the art of brewing. Learn from the world's best sake educator, John Gaunter, and share the passion of brewers for their craft. Then, wind down at an onsen to relax, and simply have fun! Learn more at    


For Your iPhone: The Sake Dictionary
Give the gift that keeps one drinking...only $6.99

Announcing the release of iPhone application version (if you have iTunes, the app will appear by clicking on that link) of The Sake Dictionary - available now. The content is the same as the "normal" Sake Dictionary (see immediately below, available for $8.99). Note the $2 savings for the iPhone app version!

The Sake Dictionary...only $8.99
Announcing The Sake Dictionary. Have you ever found yourself out and about at perhaps a retail shop or at a sushi bar, perusing the sake menu and wondering - or trying to recall - just what the dickens all those terms actually mean? Wouldn't it have been great to have a quick guide that fits in your pocket, pda, or phone that you could whip out to confirm a term or two? Well, here it is.

The Sake Dictionary is just that: A concise little package of all the terms you might ever come across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well.

Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!

Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms again. So click here to purchase your copy of The Sake Dictionary and eliminate sake stress and get a permanent grip on those pesky?erms, and start really enjoying your sake. Go here to get your copy now.


Japanese For Sake Lovers
A Guide to Proper Pronunciation

Here it is: something that ensures you will enjoy your sake experience more and more - a short, concise instructional guide on how to properly and naturally pronounce the Japanese language, sake brand names, and all the terminology that is a part of the sake world. With the help of this little course, you will sound like a native when talking about sake.

No more butchering sake names in Japanese!
Learn how to properly pronounce the sake you love!

Japanese for Sake Lovers consists of a short text and three audio files. It all begins with guide to the theory of pronouncing Japanese, which you will soon realize is surprisingly smple. Following that you have the opportunity to practice pronunciation of all the important terminology surrounding sake, and dozens of brand names that cement in your mind the principles, fundamentals, and idiosyncrasies of pronouncing Japanese. 

This is not a language text. You will not learn grammar or much vocabulary outside of sake-specific terms, although it does include a handful of phrases to help you navigate your way to sake bliss in Japanese when at a sake pub, augmented by three audio files that allow you to practice, repeating the words and phrases after a native speaker.

For the rest of the month of April, Japanese for Sake Lovers is being offered at an introductory price of $9.99, after which the price will be raised a smidgeon. Go here now to order your copy, and feel one step closer to the beverage you love ?guaranteed.


Sake's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased to 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 - 2010

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