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Sake World Newsletter


March 2010



Big & Small Sake Breweries

Greetings to all readers,

Let me take this chance to remind you about the first Sake World app for the iPhone, the iPhone version of The Sake Dictionary. Be sure to check it out. Warm regards, John

Big and Small
Disparity of Size Among Sake Breweries

Recently, I wrapped up two of the biggest efforts of the year, Sake Professional Course I and Sake Professional Course II in Japan. While I do these events outside of Japan as well, the winter versions held here include four brewery visits that kind of tie the whole thing together, and tightly at that.

The kura (breweries) we visit are carefully selected so as to present a fair cross-section of the industry in terms of size and scale. Each year, we visit one tiny kura, one medium-small kura, one medium-large kura, and one massive facility as well.

In this way, I hope to convey the pros and cons of small breweries and big ones, so that no one leaves with a prejudice for or against any brewery based only on its size. We need to taste and drink the sake, not the label, nor the company behind that label.

And in doing so, I was reminded of just how different large brewing companies and small brewing companies can be, just how interesting those differences can be, and just how good the sake of both can be.

For example, one day, we visited Fujioka Shuzo, brewers of Soukuu in Fushimi, Kyoto. Once, a few decades ago, they were of medium size, but an untimely death shut the company down for 15 years. The determined owner-inherit polished his skills at kura around the country and reopened - but at a very, very small scale.

He has but four tanks, each of which can brew a batch of sake consisting of 750 kg of rice. That's it. He uses each one twice a season, starting one batch a week or so. Total production: about16 kiloliters.

The next day, we headed to Nada in Kobe, to visit Hakutsuru, currently the largest brewer in the country. We were led to their main fermentation room at that particular brewing facility, within which are, as I recall, 64 tanks, each one of which can brew a batch of sake consisting of seven tons of rice. Sixty-four, each of which holds seven tons.

Please realize that each one of those tanks brews more than the entire season's production at the first place. And there are sixty-four of them.

And there is yet more to say. Those particular tanks were brewing Hakutsuru's popular honjozo. The combination of the choice of grade and the hard water of Nada allow the tank to be fermented in but 15 days. At Fujioka-san's place, each one takes about a month, or twice as long.

At Hakutsuru, there are sixteen rows of four tanks each. With fermentation taking 15 days or so, a quick calculation will show you that they can ferment fully four seven-ton tanks at once, and rotate through the room pressing one line of four a day ? and of course refilling it with a new batch, with but a day to spare between. It is incredibly efficient, fast, and overwhelming in its largess.

There is a sign outside the room in which they press the sake with four large machines, one for each of the tanks being pressed that day. It informs us that they press 70,000 liters of sake a day, and that if one were to drink two 180ml glasses a day, it would take 450 years to finish that. And this is what they make in one day, of honjozo alone. Four hundred and fifty years.

Returning now to Soukuu, in order to make a comparison, we have to make some massive assumptions about which I have but little information. But as a thought experiment, let us proceed. I recall being told by their president that Hakutsuru makes about 55,000 kl a year. My memory may be failing me, but that is what I recall. This would include the aforementioned honjozo, and also the ginjo brewed in another kura building on the same grounds, and the futsuu-shu they brew in volume

elsewhere. I am assuming they brew about 270 days a year. Now, if we were to apply that same brewing period to Soukuu (which is definitely totally inaccurate, as they brew but four months or so, but what the heck, I am on a roll…) and spread their 16.2 kl over that period of time, that would mean they make about 60 liters a day. At two drinks a day, that is about 141 days.

So, what one brews of but one particular grade in a day it would take you 450 years to finish; what the other cranks out in total during the same time period you can whip back in 141 days. Dig that. 

This exercise has already outlived its usefulness based on the compounding error, so let it suffice to say "same planet, different worlds."

The more valuable points here for all of us are these: both of these breweries are making good stuff, both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both have their own philosophies, goals and audiences.

For example, Soukuu only makes junmai-shu, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. That is it. And it is comparatively more expensive then its peers, although the packaging is wonderful and the sake is rich and clean. Hakutsuru on the other hand makes dozens and dozens of products, all of which are quite good for their class, and give some of the best price performance in the industry. Soukuu's appeal is focused like a laser beam; Hakutsuru's is as broad as the other's is narrow. Both work well for the enterprise of which they are a part.

It is all too tempting, and far too easy, to say that the big brewers make only industrial sake and the little brewers make the good, craft-laden stuff. I have said it before and I will say it again: it just ain't true. It is neither correct nor fair to judge a producer based on their size. Let's remember that we need to taste the sake, not the size of the enterprise. 


Did you know? 
Counting the days of fermenting moromi

It is generally accepted that better sake like ginjo is fermented for longer periods of time, and at lower temperatures. As such, we will occasionally hear or read on labels of the moromi nisuu, or the number of days the mormomi (fermenting mash) fermented.

Most futsuu-shu (normal sake, table sake) will ferment in 20 days or so. (The 15 referred to in the article above is exceptionally fast.) Ginjo might take as long as 35, with some exceptional cases being longer than that.

But this all begs the question, when do they start counting? In other words, 20 days from when?

Readers will likely recall the yeast starter takes two weeks, usually, and then rice, water and koji are added three times over four days before the moromi is ready and allowed to proceed somewhat uninterrupted. Well, the answer to "when we start counting" is: the day of the third addition. The day that the final bunch of ingredients are finally added is day one of counting fermentation. Even though things have been in progress for 18 or 19 days by then, this is the day that is considered day one. More about the process of brewing can be learned here and in the archives of this newsletter, here.


Sake Basics 

This month, let's look at the term honjouzou-shu and the sake behind it. Honjouzou-shu, more commonly known as honjouzou, is premium sake. In truth, it is at the lower end of premium, but it is indeed premium. The rice used must be milled to at least  70% of its original size, and the addition of distilled alcohol in legally limited small amounts is permitted (remember: it is watered down again later so it is not fortified!).

Most honjouzou is light and very drinkable. The term came about in the 70's in response to the lakes of futsuu-shu with tons of added alcohol, emphasizing that the amount of distilled additions were minimal and limited. The term means something akin to "the original brewing method," which it decidedly is not, but the aspirations of the industry then were admirable.

Interestingly, very little honjouzou is available in the US or Europe, for reasons that were once clear but are less so today. Still, some is available, so search for it, and even more recommendable is tokubetsu honjouzou, or "special honjozo." Click here for more about these types, or see the Sake Notebook, but just remember that daiginjo is ginjo to die for, and you'll know all you really need to know.


2010 Stateside Sake Professional Course San Francisco...
The next Sake Professional Course will be held in San Francisco on June 20, 21 and 22, at the Bentley Reserve in San Francisco California. More information can be found here, and if you are already sure you want to be there, send an email to John.


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 terms, and start really enjoying your sake. Go here to get your copy now.


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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