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Sake World Newsletter


May 2010


Top Story

Sake Myths (Sake Fallacies)

Sake Myths
From time to time, I feel compelled to dispel sake-related myths that I see developing momentum before they reach critical mass. I always do this for the sake of sake, no pun intended, and by taking the highest vantage point I can. It would be unfortunate to see the industry and brewers get pigeonholed by what consumers think, and start to brew for trends that cannot be sustained over long periods of time. Let us look at a few of those myths here.

  1. Myth I: Junmai Styles are Better Than Added-Alcohol Styles
  2. Myth II: Namazake is Unequivocally Better Than Pasteurized Sake
  3. Myth III: Color Sucks
  4. Myth IV: Arabashiri is the Best of the Three

Myth I: Junmai Styles are Better Than Added-Alcohol Styles. There is a brigade of junmai-shu purists that like to insist that only junmai types (i.e. junmai-shu, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo) are "real" sake and only they are worth drinking. These folks insist that added alcohol types like honjozo, (non-junmai) ginjo and (non-junmai) daiginjo are tainted goods due to the addition of alcohol at one stage in the process. (See Types of Sake for intro to the main types of sake). 

While, of course, folks have the right to discern and to be purists, there are several reasons I find it difficult to agree on this one. One, only about ten percent of all sake made fits into one of the junmai types. That means a full ninety percent of the sake world is not of junmai methodology. It is not appropriate, methinks, to summarily dismiss as invalid ninety percent of the sake world. Not at all appropriate.

Two, the very real truth is that so very much of the added alcohol types are incredibly delicious. Remember, while in futsuu-shu alcohol is added to make the sake more cheaply, in honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo it is done with very good technical reasons. Adding that small amount of alcohol temporarily (for water is added again later) raises the overall alcohol level and helps "crowbar" out more aroma and flavor from the same rice. Accordingly, much of it is very, very delicious. And this is all supposed to be about enjoyment, right?

Three, there are folks out there that say, "I can't stand the taste of added alcohol." And the truth here is, with few exceptions, one cannot taste the difference. Sure, in futsuu-shu or maybe even mediocre honjozo. But in ginjo and daiginjo? Fuhgedaboudit. Many may think they can, and many insist that they can, but if put to the test might find otherwise.

Hmm. The caveat here is that, in actuality, over the last few years I feel the industry has begun to brew in ways that make the most of the two styles, i.e. brewing such that junmai styles are fuller and added alcohol styles are lighter and more aromatic. So aligning oneself with those styles is valid, of course. But doing so simply based on whether or not the hallowed junmai word can be used is less so.  

Myth II: Namazake is Unequivocally Better Than Pasteurized Sake. There are those that tout namazake (unpasteurized sake) as better, more special, more rare. That last term surely applies but, the truth is, that nama is not unequivocally better than its pasteurized counterpart. I am not saying nama is not good - perish the thought - it can be great. And if you like it, that's all there is to it.

Pasteurizing a sake; however, does not make it a lesser product. (Most of the time, it improves it, in my opinion.) If a brewer were to take half a batch and pasteurize it, and the other half and leave it nama, they become different from the moment the pasteurization occurs; and will mature differently, taking different paths from there on out. And never the twain shall meet. But neither is unequivocally better than the other.

Myth III: Color Sucks. While this seems to be more endemic within Japan rather than without, some consumers see color in sake – and I refer to that golden amber hue in freshly pressed sake that increases with age – as an indication of lesser quality. Poppycock!

Sake is born with that lovely amber tone to it and, sure, it can be filtered out. That, too, is fine; I am not against that. But leaving the color is a choice on the part of the brewer. It may be that the flavors are big and bouncy, and leaving a golden touch accents the richness. Or it may just be the brewer abhors using the powdered active charcoal used to strip that color away. Of course, when sake gets just plain old, it takes on color too. While this can indicate it aging gracefully, it can mean it's simply way past its prime. But the point here is that, in and of itself, color in sake does not suck.
Myth IV: Arabashiri is the Best of the Three. While this one is less of an issue and more technical in nature, there are many that think that "arabashiri" sake is the best of the pressing. To review (and you can learn more here), good sake can be split into thirds (or so) when being pressed, i.e. separated from the lees. The first third is rough-and-tumble, and a bit brash. This is called arabashiri, which translates directly into "rough run." The middle part is called nakadare or nakagumi, and it is this portion that is generally regarded as the best of the lot. The final round of pressure yields a bit more sake, and this is called seme, and this is most often mixed into lesser stuff.

A handful of breweries successfully market their arabashiri for the rough run that it is. That's fine; it can be very, very good and particularly enjoyable for its brashness and, usually, youth. But in truth, at the end of the day, all marketing aside, it is the next one-third of the pressing, the aforementioned nakadare or nakagumi, that is the true prize.

So please, drink what you want, without bias or preconceived notions, be it junmai (or not), be it nama (or not), with color or without, and from whatever part of the pressing you find before you. Sake is indeed the stuff of myths, but the above four should not be counted amongst them.      


The Sake Professional Course
San Francisco, CA, June 20, 21 and 22, 2010

Although this has filled up faster than expected, there are still a few (currently, eight) seats open. Please contact me asap if interested.

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. The content of this three-day intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, excepting of course sake brewery tours. The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore necessarily be fairly technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. But the course is open to anyone with an interest in sake, and it will certainly be fun!

The course lectures and tastings will begin with the utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days.

The goal of this course is that "no sake stone remains left unturned." Every conceivable sake-related topic will b covered, and each lecture will be complimented and augmented by a relevant tasting. Like its counterpart held in Japan each winter, it will be quite simply the most thorough English-language sake education in existence. Participants will also be presented with a certificate of completion at the end of the course, and will also have the opportunity to take an exam for Level I Sake Specialist certification immediately following the course. The cost for the three-day class, including all materials and all sake for tasting, is US$775.

Participation is limited, and reservations can be made now to secure a seat. For a view of the syllabus, please see: Check out testimonials written by past participants here.             


Did you know?
All rice has more starch in the center,
not just sake rice.

As readers surely recall, most premium sake is made from rice that is different from that which we find under fish in sushi, and in bowls otherwise. Those differences are size of stalk and grain, less fat and protein and more starch, and the physical construction wherein we find more of that starch in the center. This lets brewers remove the less desirable fat and protein near the outside by milling it away.

But the truth is that all rice, not just sake rice, has more starch in the center and more fat and protein near the outside of the grain. It's just that it's so much more vivid and well separated in sake rice. Why do I bother to bring this point up? Because I have many times heard the question asked, when someone sees a sake made with table rice, why would they mill the rice down very much, even ginjo levels, if it is only table rice? If the starches and fat and protein are all mixed up, what does it matter?

It does matter since, even in table rice, at least a little more of the starches are in the center, and at least a little more of the fat and protein are near the outside. 


Sake Basics
Some Key Terms

While there is surely limited usefulness to force-feeding Japanese terms to sake fans, to a certain degree it is necessary to learn a few, and to a more vague degree it is fun to learn 'em. Certainly, you need things like ginjo and junmai to, at least, begin to understand sake and; thereby, enjoy it more. But the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a mighty vengeance soon after that, as most sake drinkers lack linguistic aspiration - which is fine. Still, should your fondness for sake ever take you to a brewery, at least in Japan, a handful of other terms will serve you very well. Here are a few etymologically related.

  • Kura. A "kura" is a brewery. (Note, there is a homonym that means storehouse, but the character is different.) Very commonly, to make things clear if more context is needed, the word "sakagura" is used. (The final e in sake becomes an a when in this combination.) So kura and sakagura both refer to a sake brewery.
  • Kurabito. A "kurabito" is a brewery worker, one who makes sake. The second half of that word, "bito," is really "hito," meaning person. So kurabito means "a person of the brewery," i.e. a member of the brewing staff. Strictly speaking; however, the master brewer, called the "toji," is not referred to as a kurabito. Basically. Sorta. It's kinda vague, surprise surprise. But, in the end, brewing personnel are called kurabito.
  • Kuramoto. The "kuramoto" is the brewery owner, or perhaps the owning family, depending on the reference. Note - only a couple (perhaps five?) kura in Japan are corporations; the rest are family owned and handed down from generation to generation. (The longest running of these is Sato no Homare, currently in its 55th generation!). Perhaps it is easiest to think of the kuramoto as the current president of the company.

So, next time you are in Japan, if you are fortunate enough to have the kuramoto lead you through his kura, and you see a kurabito darting about, you will feel totally on top of things.     



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.


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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