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Sake World Newsletter


July 2010


Top Story

Moss, Mold and Yeast

Greetings to all readers. Well, it's summer here in Japan. Actually, we are still firmly ensconced in the rainy season, but it will be over soon, and while the rain will go away the infernal humidity - that oppressive, suffocating humidity - will still be here. You can cut it with a knife. But it is that very humidity, that wonderful, life-giving humidity, that makes koji mold so common here, and over the centuries, made sake what it is. So let us give thanks for humidity and the mold it supports. But let's sleep with the dehumidifier on as well. Enjoy whatever season is upon you, and enjoy the newsletter as well. John.

Moss, Mold and Yeast
In March of this year, I visited a temple in Kyoto behind which lay a large, sprawling garden within which, we were told, there are 47 kinds of moss being deliberately cultivated. Upon confirming this, I was told that there are approximately 120 varieties of moss in the Arashiyama (a region of Kyoto) foothills area. However, we laymen can only discern about a half-dozen.  "In other words," explained my moss sensei, "the differences are subtle." You don't say…

For many of us not familiar with the attention to detail that typifies Japanese craftsmanship, be it sprawling gardens or sake, the reaction might be "Moss? You mean that green shit that grows on rocks? Moss is moss, isn't it?" Apparently, no; it isn't.

It is this very attention to detail - in this case to tiny living things - that makes sake what it is. And sake brewing asks no quarter of gardening, nor anything else, when it comes to precision in their cultivation. Most notably, consider the use of yeast and koji mold. There are countless strains of yeast, and countless strains of koji mold. Sure, we hear about Number 9, and 18-01, and 7 and 301. Or we hear about Hiroshima or Akita or Alps or Meiri yeasts. But in truth, these big names are but the tip of the yeast iceberg. There are many, many more beyond that.

And they blend them in myriad ways and deal with their mutations over time. And, in the end, like the moss in the Arashiyama foothills, the differences are subtle. But to the brewers, just what yeast to use for what product, with which rice, in which climate, blended in which proportions and using which blending method can all lead to almost infinite permutations. And in the hands of an experienced toji, those subtle differences yield sakes that are worlds apart.

As I have mentioned in other articles on yeast, it all gets difficult to follow for us laymen. As one toji told me, "most of the folks that say they are using yeast number nine are in actuality using a descendent or variation of number nine. Not much 'pure nine' is out there anymore." So while we hear a lot about a few big yeast names, it is rarely ever that simple.

And, of course, there are many strains of koji mold out there. koji mold is used in making many things, including miso, shoyu (soy sauce), shochu and awamori. Sake brewing uses a variety that looks slightly amber when propagated (and is therefore called "yellow koji"), but even within that genus here are innumerable varieties; somewhere, I am told, between a gazillion and a gazillion-and-a-half.

However, in the case of koji mold, even more important than the strain of mold is the method and skill with which the mold is propagated onto the rice. How much mold is used, is it propagated sparsely or heavily, does it hang around the outside surface of the rice or grow in toward the center - these and other factors make an incredible difference.

This concept of koji-making, "method over mold," is significant enough to warrant an article of its own, one that I will get to in the near future in this newsletter. But in the meantime, consider that koji is made four times for any one batch of sake. And the characteristics of the completed koji will vary each one of those four times. It will also be different for each grade, each brewery, each milling rate, often each rice, and each season for sure. 

Moss schmoss. The micro-organisms used in sake brewing and their careful, meticulous cultivation are second to none in validating St. Exupery's concept in The Little Prince: "What is essential is invisible to the eye."


Did you know?
Different Kinds of Moto

Pursuant to the topic above, there are several kinds of moto (yeast starter). The most common by very, very far is "sokujo" moto, a clean, fast and safe method for brewers to use, hence its status as the default method. Well over 99 percent of all sake is made using this method. Yamahai-moto and kimoto are two more methods that lead to gamier styles.

Then there is something called bodai-moto that was the precursor of other methods, developed in temples and shrines over a millennium ago. More recently, a method called "Koh-ohn Toh-ka," or "high temperature saccharification" which holds the materials at higher-than-usual temperatures to speed up starch to sugar conversion. And, of course, just to hose those of us trying to learn about sake, there are other methods that are combinations or variations on the above, like "Chu-ohn Toh-ka" (mid-temperature saccharification), and variations on the bodai-moto method as well. But rest easy and know that almost everything you taste will be the first, default moto, with yamahai and kimoto being distant seconds in how often you encounter 'em.           


Sake Basics
The Yeast Starter: Moto or Shubo
Why and How

Sake is brewed by first creating a small tank - a miniature batch really - in which the goal is to create a very high and dense population of yeast cells. Sure, alcohol will be created too, but the priority at this stage is to get the yeast to reproduce to the tune of as many as 200 million yeast cells per cc of mash. This yeast starter is called the "moto," or the "shubo." Why? Because sake is fermented in a tank that is open to the world, which means all kinds of bacteria and wild yeast can - and will - drop in. Once the vigorous fermentation is moving along, the carbon dioxide gas blowing off will protect it, but until it gets that far, the sake yeast needs to win the battle through sheer numbers.



  • Ginjo Bar open daily in Shimbashi. The Nihon Ginjo-shu Kyokai, that veritable group of 56 ginjo breweries around the country, will be using the space of Shimbashi Kuri from June to the end of August. From 2:00 pm until 9:00 pm you can taste the sake of these 56 sterling breweries from all over Japan. A small glass (45ml) will set you back just 200 to 400 yen, presenting the chance to try a wide range of sake for a reasonable outlay. A list of which brewers will be there pouring their brews and when can be found here.
  • Nihonshu Festival. On Sunday, July 11, the proprietors of the restaurant Shuen Kawashima will hold the tenth annual Nihonshu Festival, a tasting party replete with great food and a lively atmosphere. If you are anywhere near Tokyo, I highly recommend this bash. What's so special about it? Why, the sake that is there, that's what. Sure, there are plenty of decently well known brands and established high quality producers. But on top of that, perhaps two-thirds of the sake there is from little known, smaller producers that might not get into mainstream distribution. Mostly hit, a little miss, a ton of fun. And the food is made by three or so restaurants that focus on sake, so you know it's gotta rock. The event has two sessions, 12:00 to 3:30 and 4:30 to 8:00. Pricing is complicated: 7000 yen for one session, 10,000 for both, 12,000 for couples attending one session. Day of show all prices go up 2000 yen per person. Trust me: this one is fun, educational, and worthwhile. Be there if you are even close. More information can be found here

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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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