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Newsletter Archive 2010

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Sake World Newsletter


Sept. 2010


Top Story

A Bit About Japan's Largest Brewers

Greetings in what should be the autumn. As of this writing, it is still 35C in the Tokyo area. I want my Japanese autumn! The bounties of autumn - fish, vegetables and herbs that come in to their own in this season - are so much better once the weather cools down.

And, it is the traditional tasting season for sake. Long ago, before refrigeration that made maturing sake for longer periods a feasible practice, fall was the traditional time of release. The season has held its significance in the minds and hearts of the industry, and so we have tastings upon tastings in September and October. It is almost enough to make one tired of sake. (Nah, cancel that. That's just not possible…) There are also a few more events than usual announced in the newsletter this month, most significantly, The Sake Professional Course in Portland, Oregon on November 7 to 9 of this year. Note, thanks to the cooperation of the fine folks at SakeOne, this will be the first stateside version of the SPC that includes a sake brewery visit, and there is nothing like that to really cement in all the learning that takes place across the three days. Learn more below. Whether the weather has fallen to fall where ever you are, I hope you are well, and enjoy the newsletter. <John>


In Praise of "Big Hands" ... Sorta
A bit about the largest brewers

I have defended them before: the "Big Hands" of the industry. And it seems
time to do it again, albeit with a caveat or three.

O-te, (say "oh-teh") means "big hand," and it refers to the biggest companies in an industry, so in this case, the largest brewers, the national brands available everywhere across Japan. These are brands that are ubiquitous, and have made themselves available in every nook and cranny of the world, much to the dismay of tiny local brewers that can no longer sell well even in their own backyards. In terms of numbers, we are talking about 15 to 25 companies.
But the real truth is that they are more than a bit maligned. Some of the stories I have heard of folks in the overseas sake industry refusing to even try sake from those companies - or dissing the products without having tasted them - demonstrate that misplaced malice and have prompted me to write this at this time.

What's to defend? Plenty. Sure, they make cheap, bottom shelf sake that deserves criticism. But they also make some absolutely wonderful sake, and at great prices. The point is that they can make whatever they want. Note too, almost every other brewer makes cheap sake as well, so it is hardly fair to blast the Big Hands simply because they make more of it!

And their economies of scale ensure their pricing is very, very competitive. Be it a junmai, a honjozo, or a ginjo, you will find outstanding values in most large brewers' products at almost any level.

On top of that, they have contributed so much to the industry. These are the companies that designed methods and equipment that are now standard at all breweries, allowing even the smallest to make sake with just a few people. Several rice strains and yeast strains have come to the industry through big brewers, either directly or indirectly. And I have heard from more than one toji of a small brewery that when they get in a bind, they call their connections at the big breweries for "technical support." And they don't get put on hold!

It used to be that these were the sake that had the absolute highest reputation. Just 30 years ago even, at the year-end gift giving season, it was far more common to send sake of dependable and stable quality from one of the reputable large breweries than to take a chance on a local brewer that might be better off for cooking, at best. Or so thought many consumers.

Sure, it's not all rosey with 'em; not everything leaves us with warm-n-fuzzy feelings. They also keep prices too low amidst their own price wars, and those bottom-shelf products end up influencing prices up the line. Far, far too often this means that other brewers cannot charge enough to even make a profit. And yes, they have taken away local markets of futsuu-shu from the brewers in the 'hood. But again, I think they call that competition, and show me a company that doesn't engage in competition and I will show you a book with only one chapter: eleven.

There are other valid complaints: but they depend on your take on things, what ticks you off, and what you value. F'rinstance, one small brewer recently told me that what leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth is that the big brewers basically dryly assess markets and engineer products from an economic analysis. "If we make a junmai-shu for this price that tastes something along these lines, and that will sell at this chain of stores with a brown label and a gimmick of this type, we will make exactly this much money…"

Says my brewer buddy, "That ain't brewin'; that ain't no craft. That's just precision surgery." True, true; and if that is your figure of merit then you are right. But it still fills a market need - good products at a fair price - for which there are grateful consumers.

It also might be fair to say that due to the need to appeal to such a wide range of people, many of their products are conservative, with less idiosyncrasies and liveliness to talk about or love or hate. Then there is the practice of closing out competition by paying restaurants to dominate their menus. And a million other things like that. But hey, one man's dirty tricks are another man's clever marketing; who are we to judge!

So yeah, there are things about which we can complain, and yeah, the Big Hands are not likely angels. But to me what is unfair and inappropriate is to summarily dismiss from consideration a sake simply because it is from a Big Hand brewer, or to assume that if it has a Big Hand name on the label, it will be bad. Or even to think it less glamorous or somehow less enjoyable because of the scale of the producer. Regardless of business practices or market realities, that's not fair - and is in fact simply incorrect.

So drink the sake, not its label, and assess it on what you taste and smell. And if you choose to form assessments about the Big Hands, let them be informed and based upon your own figures of merit. Just remember there are two sides to the story, and to taste the stuff first. You might actually like it!


Sake Basics - The Sake Brewing Season
The brewing season runs from late fall until the next spring. Is that too 
basic even for a section called "Sake Basics"? Then let us look briefly at the reasons why.

  1. Sake is brewed using rice from the most recent harvest. Using old rice would lead to sake with an "old" flavor. And rice harvests finish up in the fall.
  2. The traditional labor force was made up of farmers (and fisherman), who finished up their work in the fall. After that, with little work, they could head into the brewery to work brewing sake in the winter. Rough life, for sure, but this is how sake was brewed for centuries.
  3. It gets cold just around that time, allowing brewing to proceed under controlled conditions that include lower bacteria counts and better fermentation temperature control.
  4. Long ago, when sake brewing culture was developing in the Edo Era (1604-1868), the Shogunate decreed that sake brewing could only legally take place between the fall and spring equinoxes. Why? To ensure that rice, the de facto currency of the era, would be in as stable a supply as possible. If brewers got it all before the normal folk did, it could lead to uprisings and economic imbalance, so "best wait to be sure we have enough before letting 'em brew with it," was the thinking.

It is interesting how nature, the agriculture society, and even the government all cooperated to make sake what it has become.


Did You Know?
Cleanliness is next to Sake-ness

In traditional sake breweries, brewing begins in the fall, and a great number will begin in very early October. But when the toji (master brewer) comes in from the boonies (or even from down the street, as is increasingly the case these days), there is a ton of cleanup to do. After all, the brewery has been sitting empty since May or so. Much dust, mold and other stuff will need to be removed, and just about everything in the building will be scrubbed well and hard. This alone can take a couple of weeks, followed by getting the kinks out of tools, equipment, and human bodies. This initial cleaning, known as "hatsu-arai," is getting underway just about now in countless sakagura around Japan.


Announcements and Events
Lots happening this month...

  • Sake Professional Course, Portland Oregon. November 7 - 9, 2010. On November 7, 8 and 9, I will hold the next Sake Professional Course at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront, in Portand, Oregon. This promises to be a special one, and the closest to date to the versions of SPC held in Japan. Why? Because we will have the chance to visit a sake brewery in action, thanks to the cheerful cooperation of SakeOne nearby, and also because the wonderful array of sake joints in Portland will allow us to enjoy an evening meal with good sake all three nights of the course. Participation is limited to 50, and you can reserve a spot with an email of that purport to me at It is expected to fill up quickly, so make your reservation now. All the details have been hammered out, and this promises to be the best SPC held in the US to date. Whether you work with sake, or are just obsessed with it (either will do!), you'll not want to miss this special running of the Sake Professional Course.  Please send all inquiries and expressions of interest in attending to
  • Akita Sake and Food Evening in Tokyo! On the evening of Saturday, October 23rd, from 4:30 to 7:30, Akita Prefecture will sponsor an evening of Akita sake, food and culture. I will present a lecture on the sake of Akita prefecture and what makes it special, after which we will all enjoy five special Akita sake along with local Akita delicacies such as iburigakko, inaniwa udon, and kiritanpo. To find out just what those are, you'll just have to show up and taste!  The event will take place at Akita Bisaikan (close to Shinagawa Station in Wing Takanawa), and attendance is limited to 35. The cost for the evening is \5000, and you can make a reservation with an email to, or learn register online at Note, this event is partly in promotion of the Sake Tours excursion to Akita prefecture early next year, about which you can learn more at
  • Joy of Sake, November 2, 2010. On the evening of Tuesday, November 2, 2010, the Joy of Sake, that venerable sake appraisal that has been running in Honolulu, San Francisco and New York, makes its Tokyo debut. The Joy of Sake event blindly judges upwards of 300 sake using a team comprised of experienced sake tasters from both the US and Japan. Following that, the entries are open to public tasting augmented with food from great restaurants. Also, the Joy of Sake is operating a tour to attend the Tokyo event, replete with several options including sake pub tours and sake brewery tours. To learn more about that, please visit: soon. Here is a bit more  from one of the directors, Chris Pearce, about the Joy of Sake events in New York as well as Tokyo:
  • New York
    82 Mercer, 82 Mercer Street
    6-9 PM
    $90 per person

    This year's Joy of Sake in New York is at 82 Mercer, right in the heart of Soho. This stylish venue has 14-ft. ceilings, brick walls and lots of space for meandering around the sake tables. The 329 labels available for tasting are all entries from the 2010 U.S. National Sake Appraisal, held in Honolulu last month. Results from the judging can be viewed on-line at Thirteen chefs from top New York restaurants will serve sake appetizers at the event. Some people attend for the food as much as for the sake. It all makes for three hours of sake enjoyment, and a once-a-year chance to experience many of the world's finest sakes
    in peak condition.

    TOC Building, Gotanda
    Y8,000 per peson

    This year is the 10th anniversary of The Joy of Sake, which was first held in Honolulu in 2001. (John, you were a judge that first year.) In observance of this milestone, the Joy of Sake is taking what The Japan Times recently called its "roving sake party" to Tokyo on November 2. In addition to the entries from the U.S. appraisal, there will be regional sake-tasting booths set up by different prefectures. Twelve restaurants are participating, with French, Italian and Chinese appetizers in addition to Japanese dishes. The Joy of Sake is a non-profit organization for the purpose ot sake education. In keeping with this mission, it has organized a sake tour from Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York to attend the Tokyo
    event. Information on the tour is on the website.

  • Warmed Sake Contest, September 22, 5 pm to 8 pm. On the evening of September 22, from 5pm to 8pm, the Sake Bunka Kenkyujo (Sake Culture Research Organization), together with Slow Food Japan, will hold the O-kan (Warm Sake) Contest at the Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Tsukiji. Warmed sake, once the norm, is enjoying a slight resurgence in Japan amongst true sake fans. While not all sake benefits from warming, there is nothing better than a sake that suits warming being enjoyed at its optimum range.
    You can enjoy 150 different warmed sake, and especially enjoy the 38 gold prize winners. It is not advisable to schedule anything after this event, except perhaps making it home in one piece.
    You can learn more about the event and get tickets here:


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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