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Sake World Newsletter

#128

Oct. 2010


INSIDE THIS ISSUE

Top Story

Toji Today - The State of the Artists


Happy Sake Day a little bit late. Yep, October 1 of each year is Nihonshu no Hi, or Sake Day, so named because the old character for "toh" or 10 (as in the tenth month) is almost identical to the character for sake. And there were at least four - count 'em - Sake Day celebrations in the US. New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Hawaii all had sake shop proprietors having celebrations on that most special of days. A great harbinger of the future for sake around the world!

While perhaps most readers are not aware of it, my other great passion in Japan is sumo - or at least watching it. (I leave the actual doing of it to those more qualified - and much larger - than myself!) While there is a lot of upheaval in the sumo world these days (not unlike the sake world, I daresay), the top guy is breaking records for consecutive wins, and heading toward the longest streak ever. The just-ended autumn tournament has always been my favorite, and I tend to rearrange life and work around watching it for the 15-day period across which it runs. Upheaval and mediocrity in most of the ranks notwithstanding, I finally feel like the fall has fully settled in.

Indeed, it has. Most breweries are seeing the preparations for the seasons beginning. Some will have started already, others are still getting the kinks out. Let us hope and pray that all have a safe and productive brewing season. Finally, there are a good dollop of sake-related events happening soon, so check out the events section for more information on those. Enjoy the newsletter. <John>

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Toji Today
The State of the Artists

We're all in this for the same reason: 'cuz we like to drink sake. But surely we find some of the peripheral stuff - culture and history - interesting as well. I was just down in Shiga Prefecture, north of Kyoto, at the Shichihon Yari ("Seven Spearsmen") brewery chatting with the de facto commander-in-chief, Tomita-san. I was asked to go down with a production company that is making a video on sake for the overseas market, starting in nearby Asia. After filming ended, as the skeleton crew and I sat sipping some sake, the cameraman spoke up.

"You know," he began, "when you and he were going off on those deep tangents about which rice types taste how, and which dissolve better during fermentation, and soil quality and all that, I couldn't really follow it well. But the truth is, I wanted to be able to do so. I want to know that stuff! I mean, I like sake, but I want to know more of the geeky stuff!" The others readily agreed. Indeed, sake is more than just a drink!

One such peripheral cultural aspect is the world of the toji, or master brewers. I have written about toji and their guilds several times before (see the "further reading" links at the end of this article), but the recent state of the industry - and the way it keeps changing - indicates that it is worthwhile and interesting to address it again.

As a quick review, there is one toji (master brewer) per kura (brewery). He (or she, as of very recently) is in charge of, first and foremost, the day to day decisions in brewing the sake. What sake is brewed, in what order, and in what way. Milling, yeast, method and timing at every single step are some of the decisions left in the toji's able hands.

Long ago, he did more than that. He hired and fired as well. Paperwork was another responsibility: telling the government what will be brewed this year, then reporting that when it is done. Status was high; he was revered in his hometown enough that others would kowtow to him a bit to stay in his favor when brewing season came 'round.

But all that has been changing, sometimes slowly sometimes less so, for decades. There are many reasons for this. One is that sake consumption is on the decline, and the number of breweries drops every year. There is less of a demand for sake, and therefore master brewers. Another is that the work is hard: basically 14 hours a day for six months straight - traditionally living in the brewery, away from your family.

Yet another reason is that today, anyone can do it. Well, OK, that's a crock. But in these modern times there are textbooks and manuals and reams of public data and actual schools for teaching sake brewing. Education and training are widely available, unlike long ago. While nothing can replace the intuition that comes from experience, it sure is not like it was in centuries past, when most methods and processes were closely guarded secrets amongst the toji guilds. The information available - and the ability to share it quickly - means that it is much easier for someone to learn to brew well provided they have access to enough support.

Then there are economic realities, of which there are many. Brewing companies can no longer let their livelihood sit in the hands of a seasonal employee. "If he goes, we are done for!" does not bode well for sustained and stable growth in any industry! And the economics of modern times means that brewing families are more and more trying to maximize effectiveness and efficiency, which means using local, year-round employees with good sake-related educations, if not family members themselves.

Long ago, the toji brewed, and the owner sold. The owner had no business being in the brewing part of the kura building. His presence would make the toji and other brewers nervous, causing them to think, "What's he doing in here? He's the owner; we're the ones dong the brewing!" Yeah, well, not anymore.

And it is not as if sake is losing a step because of these changes. Far from it! Very often, in fact, the younger home-grown brewers have a better education and often times better skills. One older toji at a larger kura, where he has been for decades upon decades, humbly admitted to me that he could not taste sake as well as the owner's son.

"Kind of embarrassing when you're in charge of brewing and the head of sales can out-taste you! He makes me feel as if I couldn't taste my way out of a wet origami crane! And the technical terms these young whippersnappers use! I don't know what they are saying half the time, with these long names for bad micro-organisms and all. Back in my day, we just called 'em the evil humours." (Admittedly, it was the Japanese equivalent of that concept!)

Statistically, about one-third of the actively brewing kura in the country no longer have toji from the traditional guilds, either using local hires or family members - often El Presidente himself. And this number is sure to increase as well. I was recently told by one toji that an associate of his (i.e. a toji at another place nearby) had the kura close down on him. So he went in search of another place to brew. And this toji with 20 years of experience could not even find a job in the industry! That deadly combination of decreased production, less places at which to work, and increasing do-it-yourselfers made it difficult to find a job as a master sake brewer. (He eventually did, I heard.)

Surely, these changes will continue. I do not mean to imply that they are good, but perhaps they are unavoidable. The old guilds ensured some prosperity for the local folks, but market and societal changes made that moot. They used to guard secrets, but science stopped that. So much has changed in both Japanese society and the world at large that it is probably inevitable. And who knows: they may survive in some form and have new life breathed into them.

So as we enjoy sake for what it is, what we can all do is remember and respect the cultural periphery of the toji, and their wondrous skills and history.

Further reading:
All About Toji
The Tail of the Toji
Toji Trials and Tribulations

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Sake Basics - Sake Temperatures
At what temperature should you enjoy your sake? If you are new to sake  
you may not get it - why so much information surrounding sake pictures is hot, yet the good stuff is enjoyed cold - or so it seems. What gives? Admittedly over the centuries most sake was consumed warm. Why? Decidedly not to hid the flaws, as some would say. But rather because consuming warmed food and drink was deemed better for one's health, a concept imported from China.

But along comes  ginjo-shu and its fruity, flowery, delicate aromas and flavors. Heat that and you bludgeon all that hard work and craftsmanship out of existence. And this leads to a rule of thumb: enjoy your premium sake, such as ginjo-shu, slightly chilled. Not just out of the 'fridge, but rather closer to white wine temperature.

If that is true, why do we see so much hot sake around? Because fruity, flowery, refined sake like ginjo has only been around about 40 years. Also, do bear in mind that cold sake is not new at all - it has been around for centuries as one way to enjoy sake. Perhaps not the most common way, but nevertheless folks did enjoy chilled sake from time to time in days of olde (when samurai were bold...).

  • Note 1: There are exceptions! There are premium sake, even ginjo, even some daiginjo f'gad's sake, that are enjoyable warmed. Why? What makes them so? Nothing more than the flavor and aromatic profiles. Such sake have earthier, perhaps more acidic, and sometimes sweeter flavor profiles that meld into something even more enjoyable when warmed. How do you know if a sake will work when warmed? Sometimes it is on the label as a producer's recommendation. Other times experience and preference will let you know.
     
  • Note 2: Any given sake will taste differently at slightly chilled, room and higher temperatures. By all means, explore and experiment!

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Did You Know?
Start with the rougher stuff.

The brewing season is about to begin - and in fact has begun at many places. At all kura, the pattern is the same: start with the rougher stuff for the first few batches, then make the best stuff in the middle of the season, then finish off with more lower grade sake. Why? Many reasons. Each year is different, and toji and brewers need to feel out this year's rice. How does it dissolve? How fast does it absorb water? How is the starch or fat or protein or potassium content? By starting with less premium sake they can get a feel on how this year's rice is behaving. They can also get a feel for this year's climate, this year's brewing staff and the condition of the stuff in the brewery. Once all this is ascertained they can move into the premium sake with a bit more confidence. And, of course, there is ambient temperature. It is warmer in the early fall and early spring, and much colder in the dead of winter. Ginjo and other premium sake needs colder fermentation temperatures, which brewers do not have until mid-winter. As the saying amongst brewers goes, "Every year, it's back to first grade." At least for the first few batches it is. Then most of them jump straight to university.  

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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 sakecoursestateside@sake-world.com. 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 sakecoursestateside@sake-world.com.
     
  • Sake and Pottery Seminar, October 22
    On the evening of Friday, October 22, Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin will hold the first sake and pottery seminar in too long a time, as the first in our revival of the long-running series. The seminar will be held at Sake Bistro W in Kasumigaseki (a first for that venue!) from 7pm to 9pm, and the cost of the evening is 7000 yen for two lectures, as much as you like of six sake, and dinner as well. Robert Yellin will lecture on "Shuki (sake vessels) and the Seasons." I will be giving a presentation on "The State of The Sake Industry: It ain't pretty, and here's why it ain't." While I may polish my English for the evening's talk, it will be the first time I present this somewhat controversial information. Those interested can make a reservation by sending me an email.
     
  • Kobe Sake Event: Nihonshu Lovers Kobe
    On October 31, from 1:00 pm until 6:00 pm, at Kobe Sanpo Hall, a  
    half-dozen sake-related restaurants and retailers are combining to put together a 500-person event called Nihonshu Lovers Kobe. A ticket to get at the 60+ sake from the likes of the list below is a mere 3000 yen, and food tickets for are available for 250 yen. The kura in attendance will be: Akishika, Ishizuchi, Raiyaku, Kenbishi, Kokuryu, Tengumai, Meito Masamune, Tenju, Rumiko no Sake, Yaegaki, Dassai, Senkai, Kame Izumi, Fukuju, Banshu Ikkon, Chikusen, Shinomine, Miyako Bijin, Oze no Yukidoke. With the exception of Tenju and that last one, none of them are anywhere near Eastern Japan, all are Western Japan. Expect some seriously weighty sake!

    Learn more here: http://sakebouzu.com
    For tickets, contact Mr. or Ms. Harabe at Nihonshu Bar Tachikiya at 078-392-8511. That stellar list above makes this highly recommended.
     
  • Nihon Ginjo-shu Kyoukai
    The Nihon Ginjo-shu Kyoukai, that wonderful group holding twice-yearly big sake tastings, will have their fall shindig on October 19. The afternoon session runs 3:00 to 5:00, and the more lively evening session runs from 6:00 to 8:00. The event costs 4000 yen for upwards of 250 sake, and the evening session you get a little dish of nibbles too and the cost is 5000 yen and will be held at the Hotel Metropolitan Edmond in Iidabashi. You can just show up for this one, or save 500 yen by paying in advance. Learn more here: www.ginjyoshu.jp/event/10oct_tko/index.php
     
  • 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 http://saketours.com.
     
  • 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: www.joyofsake.com/tour2010/ 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 joyofsake.com. 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.

    Tokyo
    TOC Building, Gotanda
    6-9PM
    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 joyofsake.com 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:
    sakebunka.co.jp/event/orgEvent/atsukan10/index.html

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SAKE EDUCATION CENTRAL
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„Ä?erms, and start really enjoying your sake. Go here to get your copy now.

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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 http://www.sake-world.com/html/jfsl.html now to order your copy, and feel one step closer to the beverage you love ‚Ä?guaranteed.

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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.

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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 www.sake-world.com 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.

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Odds-n-Ends
More information on the following topics can be found at
http://www.sake-world.com/html/nl_related.html

  • 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: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
 
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
www.sake-world.com


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