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Sake World Newsletter


April 2011


There are many ways to make a contribution. Details Here.
How were Japan's sake breweries affected by the earthquake & tsunami? Details here from John Guantner.

Top Story

Good rice? Bad rice?

Greetings to all readers,

There is but one way to open this newsletter. Let us all offer our condolences, hope, and prayers to those that have suffered loss of life and livelihood in the recent earthquake-tsunami. With every passing day, the depth of the tragedy reveals itself, and all attempts at fathoming an answer to the "why" question are futile. Let us all push the envelope of our ability to be compassionate and do whatever we can. Please see the section in the newsletter below for details on how this hit the sake industry, and how you can help. Arguably, the most effective things you can do to help are decidedly not monetary. Warm regards, John


Bad rice? Good rice?
Only time will tell...
Due to the extremely hot and dry summer, the rice this year is notoriously bad. Especially, it seems, the Yamada Nishiki. In fact, two separate industry consultants wrote "the brewers are in for a rough year with the rice being this bad" on their New Year's greetings cards to me. You'd think they would have at least remembered to say "Happy New Year!" as well. But noooo.

Still, not everyone agrees. Takashi Aoshima, the maniacal brewer of Kikuyoi in Shizuoka, begs to differ. Some of the rice he uses is grown organically just down the road by his friend, Matsushita-san. "The Yamada Nishiki he grew this year is of wonderful quality," he asserts. "Better than an average year, even. And so is some of the top-grade rice from Hyogo Prefecture (where the best Yamada Nishiki grows). The rice grown with great care and attention to detail is really good this year. It's the industrial-grown stuff that is sub-par."

Surely his familiarity with the locally grown stuff affects his opinion. After all, he works in Matsushita-san's fields (and Matsushita-san in return works in the brewery in the winter). By spending lots of time with the rice as it grows, he is able to know how it will behave in the brewing process.  

"It is years like this one that engrave a clear line between great rice producers and mediocre ones," he concludes.

But in truth, I have heard no one else - no one - echo his sentiments about any of it being good. So it seems the brewers will have a harder time than usual making their top grades. However, remember that half the battle in sake brewing is inside the kura, i.e. the methods used in brewing. This is where a good brewer will shine: taking a mediocre-at-best rice crop and making a great sake. How would they do that? By making minute adjustments as they brew.
Just how bad the rice really is will become evident in May, at the National New Sake Appraisal. I have a feeling things will be fine, or at least not as bad as the ominous reports indicate. But only time will tell.


The current situation in Japan
 ...and how it is affecting the sake industry,
and what you can do to help.

By now we are all very well aware of what is happening here in Japan. With respect to the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Tohoku area of Japan, dozens and dozens of breweries have been affected. As far as I can tell, perhaps ten or so have been totally destroyed, and even amongst those there are several that have vowed to rebuild. We will in the end lose just a few. But the effects on the others that have been affected, everything from structural damage to a simple lack of gasoline or electricity are the remaining problems. Many of the problems are deceivingly potent. Even if all people and buildings are safe and intact, they can be hampered in dozens of other ways. Lots of power failures or blackouts can affect a brewer's ability to do simple things like pump water from a well, or chill water to a proper temperature, or cool down a tank, or heat up a koji-making room. A broken or toppled smokestack means they cannot steam rice without smoking out the whole neighborhood.

Gasoline being allotted to places that really need it may mean not being able to ship product. No sales, no revenue.

You can read a caveat-filled list of what I have compiled and subsequently updated here. You can help monetarily through one of the links here.

However, there are other - arguably more effective in the long run - ways of helping Japan. How? Simply stated: By guarding assiduously against the hype that is sure to come. There will no doubt be a whole host of folks avoiding sake and anything else from Japan out of misplaced fear, based on hyperbole-charged headlines.

Of course, by all means, act within you comfort zone. And with that as a premise, I do feel that one of the best ways to help Japan is to continue to enjoy things Japanese.

As you might imagine, not too many folks in the Tohoku region feel like drinking sake or whoopin' it up right now. So it might even be a good idea to lean toward Tohoku in your sake selections for a time. Miyagi and Iwate to start, Aomori, Akita and Yamagata to continue, and Fukushima as well. They can use all the economic stimulus they can get. It will help Japan, it will help your own economy, and it will help the sake world. Please; vigilantly guard against hype.

Finally, I have been moved and inspired by the resoluteness of some of the damaged breweries. Kosuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin has said in a letter on his blog that the people of Tohoku will not lose to this, and will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Several of the obliterated breweries - including Suisen, the kura building of which was engulfed and lost to the tsunami entirely, and witnessed on national television - have vowed to rebuild and start again. A favorite of mine, Hitakami from Miyagi, has resolutely decided to hold a previously scheduled tasting of this year's product in Tokyo, despite the state of his brewery and environs. Their resolve and resiliency is impressive, to say the least.

Let us do what we can - each in our own ways and capacities - to support them, the entire Tohoku region, and Japan as a whole. The sun will rise again over the land of the rising sun, and shine light on the phoenix that is Tohoku.


Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course 2011, New York City
From July 31 ~ August 2, 2011 

"No sake stone remains left unturned." The next stateside running of the Sake Professional Course will be held at Astor Center in New York City on Sunday, July 31 through Tuesday, August 2, 2011. The course will run basically 9 to 5 all three days, and will conclude with certification testing for the Certified Sake Specialist, recognized by the Sake Education Council. For more information go here. Feel free to ask me any questions about the course, or make a reservation with an email to info ATMARK

Sake Education Council Website is Live!
Please take a moment to check out the newly completed website for the Sake Education Council, the organization behind the Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional certifications. We plan to grow steadily, strongly and continually, and we will need the support of all those that love sake to do so. Follow us through the "usual suspects" of social media.


Did You Know: Sanyaku
The toji, as we all know, is the de facto brewmaster. I say "de facto" because in reality, the stuff brews itself - it is alive for sure. The brewers merely create an environment that allows it do that in a way that is pleasing to us all later. But the toji cannot do all this alone, nor can (s)he manage all the other brewers directly either. So at most places, at least traditionally, there are three people in important positions beneath the toji. One is the kashira, or "head," who is like a managing director, assigning tasks to all the other brewing staff and reporting to the toji. Next is the person in charge of making the koji, known as the "koji-ya" or "daishi." Third is the person in charge of making the yeast starter (moto, or shubo), known at most places as the "motomawari." These three together are sometimes referred to as "sanyaku," which means "the three roles."

So what? Well, nothing really... other than the term is borrowed from the sumo world, in which the three strongest ranks just below the top rank of yokozuna are also referred to as sanyaku. Just an interesting cultural factoid. And in truth, it is not as if this is a big distinction or part of daily life in a sake brewery. It is not as if one brewer calls another and begins the conversation with, "So, how are your sanyaku doing?" Nah. Not at all. In fact, one rarely hears it anymore. But in researching last month's article on toji, I came across stats that mentioned what percentage of the people involved in the organizations (referred to in that article) were sanyaku, and found it curious that the term was still in use in the appropriate circles.

So, the next someone asks you, "Did You Know?" you can answer, "Why, yes, I did know."


Sake Basics
Sake is brewed with what is called short-grain rice, or "Japonica," rather than long-grain rice, which is also known as "glutinous" rice (although it is gluten-free!). The differences are fairly self evident: the grains of long-grain rice are longer than those of short-grain rice. On top of that, though, glutinous rice, also known as uruchimai in Japanese, absorbs water more easily and ends up softer and mushier. Both are grown in Japan, but short grain rice is used for meals and sake, whereas long-grain rice is used for making pounded rice known as mochi.


For Your iPhone & iPod: The Sake Dictionary App.
Newly improved, now with audio, and drastically reduced in price to $0.99!
Get it here:

There you are, perusing a menu, or standing in front of a shelf of great sake, or perhaps reading a sake newsletter… and up pops one of those hairy, pesky sake terms in Japanese. You know you have heard it many times, but dammit, you just cannot remember what it means now…

No problem! Just whip out your iPhone or iPod and fire up your trusty old version of The Sake Dictionary. In a matter of seconds, you'll be amongst the cognoscenti once again. But… if only you could pronounce it properly. Now that would really rock!

Done! Just tap on the term and you will hear a clear example of how to pronounce the term in Japanese. Repeat it a couple of times and the term is yours for eternity, to toss about and impress your mates.

What's more, it's less! Less than what it cost before, much less. Like less than one-seventh less. For a limited time only, the audio-enhanced version of The Sake Dictionary iPhone app is available for a mere $0.99.

The Sake Dictionary is 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. And now, with the new audio component, you can listen and learn just how to pronounce those terms properly.

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 - or how to pronounce them - again.

Get it here:

(Note if you have already purchased it, this upgrade to the audio version is free. Just go to iTunes and get it!)      


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 1999-2011

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