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Newsletter Archive 2011

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Sake World Newsletter


May 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

Year to year differences in rice

GREETINGS. It is May. While things are still far from stable here in Japan, we are moving toward recovery. This is thanks in LARGE part to the support of everyone around the world. The damage to the sake industry, and the effects it will have, have become clear. Yet very much is still unclear. Since things are changing so fast, it seems best to limit my observations and commentary on the aftermath of March 11 for a bit longer, and as such will report and observe more about that situation next month.

Later this month will be the 99th running of the National New Sake Appraisal. It will be an austere one this year, as many breweries from the Tohoku region will not be able to participate. And to boot, it was a very hot summer, leaving us with rice with which it is hard to brew. But it will be interesting to see the results.

Note the official announcement of  the Sake Professional Course NYC this summer, which is already way ahead of schedule in terms of filling up. If interested, please contact me soon. And be sure to check out the new, improved, audio-enhanced iPhone app The Sake Dictionary, and its new low price. Enjoy the newsletter! Warm regards, John


Smooth 'em over, or let 'em be
Year to year differences in rice

One of the biggest and most significant differences between sake and wine is the variance from year to year of what's in the bottle. At one end of that spectrum, wine celebrates and make the most of the differences from year to year. Better vintages taste better, sell for more, and generate anticipation excitement in the industry.
Sake, on the other hand, seems closer to the way champagne houses work to create a house style and maintain that. So, yes, there are differences in the quality of rice harvests from year to year. But with so much manhandling of the raw materials once they get to the kura (brewery), brewers can and do tweak and adjust to create a sake that for the most part conforms to a style - a particular flavor and aromatic profile that can include weight, viscosity, nuances, acidity and more - and they strive to maintain that. Why? So that whenever a consumer goes to buy a particular junnai ginjo (for example) they get what they expect, what they know and love. There is little risk involved.

Do they achieve this? Yes, for the most part. In general, the larger and more stable the brewer, the more such resolute consistency is expressed in their sake. Dependable is the key word, here. The smaller the brewer, the more you will see changes from year to year, an unavoidable result of limitation of scale. But hey, many folks find this the more interesting and romantic of the two extremes. And note: they are extremes. There is plenty of gray in between them. There are many, many medium-sized brewers that have excellent stability as well, if not as predictable as the largest operations.

So, firstly, remember that sake brewers try to maintain consistency from year to year for a given product. Sure, they might add new products, or even deliberately change them. But without a warning, or without an obvious reason, one would not expect a huge change.

Teetering on edge of a tangent for a moment, if that is the case, why taste 'em again? Why go back (at tastings or professional events) and taste sake you have already experienced? I mean, it should be the same right? So... why go back again? Because it's more a matter of looking at how better or worse (heaven forbid) a given sake is within that framework of what you expect. Sure, it should be close, yes. But like all things sake (or Japanese, for that matter) it is those minute differences from year to year - nay, verily from bottle to bottle - that make all the difference. Don't get me started…

There are countless other reasons to retaste. To polish and improve tasting skills, to confirm the nature of a given product and embed it in your psyche, to create that internal database of sake profiles, to get better at discerning that there indeed are minute or subtle differences from year to year. (Or, you could get a life. I myself no longer have that option; but I digress.

At tastings it seems like I am always going around assessing a sake on what I think it should taste like based on what I know about the product and the kura behind it. And it is rare to come across a brewer who will warn you before tasting that two bottles from two consecutive years are completely and totally different sake, despite being the same labeled product.

And yet, this is what I came across at a recent tasting of up-and-coming brewers. The brewer of Hakuin Masamune from Shizuoka, Takashima Shuzo, had a yamahai junmai from two consecutive seasons. Most brewers would blend the remains of one year with the first tanks of the next to ensure a smooth transition in the eyes and palates of consumers. But not this guy. Nah. He chose to exacerbate the difference."

"Zenzen chigau," he began. "They are totally different. Totally!" Intrigued, I asked why before I tasted.

"The rice, man, the rice. If you recall, this past growing season was extremely hot and dry. So the rice was hard, dissolved only grudgingly, and wouldn't 'give it up' for us. So it's very dry and simple. Great for that style! "

"But the year before was much cooler, and the rice dissolved and broke down quite readily for us, giving us tons of flavor and sweetness." From experience, brewers can predict how the weather will affect the rice, of course. While most choose to try to smooth those over, here, Takashima-san's place went with the flow and made the most of what nature gave them. "Check it out!" he encouraged. And so I did...

Of course, he was right. The first year was very tight, little breadth, and dry. But those three aspects worked well together and created a balanced sake. The other one was rich, heavy, sweet and gamy as a good yamahai should be. Yet still, all this precariously balanced around a point of origin deep within the chaos. It was a wild ride but delicious.

So, yes: sake should be consistent from year to year. It is supposed to be. Not perfectly so, but essentially so. And at the same time remember there are those that do not fit the mold, or just wing it and go with the flow and make the most of what the rice is and can do from year to year. Yet, ironically, it is those differences, those non-conforming touches that add depth to the appeal and allure of sake. Learn to discern them and sake becomes exponentially more interesting.

Both have a place in the sake world, so please enjoy the two extremes, and all that lies in-between.


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: Kudari-zake
Kudari-zake is a term we do not hear any longer, except perhaps in historical references. It serves to remind us just where the breadbasket - er- rice bowl - of sake production has historically been, and remains today.

In short, kudarizake refers to sake brewed in the western part of Japan, specifically, Kyoto and Hyogo, that was sent up by sea or land to Edo. Those brewing regions included Fushimi in Kyoto, Nada straddling the cities of Kobe and Nishinomiya, and regions a bit west of that too known as Harima. And Edo, of course, was the old name for what is Tokyo today.

From about 1600 until 1868, the Shogun in Edo had all the heavyweights of the outlying regions spend every other three year period in Edo, under his watchful eye, minimizing (but not eliminating!) scheming in the countryside. That meant lots of thirsty samurai in town. A lot. And the best sake at that time, by far, was brewed in the aforementioned western regions. Sake shipped up from that area was known as kudarizake. Literally, it means"sake sent down."

To get to Edo, it had to go north east. So, why was sake that was going up known as sake sent down? Because the Emperor at that time lived in Kyoto, out west. As such, the area was known as "kamigata," or "the hight place." Naturally, everything sent from there could at least potentially be referred to as having been "sent down" from the high place near the Emperor.

Yes, lots of fine sake was brewed near Edo. But the sake sent down from the high place had the best reputation. And that helped the region grow to be the largest sake-producing region in Japan, by far.

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


Sake Basics - Fruity Aromas From Rice?
When approaching one's first ginjo or daiginjo, it is not uncommon for someone to do an olfactory double-take. "What the… Banana? Melon? Apple? Strawberry even! How does this…" they exclaim, incredulously poking a finger toward the top of a glass of sake," come from rice? Huh?"

The answer is yeast. Sake yeast takes the sugars and other compounds that come from the rice and ferments them to reveal a whole host of aromatic compounds like esters and more that give us that alluring array of fruit and more. No, they do not add anything. No, it has nothing do with fruit nearby the rice fields or kura. No, it is not modern engineering. It is more like ancient craftsmanship.

A line to remember: more than anything else, yeast contributes to aromas, and more than anything else, rice leads to flavor.


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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