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Sake World Newsletter


July 2011



What's in a Name?

Early Summer Greetings to all readers. Tsuyu - the rainy season in Japan - is reluctantly releasing its grip and retreating, leaving heat and humidity in its wake. Parts of the country are still caught in its throes, others are all but in the clear. It promises to be another hot summer, as it does in many places around the world. This email is going out on Tanabata, the seventh day of the seventh month, about which you can learn plenty on the Internet. One of the two biggest Tanabata festivals in Japan is held in Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture in the disaster-hit Tohoku region. May they enjoy it as much as is reasonably possible. This month we look at the myriad of names a sake can have, and how you can make sense of them. And we look at a current snapshot of the industry in the Tohoku region; where they stand and where they are headed. That and a few short announcements and ditties should make this newsletter appropriately light reading for a warm summer evening with a glass of chilled sake. Also notice that the Sake Notebook and Sake Production Slideshow are on sale for the summer and to celebrate the snazzy redesign! Enjoy the read, and keep comfortable, John.

What's in a Name ?
Brand names, company names and owner names of sakagura
From time to time, there may be some confusion surrounding the naming of sake. In particular, the relationship between the brand name, the name of the company that produces it, and the name of the family that owns it all, may seem to lack consistency. This should hardly be surprising, considering the vagueness and abundance of exceptions to any rule that characterize the sake world - if not Japan. Let's clear it up here, as best we can.

The brand name of a sake, or "meigara" in Japanese, sometimes is the same as the company name. For example, Rihaku Shuzo makes the meigara "Rihaku," and Tentaka Shuzo makes the brand name "Tentaka.2 (Shuzo means sake maker.) Makes sense, right?

Ah, but this is far from always the case. Often times, the name of the brewing company is the name of the family that owns it, and this differs from the brand name. The sake "Masumi" is brewed by the company Miyasaka Jozo, owned by the Miyasaka family. "Mukune" is brewed by Daimon Shuzo, owned by the Daimon family. "Sato no Homare" is brewed by Sudo Honke, owned by the Sudo family ("Honke" means "original house," and implies long-ass lineage.)

Yet, in other examples, the product is called one thing, the company is called something completely different, and the owner's name has nothing to do with either. For example, Dewatsuru is owned by the Ito family, but the company name is Akita Seishu. Mantensei is brewed by a company called Suwa Shuzo which is owned by the Nanjo family.

What is up with all of this? What gives? And why is there no consistency? A historical perspective will help.

Once upon a time, all sakagura (sake breweries) were family-run 
operations. And, in fact, even today, all but perhaps 50 of the 1300-odd breweries still are. And if you look far enough into sake history, meigara did not even exist. The local brewer made sake for the village. It did not need a name; the aristocratic family down the street made it.

And for the family, commerce was the point. They might be involved in several things - selling rice, making kimono, construction, and... oh, sake brewing. So the name of the family business was the brand, especially considering how local things were back then. (A lot of those families gave up all the other businesses and for one reason or another came to focus on sake over time.)

Even today the significance of the family business is strong here, and most sake breweries go back several - if not dozens - of generations. (In fact, the weight of that responsibility often outweighs modern business principles, part of the reason the industry is hurting, but that is a rant for another day...)

On top of that there has been a lot of M&A activity over the centuries. Breweries have combined for survival. Ichi no Kura, for example, was formed by four families' companies coming together, and that brand name itself means "One Kura." In other situations, breweries have been bought out by other breweries that continued to produce under the original brand name. And this is why many breweries have more than one brand name.

But it makes more business sense to have folks feel the connection between your company name and your product's brand name. And folks outside Japan were not the only ones confused, either. So many brewers have changed their name to match their sake meigara. As one example, until just a couple of years ago, Nanbu Bijin was brewed by Kuji Shuzo, owned by the Kuji family. They changed the company name to Nanbu Bijin Shuzo for that reason, but only recently.

So, taking a step back, this is why we have a very unique, vague and sometimes confusing situation between the names of the sake, the company and the owner. And it is hardly a stretch to say that it goes back to the significance of the family business in Japan and the sake industry.

And, just to make things interesting, consider too that many if not most brewers attach product names, "sub-brands," to a lot of their products. Say they have two different junmai ginjo, each made with a different rice, or something else significant being different. They often will give one a sub-brand name to help consumers identify with it more easily.
One interesting if admittedly extreme example of all of this is a brewery in Shizuoka called Suruga Shuzoba. (Suruga is the pre-Meiji name for that part of Shizuoka Prefecture.) The owner, Mr. Hagiwara, was an engineering director at Hitachi until a few years ago when he decided to back into sake brewing. I say "back" because his father had owned one, brewing a sake called Haginishiki, but closed it up in the 1930s.

His first step was to borrow the facilities of a brewer making a sake called Sogatsuru that had stopped brewing several years previous. He began brewing Sogatsuru again, as well as his family's old brand, Haginishiki, with the help of a journeyman toji that brewed at a handful of small-production kura in Shizuoka. (Not sure how he managed that feat.)

When the former brewers of Sogatsuru decided to sell the land, he was SOL, but found another brewery, making a sake called Tadamasa, that was going under and agreed to sell him their brewing license - and sell him their brewing equipment - but not the land.

Then just after that, the supermarket that stood where his father's old brewery once stood went belly up as well (not a good business environment in them parts, obviously) so he bought up the space. Now he had space, equipment, and a license. So what does he call his sake?

Well, the locals still liked and drank Sogatsuru, as well as two other brands made by the old Sogatsuru brewery, Kazutoyo and Kakegawajo. He also decided to continue brewing Tadamasa (from whence he got his license) for the same reasons: there were still folks that wanted to drink it. And of course he wanted to revive the original family meigara too, Haginishiki. Plus, he wanted to start his own personal premium brand, calling it Tenkoh. (Y'all gettin' all this?) So that leaves him with six different brand names in one tiny brewery. Very tiny - as in 8000 cases or so. Extreme? Yes. But gutsy too.

In the end, though, we need not worry about all this. Fortunately, all we need concern ourselves with are the brand name, the grade, perhaps the sub-brand name - and whether or not we like the sake in front of is. That right there is plenty.


Latest Tohoku Information
March 11 Damage Assessment

A recent semi-final assessment of the damages incurred to the sake brewing industry as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami was as below.

In the Tohoku and Kanto (the region encompassing Tokyo and the prefectures just north) regions, over 270 kura (breweries) sustained some damages. Of those, 15 had the kura or office or both completely destroyed. Nine people lost their lives, all in Iwate. On top of that the effect from a drop in exports of not just sake but shochu and awamori as well have been significant. As such, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers' Association has asked the government for aid that includes reduced sake taxes and special financing to help the affected brewers rebuild and re-equip.

It is inspiring to note that in spite of the hardships behind and ahead, not one single brewer has decided to throw in the towel. Suisen of Iwate, hit by the tsunami on national tv, has found an old brewery that had ceased production several years ago and plans to start again almost immediately. The producer of Atagonomatsu and Hakurakusei, Niizawa Jouzouten, sits far inland but was heavily damaged from the earthquake, are following a similar plan and doing it with international assistance as well. See this site for more details on that. Let us hope their inspiring actions lead to a successful recovery.


Did You Know? The Sake and Judo Connection
We all know what sake is, and we all know what judo is. But did you know that they are inextricably, historically and culturally connected? And by much more than the fact that - if you are not careful - either can get you flat on your back. How might that be? Because the founder of judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, was from the family that has run the company brewing Hakutsuru sake since 1859. Hakutsuru is in the Nada area of Hyogo Prefecture, in Kobe, the largest brewing region in Japan. And Hakutsuru is the largest (and arguably the most stable) amongst them, i.e. the largest sake brewer in Japan.

Back in the late 1800s, Dr. Jigoro Kano was born into the family as the third son. The family business always goes to the first son, so Jigoro's life was more focused on education. Also, his father married into the Kano family and as such was to some degree an outsider. Presumably because his father-in-law had no sons, and presumably because he married the oldest daughter, normally he would have inherited and run the company until his son could take over. However, in this case Jigoro's father chose not to do so, and while records are not that clear, it is likely the business passed from Jigoro's father in-law directly to his first son, i.e. Jigoro's older brother.
And, in truth, I have read conflicting reports on the facts above. But this seems the most credible, having come from a taxi driver that took me to Hakutsuru from local Mikage station in Kobe. I mean, taxi drivers always have the most credible information right? At least in Nada they do.

While there is much on the web about Dr. Jigoro Kano and his outstanding work in creating the credible way of life that judo has become, suffice it to say here that he extracted and refined judo from ju-jutsu, officially creating the by-laws of the Kodokan in 1884. Chances are high they celebrated with some sake after that, most likely Hakutsuru. So, the next someone asks you, "Did You Know?" you can answer, "Why, yes, I did know."


Sake Basics
Sake Rice vs Regular Rice

Sake rice differs from regular rice in several ways. One is size: the grains of sake rice are larger, and the stalks are taller. Another is content: sake rice has more starch and less fat and protein than regular rice (the higher fat and protein makes regular rice, or "table rice" as I like to call it, taste better). A third is price: sake rice can be two to three times more expensive. And a fourth is physical construction: in sake rice the starches are physically located in the center of the grains with fat and protein closer to the surface. This makes it easier to mill away the outer part, i.e. the fat and protein we do not want, and leave the starch behind. Note, all rice is constructed this way to degee, but sake rice is just much more so. Also, bear in mind that 75 - 80 percent of all sake is made using regular rice; only premium sake is made with proper sake rice.


Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course 2011, New York City
From July 31 ~ August 2, 2011 
All Seats Have Been Filled
"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.

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.  


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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