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Sake World Newsletter


Oct. 2011



Adding Alcohol vs. Junmai Types

As anyone who reads anything remotely related to sake surely knows by now, October 1 is Sake Day. Nihonshu no Hi. Most if not all sake-related establishments and people outside of Japan celebrate the day with events and such of varying scales. Whooda thunk it ten years ago! Why October 1? Because in the old Asian calendar, the tenth month (or year) in a cycle is marked with a character that is very, very similar to the character for sake. Indeed, the hot, hot summer is finally starting to cool, and just about now is when brewers begin to amble toward the kura, wherein which they will labor for the next six months to bring us our beloved, labor-intensively-produced sake. Enjoy the newsletter as well as the autumnal weather, John  

Adding Alcohol vs. Junmai Types, Revisited
Aru-ten vs. "That Ain't Me."

I love Isojiman, that esteemed brew from Shizuoka. But then again, who doesn't? It deserves its sterling reputation. Sure, I have from time to time felt that perhaps they have veered perhaps a bit too much toward modern ostentatious tendencies in some of their products, but hey, who am I to judge what direction they go in? In the end, I love to settle down with a glass or a bottle of Isojiman, kick back, and watch it disappear.

But here is a secret: while at tastings, I will dutifully work through their whole lineup (assuming I have the patience to fight the crowd), daiginjo on down, when I sit down to drink their sake, I almost never drink anything but their tokubetsu honjozo.

To me, that is the quintessential Isojiman. Higher grades of their sake are good, if not great, to be sure. But at those more expensive manifestations, the real essence of Isojiman takes a back seat to typical ostentatious (dai)ginjo styles. Not that there is anything wrong with that...

But the point here is that I really, really enjoy that (tokubetsu) honjozo. Yes, honjozo, i.e. yes, added alcohol, not junmai, not pure, not rice-only. Do not pass "Go," do not collect 200 yen.

And this brings us back to the whole added-alcohol (nicknamed aru-ten within the industry, short for arukoru tenka) versus junmai discussion. While this is certainly a bigger deal in Japan than in other countries, in time sake fans everywhere will develop opinions about it for sure.
I am not, and never have been, against non-junmai types, i.e. adding a bit of alcohol to completed sake for the good technical benefits it can have. And I still feel that those that are against it do not truly understand the benefits, or choose to stay in denial over them. And as I have described before, so much aru-ten sake tastes so damn good precisely because of that added alcohol and the skill of the brewer in having it bring out flavors and aromas as it does. You can read more about these various stances here. And a bit more about junmai - only producers here.

So no, I am not anti aru-ten, and I am not a junmai purist. However, that does not mean I do not understand those that are.

Enter Shinanotsuru, the "Crane of the Shinano Region." It is one of these tiny Nagano brewers I am really impressed with, bordering perhaps on infatuation. Like many other brewers in the countrysides of Japan, they are small, but well-established, doing just fine in the pristine boonies, producing high quality, well-marketed, dependable sake that is thoroughly infused with their philosophies. Most of their sake is consumed locally, and little of it gets to the big markets.

A month or so ago I went to Nagano to speak to the Wakabakai, the "Young Leaf Club," a group of next-generation young brewers within the 80-strong Nagano enclave. During a break between my presentation and the sake bash that followed, I found myself outside catching a breath of clean mountain air with Kitahara-san, the owner-inherit and toji of Shinanotsuru, a brewery that has for the last ten years or so been making nothing but junmai styles. Of the several dozen kura in the country doing that, they were one of the first.

Theirs is a small, family run operation in which the father runs da bidness and the son, with whom I was speaking, brews da goods. In time, he will take over from his father and someone will replace him.

"It took me a long, long time to convince my father to let me make the switch to all junmai," he griped. Why did you want to make the change, I inquired? What drove you to leave both the economic benefits of added-alcohol cheap sake, and the flavor-aroma-stability benefits of added-alcohol premium sake behind?

He took a swig of the bottled tea he held loosely in his hand and thought deeply for a moment. "I dunno," he began. "I mean, I select the rice, I wash it and steam it, I monitor it, I grow koji mold on it, I put it all together and nurture the stuff to make the best sake I can. All of it local stuff and all of it my creation. And then you want me to take this pure distilled alcohol, made from sugar cane and imported from Brazil, and add it to what I have created? Ore ja nai. That ain't me," he said, shaking his head slowly. "That just ain't me."

Upon hearing this, it is impossible not to agree with him. My beloved tokubetsu honjozo notwithstanding, I completely see where he is coming from. "That just ain't me." That there says it all. Interestingly, Kitahara-san himself is not even against the practice! "Nah - I'm cool with it - in other brewers' sake!" It just ain't him to add it to his stuff.

And I get that. Sure. And I have heard other brewers express similar positions. Most are not against adding alcohol, but it just ain't them for one reason or another. So in the end, of course, I understand those stances, positions, and appreciations of purity. But heck, I still like my honjozo. I still like my Isojiman. I still like my aru-ten. And in the end, it is all about enjoyment, at least for my hedonistic bad self.

And I am comfortable with the paradoxical duality of that and appreciating the "that ain't me" philosophy as well. I encourage you to do the same. While most sake exported out of Japan is one of the junmai types, (junmai-shu, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo) more and more non-junmai is making it to other countries as well (the US no longer separates the two types and now taxes them the same). Whatever standard you choose to use, enjoy your sake for what it is.

Should you be interested, and if you can read Japanese, Kitahara-san's blog is here    


Sake Rice: Not Out of the 3/11 Woods Yet
(reprinted from the Sake World Blog
I  have through my blog, newsletters and site lately conveyed a handful of reports about the state of rice, and in particular sake rice, in Japan, following the nuclear accident last March. Japan has been doing a very thorough job of checking rice throughout the growing season that began in April to June, and ran (or is still running) to August to October.

Leaping off on a tangent already, and oversimplifying just a wee bit, sake rice is planted later and harvested later than eating rice. And at the same time sake in the northern part of Japan is planted and harvested earlier than sake in the western part of Japan (as it gets cold up there earlier). So we have those two dynamics working together to create a matrix of planting and harvesting timing.

Back to the point, the government has been testing rice samples from all over the suspect areas on a regular basis, and all has come clean. At least, clean enough; the cesium found in any rice was well below the maximum allowed. So that would let us think all is good, we are in the clear. Perhaps; perhaps not.

I sat with the de facto (albeit not official) toji of a Shizuoka favorite last week on the train as we moved from the agricultural research center where the Shizuoka rice Homare Fuji was developed, to a sake-pub crawl in Shizuoka city. We used our last precious moments of sobriety engulfed in a serious conversation.

"All looks well this year," he began in reference to the impending brewing season, "but we are still worried… about the rice." I commented that the weather had been better than last year and that all reports were that the rice was looking good, or at least not half-bad. He shook his head solemnly and said, "I'm not talking about the weather. It's radiation we are worried about."

"B-b-but," I countered, "all checks are turning up clean, are they not?"

"Yes. They are. But what you have to realize is that those are spot checks, and at different stages of maturity. Yes, they are a good sign and a good indicator, but until we actually get it into our kura and measure it ourselves – which we will – we cannot be sure. The spot checks might have all been good, but the possibility exists that what we, or another brewer, gets will not all be as clean. The possibility, at least, exists."

"B-b-but," I countered again, "is it not true that it is difficult for Cesium to get transferred from the soil to grains?" Realizing that a few years ago I could not imagine this conversation, I knew I spoke the truth.

"Sure, that is correct. But hard does not mean impossible. On top of that, even if there is cesium in the rice, milling it removes incredibly close to all of it, so we can guarantee that the rice that actually goes into the sake is clean, and way below the legal limit.

"But it is the nuka we have to worry about." Nuka (pronounced noo ka) is what is left from milling, the powder on the outer part of the rice grains. Usually for table rice this is about 8% of the size of the grain, but for sake, it can be anywhere from 25% to 65% of the original grains, even more in some whacked-out cases. That's a lot of rice powder.

"If the nuka is contaminated, just what are we supposed to do with it?" Usually there are plenty of folks that will take nuka off a brewer's hands, as it can be used in anything from making pickles to livestock feed for the outer part, and traditional sweets for the finer inner part. But if it is contaminated with Cesium or something else, obviously, it cannot be used.

"B-b-but," I protested yet a third time as a cock crowed in the distance, "can't you just, like, throw it away, or bury it, or burn it, or pay someone used to dealing with that kind of shit to haul it off?" He sat there, silently, with an amused half-smile, allowing the absurdity of my proposals to settle back into my own bad self.

"We would have no way to get rid of it. We would be stuck with it," he concluded. A much more somber mood took over him as he added, "If sake rice proves to be contaminated, I think we will see a lot of breweries go under, right away. All we can do is wait and see." 

"However," he wrapped up, "if all this really does come to happen, we will be sending a big, big bill to Tokyo Electric!" And he meant it.

Bear in mind that a very large chunk – dare I say most? – good sake rice comes from western Japan, far far away from the nuclear mess. So in that sense the industry is safe. But hey, supply and demand has its say in things too, and now rice from western Japan is costing brewers as much as twenty percent more, roughly assesses one brewer I spoke to. Surely that is not across the board, but what I want to convey here is that the Tohoku triple catastrophe is affecting all of Japan.

Back again to the point of the above: in spite of all reports of rice (not just sake rice) passing inspection, no one knows for sure until the final harvest (October and November for much sake rice) just how it will test out. All we can do is wait, hope and pray.  


Did You Know?
Steaming Rice - Psst!  It's Steamed!

Rice used in the sake-brewing process is steamed. While we often hear that the rice we eat is steamed rice, the process is vitally different. Rice cooked for eating is mixed with water, and that is boiled until all the water is gone, some of it of course turning into steam, and some of it going into the rice. This makes the rice soft, and gives it an appreciable moisture content. In the sake brewing process, however, the rice is put into a large vat and steam is blasted up through the bottom, making its way through the entire vat. The rice is NOT mixed with water and then boiled - in fact, the rice never comes in contact with water at this stage of the process; only steam. This steam is shot through the rice for the better part of an hour. It softens it, physically spreads out the starches, and sterilizes it as well - yet does not add nearly as much water to it as the boiling process would. This point is crucial in every single subsequent step. So, the next someone asks you, "Did You Know?" you can answer, "Why, yes, I did know."    


Sake Basics -- Sake Rice vs. Table Rice
Sake rice is different from regular table rice in many ways, not the least of which is official government recognition. There are currently about 100 types of sake rice being grown in Japan. Each year a couple fall off the list (as growers no longer produce them) and a couple more are added. But the number tends to hover just below a hundred. What goes into the decision of whether or not a rice qualifies as a sake rice? Many things, but most prominent among them are size of stalk and grain, starch and protein ratios, and a visible shimpaku, or centered starch packet, in a certain percentage of the grains. 


Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course 2011, Las Vegas
From December 5 ~ 7, 2011 

No sake stone remains left unturned. The next stateside running of the Sake Professional Course will be held at the MGM Grand Hotel on Monday, December 5 through Wednesday, December 7, 2011. The course will run basically all day for three days, and will conclude with certification testing for the Certified Sake Specialist, recognized by the Sake Education Council. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation. The course is expected to fill up quickly again. For more information go here.

Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course in Japan
From January 23 ~ 28, 2012

This will be the 9th annual Sake Professional Course in Japan. This is it, folks, the most intensive, immersing, comprehensive sake educational program in existence. Three days of classroom lectures and tastings (capped off each night with a scrumptious sake dinner at one of Tokyo's best sake pubs) are followed by two days of brewery visits to lock it all in. It will conclude with certification testing for the Certified Sake Specialist, recognized by the Sake Education Council.

SPC Japan is a bit more exclusive as only 20 people can participate, and currently ten of those spots are filled. The cost for the course, including all five days and evening meals as well, is 180,000 yen. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation.   

Sake Tours, 2012 ~ Akita and San-in
Sake Tourism is alive and well! Check out this year's Sake Tours for sake-heavy tourism of Japan. Not nearly as intense as the Sake Professional Courses, and sake is not the only thing you will experience on these special tours! But certainly, they are "sake heavy." Says the Sake Tours Website: "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 2012, we will return to San-in, the land of myth, and to the 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 Gauntner, and share the passion of brewers for their craft. Then, wind down at onsen to relax, and simply have fun!" Learn more and register now at the Sake Tours Website.

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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