As we head into the home stretch of 2011, as tumultuous a year as we have had in a while, I hope all are well. The sake-brewing season has begun, with brewers around the
country at different stages of full swing. Some have already produced the first batches of the young season, some are still cleaning, yet many others have tanks fermenting away, yet no real sake yet. And amidst all
that has happened, there is lots of news and a good amount of both expectations and apprehension for the coming season. Also, just a reminder that there are but a lucky seven seats remaining for the most
comprehensive, complete and enjoyable sake education on the planet, the Sake Professional Course in Japan: a full five-day sake immersion replete with intoxicating scrumptious dinners and four brewery visits. It does
not get any more sake than this! Warm regards, and enjoy the newsletter, John.
The Significance of the Tohoku Region
The sake of the six prefectures
We have heard a lot about the Tohoku region since last March. However,
most of that has been general information related to the natural disasters, the nuclear issue, and the subsequent recovery. Very little has been said or written about the significance of the region as a source of
sake. Let us look at that here today.
For starters, the Tohoku region is comprised of the six prefectures that fill the top part of the largest of Japan's four main islands, Honshu. While sake production came
to this region long after it was a strong industry in western Japan, it became in little time a significant part of Tohoku commerce, and a significant part of the sake world.
Of the six prefectures in Tohoku
(Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima), three were heavily hit by the disasters of March 11, 2011. And while breweries in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima suffered the most, sake brewers and the
sake-brewing industry across the whole Tohoku region were affected. All six prefectures – and Tohoku overall – are significant players in the sake world.
Overall, however, a number of factors – not the
least of which are lower temperatures during both fermentation and maturation – Tohoku sake is lighter, more delicate, and compact than its western counterparts. Many folks prize it for just those qualities.
In fact, it seems especially popular in the last decade or three, rivaling (nearby) Niigata for popularity. However, rest assured that there are still many, many folks that prefer the richer, fuller styles of western
Japan. In other words, the lighter, fine-grained, fruitier style of Tohoku is simply one style, and while it seems to have come into its own more recently than sake from the West, it is not unequivocally superior.
Let us look very briefly at each of the prefectures of the region, the sake they produce, and note their contributions to the past and present of sake.
The second largest
prefecture in Japan behind Hokkaido, most significantly, Iwate is the home of the Nanbu guild of toji, or master brewers. Of the erstwhile 35-odd toji guilds (less than half of which remain), the Nanbu guild was the
most structured and organized, and only this guild boasts the same number or members as it did almost a century ago. Organized training and testing have helped this guild grow to the point where one-fourth of all toji
in the country are associated with the Nanbu guild. Very skilled and adaptable, they can be found making sake all over Japan, not only close to their origin.
Ironically, the number of brewers in the prefecture
itself is comparatively small, at about 23 breweries. But these are very active in keeping on the forefront of premium sake brewing, and a handful of locally developed sake rice strains help this cause. Iwate sake is
often rich and textured, yet clean and bright as well – sake befitting the Nanbu Toji style.
Due in large part to the significantly higher population of this prefecture, there
are several fairly large breweries amongst those in Miyagi. However, for the last 25 years or so they have been focusing on premium sake, and 80% of what is made here is premium: honjozo, junmai-shu or ginjo-shu. This
is one of the highest ratios of premium sake to regular sake in the country. Much of the sake here is soft and subtle, no doubt affected by the fact that much fresh fish has long been plentiful here.
Fukushima is the seventh largest brewing prefecture in the country. And what makes it unique is that is has several very different climates and regions. Sake from the seaside is usually
lighter than sake from the mountainous regions or plains, and Fukushima boasts all three lays of land: seaside, plain and mountain. There are two famous large production towns: Aizu Wakamatsu and Kitakata, but smaller
breweries dot the entire prefecture. While it is hard to nail down a typical flavor associated with the region, I tend to find billowing, fine-grained flavors prevalent throughout Fukushima. A friend of mine has
dubbed it "the department store of sake styles," as there are so many different styles.
Up at the very top of the main island of Honshu, richer and sweeter types of sake
were once the norm in Aomori. While there is still plenty of that, more refined, aromatic and delicate sake have become available. Not surprisingly, as it is so cold up there, much of the sake from here goes well
Akita is the fourth-largest brewing prefecture in Japan, and while much of the sake was long ago heavy and rich, in a concerted effort half a century ago to target
the big city markets, Akita sake became much more delicate and light. Still, flavors and aromas are densely packed into a narrow package, giving tight, slender sake with moderate aromas.
Yamagata prefecture made efforts years ago to focus more and more on ginjo-shu, and now boasts one of the highest ratios of ginjo to total production of any region in the country. Light, aromatically fruity
sake is very common in this region, yet balance is always a part of the equation for Yamagata sake. Also, as the region is very mountainous and therefore harder to get into and out of, from long ago the toji
brewmasters were local, rather than coming in from an outside guild (like the aforementioned Nanbu). This has fostered a great spirit of cooperation amongst Yamagata brewers as they have strove to maintain technical
prowess by exchanging information and methods openly.
The above is, of course, a very very perfunctory look at a very significant region. Surely a book or more could be written about each prefecture up there.
As we pray and do what else we can for the recovery and healing of everyone in that region, perhaps a bit more awareness about the significance of each prefecture's brewers will enhance the support.
Prime Minister Sake Calligraphy -- Kokushu!
For years, the organization formerly known as the Japan Sake Brewer's Assocation, now known as the Japan Sake and Shochu Producers'
Assocation (JSSPA) has asked each prime minister of Japan to artistically write the characters for "Koku-shu,"or "National Beverage(s)." These would include sake, shochu and awamori. These are then
displayed on the wall of the office of the vice-chairman of the JSSPA. Each of these works of art is unique, often suggesting the character of the prime minister that penned it. However, these guys get busy, and the
last few have been slow to get it done. In fact, Naoto Kan, who just recently stepped down, did not get his calligraphy piece to the JSSPA until six days before leaving office. "We thought the chain would end
with him," said a representative of the organization. His predecessor too did not get it in until just before stepping down. Readers surely also are aware of the fact that lately prime ministers in Japan do not
hold office that long, so they may be running out of wall space at the JSSPA, but I digress. As one sign that things are turning around, the incumbent prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, is known for liking sake. A lot.
And this was reflected in the fact that his elegant, balanced and bold strokes of "Kokushu" were penned and sent immediately to the JSSPA. Already. Please see a miniature reproduction of the two most recent
Did You Know?
How big is a batch of sake?
How is that measured?
While it might seem more logical to think that brewers measure batch sizes by the amount of sake they
get out of a tank, in truth, the amount of sake from a fermenting tank will vary a bit from year to year, batch to batch, grade to grade, and brewer to brewer. More commonly, brewers measure batch size by how much
milled rice went into the tank. What is the most common batch size? 1.5 metric tons (1500 kg, 3300 lbs). While that is the most common, there are all kinds of sizes. Most people (but not all!) think that better sake
should be made in smaller batches, and bigger batches are for less premium sake; but in truth, it is not that simple. The smallest practical size is 600 kg, while the largest in Japan is a whopping 22 tons! One ton
tanks are very common for tiny brewers, and 6-ton tanks are very common for larger brewers. But the most commonly found size seems to be 1.5 tons. So, the next someone asks you, "Did You Know?" you can
answer, "Why, yes, I did know."
Sake Basics -- How Long Does It Take to Brew
Well, that depends! From start to finish, how long does it take to make a batch of sake? Ah...that depends so much on so many
things, including the grade of sake (better sake takes longer) and when one starts counting (Growing the rice? Milling? Brewing?) So let us simplify. For regular sake, starting with milled rice and just counting the
brewing, the answer is about five weeks. About two weeks for the yeast starter, and about three weeks for the main fermentation. Naturally, there are great variations from kura to kura, but this is a typical period of
time. There is much to do after that to get it ready for market, and much to do before that to get it ready to brew well. But the absolute simplest if qualified answer to "how long does it take to make a batch of
sake" is five weeks.
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
SAKE EDUCATION CENTRAL
For Your iPhone & iPod: The Sake Dictionary App.
Newly improved, now with audio, and
drastically reduced in price to $0.99!
Get it here: http://itunes.com/apps/sakedictionary
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: http://itunes.com/apps/sakedictionary
(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 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.
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: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.