Greetings to all readers in the fully-swinging summer. In most places, it is already proving to be a hot one. Here in Japan, the rainy season is still the dominant weather factor, and it is as of yet a bit cooler
than average, if just as wet. And the punishing humidity has wasted no time in making itself felt. And Happy New Year to you all! Brewing New Year, that is! Learn more about this in the Did You Know section below.
Every year as we enter July, I am always reminded just how much a slightly chilled light sake can refresh on a hot summer afternoon. Some brewers offer special summer versions of their products, which is often sake
with a slightly lower alcohol content and nama (unpasteurized). Beer, schmeer. Sipping slightly chilled sake is surely a great way to beat the heat. Try it! This newsletter just happens to be going out on July 7, on
which falls the Tanabata festival. Legend says that the goddess Orihime and her lover Hikoboshi, normally separated by nothing less formidable than the Milky Way, are permitted to have their once-a-year-only
rendezvous in the sky. Everything remotely related to Tanabata exudes a pleasant essence of pure summer. The festival dates back to the eighth century, and the biggest Tanabata event in Japan takes place in Hiratsuka
city, about an hour and change south of Tokyo. It gets so massively crowded in the town that it takes half an hour or more just to get from the train platform to outside the station! No offense to Orihime and
Hikoboshi, but I will be toasting their affection for each other from my back porch, albeit with the best sake in the house. Enjoy the summer, and the newsletter as well, John.
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Justification From On High
Non-Junmai is Sake Too!
A while back, I participated in an event in Osaka in which I was privileged enough to be a part of a panel
discussion with perhaps the most famous toji (master brewer) in existence. Actually, from just last year he took on the title "honorary toji," and in his place at that particular brewery is another gent that is the de
facto toji. Those are some big-ass shoes to fill!
The famous toji in question is one Mr. Naohiko Noguchi. Most of his career was spent brewing a sake called Kikuhime, but in his later years he "retired"
and then came out of "retirement" a few hours later down the road making a sake called Jokigen. Both of these kura are in Ishikawa Prefecture, from whence Mr. Noguchi hails. This is, of course, also where the guild of
toji to which Noguchi-san is affiliated, the Noto Toji guild, is centered. He has been referred to as one of the "Noto Toji no Shiten-oh," or one of the "Four guardians of heaven of the Noto Toji guild."
known as much for his sharp mind as he is for his brewing skill, and indeed, on that day he was as sharp as anybody in the room, if not sharper than all. And as we had lunch with a couple other folks before the event
began, he wasted no time in asking me about sake overseas, and how it was received. He bore down on me with intense, hazel eyes tempered only by a genuine and warm smile.
"How do people overseas feel about
junmai versus added-alcohol sake?" he asked. One could sense he had a well-formed opinion just waiting to be expressed.
"Well," I began as politely as I could, "not much aru-ten gets over there. Most of it is
junmai." Aru-ten is verbal shorthand for added alcohol sake, i.e. anything not of one of the junmai varieties.
"However," I continued, I do not think there are very strong opinions either way, yet."
which point he let fly with that well-formed opinion, albeit from a purely technical standpoint.
"They both have their place, you know. Sure, even I drink mostly junmai,but ya can't go dismissing anything not
junmai just for silly reasons like purity. It's just another method, adding alcohol is, and it leads to a different kind of sake. Which of the two is better depends on what you are trying to make, and when you plan to
I would have asked him to continue if given the chance. Warm smile intact, he spared me the trouble and just kept talking.
"If you are going to drink it relatively soon, sure, junmai is by
and large a better way to make it. But if you want to lay it down to let the flavors consolidate, you are better off making it with a bit of added alcohol. And if you expect it to sit on a shelf for a while, same
deal. Junmai, ya know, it gets a bit darui (heavy, sloppy, slow) when it matures."
While I have of course experienced that non-junmai stands up to time in the bottle better than junmai, somehow hearing it from
this uber toji made it so much more valid in my mind. And it was the first time I heard a brewer himself explaining that just when he expected a sake to be drunk would affect his decision on whether or not to add
alcohol. Fascinating! With card-carrying members of the junmai jihad seemingly on the increase, having a master brewer of Noguchi-san's stature acknowledge the fact that aru-ten too is proper sake was both reassuring
and satisfying. (Dare I say vindicating?)
As more and more sake becomes available in many countries around the world, I encourage you to seek and find your preferences. And in so doing, at least consider the
idea that all brewing methods have their reasons and legitimacy. Drink the sake, not the label. This is especially applicable to aru-ten and junmai styles.
I am not a big collector of souvenirs, autographs or the like. But after meeting Noguchi-san, I later sent him a simple postcard acknowledging what an honor it had been to hang out with him for a day. I
expected no response, but a scant few days later I did receive a postcard in return, in beautiful if barely readable cursive characters. Now this is cool, I thought. This is not something one comes upon every day! I
keep it in a special file-cabinet folder called "Sake Swag," that I admit I
created just for this postcard. (So far, it's the only thing in there.) The balance of his calligraphy belies the balance of his sake, I thought.
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The Changing of the Sake Guard
Sake's Younger Generation Making Their Presence Felt
Last month, I gave a presentation in
Boston and then Chicago on trends and changes of late in the sake world. In preparing and delivering that presentation, I realized and was otherwise told a few things about the state of the industry that are very
Over the past decade or so, a very clear changing of the guard has taken place, in that the past generation of brewers has handed the baton off to the next generation, seemingly en masse. It
really does seem to me that everywhere in the industry, 60-year olds have just handed the operations of the company to their 30 to 40 year old sons (or daughters, in some cases).
Of course, 1300 companies could
not be in generational sync like that. But it sure seems to me that a whole lot of them are. When I first got involved in the industry about 18 years ago, I was by far the youngest of any group I ran with. Now, I am
almost without exception the oldest. 'Course, I put on 18 years during these past 18 years, so that has to be factored in too! But still, the sweeping and clear-cut change in generation seems very apparent to me.
And as I took the time to look around and think about it, I realized that the generation of kuramoto (brewery owners) currently in charge lives, brews and sells in a totally different world than their fathers. The
market is different. The economy is different. The brewing landscape too, is different. What worked before, just a scant couple of decades previous, will not work now.
I recall a few years ago visiting one of
the largest ten brewers in the country. The president told me that back in the day, like the mid-70's to mid-80's, the phone would ring in the office.
"Don't answer it," said someone across the room. "It's
probably an order; we can't fill it anyways." In other words, sake was flying off the shelves faster than they could make it. Those were the days. But alas, they are long gone, ne'er to return.
And as such,
philosophies, ways of doing business, and sensibilities all have changed for the better. How has this manifested itself? Partly in design. Labels are flashier, sexier, more attractive and infinitely more informative
than in the past, methinks. (This does not necessarily mean they are easier to decipher to those that do not know much about sake, but one step at a time!)
Marketing methods and sales channels have expanded as
well. Many brewers bypass the middleman these days, much more than in the past. Direct sales to consumers too, via mailers and the internet, are far more common as well. And brewers are much more visible at tastings,
gathered in groups of one demographic or another - region, age group, philosophy and hair color are just a few groupings we see.
And finally, the sake itself has been changing. Perhaps not that much in terms of
how they drink, but what the average brewer offers has expanded significantly, it seems. Many brewers experiment with more varieties of rice, various degrees of milling, myriad yeast types, and subtly different
brewing methods, tweaked a bit here and there, than what we would have seen from their predecessors. It's all very interesting, actually.
Everything from milling rates to new machines, from myriad permutations
of variations on pasteurization to new rice types and combinations of the same - it is all enjoyably difficult to keep up with!
Undoubtedly, the younger generation now is technically more adept than the
previous one. There is just so much more information readily available for those that want to learn. And many more owner-inherits are embracing brewing technology and know-how rather than just sales. And this gets
them much more involved, leading to more variation.
One brewer yanked me aside after one presentation, and augmented the information I had just presented. He was, actually, one of the "hold-outs," i.e. one of
the older generation that had not handed off the reins yet. And he explained a nuance I had not considered before.
"Just 20 or 30 years ago," he began," we kuramoto had little say in what came out of our kura.
Sure, we could decide how many tanks and for the most part what grades. But the selection of rice, yeast, and methods therein were pretty much left up to the toji. In some cases, it was entirely left up to the toji.
"And what we got at the end of the season was what we got. We just had to go and sell it." He almost seemed envious of what the current young'ns could do.
"Now, these guys can get in there, get their hands
dirty, and even if they are leaving it up to the toji, they can have their say. They can dictate what rice is used, what yeasts are used, and what tricks-of-the-trade are used." Very often, these "tricks"
recommendations from friends and classmates at other breweries. It's technology exchange in a modern format.
While this may not seem like a big deal, in the sake world, little things make big differences.
As a couple of concrete examples, I was told by one brewer in Shimane that they had never used a great rice called Omachi because it did not suit the way that the koji mold is propagated on rice by the local guild of
toji. "Omachi does not like the heavier, slightly wetter koji that the Izumo guild uses." So until this guy came along and took over, no Omachi. And no questions about it. Do not question the toji. Do not pass go; do
not collect 200 yen.
But the young buck, just back from brewing school, knew how it could be done. And he made it happen, so now we have a wonderful Omachi sake from Rihaku. Another example from up north was a
young brewer that wanted to make a sake with no added yeast; in other words, just let it drop in from the ambient environment. Where did he get this cockamamie idea? One of his buddies in another part of the country
has been making sake that way for decades.
"Please," began his journeyman toji, "don't ask me to do that!" But ask he did. And it ended up not only fine, but very interesting, and also gained a fantastic
sales point along the way. Yet another fresh idea that never would have happened just a generation ago.
As such, we have a ton of very interesting new facets of sake to pay attention to and learn about these
days, thanks in large part to a changing of the guard. Be sure to engage any brewer you might encounter on the sake trail along which you tread. You're sure to be enlightened at least a bit.
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Sake Basics: Aging Sake
Can sake be aged? Can you collect it?
In short, no. Sake is, for the most part, made to be drunk young. As such you
should drink a bottle soon after you purchase it. You can, of course, keep it around for months and months (lower storage temperatures will lengthen this time) for up to a year or more, but you risk the flavor
morphing from what the brewer wanted you to enjoy. Of course, there are exceptions. There is a bit of aged sake out there, and it can be very enjoyable. And, even stuff that gets "old" can be very enjoyable. But the
truth is that very few brewers make aged sake, and very little aged sake is on the market. As such, it is safe to make the sweeping generalization that most of the time you want to drink sake young, you do not want to
collect it, and remember that there are exceptions.
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Did You Know? Happy New Brewing Year!
Welcome to BY24! Being July, we have just entered into a new brewing year, at least officially, BY H24. The "H" stands for Heisei, the
current era in Japan's calendar. The "BY" stands for "brewing year," which, like the term "fiscal year," is a twelve-month period that does not coincide with the regular January to December calendar year. It is
designed to fully encapsulate one complete brewing season. Since brewing begins in the fall and ends the following spring, it straddles two calendar years. And when talking about which year a sake was brewed, it can
get confusing as sake brewed in the fall of one year, or the spring of the next, are essentially both the same brewing season. Also, some breweries begin brewing as early as August, others not until November. And some
will finish in February, others not until June. It depends on a myriad of factors: how many tanks they will make in a year, how many they can have going at once (a function of how many physical tanks they have, how
many workers they have, and how much supporting equipment they have, etc.) and more. So by starting the official Brewing Year (BY) designation on July 1 and ending it June 30 of the next year, they effectively include
the yearly brewing season of any brewery, large or small, and have a nice one year period that includes one and only one full season.
- Interested in brewing sake at home? Check out Brewing Sake: Release the Toji Within, by Will Auld. Learn more here, or just buy it here.
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Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course
San Francisco, CA, October 24 ~ 26
The next Sake Professional Course will take place on
October 24, 25 and 26 at Bentley Reserve in San Francisco, Caifornia. We are currently taking reservations for this course. The Sake Professional Course, with Sake Education Council-recognized Certified Sake
Professional certification testing, is by far the most intensive, immersing, comprehensive sake educational program in existence. Three days of classroom lectures and tastings leave "no sake stone unturned."
The tuition for the course is $799. 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. All marketing noise and shameless self-promotion aside, this course is already filling up quite fast. As such, interested parties should email me soon to make a reservation.
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Sake Education Council
Please take a moment to check out the 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.
Sake Homebrewer's Online Store
Please be sure to check out Homebrewsake.com for supplies, information and a forum, including lots of supporting information on everything from recipes to history. I have been meaning to mention this site and the gentleman behind it, Will Auld, but have repeatedly forgotten in past newsletters. The site is replete with instruction, augmented with videos, schedules, and more. If you are even remotely interested check this site out right away.
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.