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Newsletter Archive 2013

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Jan. 2013


  • Sake Rice & Coffee Beans
  • Industry News
  • Sake Tours Expands Operations!
  • Events: Sake Professional Course in Japan 2013
  • Sake Education Central

Top Story

Sake Rice and Coffee Beans

Happy New Year to Everyone! Ringing in the new year: literally! For the first time in perhaps I decade, I spent New Year's Eve waiting for midnight to come, after which my family and I went to a local Buddhist temple (in our case, Hokokuji). I live in Kamakura, once a Buddhist stronghold in Japan, and there are at least four temples within a ten minute walk of my house. Add another ten minutes to my walking radius and add perhaps another ten temples. I can see one from the window of my office room, and hear the bells each day. And bells are why we made our way there, in the first dark minutes of the very young year.

There is a custom known as "Joya no Kane," which refers to ringing of the bells at a temple, traditionally 108 times, one for each of mankind's worldly desires that cause us suffering. Things vary from place to place, but many temples will allow us layfolk to stand in line and ring it one time to rid us of our wordly passions and purify us for the upcoming hear. My family lined up in the cold for our turn at one meditative moment into which much significance, prayer, and positive energy are channeled. A brief prayer. A swing of the log-like implement into the large, tubular bell. We absorb the reverberations of the deep, vibrant sound, then bow gently, and turn toward home, with heightened expectations for the coming year. That, in a nutshell, is Joya no Kane.

I recall a musician friend of mine, now deceased, who tried to explain the concept of the 108 passions, known as Bonno. She embodied them unabashedly and enjoyably. All 108, I think. They are, she explained, the physical and emotional temptations that keep us from heaven, and cause us suffering on earth. "But," she added with an emphatic smile, "without Bonno, there would be no music!" Nothing has ever rang more true, no pun intended. Some might have a Bonno to pick with sake (pun intended this time), but I will take my chances. Again, a Happy New Year to all readers. Warm regards, John


Sake Rice and Coffee Beans
More in common than you might think!

Soon after beginning to study sake, one comes to realize there are many varieties of sake rice. And while not all sake is made from "official" sake rice (and it is a legal definition – as compared to "regular" rice for eating), most premium sake is indeed brewed from one of the hundred-odd strains of sakamai, or sake rice. Note this does not mean that without proper sake rice one cannot make good sake. It is, actually, quite possible to make decent sake with run of the mill regular rice. But it is just much, much easier to make good sake from proper sake rice. And in truth, to make the best sake, you must use proper sake rice.

Much like grapes used in wine, while there are many varieties of sake rice out there, if you know about a dozen, you will know most of the rice varieties you will encounter. And rice varieties do contribute greatly to the flavors of the final sake, not surprisingly. However, the connection between rice and final sake is not nearly as tight as the connection between grape varieties and the final flavors in a wine.

This is, methinks, an important point. Sake rice leads to sake flavors; yes. However, as important as good rice is, it is but half the battle. Just how the rice is handled - milled, soaked, steamed, propagated with mold, coaxed via temperature et al along a particular fermentation path - will have a huge amount of say in determining the nature of the final sake.
As a very simple example, the same Yamada Nishiki rice milled to the same 40%, for example, might go to two brewers. One would let it absorb more water, thereby helping it dissolve more quickly in the fermenting mash, thereby leading to a richer, broader, heavier flavor than the other. Or, one might have more koji mold propagated upon it, thereby dosing it with more sugar-creating enzymes, thereby enabling the yeast to go on a feeding frenzy, leading to a significantly drier sake. So the process itself contributes so much to the final sake. It is about much more than just the rice, although that is important as well.

I often liken it to coffee beans, and making coffee.


Coffee is my second favorite liquid on the planet, with pure water beinga d-i-s-t-a-n-t third. Kind of the yang to sake's yin in my daily life. And it recently struck me that good coffee beans are to good coffee as good sake rice is to good sake.

In other words, to make good coffee, you need to start with good beans. These will come from one of a handful of good growing regions. And each of the major varieties of coffee beans will have its own main characteristics: some are more acidic than others, some are fuller and richer. But the bean alone does not the coffee make!

We can start with the same coffee beans and end up with a very wide range of coffees. For example, beans can be lightly roasted, more thoroughly roasted, or mercilessly charred. This will lead to light coffee, richer coffee, or charred-flavor coffee.

On top of that, one can use an espresso maker, or drip press the coffee. And even amongst those two extremes – and everything in between – there are little choices and decisions, like the water temperature (too hot, or just right?) or one-holed or three-holed cones. There is no one right decision; rather, each choice will lead to a different taste in spite of having started with the same beans. Even before that comes into play, bear in mind the grind: a find grind and a coarse grind will affect things massively as well.

So, you have the roast, the grind, the method, the machine, the water temperature, the apparatus, and the "touch" of the person making it all. You can start with good beans, but you have to do everything else right too. And what is right is not set in stone either. Very often, what one "master" considers anathema is precisely what makes another's coffee so good. Go figure!

With good tools and methods, you can make a decent cup of coffee with mediocre beans. However, it is much, much easier to make good coffee if you start with good beans. And, to make the best coffee, you must start with good beans. And therein lies the connection between good sake and sake rice.

Restating: It is possible to make decent sake with run of the mill regular rice. But it is just much, much easier to make good sake from proper sake rice. And in truth, to make the best sake, you must use proper sake rice.

* * * * * * * *

Sake rice's tenuous connection to its soulmate, the coffee bean, notwithstanding, the above might naturally give rise to the question, with all the manhandling of the rice, and the variations used in brewing methods, it it possible to assign "typical" flavor profiles to rice types, and is it possible to identify them in blind tastings like wine grapes?

The answer is yes, it is possible, but not with great accuracy, and it does take a bit of experience. I recall a tasting put on by the Japan Agriculture Co-Op of Okayama Prefecture, wherein we tasted about 100 Yamada Nishiki-based sake, followed by about 100 Omachi-based sake, from all over Japan. What they had in common was that the Yamada Nishiki and Omachi used were both grown in Okayama. After tasting one hundred sake made from one rice, you got a feel for that rice. Then moving on to the other rice was like entering a totally different universe.

However, if I had just one or two of each, and was asked "which is the Omachi, and which is the Yamada?," it perhaps might have been more difficult.

So yes, the rice-to-sake connection is there; but no, it is not as tight as the grapes-to-wine connection. And yes, the rice is massively important in making great sake. But no, it is not the only factor involved. As is usually the case in sake-related topics, it is delightfully vague.

* * * * * * * *

Industry News: Sake shipments likely to end up for the year, but huge challenges remain
Only a small bit, but we will take what we can get
It looks like sake consumption will end the year up for the second year

in a row, something that has not happened in close to 30 years. Yes, it will be less than five percent, and that is barely clear of margin-of-error range. But we will take what we can get!

The better news is that premium grades continue to do well. Junmai-shu, and all four types of Ginjo-shu are close to an average of double digit growth in Japan. They still combine to be less than ten percent of all sake made, so overall we are still not talking about much, but let us relish any good news that we can get.

However, there are some very formidable challenges in the year ahead. Namely, "Special Clause 87," a tax clause giving breaks to smaller brewers, is due to expire and currently there is no plan to extend it. There will be critical meetings in early January, but if it is not extended the industry will likely lose a large number of breweries that will not be able to continue to exist. Some estimates say hundreds of the remaining 1300 could disappear; others are less pessimistic.

Also, we can expect across the board price increases, long overdue actually, due to this and to rice shortages of recent.

And, with the recent change in Japan's government, just how much support for sake will remain is in doubt. The "Enjoy Japanese Kokushu" (national beverage, i.e. sake) project may fizzle before gathering critical mass and momentum. Then again, maybe not. It all remains to be seen, but should be much clear in only a couple of weeks. Let us keep our collective fingers crossed on one hand, and keep a glass of sake in the other.

* * * * * * * *

Sake Brewery Tours Expands!
Akita! Kansai! More than just sake! Make 2013 the year you participate! In 2013, you have more opportunities to experience sake.
Sake Brewery Tours will have two 5-day tours: one to Akita and one to Kansai (Kyoto, Nara and Shiga). Kansai has been added as a new destination this year!  

In addition, Nippon Travel Agency, one of the largest travel agencies in

Japan, just announced the schedules for two tours for their "Exclusive Sake Tour" program to central Japan, for which they will be partnering with Sake Brewery Tours. Don't miss the chance to sign up early registering before November 30. Space is extremely limited, so act now. Learn more here.

Details of the Akita and Kansai regions are as follows.

  • Akita – four breweries
    February 23 (Sat) - 27 (Wed): Yuki no Bosha, Ama no To,
    Manabito/Mansaku no Hana, Kariho
  • Kansai – 3 breweries
    March 4 (Mon) - 8 (Fri): Tsuki no Katsura (Kyoto), Shichihon Yari (Shiga), Harushika (Nara). In addition, the Kansai tour will include an optional visit to Tamagawa in Kyoto to see the only non-Japanese toji in history, Mr. Philip Harper on March 9th.

Both tours will include some very special features. In addition to learning from the world's best sake sensei, John Gauntner, we will spend a lot of time at sake breweries, dine with kuramoto, and dive into cultural activities, which include:

Akita - making soba at the Kariho brewery, a cooking lesson from a local expert at a farm, a visit to Mr. Ito's (the owner of Kariho) historic private residence, a private minyo folk music performance and a tranquil stay at Tsuru no Yu onsen (hotspring). Learn more here.

Kansai - Food and sake parings only available in the area, using local delicacies such as funazushi and a lunch with local game meat with the owner of Shichihon Yari, a one day excursion to the Shigaraki pottery region with Rob Yellin, a visit to a yuba (a creamy soy vegetarian food, a by-product of tofu) maker, and join the Goma fire ritual performed by Ajari, a Buddhist monk who went through the Sennichi Kaiho-gyo, a seven-year marathon pilgrimage and spiritual quest. This is really the ultimate Japan experience - all packed into five days. Learn more here. To find out more about Nippon Travel Agency's Exclusive Sake Tour in January and March, visit this site.  

* * * * * * * *

Sake Professional Course
Japan, January 21 ~ 25, 2013
Only four seats remain open.

The next Japan-based Sake Professional Course will take place the week of January 21 to 25, 2013, in Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka, Japan. This is it, folks, the most important thing I do all year. 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. The course is identical to the US-based course, with two days of brewery visits tacked on to the end. Furthermore, each evening is spent eating in fine restaurants with the best sake in the world. The five days together leave "no sake stone unturned."

The tuition for the course is JPY180,000 (at 80 yen to the dollar, about $2250). This includes dinner each night as well as all course materials, but does not include transportation or lodging. 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 Professional Course Level II
The Level II Sake Professional Course, with SEC-supported Advanced Sake Professional testing, is scheduled for February 11- 15, 2013. Note that this course is only open to graduates of the Level I course. Should you be interested in attending, please contact me directly.

* * * * * * * *

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 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.


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 2013

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