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April 2013


  • Nara Prefecture. The Birthplace of Sake
  • Sake Industry News
  • Events: Sake Professional Course in Japan 2013
  • Sake Education Central

Top Story

Nara Prefecture. Birthplace of Sake.

Greetings to all readers in the shakily advancing spring. I hope you are well. Despite a cold winter here in Japan, a couple of unseasonably warm days in March fooled and tricked the cherry blossoms into an early bloom in the Tokyo area, and then things got cold and wet again. Typical for spring, it is two steps in a warmer direction and one back to the cold. Which makes o-kan (gently warmed sake) still a valid option. And 'tis the season for industry tastings, all the new sake and then some. Just how this past season (wait! It ain't over yet!) has been to the brewers, how the rice behaved, and what new things were attempted will become somewhat evident over the next few weeks. Warm regards, John Gauntner.


Nara Prefecture: The Birthplace of Sake. It's true!
I have long known that Nara Prefecture, which borders Osaka and Kyoto in western Japan, has been known as the birthplace of sake. But I got majorly schooled during a recent visit there.

Nara, in fact, holds major significance in Japan's history, and was even the capital from 710 to 784. During that time, there was a brewing department within the walls of the imperial palace in Nara. Sake back then, however, was a far cry from what we enjoy today (for one, it had much less alcohol), and the "Imperial Brewing Department" (the "IBD"?) focused its efforts for the most part on sake used in ceremonies and events. In fact, the IBD produced upwards of a dozen different types of sake, some colored with ash of black, red or white hues, with varying degrees of alcohol content, mostly for use in ceremonies.

Let us first look at a bit more of the history of sake in Nara. In time, like a few hundred years (things moved much more slowly back then) sake-brewing moved into the many Buddhist temples of the Nara region, as they had brought back their initial brewing technology back from China on their, um, supposedly religious expeditions to that mainland.

At this particular juncture of Japanese history (Heian era into Kamakura era, 9th to 13th centuries, roughly), there was a bit of a lull in political and military power, as it moved from the Fujiwara clan to the dueling Taira and Minamoto (Heike and Genji) clans. So there was a bit of a vacuum, or at least a low pressure zone, for a while. The resident monks of the numerous temples, in order to protect both themselves and their interests, militarized a bit. They trained and mobilized themselves, and undertook economic activities as well, including some sake brewing.

As time passed, they took sides out of necessity, and as power went back and forth, this means they inevitably found themselves on the wrong side of a vengeful, if temporary, victor. Revenge was often mercilessly exacted, and many, many temples were burned down and destroyed. Just about this time is when the brewing moved from what remained of the temples to the nearby Ikeda area, of modern-day Osaka. This is admittedly a bit of an oversimplification, but will do for our purposes here.

The source of my recent schooling was a temple called Shorakuji ( even ancient Buddhist temples are on the internet these days) on a mountain called Boudaisen. As I made my way up the mountain toward the temple, I was surrounded by dozens of terraced plots, the leveled earth supported by short stone embankments averaging five to six hundred years old. A temple once graced each of these plots, but after the vengeful fires of long ago, only Shorakuji remains. These temples, here on Bodasen mountain in Nara, are where the yeast starter known as Bodai-moto was created. More on this below…

If sake existed before this, and flourished after this period, why is it said that Nara is the birthplace of sake? Because so many of the basic methods and building-blocks of sake as we know it today were developed there at that time. Let us look a few of these.

Long ago, the rice used for koji was not milled before growing koji mold on it. These days, if anything, that rice is milled more than the straight rice added (known as kakemai). But it was in Nara back then that sake first came to be made with both koji rice and the straight rice being milled before being used. This was known as morohaku, or "both white." It has since been the norm.

This is a fancy (albeit seldom used any longer) word that means to add the rice, water and koji in stages so as to let the yeast enjoy the best environment for brewing, and letting the alcohol go up to twenty percent or so. And ever since this was developed in Nara, it too is the norm. Today, three stages are used, and the three-stage addition process is known as sandan-shikomi.

Brewers in Nara were the first (records show in 1568) to heat sake up to about 65C, to remove the evil humours. Louis Pasteur lent his name to this process centuries later, but he gets all the credit; the brewers of ancient Nara get none.  

Filtering off the lees
Until Nara, all sake was nigori, or cloudy. Clear sake, or sumizake, was first invented in Nara, as this is where they first passed the fermented mash though a mesh to hold back the dregs and let the clear sake through. Curiously, the nearby region of Itami claims this too; however, there are temple records that show that, before Itami was making sake, the monks of Nara were selling the lees (known as kasu) for making pickles. If they were selling sake kasu, they had to have been filtering it out, or they'd have none to sell. So give this one to Nara too.

Yeast starter (Moto)
The step of making a small starter batch with a very high concentration of yeast is an indispensible part of what sake brewing is today. And this, too, started in Nara with what was known as Bodai-moto, which was the precursor to yamahai and kimoto yeast starters, which were the precursors to today's methods.

So clearly, the fundamentals of all that sake brewing is today were laid down in Nara long ago, hence the deserving title of "the birthplace of sake."

Just one more thing: The above-mentioned Bodai-moto was invented at one of the temples on the aforementioned Bodaisen mountain, where only Shorakuji remains. It was made using the water of the river that runs down that mountain, and it seems that water holds some special species of lactic bacteria. 'Course, there is plenty of that stuff in the air, so it is hard to know if the stuff in the river are really that special.

But in any event, Bodai moto was made by mixing water and raw rice, after which the lactic bacteria would proliferate, giving lactic acid that dosed the water, making it safe for sake yeast. Easier and better methods made this obsolete, but about 20 years ago, ten Nara brewers revived the technique. All ten make a tank or two of Bodai moto sake, the moto (yeast starter) only of which is made at Shorakuji and distributed to the ten brewers. So that makes Shorakuji the only Buddhist temple in the world with a sake-brewing license.

To learn more about the sake of Nara - including what brands are available - check out this old article in the archives of Sake World. Note, it offers different and augmenting information than the above, should Nara interest you sufficiently.

In any event, let us carry our newfound respect for Nara as the birthplace of sake into each cup we drink, tying us back to the history and culture of 600-odd years past.


Recent Sake Industry News
What is happening in the brewing world itself...

Changing Sake Flavor Profiles.
A survey by the Ministry of Taxation on sake flavor profiles for last year showed a couple of interesting trends. In short, the trend for junmai-shu to be both drier and richer continued. For better or for worse, more intense junmai has become more popular. Also, in ginjo-shu, the alcohol content and amount of a compound called ethyl caproate (think "apples" in your ginjo) also increased. So brewers are taking the sake of those grades further into their archetypal manifestations. Overall acidity of premium sake stayed pretty much the sake, but the umami-yielding amino acid content dropped a bit. The sweet/dry and richness of non-junmai premium sake (basically ginjo-shu) also stayed the same.

While this may not be so useful in our everyday sake sipping endeavors, it is interesting to hover over and observe the changes and trends.

Special Clause 87 Extended Again
In January, the Ministry of Taxation again extended Special Clause 87 for a couple of years. As you all likely remember, SC87 gives tax breaks to smaller brewers, which means almost everybody, since the industry is so polarized.

How polarized? Out of 1260 breweries, about 15 make about 50% of the sake. About 1000 are very, very small.

The original clause gave a 30% break to these smaller brewers, and as it expired, the industry (well, most of it!) sought a permanent extension. The compromise was a 20% break for five more years (actually, it is a bit more complicated than that, but that is the gist). So the can has been kicked down the road a bit, but hopefully, over the next five years, profits will rise, and will not stand to lose the hundreds of brewers we might have lost this time, had it expired.

Yamada Nishiki Shortage
The harvest of Hyogo-Prefecture-grown Yamada Nishiki last year was down for a handful of reasons, and the impact is being felt throughout the industry.

The rice grown is sold to the Brewers Associations of the various prefectures, rather than to individual brewers. And Hyogo Prefecture has told at least a few prefectures that they would only get 88% of what they ordered.

It was indeed a less-than-copious harvest. But there are other reasons and rumors swirling about too. While keeping the homeboys of Hyogo and the most important customers happy before supplying those far away is certainly part of it, there is more. For example, one source told me (on condition of anonymity) that the Tohoku region sold a lot of sake fast after 3/11/11, and needed to outsource some of that from Western Japan, who then needed to replenish their stocks, hence driving demand for Yamada up. Another source said that Hyogo Prefecture tightened their standard for top-inspected-grade "Tokujo" Yamada Nishiki to raise the image of Hyogo-grown Yamada, thus lessening the supply of same. There are other interpretations as well.

In any event, this and the fact that there have been overall price increases on most rice this year means we may see an increase in sake prices come next fall.


Sake Professional Course
New York City, May 8 to 10, 2013

The next Sake Professional Course will take place May 8 to 10 in New York City at a private venue in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. More about the seminar, its content and day-to-day schedule, can be found here. 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 three-day seminar leaves "no sake stone unturned." The tuition for the course is $825. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation.

* * * * * * * *

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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