It's more than official! Summer is here! May it be a safe and pleasant one, dosed with appropriate amounts of sake, for all readers.
One big festival here in Japan celebrated at the
beginning of each summer, is Tanabata. Tanabata celebrates the once-a-year meeting of two gods in love, Orihime and Hikoboshi, who once were sake brewery workers under the employ of a particularly strict toji who also had
godly powers. With three gods and several other demi-gods on the staff, naturally their sake was great.
But one day, Orihime and Hikoboshi, whose affections for each other had grown steadily across the long brewing
season, were caught smooching behind a tank of fermenting daiginjo by the strict toji. Fearing their amorous energies would agitate the jealous yeast cells, he not only banished them from the kura, but used the last of his
godly powers to jettison them to the cosmos, and forbade them to meet except once a year, on July 7, Tanabata. They are, however, allowed to drink as much sake as they want on that day. Not surprisingly, the toji's powers
having been used up in that final overzealous act, the quality of the sake at that kura sank considerably after that.
Actually, I totally made that up; it's complete nonsense. None of it is true except the names of
the two gods, and the fact that they meet once a year in the sky on July 7. To learn what Tanabata is indeed really about, read this .
There are two major festivals for Tanabata in Japan, one in Sendai in Miyagi
Prefecture up north, and one in a an otherwise rinky-dink town called Hiratsuka about an hour and a half south of Tokyo. So many people go to that festival that it takes like 45 minutes just to get off the train, across the
platform, down the stairs and out the exit. And that is not an exaggeration!
Back to sake…
I will hold the summer's Sake Professional Course August 8, 9 and 10 in Dallas, Texas, in conjunction with TEXSOM
2013. There are only about five seats remaining right now, and you can learn more below. If you are anyone else are interested, by all means send me an email to that purport. And please enjoy the newsletter!
Warm regards, John Gauntner
Rice Distribution in the Sake World
It's complicated... (PART TWO)
Last month, we looked at the idiosyncratic rice distribution system in Japan, and how that affects the
1.4% of all rice that sake rice represents, with the main points being that brewers themselves almost never own the fields, and that the majority of sake rice, by far, is distributed by powerful agricultural cooperatives, a
system that has its attendant strengths and weaknesses.
As rice distribution in Japan is deeply rooted in all that Japan is, a comprehensive study would extend beyond the interest and attention span of even the most
ardent readers and sake fans. So let us keep close to how it relates to sake in what follows here.
In truth, there is a lack of clarity related to all things rice-distribution in Japan, much of which affects the
sake world. For example, while the rice for top grades of sake is fairly easy to order and trace, remember that most sake is not premium, and the rice that goes into that lion's share of sake on the market – while
cheaper than top-grade sake rice – is a driving element in the sake industry. In other word, most of the sake on the market is made of this somewhat lesser, significantly less expensive rice. So when the supply of
that is threatened, the effect on the market is huge.
And that is what we have happening right now. There is a system of supplying rice within the current distribution system in which brewers can specify a minimum of
information about the rice as a request, but what they get may be different. But it won't matter, at the level at which they are using it. The system refers to such rice as "kakomai," but let us call it the "cheap rice
system" here, abbreviated CRS.
So, what is purchased through the CRS is somehow subsidized by local prefectural governments. And the rice itself can be a blend of stuff that was left over from higher than expected
yields or lower than expected orders, or perhaps some of the less-carefully grown stuff. And all mixed together as well. But it is very inexpensive, comparatively speaking.
But in truth, as mentioned above, it won't
really matters as it will be used for cheaper sake, and it will do fine. Having said this, though, remember that cheaper sake is 65 percent of the market.
Who can grow what, and how much of it, is strictly controlled
by the government so as to avoid having excess stock and thereby adversely affecting market stability. However, there are some gaps and loopholes and options open to the farmers. There is no obligation to grow rice that
would be used in the CRS system. And over the past couple of years we have seen more farmers move away from rice that could be used for sake brewing and growing vastly inferior rice that can be used for animal feed.
Why? Because government subsidies for fertilizers and insecticides and the like are higher for fields allotted to the animal-feed rice. On top of that, fields on which such animal-feed rice are grown do count toward the
allotment of land upon which a farmer is permitted to grow rice. So, they get more subsidies, and can grow as much as they want. No wonder they choose that over rice that could go through the CRS and be used for sake.
Why would animal-feed rice be favored? Because that limits the need to import it, helping to offset trade imbalances, as well as assisting local agricultural. Good reasons to be sure! But the effects on sake could
be big. How big? Hm. Once source has said that only 30 percent of the orders can be filled with inexpensive CRS rice, and that the cost of said rice would increase by as much as 25 percent. That will undoubtedly affect the
brewing industry in both profitability (to the degree that it actually exists!) and consumer prices too. Apparently the situation is fairly grave.
Note too that not absolutely everyone is affected. A few large and
stable breweries have the economies of scale in buying power to negotiate cheap enough prices for high enough volumes where they do not need such rice. So they are immune. And some premium brewers do not mess with that rice
either, using only contract-grown rice or top-grade sake rice. But most of the 1350 breweries remaining will be affected.
Also, the impending developments related to the multinational economic agreement known
as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, may drastically affect things as well by opening up Japan to very cheap rice imports – if, that is, Japan chooses to fully participate. When I asked one brewer about it, he
insisted it was a very good thing, and that Japan's rice system desparately needed to change, and that despite the short term pain in would be good for Japan in the long run. However, became so passionate (read: irate) that
I could not longer understand his rant, fading off into a local accent as he did. So the details were lost on me but I got the gist.
Next, remember, brewers have to buy all that rice up front. Which means, every
autumn, many have to significantly strain their finances just to start the season, the return on which they will not begin to see for a year at least. Securing and backing the requisite support in a fragile economy for a
contracting industry is another big issue.
There are more vagaries that the rice growing cartel, er, communities employ, and often the sake brewers themselves do not fully understand. I remember one brewer from
Shiga, near Kyoto, telling me that they were finally able to grow Yamada Nishiki in Shiga. "You mean, you could not grow it here before? But I know I have had Shiga sake made with Shiga-grown Yamada Nishiki," I asked
"Well," he stammered, "you can, but you cannot put it on the label – until now."
"Oh?," I continued. "Who controls that?" I asked out of sincere interest. Rice growing is controlled by one
industry, sake labeling by another. I sensed a disconnect. And so did he.
He thought a second, and said, "Wow. I don't know. That's just what the farmers told me. Let me check on that and get back to you!"
another brewer from Yamagata told me that he had been told that one could not put the name of the rice on the label unless the seeds came from an official source, i.e. the cooperative. Huh? Sez who? And enforced by who? Is
this the law, I asked?
"It's, uh, vague," said my Yamagata brewer friend. "And the frustrating thing is that the folks distributing the rice keep it that way. Those that know keep it vague! I could explore it
further, and challenge it, but I have other higher priorities. So we just deal with it," he acquiesced.
Sake is unique in many ways. For better or for worse, the extremely high cost of the raw material is one of
those ways. And the byzantine distribution system – while it serves some purpose indeed – is yet another. Let your understanding of this add to your appreciation of all that goes into the glass of sake before
Start of a New Brewing Year (BY)
While most sake is best young, sometimes sake is aged by the kura before being released. And sometimes, we can see an
indication of the year in which it was brewed. This should make it all simpler - provided we know how to read that information. The problem stems from two points: one, Japan does not use the same dating system as the West,
but rather a year-numbering system based on the reign of the current emperor, and two, a given sake brewing season stretches across two calendar years.
First of all, while Japan does relate to the fact that this is
2013, officially and traditionally it is called Heisei 25, or the 25th year of the era of Heisei. A bit of a mathematical hassle, especially when drinking, but not an insurmountable obstacle.
Next, sake brewing
starts in the fall of one year and ends in the spring. So, if a sake were labeled only as year 25, we would not know if it was the season of Fall '24 to Spring '25, or Fall '25 to Spring '26. These are two different years
as far as brewing is concerned, and can be likened to two totally different vintages in the wine world. So, we need a bit more detail.
This point did not escape the clever folks at the ministry of taxation, who also
needed a more efficient way to tax kura on their output. And so long ago they came up with the concept of the "Brewing Year," or BY. Just like fiscal years can differ from calendar years, in Japan the Brewing Year
runs from July 1 to June 30th of the following year. This, then, encompasses the entire brewing season of every brewer in the country in one clean 12-month period.
So, BY24 (it might also appear 24BY) ran from July 1
2012 until June 30 2013. And sake brewed last fall and into this spring would be considered part of BY24. And, BY24 just ended a few days ago, when we entered into BY25. So, even though calendar year 25 (read: 2013) is half
over, we just now started BY25.
How does this help you? Well, when you see a sake labeled, for example, BY23, you know that since Heisei 25 is 2013, this sake was brewed in the season beginning in the fall of 2011,
and running into the spring of 2012. That would make it about a year and a half to two years old; not at all odd for a sake of maturity and richness in style.
Again, since aged sake is such a small drop in the
bucket, you will rarely come across this. But if and when you see such mysterious nomenclature, you will know precisely how old your sake is.
Sake Professional Course
Dallas, Texas, August 8~10, 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.
* * * * * * * *
On Friday June 16, from 10:00 am until 8:00 pm, the Japan Sake and Shochu Producers Association will hold the 7th Annual Sake Fair at the World
Import Mart in Sunshine City in the Ikebukuro area of Tokyo. For a nominal fee, attendees can taste the sake submitted to the National New Sake Contest mentioned above, and can also taste sake from just about every brewer
in the country at the 50 or so booths set up to highlight the sake of each region, and also special sake interest groups, like those aging sake, or serving sake warm. Other sake-related toys, er, accoutrements and nibbles
will also be on sale. For more information, go here. Note, at 3pm on that day I myself will be giving a very short lecture on the appeal of sake, and that will be immediately followed by a tasting of sake paired with regional delicacies. Admission to that is free (once you paid the admission to the main event, that is!) but those interested need to fax or email in your reservations. Read their official announcement of the event here, and print out the form that you need 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 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
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
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.
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.