Sake Education Council Website is Live!

Posted March 17, 2011 by John Gauntner
Categories: Uncategorized

The Sake Educaction Council website is live! Please check it out to learn more about this sake certification body.

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 social media.


Houraitsuru: The Smallest Sake Brewery in Japan

Posted December 27, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake brewing, sake tasting, Sake-General Information

Shiki Jozo means year-round brewing. Since long ago, sake has for the most part been brewed only in the winter. The main reason for this is that fermentation takes place at lower temperatures, and so the ambient temperature needs to fairly low to control this. Another reason is that rice is harvested in the fall, and sake brewing begins after that.

But over the last 40 years or so, a handful of the nation’s largest breweries began to crank out sake in large, climate controlled factories all year round. For many reasons, only the largest breweries can pull this off.

Them, and Horaitsuru, the smallest sake brewery in Japan.

Horaitsuru was founded in 1805 in Hiroshima City. Back then, there was a lot of space, and it was not odd to have a sake brewery in the city. But times change. As less sake is consumed, more breweries go under each year. Eventually, Horaitsuru was faced with a difficult decision. They could not sell enough sake to continue the way they were, so they came up with a creative solution.

In November of 1995, they tore down the original brewery, and built in its place an apartment building. Narrow and tall, the gray-brick structure looks like any other apartment building in Japan. But this one is different: in its basement is the smallest sake brewery in the world.

The entire operation fits into a space of about 300 square meters. This includes a retail shop and tasting room. The “brewery” is a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned room in which all major steps of the brewing process take place.

Three people handle all the operations -brewing and business – the son, daughter-in-law and daughter of the previous generation. Naturally, we are not talking a lot of volume here. They brew just over 100 koku, which is about 2000 12-bottle cases.

With such spatial limitations, some steps – most notably rice milling  – are outsourced. But they have been truly ingenious in creating a fully-functioning “micro-kura” that produces very good sake. This is no mean feat.

The heart of the sake-brewing process, koji production, needs to take place at very specific temperatures and humidity levels. Here, they have solved this by putting up a small Gore-tex tent, and making the koji in there, in small (60 kg or so) batches.

Their three (cute) fermentation tanks lined up against one wall are of the size that most breweries use for the moto, or yeast starter. One tank is begun every two weeks or so throughout the year. Each is filled with about 180 kilograms of rice, maybe a tenth of the average sized tank for a small brewery.

The tank for the actual yeast starter is even cuter. It is about the size of a large pan for soup or stew, and is kept warm with a 60-watt light bulb placed underneath.

Amazingly, despite their small scale, they have a nice range of products. You would think they would want to keep it simple. But they have at least nine products, not counting any aged sake. Some is junmai, some is not, some is namazake (unpasteurized), some is pasteurized, and different rice is used as well. This is more than a lot of larger breweries can say.

How is the sake? Excellent. Balanced, tight, and overall light yet mature. Their junmai ginjo, in particular, is a fresh and soft sake with a solid acidity that emanates from the center of the flavor, tying it all together. The recess of the flavor is fairly full, with a wide but shallow range tinged with herbs and nuts. Unique indeed.

As one might expect, Horaitsuru is not likely available at your corner store. If you live in Japan, your best bet (unless you live in Hiroshima) is to call them and ask if they can ship.

If this interests you, you will want to check out my book: The Tokyo Sake Pub Guide A guide to 40 sake pubs in Tokyo. Note, this is a physical book, not a download.




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Red Sake?

Posted December 20, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake brewing, sake tasting, Sake-General Information

When you think about it, the realm of sake flavor profiles and types can be perceived as a bit, well, narrow, can it not? From the sweetest to the driest, from the most acidic to the least, from the roughest to the cleanest, we are not exactly talking about major bandwidth. This, in fact, can be the appeal of sake. Within that narrow range are deep but subtle facets to be explored.

And so it was that in 1970, a group of Niigata brewers got together, and thought “Hey, can’t we come up with something really different, but still have it recognized as decent sake?” The result was Akai-sake.

As might be gathered by the name, Akai-sake is red sake. It is indeed proper nihonshu. It tastes and smells like decent nihonshu. The alcohol content, the production process, the overall feel are all that of normal nihonshu. But it is red.

The first question obviously is “So, how do they do it?”

There are strains of koji (that mold that creates sugar from starch), appropriately named beni-koji, that creates a reddish tint in the final product.

Nothing holds more sway over the final flavor than the koji. And the choice of what strain to use is not trivial. But obviously they found one that gave color while maintaining a proper sake flavor profile.

In akai-sake, only a portion of the koji mold used is that which creates a red tint. Just enough to give the tint, not enough to adversely affect the flavor. That balance is delicate, but they have pulled it off quite well.

The color, when you have it in front of you in a proper glass, is more of a peach, or an orange-tinged red than a full-on crimson. Wine fans would call it a slightly off rose, without a doubt. Others might say auburn or persimmon laced. More importantly, it is lively colored, with a nice luster to it, and indeed looks quite appealing.

The flavor and fragrance were a bit surprising in their pleasantness. I expected roughness and acidity, with perhaps exacerbated sweetness to balance that, as is so common in sake that strays from the fold and hovers on the fringes. Not at all with this sake.

The fragrance is honey-laced young apple with a dash of cinnamon. The flavor is smooth and balanced, and while a bit sweet (*especially* for Niigata sake), it is not cloying at all. The sweetness is backed by a fruity astringency that is well within the envelope of enjoyableness.

That’s the good news. The bad news only exists if you are a purist. It is not premium sake at all, but rather bottom shelf – at least in terms of ingredients. There are added sugars (during fermentation) and acids for flavor-adjusting, as well as (likely copious amounts of) added distilled alcohol. In the end, it is more like a mixed drink than it is proper sake. But with its appealing color and flavor, for most folks it is an enjoyable product.

While a bit of an anomaly, and not likely to win any major awards, akai-sake is a variation on standard, straightforward nihonshu. While only brewed in Niigata, it is widely available.

Readers interested can find akai-sake at Daimaru Department Store at Tokyo station, among other places.

Check out The Sake Dictionary Get a grip on those pesky terms! And for a limited time, this product is yours for free with the purchase of any other product! While supplies last. How to claim your free copy.

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Nigori – That Cloudy White Sake

Posted December 13, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake brewing, Sake-General Information

Many people have inquired about the white, cloudy, usually opaque sake sometimes seen in shops and restaurants. Often readers liken it to a “icey pina colada.”What is it? How is it made, how does it differ from regular sake? How does it taste?

That is nigori-zake, which simply means “cloudy sake. “The “clouds” are nothing more than unfermented rice solids floating around inside.

Backing up a step or two, when sake is made, the rice ferments in a large tank for a period of anywhere between 18 and 36 days. The bubbly, chunky, fermenting mash at that time is referred to as the “moromi.” After that period, it is still a white, cloudy, soup of rice solids that could not ferment, yeast and other components. The clear, amber sake is then separated from these solids in one of several ways, all of which call for passing the sake through a mesh of some sort.

Sometimes this mesh is inside a pressure-driven machine, sometimes it is but a canvas bag into which the moromi has been poured. There are various ways, some better than others. But regardless of which method is used, the moromi passes through a mesh, with the pale amber ambrosia passing through and the white solids, or lees, remaining behind.

So, in most sake then, we have an almost clear liquid as the result of the pressing of the lees away from the sake. In nigori-zake, however, not all of the lees are pressed away; some of the unfermented solids are left behind deliberately, giving a rich, creamy, fabulously interesting flavor. Note this “leaving of the lees” is done in varying degrees, depending on the whims and fancies of the brewer.

There are several styles or forms that nigori-zake can take. Much nigori-zake is sweet and smooth and creamy in texture. One good example is Tsuki no Katsura from Kyoto, who makes quite a bit of nigori-zake; an inordinate percentage of their production in fact. This sake is apparently available in the US as well.

Then there is the “so chunky you’ll want to eat it with a fork” variety of nigori-zake, of which Biwa no Choju in Shiga is representative. Tart and rich, there are an abundance of recognizable unfermented rice grains floating that give it a special charm.

Next, there is the “still live and kicking” variety, in which the yeast is still very much active. Sake like this is not stable, and will change quickly, but it is indeed fun to try. Often, the bottles into which this has been put are equipped with special caps that allow the carbon dioxide to gently and slowly escape. This type of sake is often very tart and acidic, and while fun and lively, it may not appeal to those looking for a gourmet sipping experience. Shinkame from Saitama, a tiny brewery with unusual but wonderful sake all around, is the best example of this type of nigori-zake.

Naturally, nigori-zake does not offer the subtlety and refinement of good premium sake. Although it can indeed be tasty and fun, the remaining lees and their flavor easily overpower any other fragrances or gentle nuances of flavor. Also, nigori-zake should always be served a bit chilled.

Nigori-zake can be a bit harder to find, and not that much of it is produced. Its unique character seems to appeal to many, and it certainly worth a try once in a while.

To find out more about Nigori-Sake and other types and kinds of sake, check out The Sake Notebook and Slideshow Package. This combined package contains the basics of sake in a 14-page, easily digestible, very practical format that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, plus a 15-minute, gorgeously presented slideshow of the sake production process.


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Yamada Nishiki Rice Krispies?

Posted November 25, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Uncategorized

At a recent tasting party called “Umai-jan – Junmai-shu” (“Ain’t that junmai-shu tasty?”) a brewer from Kanagawa  (Hashiba-san from Izumibashi) gifted all 250 attendees with a little bag of puffed rice made from Kanagawa Prefecture-grownYamada Nishiki (basically the best variety of sake rice, albeit a ways out of its best growing region) and  bit of a rice called “Wasanbon” from Tokushima. The guy next to me, a retired gov’t taster, went off about how they made it.

“Somehow they heat it up then all of a sudden reduce the pressure… ” he was still yakkin’ away but I had figured it out (and returned to my sipping, albeit politely): they’re basically Rice Krispies. They are a bit sweet too, but I have no idea when enzymes for starch to sugar conversion would have been involved, so I am assuming they added sugar. Another similarity to Rice Krispies.  This may be the most extravagant breakfast cereal ever.

Don’t these guys have, like, sake to brew?

Umami Explained

Posted November 22, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake-General Information

It was long thought that the human tongue can only sense four flavors: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Recently, however, western science is catching up to Eastern intuition in identifying a fifth bona fide flavor: umami.

Unfortunately, umami does not have a simple English translation. It is best described as that aspect of a yummy food or drink that makes you say, “Mm, that’s good. I think I’ll have a bit more of that!” Some examples from the plethora of words that close in on the meaning of umami include: deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, savory, well-rounded… you get the picture.

Umami has been found to be caused by several substances, including the amino acid glutamate, and its chemical salt form monosodium glutamate, the much-maligned MSG. Although a small percentage of the population is allergic to MSG, it has over the past few years been considered safe for almost everyone. When present in its “free” form, i.e. not bound to other amino acids, glutamate exudes umami.

Sake is often described as having umami, or not having umami. Not surprisingly, it is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle). However, one cannot simply say “the more umami the better.” It is very much a matter or preference.

Dry, light sake often has little umami at all, and is indeed prized for just that quality. Other styles of sake have that rich, meaty quality that umami describes, and are in demand for that. Tasting a wide range of sake help determine your own preferences.

Although it is not what everyone wants, too little umami in any sake will make it taste thin and weary. Yet, too much umami can often correlate to “zatsumi” (off-flavors), or a rough and noisy flavor profile. As in all things sake, balance is best. Other factors, like sweet/dry and acidity, must be taken into account to strike that balance.

Much cheap, mass produced sake, with its gads of added distilled alcohol, is low on umami. Fine, top-grade ginjo-shu sake may not be considered, upon sipping, to have much umami, as it would cloy the deeper recesses of flavor and elegant fragrances it was brewed to exude. But nor would it be considered lacking in umami.

What it comes down to is that sturdier stratums of sake, like typical junmai-shu, are more often where good, solid umami-laden sake can be found. But there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake that these guidelines are all generalizations that cannot hold a candle to tasting experience.

If you’d like to learn more, perhaps you would find the Sake Notebook useful. This 14 page .pdf  resource lays out the basics of sake in an easily digestible, very practical format that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, and provides enough education on all things sake to fuel your study, appreciation and enjoyment of sake for years to come.

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The Brewing Process

Posted November 14, 2010 by John Gauntner
Categories: Sake brewing, Sake-General Information

Picture this: It’s early spring, and as the last few cherry blossom petals flutter down, sakagura (sake breweries) everywhere are seeing the light at the end of the brewing season’s tunnel. Soon enough, there will be nothing left to do but wait for the moromi (fermenting concoction) in the tanks to run its course.

At this stage, the sake is still a white, milky mash of sake, yeast, and unfermented rice solids. Before it is ready to drink, the clear sake must be pressed away, separated from the lees of the mash. This process is called shibori, or joso.

This pressing process has been taking place at each brewery since the late fall, as each batch is pressed immediately following its 18 to 35 day ferment. In fact, the timing of this step is of crucial importance in determining the quality of the final product. There are several methods by which this shibori is accomplished.

By far the most common is by machine. The moromi is pumped by hose to something resembling a five-meter accordion, which slowly compresses the solids between mesh screens, sending the fresh-squeezed nihonshu out a hose. Technically known as an assaku-ki, but more often referred as a Yabuta (in honor of the company monopolizing the market), the amount of labor it saves is immense as the process is almost completely automated.

Much sake, however, is still pressed the old way. It’s significantly more labor intensive, but it does arguably lead to better sake.  Some would say that the difference is all but negligible, but the market gets what the market demands.

The moromi is first poured into small cotton bags, which are laid in a large wooden box, on top of which a lid is placed. Known as a fune, the sake is pressed out by cranking the lid down into this box.

Whichever method is used, just-pressed sake, known as shibori-tate, has a charm all its own. The alcohol content is high, about 20 percent, as it has not been “cut” with water yet to bring it down to the usual 16% or so. The flavor is much what you’d expect: young and somewhat brash, and could do with a bit of mellowing.

At this stage in the brewing process, you’ll find it is a fine time to try shiboritate. Most sake shops carry it. Much of what is available at this point is also namazake, or unpasteurized sake. Although it may not present the finely-hewn profile that six months of aging will lend it, nama shiboritate will always impress and please with its liveliness and freshness.

I hope this gave you an inside-view of what the process of brewing sake is all about.  If you’d like to see some stunning visuals of the process, I offer you a 15-minute, gorgeously presented slide-show available for download here: Sake Production Slideshow.



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