Archive for the ‘Sake brewing’ category

Houraitsuru: The Smallest Sake Brewery in Japan

December 27, 2010

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?

December 20, 2010

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

December 13, 2010

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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The Brewing Process

November 14, 2010

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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The Sake-Brewing Process (Part 3)

August 30, 2010

For information on the first steps of sake brewing please visit part one and part two of the sake brewing process.

Finally, most sake is left to age about six months, rounding out the flavor, before shipping. Before shipping it is mixed with a bit of pure water to bring the near 20 percent alcohol down to 16 percent or so, and blended to ensure consistency. Also, it is usually pasteurized a second time at this stage.

Changes Over the Years
Over the centuries, there were many adjustments and changes to the sake brewing process. These arose to either make better sake, or to make sake more economically. Sometimes, advances in the economic forum also lead to improved sake quality.

One of the most important advances was the improvement in rice-polishing equipment. Originally, rice was stomped in a vat to remove the husks. Later, water wheels and grinding stones were used. Today, there are great computer-controlled machines that will polish off the specified percentage of the outside of the grains, and do it in a specified amount of time (with longer being better). This minimizes damage from friction heat and cracked grains.

Another major advance was the use of ceramic-lined or stainless steel tanks, now the standard, over cedar tanks, which were used for hundreds of years. This has drastically improved the quality and purity of sake since the beginning of this century.

Then there is the pressing stage. Until the early 1900’s, all sake was pressed by pouring the moromi into canvas bags which were then put into a large wooden box called a fune. The lid was then cranked down into the box, squeezing out the sake. Now almost all sake is pressed with a huge, accordion-like machine that squeezes the moromi between balloon-like inflating panels, making disposal of the lees (called kasu) simple.

Almost all breweries will still press some of their best sake in the old way, using a fune. It does make noticeably better sake. But the accordion-like machine (called an Assaku-ki) is so much more efficient, and the fune so labor intensive, that the trade-offs are only worth it for top-grade sake.

Most controversially, however, is the koji making equipment. It is truly amazing how the slightest differences in koji can affect the flavor of the final product. Traditionally, koji is all made by hand in wood-paneled rooms kept warm and humid. As this is such a labor-intensive step, many changes have come about, and a lot of them are rejected later. (It is interesting to note that almost all super premium sake like daiginjo is made using hand-made koji.)

There are now large machines that will perform part or all of the koji making process, doing the work of several individuals.

Visual Explanation
If you would like an even more in depth look at brewing sake take a look at the Sake Production Slideshow, an indispensable tool to help you visually understand how sake is made. Confused by some of the terminology?  Get the Sake Dictionary, a downloadable guide to Sake terms, there’s also an iPhone app, so you can easily look up terms when you’re on-the-go!  Plus, if you’d like to sample more than 90 varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course  in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at

The Sake-Brewing Process (Part 2)

August 23, 2010

For information on the first steps of sake brewing please visit part one of the sake brewing process.

Koji Making (Seigiku)
This is the heart of the entire brewing process,  and could have several chapters, if not books, written about it. Summarizing, koji mold in the form of a dark, fine powder is sprinkled on steamed rice that has been cooled. It is then taken to a special room where a higher than average humidity and temperature are maintained. Over the next 36 to 45 hours, the developing koji is checked, mixed and re-arranged constantly. The final product looks like rice grains with a slight frosting on them, and smells faintly of sweet chestnuts. Koji is used at least four times throughout the process, and is always made fresh and used immediately. Therefore, any one batch goes through the “heart of the process” at least four times.

The yeast starter (shubo or moto)
A yeast starter, or seed mash of sorts, is first created. This is done by mixing finished koji and plain steamed white rice from the steaming and koji making steps, water and a concentration of pure yeast cells. Over the next two weeks, (typically) a concentration of yeast cells that can reach 100 million cells in one teaspoon is developed.

The mash (moromi)
After being moved to a larger tank, more rice, more koji and more water are added in three successive stages over four days, roughly doubling the size of the batch each time. This is the main mash, and as it ferments over the next 18 – 32 days, its temperature and other factors are measured and adjusted to create precisely the flavor profile being sought.

Pressing (joso)
When everything is just right (no easy decision!), the sake is pressed. Through one of several methods, the white lees (called kasu) and unfermented solids are pressed away, and the clear sake runs off. This is most often done by machine, although the older methods involving putting the moromi in canvas bags and squeezing the fresh sake out, or letting the sake drip out of the bags, are still used.

Filtration (roka)
After sitting for a few days to let more solids settle out, the sake is usually charcoal filtered to adjust flavor and color. This is done to different degrees at different breweries, and is goes a long way in dictating the style.

Most sake is then pasteurized once. This is done by heating it quickly by passing it through a pipe immersed in hot water. This process kills off bacteria and deactivates enzymes that would likely adverse flavor and color later on. Sake that is not pasteurized is called namazake, and maintains a certain freshness of flavor, although it must be kept refrigerated to protect it.

More to come
There are some final steps to brewing sake that will be covered in next weeks’ post. If you would like an even more in depth look at brewing sake take a look at the Sake Production Slideshow, an indispensable tool to visually understand how sake is made.  To learn more about Sake and sample more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at

The Sake-Brewing Process (Part 1)

August 16, 2010

The many steps of the sake brewing process are so inter-related, yet with each one constituting a universe unto itself, it is close to futile to try to put it into a few words. But we must try and the simplest of overviews would look something like this;

Steamed rice and koji (rice cultivated with koji mold, technically known as aspergillus oryzae) are first mixed with yeast to make a yeast starter, in which there is a very high concentration of yeast cells. After that, more rice, koji, and water are added in three batches over four days. This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.

This would be enough to get you through most conversations. But let us look at the process a bit more closely. Here are the main steps and processes:

Rice Milling
After proper sake rice (in the case of premium sake, anyway) has been secured, it is milled, or polished, to prepare it for brewing good sake. This is not as simple as it might sound, since it must be done gently so not too much heat is generated (which adversely affects water absorption) or not crack the rice kernels (which is not good for the fermentation process).

Washing and Soaking
Next, the white powder (called nuka) left on the rice after polishing is washed away, as this makes a significant difference in the final quality of the steamed rice. (It also affects the flavor of table rice; try washing your rice very thoroughly and notice the difference in consistency and flavor.) Following that, it is soaked to attain a certain water content deemed optimum for steaming that particular rice. The degree to which the rice has been milled in the previous step determines what its’ pre-steaming water content should be. The more a rice has been polished, the faster it absorbs water and the shorter the soaking time. Often it is done for as little as a stopwatch-measured minute, sometimes it is done overnight.

Next the rice is steamed. Note this is different from the way table rice is prepared. It is not mixed with water and brought to a boil; rather, steam is brought up through the bottom of the steaming vat (traditionally called a koshiki) to work its way through the rice. This gives a firmer consistency and slightly harder outside surface and softer center. Generally, a batch of steamed rice is divided up, with some going to have koji mold sprinkled over it, and some going directly to the fermentation vat.

More to come
There are many other steps involved in brewing sake that will be covered in future posts. If you would like an even more in depth look at brewing sake take a look at the Sake Production Slideshow, an indispensable tool to visually understand how sake is made.