Archive for the ‘sake tasting’ 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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Heating Sake – Tips and Tricks

September 13, 2010

There seems to be a theory that how you heat sake affects how it tastes. More precisely, putting sake in the microwave is frowned upon by many tipplers and connoisseurs. Sake warmed in hot water and sake warmed in a microwave taste completely different, or the theory goes.

Well, I took it upon myself to find out the truth. I am more of a traditionalist in most things, but this just didn’t make sense. Energy is energy, and it shouldn’t make a hoot of difference!

I began with one of my absolute favorites for warmed sake: Kamoizumi from Hiroshima. Rich, earthy and straw colored, I felt I could easily note any differences that arose.

Next, the vessels. Got to be Bizen. I selected two Bizen tokkuri and two Bizen chokko, almost identical. I warmed the tokkuri themselves in warm water beforehand, as they were quite cold off-the-shelf. I also allowed the sake to come up to room temperature before beginning to avoid the unpredictability of drastic temperature changes.

I then got a thermometer. Even slight differences in temperature affect flavor, so I wanted to control the process as much as I could. I used the O-kan meter, a thermometer specifically designed for tokkuri insertion – which I recommend for those with disposable time and income. It has these wings on the top that keep it from sinking all the way into a tokkuri. If you’re in Japan, you can find it at Seibu Loft for 1000 yen. A must-buy for sake otaku (geeks).

One tokkuri of sake was heated in a microwave oven, and checked every 20 seconds or so. The other was simultaneously heated in a pan of water over a gas flame. When the temperature of each reached 48°C, my arbitrarily chosen target for the exercise, I had my assistant fill the two chokko, not telling me which was which. And I sipped.

And sipped. And slurped, swished and thought. And sniffed. And what did I find?

There was, to my honest and great surprise, a difference.  The flame-heated sake was ever so slightly livelier. Almost imperceptible, it was, but there was indeed a difference. The microwaved sake was a bit quieter. It seemed to me that the flame-heated version brought out more of the original nature of the sake.

It wasn’t just me. In an equally blind test, my assistant came up with the exact same results. The flame-heated sake was a bit livelier.

However, we really had to search for that difference. We had to try as hard as we could to find it. Considering how much effort went into the flame heating and how little went in to the microwave version, I would go out on a limb and say it isn’t worth it. The purists might boil me (or microwave me) alive for saying so, but unless you are going to focus on nothing but the sake, the labor/performance curve is in favor of the microwave.

So, try it yourself and let me know what you discover with your taste-test, I’d love to have hear about your experiments.

More to Come

Coming up in a future post learn about why it is still hard to get great sake in America. For more information on great sake take a look at the Sake Notebook where you can discover 250 different sake to try – either heated or cooled – it’s up to you!  If you’d like to try more than 90 varieties of Sake and receive your Level 1 Sake Specialist Certification, 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

Sake: Some Like it Hot, Some Like it Cold

September 6, 2010

The question often arises: How do you know which sake to drink hot and which sake to drink cold? With most Asian restaurants serving sake piping hot out of sake-warming machines, and others insisting sake be drunk chilled, it may be confusing.

The quick answer is this: in general, good sake is served cold. Sake that is served warm is served that way for two reasons: one, that is the older, traditional way to serve sake and two, heating masks inferiority.

But wait! It is not all that simple! The above is just an executive summary. There is so much more that needs to be said. Most importantly, that there is plenty of good sake, premium sake even, that is quite good when gently warmed. Plenty indeed! It is too easy, in this era of chilled premium ginjo sake, to overlook how fine warm sake can be, especially in the winter.

Which brings us back to the first question: How do you know whether to warm a sake or to serve it chilled? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely an empirical exercise a matter of personal preference.

Many sakagura (sake breweries) will tell you that a particular sake of theirs is especially tasty when warmed. Some list that information right on the label. Also, tasting a wide variety of sake at a wide variety of temperatures will soon make it clear which flavor profiles appeal to you at warm temperatures and which do not.

First, a little history and background as to why the whole issue has come about. Long ago, almost all sake was served warm, or even hot. Sake back then was much rougher, and heating it smoothed out the rough edges, making it more palatable. Even sake that was considered decent back then would suffer little from being warmed.

Things that were done “ong ago” often become tradition. And so, serving sake warmed became tradition. Even today, in Japan as elsewhere, most sake is consumed warm or hot, especially in traditional little pubs and restaurants.

But there is more than just tradition to the why of it. Heating, as mentioned before, masks off-flavors and smells. The curiosity of drinking a hot alcoholic beverage replaces the Epicurean approach. It can be fun to slam down piping hot sake poured from tokkuri (flagons) into those cutesy little cups (o-choko). How the sake at hand tastes or smells becomes a secondary issue, and all too often counting how many you’ve had becomes tertiary at best. No doubt, this has its appeal.

More to come
In an upcoming post discover my results of heating sake with a flame and with the microwave  – some very interesting results, indeed! I’ll also share some of the new advancements in heating and cooling sake. For more information on sake, check out the Sake Notebook, a 14-page guide 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.  To  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

Tell us what do you prefer – do you like it hot, cold or both?  You can share your comments below!

Throwing a Sake Tasting Q & A

May 11, 2010

by John Gauntner

With the current availability of an ever-increasing number of sake brands out there, it is becoming more and more feasible to do an in-home tasting with a small-to-medium group. What is great about this is that, for a relatively reasonable cost, you can expose yourself and your friends to a wide range of sake flavor profiles, as well as brands you might have heard of, seen recommended, or just want to try – and do it all at once.

An event like this will surely save you tons of time, effort and money in your sake education efforts, and is highly recommended in that light alone. They can also be tons of fun! But… where to start? How many sake should you all taste at once? From what glasses? In what order? How much of each type of sake should you order? What kind of set-up works best? What about food or nibbles? And how much should you spend to do it? Should you drink it or use a spittoon? Naturally, there are no simple or all-encompassing answers to any of these questions but. because tastings like these are relatively easy to do now, and so worth it in terms of fostering and furthering sake education, here is a simple set of guidelines presented to make it all easier, less daunting, and more appealing.

Q: How many sake should we taste?

Between six and ten is best. Six, if well chosen for diversity, seems to allow participants to concentrate and retain the most information and impressions, but this can be too few for some. More than ten; though, and it all starts to blur together.

Q: How much of each sake should you prepare?

Well, that depends on a lot of things, now doesn’t it? How formal is your tasting? Will you let it degenerate into a fun party afterwards, or will everyone remain more formal and restrained? (Hint: you need less for the latter, more for the former.) What is your threshold for having too much or some left over versus that for running out?

But let us assume some boundary conditions. Let us say everyone will drink an average of two full glasses, each about the size of a wine glass, over the course of the tasting. Let us assume you have six sake, each 720 ml bottle of which holds four full servings. (A large, 1.8 liter bottle will hold ten.) If you have 12 people, that is 12 x 2 = 24 servings, at four per bottle that is exactly six bottles, i.e. one bottle per each of six types. Voila! If you have more people, want more types of sake, or expect a higher consumption per capita, tweak the formula above appropriately. Finally, factor in your willingness to have some left over (that can be raffled off, argued over, or given as prizes) or to run out early. Throw in a dollop of good ole’ intuition, and you’ll be set.

Q: What sake types should be used; what of budget?

A basic rule of thumb would be “stress to impress.” There is no reason to have a tasting of premium sake and then have people leave saying, “Ah, ‘tsawright. Nuttin’ that special. I’ll go back to m’wine now.” Having said that, having a lineup of only top grade sake, like all daiginjo, would defeat a different purpose: that of showing the diversity of sake styles that are out there. So one great way to do it is to include a rather full-flavored, reasonably priced sake like a junmai-shu or two, and then kind of insert sake at several price points on the way up, with a good healthy crescendo at the top. Definitely include one sake to blow everyone’s doors off. And, remembering the guideline that 90% of the time sake is fairly priced with a reputable local dealer, this should be painless.

Q: What of glassware?

Wine glasses work excellently, especially for ginjo. But in a pinch, simple tumblers work fine too. In Japan, for proper and official tastings, large tumbler-like glasses are almost always the glass of choice; although, often smaller glasses are used as well in industry tasting events. Almost never does one see glasses with tapered sides like wine glasses used for sake in Japan. But the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article (and don’t hold much water anyway, no pun intended). I reiterate that wine glasses work very well.

Q: In what order should the sake be tasted?

A simple approach and; perhaps, the most conventional, is in order of increasing price. This would generally mean heavier and fuller to lighter and more refined. It allows the palate to warm up before getting into the subtler stuff. However, if you know the sake well (or taste it beforehand), a great way to line them up is so that each one is vastly different from the last. So, you might go from full to light to wildly fruity to subtle to earthy. This keeps everyone in a constant state of surprise and interest, instead of lulling them into a mentally complacent state in which their preconceived notions of what is next affects their true sensory input.

Q: How should sake be lined up? What of logistics?

The easiest way is to line them up on a long table that can be accessed from both sides. Preparing a written list of the sake in the same order is important, with room for those all-important tasting notes. This way, folks can go in a prescribed order, but can also dart in and out along the line, and after running through them once can go back to double-check and taste a bit more of their favorites. Access from both sides of the table prevents lines from unnecessarily forming.

Q: What kind of food / snacks should be served?

Hmm. Actually, it might be best to have no food or; perhaps, a few mild-flavored or slightly salty snacks during the sake tasting part. After that, perhaps the sake can all be passed around during a larger meal, but keeping it minimal during the tasting fosters concentration.

Q: Should you drink the sake, or spit?

Nothing can replace the sensory input of tasting a sake and swallowing it too. But neither can anything replace the unique blend of confusion and apathy that sets in after a very short time when one does not spit. Should you have something into which to expectorate readily available, perhaps the optimum compromise is to spit at the beginning then just drink it later on when the tasting mellows out.

Of course, each event and involved group will have their own conditions dictating adaptations to the above. But organizing a tasting along the general framework presented here should do you fairly well in terms of fostering a growing interest in sake amongst you and yours.