Sake World Email Newsletter #177
July, 2015

Dozo, dozo!

In This Issue

National New Sake Tasting
Going Against The Grain
Sake Professional Course
Sake Education Central

Quick Links
Sake World Website
More About Us
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Early Summer Greetings to all readers 


I hope that you are well. The rainy season in Japan is moving toward closure, and the ajisai (hydrangea) flowers are perhaps just past their peak, but still glorious to behold. Just ask the gazillion tourists here in my town; but I digress.

Herein read about a bit about the National New Sake Tasting competition, at which I was privileged enough to judge this year, also learn a bit about how modern brewers go against what has been common sense for decades if not centuries. Check out the final announcement for the last dozen seats for the Sake Professional Course in sunny Miami Beach, Florida August 17 to 19. 

Oh, and Happy New Year? Why today, July 1? Since it is the first day of the new Brewing Year. Find out why here

Enjoy the newsletter with a glass of natsu (summer) ginjo! 

Warm regards,

Sake Today Issue #5 - now available! 

Issue #5 of Sake Today has shipped, as those of you that are subscribers well know! If you have not yet subscribed, now is the time to do that. You can do that here, Like, now.

Like the first four issues, Issue 5 is chock-full of sake information on many levels with something for everyone interested in sake. Learn more about this issue’s content here. You can order issue #1, #2, #3, #4 or all five in a package - and subscribe.

The digital version for your e-reader is ready for download too, and that includes iTunes. You can a lso view some content online as well. So check out now - and keep current on all things sake.

If you subsribed to Sake Today from the beginning, first and foremost, thank you! And if you have not done so yet, now would be a great time to renew your subscription

Sake Confidential - Now available

Sake Confidential

Sake Confidential is a beyond-the-basics guide to the sake world, and after a short introductory chapter on all things sake, it goes into depth on many topics not usually touched upon. It is a practical and concise yet complete guide to sake idiosyncrasies, misperceptions, and controversies presented in a conversational and informal tone. Easy to read and frank, it also includes sake recommendations tied into each of the topics presented.

Read a veritable cornucopia of reviews here a New York Times brief mention here, and order from your favorite bookseller here as well. 

National New Sake Tasting Competition
In all its historical glory...

Each year in May, the most prestigious sake contest in the world is held in
Hiroshima. The Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai is a tasting of newly-brewed sake from all over Japan, and is a measure of the technical skill of the brewers in the industry. Its purpose is to encourage the brewing industry to constantly work to push the envelope of brewing expertise.

The name of the event is best translated as the National New Sake Tasting Appraisal, although for some reason the official English name is the Annual Japan Sake Awards.

This year, the 103rd running of the event, I was so privileged as to be the first person outside of the sake industry to participate as a judge in the finals. It was an incredibly amazing thing to do, and I really felt the pressure of the responsibility. And it may have been the coolest thing I have ever had the opportunity of experiencing. 

The organization that runs the contest is the National Research Institute of Brewing, which was for most of its 111 year existence a government entity, although that changed a few years back.

Rather than drone on about details, here I want to highlight some of the special characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the contest, and a bit about how the tasting is conducted, all with the goal of promoting more interest in the yearly event.

This year, 852 of the 1200-odd sake breweries in Japan submitted a sake to the contest. That number is actually up by seven from last year, even though the number of active breweries declined a bit. This is likely due a changing of the guard in the industry, with younger brewery owners perhaps a bit more enthusiastic than their predecessors.

It is not the be-all end-all of sake contests, nor is it universally loved. A few brewers choose to summarily pass and not even play the game. And most consumers here in Japan are not even aware of it! But still, it is historically, culturally and technically a very interesting event even if it does have a narrow focus.

It works thusly: All the sake is tasted blindly in a preliminary round by a panel of judges over three days. Each judge tastes solo, with no discussion of merits or faults. And the scoring is scathingly simple: the sake is assessed a 1 (the best) to a 5 (the worst). In the preliminary round, comments are also recorded for feedback to the brewers. Those that score well enough advance to the final round. While there is no clear dividing line, it usually ends up being about half of the sake.

A couple of weeks later, the final round takes place, with a judging by a
One, two or three. That's it.
panel of 24 judges over two days. This time, it is even more brilliantly (brutally?) simple: each sake is assessed a 1, a 2 or a 3. That’s it. Full stop. No discussion, no comments; do not pass go, do not collect $200.

And after this round, a slightly vague clean break in the scores is again used as the dividing line. Those that do well enough here (again, usually about half of the qualifying sake) are awarded a “Kinsho,” or gold medal. The remaining half of the sake that made it to this round are recognized as well.

The sake are of course tasted blindly. They are not arranged geographically or in any logical order such as that. They are, however, clustered into groups of similar aromatic potency. The thinking is that a very aromatic sake may impair the taster’s ability to be fair to a subsequent sake that is less fruity. So all the submissions have an aromatic component called ethyl caproate measured using a spectrometer before the event, and are presented in groups of their perfumed peers, so to speak.

Contest Sake
The sake submitted by most of the breweries is a bit intense, kind of like daiginjo on steroids. It is not normal sake available on the market (with some exceptions), but is brewed especially for this contest. While some folks may (and some do) ask “what’s the point?,” keep in mind the purpose here is to assess and promote technical skill. Odd though it may sound, long-session drinkability is not the major consideration.

And as a rational concession to this point, we were instructed that we could lower our score of a sake by one point if we felt that, as good and flaw-free as it might be, it was not something we could chill out with and actually drink. This was, I thought, a very reasonable way to do things.

In terms of actual execution, the 24 of us had 50 minutes to taste 50 sake, which was just about the right amount of time. Then we had a ten minute break, and we went on to the next 50 sake in 50 minutes. We went through five increasingly grueling rounds of this on day one, and three-and-a-half rounds on day two.

I imagine that the preliminary tasting is harder, since by the time we got to them in the finals, the weird stuff had been weeded out. Having said that, I had trouble assessing a score of "3" to many of the sake, since everything there had already cleared the preliminaries!

Almost all of the sake submitted were made using some added alcohol, i.e. are not junmai types. This makes sense since the added alcohol helps bring out flavor and aroma (the sake are also watered down again, so are not, in the end, fortified). Nevertheless, there were 121 junmai sake in there, up seven from last year.

Interestingly, I heard one industry expert vociferously complain about the junmai submissions. He feels that some brewers just unthinkingly threw a junmai type in there, not expecting it to win, but rather to express their commitment to fanatical junmai-ism, so to speak, or rather against the practice of adding alcohol.

“It is distracting to the judges that are trying to concentrate, and such sake is irrelevant to the contest. It is as if they are sabotaging the dignity of the event,” he explained. Certainly this is only one opinion, but I can very clearly see its merits, and his point as well.

In the end, 415 received an award this year, of which 222 were gold medals.

As has been the case for the past several years, the Tohoku region (the six prefectures on the northern extreme of Japan’s main island, Honshu) kicked butt again. In particular, Fukushima Prefecture won 24 gold medals, far away from the next-most of 15 won by Yamagata (also in Tohoku) and Niigata. The dominance of the region continues.

Amber glasses and spitoons
One interesting idiosyncrasy of the event, evident in the photos here, is that the sake is all tasted from simple amber-colored tumblers. Why amber? Because that hides any color in the sake, which is done, it is said, to prevent tasters from imposing a prejudice on sake based on any semblance of amber color which might skew their opinion. Are such glasses, with their simple shape, the best for sake like this? Not likely, in the opinion of many. But at least all the sake are tasted under the same conditions. I am also not sure that the colored glass solution is the most appropriate solution to misplaced perceptions. But this is the way it has long been done.

In the end, the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai has a long and storied history, complete with false starts and offshoots. And it is a brilliant yearly event that has maintained its significance in the sake industry. Furthermore, the NRIB is reaching out to the world with the event, and it is important to the sake industry to support that.

As evidence of that reaching out, you can learn more about the NRIB in English here. Also, you can learn more about the particulars of the contest here. And finally, you can see the results in English here.

Should the contest and the NRIB interest you, by all means, please check out all three.

Post-milling: Going Against The Grain

Sakaya Banryu. 

Special A Yamada Nishiki

This little expression says so much, and holds so much veracity in the sake world. What it literally means is there are ten thousand ways to make sake. What it implies is that, even though all brewers are doing their best to make good sake, each kura does things a little bit differently. No two places do it the same. 

It is not uncommon at all to have two brewers that have the very same goal, but do things in the exact opposite manner to achieve that goal. Nor is it unheard of to have something that has long been accepted as common sense to be shown to actually be the wrong way to do it. And herein lies one of the most fascinating aspects of the sake world. We’ll never get it all down. We’ll never get bored. 

Let’s look at an example that has been garnering attention for a couple of years. 

Bagged Sake Rice

When sake is made, the first step is milling the rice. In particular for the special sake rice used in making premium sake, milling removes the fat and protein hovering in the outer regions, leaving only the starch in the center of the grains behind. Especially for premium sake, this must be done ever-so-gently, so that the milling process does not crack or break the rice. That would be a bad thing, for many reasons. 

However: the milling process itself employs friction, which means heat, which means that the rice gets dried out. That alone makes the rice more fragile, and more susceptible to structural damage. 

Next, the rice will be soaked to very precisely adjust the moisture as well as the distribution of that moisture within the grain. Like, more moisture in the center, where the starch is and where the enzymes in the koji mold need to go, and less moisture near the outside of the grain. 

And herein comes the reversal of what has been considered common sense for decades upon decades, if not longer. 

It used to be, and still is for many, conventional thinking that soaking the

Soaking rice before steaming

dry rice just after having been milled would cause the rice to crack as the water rushed in to the overly dry rice. So what everyone did, and what most brewers in fact still do, is to leave the rice sitting around for about two weeks. It sits in controlled conditions and in semi-porous paper bags, and slowly absorbs moisture from the ambient environment so that when it is later soaked, it is not so parched and therefore less likely to break or crack. It’s just the way everyone thought it had to be done. 

Enter the rice-milling-machine company Shin Nakano. While they have a comparatively small share of the market, they focus more on sake rice milling machines rather than the machines for general rice milling, and put more R&D into sake rice milling as well. 

And they came out with scientific evidence from their testing that actually

Slowly reabsorbing moisture

the opposite is true. In other words, data showed that by wrapping the just-milled rice in plastic to actually prevent it from re-absorbing more moisture, there was less cracking and breakage of the rice when they did wash and then soak it. Less breakage. Wow. Whodathunkit. 

At first, just a few brewers had the courage to try it this way, but as of last year, Shin Nakano has apparently been conducting seminars to demonstrate to more and more brewers the merits of going against the grain, so to speak, pun most definitely intended. 

Some of the brewers to whom I have spoken are still reticent; others have totally embraced this new-fangled method, including many of the young whippersnappers in the industry (read: its future). But all are at least taking the scientifically sound data seriously. 

Is this a major change that will spin the sake-brewing world upside down on its north and south pole axis? Nah. Not at all. But it is still fascinating that after all these decades something new can be discovered that makes it easier to make great sake, and that has been anathema until very recently. 

Sakaya Banryu. Ten thousand ways, indeed.


Announcements and Events

Sake Professional Course in Florida, August 17-19

Fermenting moromi (mash) under the window

The next Sake Professional Course is scheduled for Miami Beach Florida, August 17-19, at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand Hotel, within which sits the South Beach Morimoto Restaurant. This is the first Sake Professional Course to be held in this part of the country and promises to be a particularly enjoyable running of the course. 

Note that interest is high and as of this point in time there are but a dozen seats remaining open. 

More information is available here, and testimonials from graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day course wraps up with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me. 

Following that, the next one is tentatively scheduled for the fall in the northeast part of the US. If you are interested, feel free to send me an email to that purport now; I will keep track of your interest!


Sake Education Council Website

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.

Don't forget the archives!

Older editions of this newsletter are archived here.

Sake Education Central

Sake's Hidden Stories and The Sake Notebook are now available for the Kindle, Nook and iBooks!

The Sake Notebook is now available for the Kindle as well as the Nook. And now, it is available for iBooks on iTunes as well!

Sake's Hidden Stories too is now availabe on the Kindle as well as the Nook. And now, it is available for iBooks on iTunes as well!

Both are less expensive than their original pdf version too. Now is your chance to learn more about sake from your phone or tablet! Check 'em out!

Sake Dictionary App for the iPhone, iPod and iPad
The Sake Dictionary App

"For 99 cents, this app ROCKS!!"
     -a satisfied customer

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!) 

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Sincere apologies for the hassle, mixed with gratitude for reading this newsletter.

I hope you have found the above information helpful and entertaining. For more information about all things sake, please check out Until next month, warm regards, and enjoy your sake.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at this 
John Gauntner
email address.

All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.


John Gauntner
Sake World, Inc.

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