Sake World Email Newsletter #126
August, 2010

Douzo, douzo!

In This Issue


Method over Mold

Did You Know?

Sake Basics

Announcements and Events: Sake Professional Course in Portland and a new sake educational blog

Sake Education Central

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Mid-summer greetings to all readers.

I live in Kamakura, about an hour south of Tokyo, a small city that Buddhist Monks Moving Through the Streetswas the military capital of Japan from 1185 to 1332. In the eight centuries since then, no one has bothered to widen the streets. And you can imagine what that means.

Back in da day, when the very first shogun set up camp in this village, surrounded as it is by mountains on three sides and the ocean on the fourth, it was a very significant place. As such, countless temples and shrines were established. While the shogunate moved after a scant century or so, the temples, shrines and history remain intact.

It is still common for Buddhist monks associated with local temples to beg for alms as part of their training. This is, I am told, more common amongst trainees and younger monks. The older ones just use an ATM card.

A while back I was sitting there, working away, with the windows open in a futile attempt to stay cool and dry. I live extremely close to three temples, close enough see the bells of one. Wafting in came one of the most eerie sounds I have ever heard.

At first, it scared me, until I realized what it was. A veritable crowd of monks was going door to door begging for alms, chanting sutra as they moved through the neighborhood. I have heard - and chanted - sutra before. But never have I heard what must have been upwards of a hundred monks chanting as they filled every nook and cranny of the neighborhood, going from door to door.

The distinctive hat of a Buddhist monk begging for almsIn a very monk-like beatitude way, they are neither obnoxious nor pervasive. This is an old, established custom, and many people are very willing to contribute a nominal amount if for no other reason than to help the monks out on their quest. And the monks know you can hear ‘em coming. So they go to a door, and spend perhaps three seconds there before moving on, figuring if the resident is both home and willing, the door will have been answered in that span of time. But still - man, is it spooky.

These long, monotonous humming chants that are decidedly not in sync create this spine-tingling vibration that hovers in the air until they pass beyond earshot. And you hear them approaching, getting closer… and closer… and closer. To the uninitiated (read: clueless, and read: me) you wonder for a second if they are looking for some secret mark in red paint or chalk on the door of one house that, when found, will elicit a “Here he is; we found him!” to the other 99 in attendance, after which they
all burst in...
Mongs Begging Alsm; Art by Qiao Seng
But then, the true beauty of the sound settles in, as does the realization of what is happening, and the harmonious way they go about it. (I still need a drink, though, which brings this whole thing back to sake.)
Indeed, every place has its charms and curiosities for each season. I hope you are enjoying those that belong to you.

Please enjoy the newsletter, preferably with a glass of slightly chilled sake.


Method over Mold
Making Koji

I have written many times about koji and koji-making - as well I Koji being made in koji traysshould, since it is the heart of the sake-brewing craft. As such, most readers likely recall that koji - rice with koji mold propagated onto and into it - firstly creates sugar from starch. This gives the yeast what it needs to make alcohol. But on top of that koji, contributes countless other compounds that contribute so much to sake flavors and aromas.
Last month, we alluded to the fact that while there are countless strains of koji mold, the way that each brewer propagates that onto the rice holds more sway over the nature of the resulting sake than the strain of mold itself. Way more. In other words, “method over mold.”

And I promised to get back to that, which I will do it now while the thought is still fresh in our minds. (If it is not fresh, you can freshen it here.)

Let’s look at some of these differences, and how they are applied.

First of all, the house style of a kura (brewery) dictates much about how the koji is made. If a brewery makes light, delicate sake, the koji will be made in one way, but heavy, rich sake will use koji made a totally different way.

Sprinking Koji Mold on RiceNext, even within one kura, the way the brewer makes koji, specifically just how the mold is coerced onto and into the rice, will vary with each grade of sake they produce. The way koji is made for cheap futsuu-shu is totally different from the way it will be made for junmai-shu, and again for ginjo-shu. Since almost all brewers make almost all grades of sake, that means there is a different way of making the koji for each of these grades within the same kura.

For what it’s worth, cheap sake and heavy sake tend to use more mold, more thickly grown. Ginjo and light sake tend to use less mold, grown more into the rice then on its surface. But this is a massive oversimplification.

Next, bear in mind that koji is used four (count ‘em!) times within one given batch: once for the moto (yeast starter), and once for each of the three successive additions to the batch that follow. And the way the koji is made for each of these four times is again different. Again oversimplifying, each successive step calls for less powerful koji.

On top of all this, koji-making must be adjusted for each rice variety, for each milling rate, and to some degree for each season’s harvest! There is just no end to it all.

So: kura style, grade, step of the process, rice variety, milling rate and harvest all affect how koji is made. As Carl Sagan might say if he were to visit a sake brewery, when it comes to ways of making koji, there are “billions and billions” of ‘em.

What is different in how they do it? Ah, let me count the ways…

-The amount of mold used. It might be 30 grams to 100 kg or rice. Or it might be 25, or 35 grams.

-The temperature at which it is processed. Moving Complieted Koji Out of the Koji Room

-The moisture content of either the rice, or the room, or both.

-How the mold is applied. By machine? By hand?

-How often it is mixed up. Every two hours might be one extreme, three times over the two days might be another.

-How long it takes to make it. Could be 35 hours, could be 70.

-The size of the containers. It might be a 1.5 kg tray, or ten times that size, or even a huge bin or hamper.

-Where the mold grows, and how heavily it grows. It might be grown thickly around the outside, or it may be just flecked on the surface but coaxed to grow in toward the center.

 -Et Cetera, Ad Infinitum, Ad Nauseum.

Modern Machines Can Help, Too!Note, too, that the above is just related to making koji by hand. Throw in the added dimension of machines that replicate the skills of humans to varying degrees, and it gets even more complex.

Method over mold. Clearly, just as “moss is not just moss,” koji is by no means just koji. Never has been; never will be. While we need to know exactly none of this to imbibe our sake, the awareness of it will surely contribute an added dimension of respect. Consider all this at least once the next time you enjoy your sake.

Sake Basics
Nada and Fushimi

A large-ish sakagura

 While sake is brewed all over Japan, with the lone exception of Kagoshima Prefecture (the home of distilled shochu), there are major regions of production. The most notable two are Nada and Fushimi, names worth remembering.

 Nada is half in Kobe and half within the city limits of next-door Nishinomiya, and perhaps 40% of all sake comes from that neighborhood. Solid, full, decidedly not ostentatious sake is their style.

Fushimi Kura of Largess Fushimi is a neighborhood in the city of Kyoto making another 15% of all sake in the Universe, and has much softer, more delicate sake. And they’re only about an hour apart by train, if that.  

 These two neighborhoods ensconce the biggest brewers – and of course some smaller ones as well. Remember these two names; you will come across them time and again in your sake travels.

Did You Know?
Rice Harvest Timing

Of the 100 or so varieties of sake rice, each will be ready for harvest at Rice Being Harvesteda different time. Rice is planted sometime between April and June, and might be harvested anywhere from August to late October. Examples include Gohyakumangoku, typically harvested September 25 or so, and Yamada Nishiki, often harvested as late as the end of October.

Announcements and Events
Ginjo Bar still open daily in ShimbashiThe Interior at Kuri

The Nihon Ginjo-shu Kyokai, that veritable group of 56 ginjo breweries around the country, will be using the space of Shimbashi Kuri from June to the end of August. From 2:00 pm until 9:00 pm you can taste the sake of these 56 sterling breweries from all over Japan. A small glass (45ml) will set you back just 200 yen to 400 yen, presenting the chance to try a wide range of sake for a reasonable outlay. A list of which brewers will be there pouring their brews and when can be found here:

Sake Educational Blog
I have begun a sake educational blog, that will have a weekly posts on the fundamentals of sake - plus a bit. Some of the content will be similar to some of what is in this newsletter, but a shorter, more concise, more focused educational angle. View it and subscribe to it here, and be sure check it out while it is in its nascent stages, so as to not miss a single entry!

Sake Professional Course, Portland OregonA "sugidama" - the sign of a sake brewery, and my  course!
November 6 - 8

Information that's so new... it's tentative!

In early November, I will hold the next Sake Professional Course in Portland Oregon. This promises to be a special one, and the closest to date to the versions of SPC held in Japan. Why? Because we will have the chance to visit a sake brewery in action, thanks to the cheerful cooperation of SakeOne nearby, and also because the wonderful array of sake joints in Portland will allow us to enjoy an evening meal with good sake all three nights of the course.

Participation is limited to 50, and you can reserve a spot with an email of that purport to me at It is expected to fill up quickly, so make your reservation now.

Note, this information is tentative and the details have yet to be set in stone. Feel free to email me if you are interested, but I will send out a separate mailing when all details have been confirmed. 
Please send all inquiries and expressions of interest in attending to

Sake Education Central
"Kikichokko" official sake  tasting glass
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Combine the above products, at a discounted rate, with the Notebook/Slideshow Package.

Japanese for Sake Lovers not only teaches sake pronunciation, it includes a native speaker pronouncing the words with a time lapse for your practice. You not only learn how to speak “sake”, you learn proper Japanese pronunciation without the cost of a Japanese language course!

Sake's Hidden StoriesDo you w ant to know the “behind the scenes” secrets of the master brewers? Read the untold stories of sake brewers in Sake’s Hidden Stories. Each of the dozen-odd stories introduces a brewer, the sake, and tons of subtle, hidden insights and sake information you'll not find in any other book about sake. Guaranteed.

Going to Japan or a Japanese restaurant? Perhaps you’re in the mood for sushi and sake at home. Do you know what to look for and how to ask for it? You will when you tote around more than 200 terms in your pdf or iPhone with The Sake Dictionary.

Product Highlight: Japanese For Sake Lovers
A Guide to Proper Pronunciation

Here it is: something that ensures you will enjoy your sake experience more and more - a short, concise instructional guide on how to properly and naturally pronounce the Japanese language, sake brand names, and all the terminology that is a part of the sake world. With the help of this little course, you will sound like a native when talking about sake.

No more butchering sake names in Japanese!
Learn how to properly pronounce the sake you love!

Japanese for Sake Lovers consists of a short text and three audio files. It all begins with a guide to the theory of pronouncing Japanese, which you will soon realize is surprisingly simple. Following that, you will have the opportunity to practice pronunciation of all the important terminology surrounding sake, and dozens of brand names that cement in your mind the principles, fundamentals, and idiosyncrasies of pronouncing Japanese. 

This is not a language text. You will not learn grammar or much "Sake lined up for tasting"vocabulary outside of sake-specific terms; although, it does include a handful of phrases to help you navigate your way to sake bliss in Japanese when at a sake pub.  It is augmented by three audio files that allow you to practice, repeating the words and phrases after a native speaker.

Go here now to order your copy for $14.99, and feel one step closer to the beverage you love – guaranteed. 

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Should any of the above products not be to your immense satisfaction, your money will be cheerfully refunded, no questions asked.

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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. Kampai!

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

All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.


John Gauntner
Sake World, Inc.

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