Sake World Email Newsletter #164
February, 2014

Dozo, dozo!

In This Issue


 Acidity in Sake

Sake Meigara (brand names)

Sake Education Central

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Midwinter greetings to all readers,

We are in the thick of the daiginjo-brewing season! 

Sakagura Smokestack

...and it is cold here in Japan. Breweries everywhere are making the most of the lower temperatures and creating this season's ambrosia. 

Please enjoy the newsletter, some sake with it, and keep warm, where ever you are. 

John Gauntner

Acidity in Sake  

Measuring acidity in sake

The acidity - or rather, the acid content, of a sake is from commonly listed on sake labels in Japan. While this is less common overseas, and that might not change (no great loss, really), it is still worth knowing just what it is and what it reflects. But it is not exactly an intuitive indicator.

The numbers that express the san-do (acidity) are generally between about 1.0 and 2.0 or so. That is not a wide range, and most often the number seems to be about 1.1 or 1.2. The question is, 1.1 or 1.2 what?

Years ago, I began a quest to understand this. In turned out to be a monumental effort. I searched high and low, and asked almost everyone I could (outside of sake brewers themselves). Responses to this question placed to those that "should" know gave rise to whole plethora of silly answers. "Well,, they're units! Yeah, units." Percent, tenths of a percent, and parts per million were some other replies, all expressed with sincerity and confidence.

It was truly hard to find anyone that knew in the world outside of sake breweries. Not that it is going to make that much of a difference in the enjoyment of sake, but you think people would be curious. Finally, I went straight to the source, and found out from a brewer.

Momentarily digressing beyond the normal scope of this newsletter and delving into a mercifully short chemistry lesson, here's the explanation.

The number expressing the san-do of a nihonshu is the number of milliliters of liquid sodium hydroxide needed to neutralize ten milliliters of sake. It is, in other words, measured by titration, just as it is in wine. 

There are many acids in completed sake, but ninety percent of them are either succinic acid, malic acid or lactic acid. They are produced by the yeast throughout the brewing process.

So, what does all that mean to the average taster? Basically the acidity (and to a degree, the amino acid content) can give you at least a vague idea of what a sake might taste like just from looking at the label.

In particular, the acidity and the nihonshu-do are very often used together to give a pre-purchase indication of what the flavor profile might be like. A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

There are so many things that affect the fragrance and taste of a sake that to allow the description to depend on two parameters is limiting at best. But you have to try.

Modern Methods of Measurement

To a slight degree, the various grades of sake can be vaguely generalized by typical acid content. For example, ginjo-shu often has slightly lower acidity, being light and fruitier. Junmaishu usually has acidity levels slightly higher on the scale. Sake made with the kimoto or yamahai method of preparing the moto will have even higher amounts of acid present, and can be quite puckering. But as in all things sake, there is great overlap here.

But all this techno-babble is really only moderately useful, and only before you've tasted a sake. Once you've tasted it, you know all you need to know about acidity, sweet and dry, fullness of body and anything else.

Also, the method of measuring acid in sake is very similar to the methods for measuring acidity in wine: titration. And if one wanted to, one can express the total (almost) acidity of sake in terms of, for example, tartaric acid by multiplying the acidity number by 0.075. For comparison, sake has the equivalent of about 0.1 to 0.2 gms/100ml, comparted to an average of 0.5 to 0.9 gms/100ml in white wine. 

The level of acidity will not always match presence of acidic flavor (known as the san-mi) in the sake, due to alcohol, water quality, type of rice and other factors. Some sake will taste sharp and cutting, when in fact the acidity is not that high chemically. The opposite can also be true.

In the end it's just a number, more useful to brewers than to consumers. At the same time, paying attention to acidity, amino acid content and nihonshu-do can be fun. Doing so can give rise to lively discussion, and help us pay more attention to our perceptions

Sake Meigara (Brand Name


Currently, there are about 1250 sakagura (sake breweries) licensed to brew sake in Japan (although not all of them are brewing actively). And, amongst these 1250 breweries are about 5,000 brand names, or "meigara." Of course, not all of these are actively being used, but on the average each brewery has the rights to about five brand names.

But it wasn't always this way. In fact, until about 600 years ago, there were no "meigara." Sake was probably referred to by the name of the company (although admittedly branding was not such an advanced business concept back then), or even more likely the temple doing the brewing. The average citizen back then might have simply called it the local hooch, or Joe's sake (or Shinnosuke's sake, as it were).

Back in 1425 there were in total 342 sake brewers in Kyoto alone, many of these within Kyoto's numerous temples. One of the most popular brews came from a temple named Nishi no Touin, and after time, its popularity led to a nickname born of affection. Next to the gate at the entrance grew a willow tree, and the locals began to refer to the place as "Yanagi no Sakaya," or "The Willow Sake Brewer."

The noren (a short traditional curtain that hangs at the entrance of shops in

Brewing in the daze of olde

Japan that customers part and duck under when entering) at the gate of Nishi no Touin bore a crest of six stars. Eventually, the brewing priests there began to emblazon this pattern on their wooden sake casks, along with the name "Yanagi-zake," or "Willow Sake." Thus, the first sake "meigara" was born.

Well, wouldn't you know it, soon everybody had one of these meigara thingies. Taking names from "waka," (traditional Japanese songs), or requesting aristocrats and priests to decide on a suitable moniker, brewers everywhere began to assign auspicious brand names to their sake. Some of the earliest ones on record include "Sazare-ishi" (Pebbles), "Mitarashi" (Holy Washing of Hands), and "Maitsuru" (Dancing Crane). In those days, obviously there were no enforceable trademark laws, and as such many of these names were copied and used in several places. Some of the more popular copied names included "Wakamidori" (The Green of Youth), "Otoha" (The Sound of Wings), and "Ariake" (Very Early Morning). Names were chosen for good luck and image, and often referred to auspicious entities in nature, like mountains, pine trees, flowers, and turtles.

Today, there are about 5,000 meigara in active usage. The names of these are written in kanji characters, the pictographs that comprise most of the written language. What is the single most common character in use in meigara today? That would be the character for mountain, pronounced either "yama" or "san." Next on the list is "tsuru," the character for crane (as in bird. I doubt any sake are named after construction equipment.).

Number three and four on the list are "masa" and "mune," almost always

Just-pressed sake

seen together in the combination "masamune," and have an interesting origin to them. There are countless sake that have "masamune" as the second half of their brand name, but the very first one is said to have been Sakura Masamune from Nada in Hyogo prefecture. Sakura Masamune is a very old, famous and prestigious brewer, and eons ago their founder visited a friend that was the head priest at a hermitage called Gensei-an. There, he looked up on a bookshelf and saw a book of scripture by the Rinzai sect Zen master Rinzai Masamune. In a moment of inspiration, he realized that the characters for "masamune" could also be read "seishu," which is a homonym for the legal term for sake. And so, the first of hundreds of meigara bearing the term "masamune" was born.

Note, there is also a theory that the name was taken from a famous sword maker named Masamune, although the homonym reasoning remains the same in this story as well.

Other commonly used characters in the top ten include "kiku" (chrysanthemum), "o-" (big), "kin" (gold), "izumi" or "sen" (spring, as in water), "haku" (white), and "hana" (flower), in that order.

Why, by the way, would a kura have more than one brand name? There are several reasons. They may have merged with another kura at one point in time in one of the several economic and wartime decimations of the sake industry that have occurred. Or, they may have created a new brand with a better image, especially when distribution channels allowed their sake to get to larger national markets, but kept the old brand name for the local fans.

The sake industry seems unique and can often be confusing since the name of the owner, the name of the company, and the brand name of the product are all very different. Confusing though it may be, at least there is a history to it!

Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course in the US

The 2014 Sake Professional Course in Japan has just been completed, and the next one scheduled will be in th US in early August. While the venue is not yet fully determined, rumor is that it will take place in a city near a big lake, that begins with a C, and has its share of cold, snow and WINDS. Please check this newsletter next month for more information on that, and by all means, if you know that you are already interested, please send me an email to that purport.  


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.
Really old editions 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.

What a great app!
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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