Sake World Email Newsletter #167
May, 2014

Dozo, dozo!

In This Issue


 Spring Tasting Observations

Sandan Shikomi - why bother?

Sake Education Central

Quick Links
Sake World Website
More About Us
Free Download!
Get your free download "Sake, The Least You Need to Know," and jump-start your sake enjoyment now.
Download "Sake: The Least You Need to Know" here

May Greetings to all readers,


The spring gamut of new-sake tastings has begun to wind down, and while it was a great and fun month, like all good things, it must end for a while. The weather is warming a bit - at least where most readers live! And the brewing season again is all but wrapped up. There are, of course, the nationals to look forward to this month! 

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

John Gauntner

Sake Today - the Magazine

Look for the next issue due out 0n July 15! And, look for a subsciption service to be set up very soon.

I am exuberantly pleased to announce that Sake Today, the world's first English-language printed sake magazine - is now available!

SakeToday - the Magazine

The inaugural issue of Sake Today is full color on high -quality A4-sized paper with an extra-thick cover and glued-in spine. It is 60 pages of well-written articles from experts in the field, beautiful photography and more. It is the world's first and only English-language sake magazine, founded by myself (John Gauntner) and publisher Ry Beville.

Read articles from sake industry luminaries like Haruo Matsuzaki and Chieko Fujita, as well as pottery specialist Rob Yellin, and the other usual suspects of the sake world. There is something in Sake Today for any fan of sake.

We are not yet set up for subscriptions but order your copy today for 700 yen (about $7) here. Check it out!

Sake Confidential - due out in June!

Sake Confidential

I am pleased to also announce that my next book - my sixth - will be in bookstores in June. 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. 

Sake Confidential 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. 

You can reserve yours here at Amazon. In the meantime, look for more concrete information about where to get it as soon as that becomes available.

Everything I needed to know I learned at sake tastings

Well, amost...

Spring tastings

Every spring - and again every fall - it is tasting season here in Japan. What that means is that those in the industry get to go out to three to five tastings a week of literally hundreds of sake. It is, without a doubt, way too much of a good thing. It's really about as much fun as an icepick in the forehead. But it is for sure invaluable experience.

However, the countless sake available to taste and re-taste and take notes on are not the primary appeal. 

What is far more important is what can be learned by talking to the brewers in attendance.

Sure, the brewers in attendance are the same ones as always. At this tasting, you will see so-and-so and whatsisface, but at that tasting you will see whodoyacallit and that other guy. Sometimes so-and-so will be at both tasting A and B, so I will strategically plan the order of tasting so as to maximize efficiency.

Of course it is fun to greet everyone; for some of the brewers from the boonies, it is the only time I see them. But what is more important and valuable is the information I can gather. Now that is where the real education is to be had!

 For example, some of the problems plaguing the industry now include rice shortages and proper labeling. The very first booth at which I stopped is a kura with a famous female toji and that is not a million miles away from Iwate. Her labels all said “Domestic rice,” but nothing more about the variety. So naturally, I had to ask her: are you hiding the rice type?

“Nah, of course not. We’re not hiding it. It’s…” and told me a bit about the rice. So, I pressed onward, why don’t you list the rice on the label, then?

“Because,” she continued in a matter-of-fact manner, "with all these rice shortages these days, if we cannot get all of what we ordered, we would be forced to use another rice to finish it off. That would mean we would have to reprint all of our labels to show that. We, as a small company, cannot absorb that hassle, so we avoid it altogether by just writing “domestic” on the label. But we are not hiding it! Just saving ourselves some trouble."

Her decision – and that of others kura doing similar things – has been affected by a handful of mislabeling cases over the last two years. A couple of unscrupulous brewers have gotten busted labeling lower grades of sake as ginjo, or added-alcohol sake as junmai-shu. Some said it was an accident; at least one admitted to the wrongdoing.

No more of this until the fall!

In truth, it is but a few bad eggs doing that. But the potential loss of trust of an already-hurting industry, not to mention the potential loss of reputation for a good brewery, have made many companies extremely careful about anything that goes on the label. Not impossible to understand, actually.

Another brewer I know well was all smiles. “This year, we got all the rice we ordered, and it dissolved properly for us. All is well in my sake-world this year! Rice shortages are passed on to brewers by the distributors providing less than what was fully ordered ten months previous to harvest. It is the only fair way to handle it - decrease all orders across the board, evenly distributing the pain. But this year, this kura at least got it all.

When the weather is too hot, the rice is too hard and will not dissolve in the tank, which means tight and restrained flavors. But this year, it behaved for him, and the sake flavors were full and expressive.

Yet another brewer that is geographically close to the one above was less ebullient. In fact, we was all gripes.

“Yeah, what we got fermented OK, but we did not get all we ordered. And this rice shortage is not about to end. We have the land, and the government regulations have changed to let us grow more, but we do not have enough seeds, and those farmers that grow it are graying fast – no young people want to get into rice farming now."

Because the seeds must remain pure and can easily be affected by the rice growing nearby, or by what was growing in the same field the previous year, the seeds must come from the agricultural co-op if they are to be inspected. And if the rice is not inspected, rice cannot be labeled as premium. A racket? Sure, to some degree. But not one without its merits or its logic.

Rice Woes Continue

He also explained (but asked me to keep it quiet, which is why I am not mentioning the prefecture name) that the whole prefecture lost ten percent of their sake rice since some dork farmer accidentally mixed two rice types before inspection. That means the brewers cannot legally put the name of the rice on the bottle, and if they have two types mixed up in there, it will not likely behave in any way they have yet experienced. So for all intents and purposes, it was lost, further affecting their shortages.

I also found out, much to my surprise, that the powers that be can in fact analyze the DNA of a rice, to be sure that it is what a brewer says it is.

There were lots of other interesting things as well, beyond rice woes.

Brewing implements laid down for the season

I continued to run into new rice types, like Tomo no Kaori from Toyama, and new yeasts such as Yuko no Omoi from Iwate that seemed fairly subdued, rather than bold, which was a very refreshing change (the concept, not the sake; although that was refreshing too). I found many more breweries using kensanmai, or rice sourced within the prefecture. While this is likely a result of attempts to ensure supply, it is also a great thing for many other reasons, and seems to be a fairly positive nascent trend.

Then there were a couple of technical things as well. One brewer, Gassan, had a whole new lineup in terms of flavors and style. The reason, interestingly, was that they changed their water source. The water from their own well is extremely soft water, and does not ferment very vigorously. So for decades they have been blending that with hard water brought in from a nearby source. And their sake has long been very enjoyable.

But they decided to bring it all back home, and from this season all of their sake is made with their own water, and in such a way that makes the most of the soft water. So, yeah, the entire lineup is new. It has led to a fascinating change.

There was much more, a lot of it fairly technical and isolated to the respective breweries. And I tasted some good sake too! But walking around and chatting as we tasted was, as usual, even more interesting than the actual sake itself. And I can’t wait until the fall, where there will more of what is already too much of a good thing. 

Sandan-shikomi: What's the Point?  

Sandan Shikomi

The sake-brewing process is fairly idiosyncratic. No other alcoholic beverage in the world is brewed quite like sake is. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the ingredients are added in stages. The first two to four weeks see the creation of a yeast starter, to secure a high population of yeast cells, and after that, the rest of the ingredients are added, again, in stages.

How many stages? Three. Hence the term sandan-shikomi, or “adding ingredients in three stages.”

Once the yeast starter is ready, more rice, water and koji (the moldy rice within which enzymes develop that chop the starch in the rice into sugar for the yeast) are added to that small tank, which was itself created with the same three ingredients.

But it is not all added at once. After the starter has been prepared, enough rice, water and koji are added to roughly double the size of the batch. After letting that sit two days, the size of the batch is again doubled. And, one day later, more ingredients are added to again double the existing size of the batch. So in the end, the yeast starter is about an eighth or so of the final size of the batch. (This will of course vary a bit from place to place.)

What’s the point? Why not just dump it in there all at once, and be done with it? It comes down to strength and vulnerability of the yeast.

'tis all about the yeast!

Bear in mind that there are only so many yeast cells in the yeast starter. Sure, it is like 200 million per cc of liquid, but apparently that is not enough. If that mixture is thinned out too much, then the yeast becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, from wild yeasts in the environment that will not lead to tasty sake, to other micro-organisms that can adversely affect or stop fermentation of the mash.

So one reason to add the rice, water and koji more slowly is to let the yeast catch up. It will reproduce at its own pace and thereby keep its strength in numbers and its ability to fend off less desirable micro-organisms. It helps reduce the vulnerability of the yeast.

Another way to look at it is in terms of strength. If all the rice, water and koji were add at once the yeast would either be overwhelmed by the sugar and eventually peter out before completing its job. Slowly adding it all lets the yeast handle it better. It is a bit like starting a fire: if you take a match and try to start a big log, your chances of success are not nearly as high as if you use some proper kindling, like leaves and small sticks.

Of course, these days, we can indeed light a big log on fire; all we need is something like a blowtorch or a good dose of chemicals. And, the equivalent of a yeast blowtorch exists in the sake world as well! It’s called kobo-jikomi, or yeast infusion (translation mine).

And it is what it sounds like: no yeast starter is used; instead, a comparatively huge amount of pure yeast is added to the batch right away, allowing it to ferment a full tank right off the bat. In truth, very little sake is made this way, and it is usually cheaper sake made in huge batches. It is a perfectly valid way to make sake, and the resulting sake is often quite good.

But it is almost never seen in smaller batches, smaller breweries, or premium sake.

So, the hassle-laden sandan-shikomi process of adding the ingredients in three stages is the traditional way to make sake, and one that is in fact unique to sake, and is done to help keep the yeast safe and active. That’s the point.

Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course in the US

Amazingly, this course has all but filled up via word of mouth alone. There are but 12 searts remaining open!

The next Sake Professional Course will most likely be in Chicago Ill in
Sake Brewery Innards
 August. While the final dates and venues are being hammered out now, by all means, should you  be interested, please send me an email to that purport. 

The Sake Professional Course will of course include certification testing for the Sake Education Council-backed Certified Sake Professional exam. 


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!) 

Stay Subscribed!

Are you not getting this newsletter? I realize that is like asking that
Stay Subscribed!
"those not present please raise your hand," but for future reference, should you spontaneously stop receiving this newsletter, please go here and sign up again. Should that not work, please go to

Email newsletter services are very careful not to be considered spam enablers, but the problem is that often very valid email addresses come back bounced as invalid. It is an unavoidable problem. So if you or someone you know is not getting this, or stop(s) receiving it inexplicably, please do take a moment to double check that you are still subscribed.

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

Share this