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Sake World Newsletter
Issue #208
October, 2018

And It Begins Again

The 2018 Brewing Year

Greetings to all readers, 

With Sake Day, October 1, officially in the books, it’s time to get down to business in the sake world. This is the month that almost all of the 1200 brewers in the industry will start brewing sake. Teams will make their way into the breweries, then begin the long, arduous task of cleaning everything to make it ready for the many micro-organisms about to move in as well. The brewing team’s main job will be to create an environment in which the right yeast, mold, bacteria and more can thrive, and one in which the unwanted ones will be restrained, and then just get out of the way. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Many have started already, others will begin soon. None will get out much between now and next spring. It is, after all, a pretty hands-on process.


Please enjoy the newsletter, slightly longer than usual, and do so with a glass of sake at hand, and an appreciative thought for the brewing staff all over Japan that have just stepped into that long tunnel whose light at the end seems pretty far away right now.




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Sake Today #18
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Sake Confidential goes into depth on many topics not usually touched upon. read reviews here a New York Times brief mention here, and order from your favorite bookseller here as well.

Tojo Yamada vs. Yokawa Yamada


Fall can be fun, but fall can be tiring. One sake tasting after another means so much other work does not get done. The traditional fall tasting season mercifully ends soon, but making the rounds is both important and fun.

One of the last for me this year was a tasting of Yamaguchi Prefecture sake. There are 28 or so breweries there, 20 of which gathered for the event. And as I am always reminded, tasting the sake is fun, but one can learn ten times as much from chatting with the brewers. Therein lies the value and appeal of these tastings.

And at the Yamaguchi tasting the other day I made my way round to the eponymous Taka, brewed by the company called Nagayama Honke. The owner/toji Taka Nagayama himself was there to pour and greet.

I know his stuff well and zipped through them, but the last one got my attention. It was a junmai daiginjo, but made with Tojo Yamada Nishiki. While not overly assertive in flavor, the breadth and the reverb permeating the overall flavor profile were outstanding – but not surprising. Afterall, it was Tojo Yamada.

Tojo was the former name of the village in which this outstanding rice is grown, but a spate of annexations saw the town itself become annexed into another one a few years ago. So even though the town of Tojo is long gone, the term Tojo Yamada Nishiki was safely trademarked, and good thing too.

Like any agricultural product, there are certain regions and even microclimates in which each strain of sake rice will thrive. And this of course applies to what is almost universally considered to be the best sake rice, Yamada Nishiki. This variety is grown in 33 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, but the overwhelming consensus is that it grows best in Hyogo Prefecture.


And deep in the mountains of this prefecture, where the days are hot and the nights are cold, is a village formerly known as Tojo, and another village named Yokawa. And it is these two areas from which the best Yamada Nishiki comes. Tojo tends to command a higher price than Yokawa, but the latter is exceptional to be sure, especially in comparison to that rice grown in other regions.

And Taka, our sake-pouring owner-toji friend from the opening paragraph, lavished praise upon Tojo Yamada. “Yeah, you can’t really top it, can you! It’s as good as it gets, and the price of the rice reflects that. But I have done a good job of keeping the retail price as low as I can so folks can enjoy it.

“And,” he continued, “what is amazing is how well it stands up to time. It basically does not hineru,” he asserted. Hineru refers to a sake starting to taste old from, well, getting old. The difference between hineru and nice maturation is a fine line, of course, but I digress.

“Even Yokawa,” he continued without being prompted, “as good as it is, that will show maturity pretty quickly; but not Tojo. That’s why I think Yokawa Yamada Nishiki might be good for super premium sake bound for overseas markets – it will remain stable for a long time,” he concluded.

The point here is not that one should drink Tojo over Yokawa, or that one region is

superior to another. Those are worthwhile discussions too. But rather, what is interesting is how fundamentally different the same strain of rice can be from two regions that are so close. Tojo and Yokawa are right next to each other. They are perhaps a couple of kilometers apart; that’s all. But the slight differences in the mineral makeup of the soil and of course minute climactic differences lead to the best and second best examples of the mighty Yamada Nishiki to be noticeably and consistently different.

What is wild about this to me is that, yes, the choice of rice is connected to the final flavor profile of a sake. But that connection is not nearly as tight as the connection between the grape variety and the final flavor of the wine. Ten brewers can take the same rice, milled to the same degree, and make ten completely different sake. How the koji was made, the yeast used, the fermentation temperature and number of days, and how the sake was pressed and later handled all contribute huge differences.

Yet, in spite of all this, the basic nature of the rice will shine through, and that basic nature can be quite different on a subtle but measurable level, even for the same strain grown just a few kilometers apart.  

Similar differences can, in fact, be demonstrated in other strains of rice from other parts of Japan. In fact, there are a handful of brewers now doing things like brewing sake using the rice of only one rice field, and not blending them, to make the most of the differences that invariably exist from one rice field to the next.

Surely these efforts will garner more attention as time goes on, although few will be as prominent as the tale of two Yamadas as told by Taka. It’s all fascinating stuff, and it all demonstrates how much there is to learn – and unlearn – about sake.

 Tohoku Time 

Just why the region is as cool as it is, sake-wise


The sake of the Tohoku region in Japan has been showered with much-deserved attention over the past five to ten years. Certainly, it is worth it to learn a bit more about the area, and why their sake is so highly regarded.

Regionality in the sake world is fascinating to study, but it may be a bit further than most people want to go. Honjozo, junmai daiginjo, and "the glass in front in front of me now" may be plenty of sake study for most folks. And that’s fine; it is all about enjoyment after all. But like most things sake, a little study goes a long, long way.

And it might not be so interesting to start by learning 47 new prefecture place names. But just one or two big-ass regions? Sure, we can do that.

If we are going to talk region, by all rights we should start with the Kansai region, wherein sits Hyogo (and therein Nada), Kyoto (and within it Fushimi), and Osaka. The first two (Nada and Fushimi) are the largest producing regions of sake in the country, and historically the most significant. But since Tohoku is “big in Japan” right about now, let us start there.

Where is the Tohoku region? It’s easy to remember: it is the top third of the main island of Japan. It consists of six of Japan’s 47 prefectures, all larger than average. (The cheap-looking photo was taken in the office of the Tohoku region Tax Office in the city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, when I was up there as a judge last week.) Those are Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi and Fukushima.

Let us look at why the sake of Tohoku – as a region overall – is so popular, and also at what the main identifying characteristics of the various prefectures are.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons the sake of Tohoku is so well known is the region’s success in the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai, or “National New Sake Tasting Competion,” held each May in Japan. (The official English translation is the Japan Sake Awards, but I like my unofficial but more direct translation better.)

Sake brewed just for this contest (i.e. not normal sake you can buy at the store) is submitted and blindly tasted and judged. While many consumers do not even know this contest exists, it is a very prestigious event in the sake world. And over the past ten or fifteen years, Tohoku sake has done very, very well.

 In particular, Fukushima Prefecture has won more gold medals than any other prefecture for the last four years in a row, and in seven out of the last ten years. Only vaunted Niigata and Tohoku neighbor Yamagata are close to that performance. This contest demonstrates brewers’ command of the highest levels of brewing skill, and as the results might suggest, currently this brings lots of attention to the sake of Tohoku.

The Japan national competition is one big one, but there are a handful of other competitions both in and outside of Japan to which many people pay attention. If you look at the results of these blind tasting competitions, there are a handful of brands that very often rise to the top. Quite often, these are of a light, fine-grained, bright and aromatic style. And this style is precisely what Tohoku does well.

While the style of sake that often does well in such contests is far, oh-so-very-far, from the be-all end-all of what makes a good sake, or what everyone likes, the results do indicate what is consistently popular based on one figure of merit.

But the point is that the style of sake made by many of the brewers in the Tohoku region is that kind of fine-grained, light and clean style; it is a style that is approachable and likeable. And this is yet another explanation of why the region is popular and worthy of attention: it makes the kind of sake that people these days like. 

It is extremely important to emphasize that this is only one style. Many sake fans from the western half of Japan would find Tohoku sake too light, with no body, umami, or earthiness, and perhaps find it challenging to pair with food – especially in comparison to the rich, broad, umami-laden sake of their own region. We are only looking at one snapshot of all the great sake that is out there.

What makes the sake of the region taste this way? Many things, of course. One is climate. It’s colder up there, and when you brew and subsequently mature at colder temperatures, you end up with lighter, cleaner sake. Higher temperatures give fuller bodies. Think lagers and ales.

Next would be the support of the prefectural governments. While all regions in Japan have this to some degree, Fukushima, Yamagata, and Akita in particular have very active sake research organizations. These are run by the local governmental industrial research center or tax administration, and crank out sake-brewing technology, new rice strains and new yeast strains that constantly and consistently raise the Tohoku bar.

Then there is rice itself, of course. Most of the Tohoku prefectures are large rice-producing prefectures as well. While most of this is for eating, they all produce plenty of one variety or another of sake rice. The aforementioned colder climate means the indigenous strains of rice are generally smaller than their western-Japan counterparts, leading to the more narrow flavor profiles of the area.

Each of the six prefectures of the Tohoku region has plenty that could be said bout them. A "sake readers digest" version might look something like the below.

Fukushima has about 70 active breweries, ensuring a wide range of styles, and three

distinct geographies: an oceanside, planes and mountains, with most breweries in the prefecture located in the last of these. Miyagi has about 40 breweries, and an inordinately large amount of what they make is junmai. Yamagata right next door makes just as inordinately large amount of ginjo compared to other types, and has lots of fragrant, light sake coming from the 40 or so kura there. Iwate is the home of the most prominent and accomplished guild of toji (master brewers), the Nanbu guild, but only 25 active kura. Much of their sake is light, but a few rich, reverberatingly deep sake are made there too.

Akita sake, made by the 50-odd active breweries there, is often rich but seems quite fine-grained to me, with of course the requisite exceptions. And at the very top of the region is Aomori, with 20 breweries making a richer, sweeter style than the rest of the region.

While the above-described styles are of course vague, with exceptions and variation across each prefecture, the region in general does confirm to the light, crisp, aromatic style that is quite popular today. And while each prefecture is much deserving of detailed study, knowing a bit about the region goes along way too. It is, after all, Tohoku time. 

Mercian Japan Making Alcohol From Rice For Sake 


 Last month, I introduced a group of brewers that are making daiginjo – added alcohol daiginjo, not junmai daiginjo – and for the alcohol added to the process, they are using ethyl alcohol distilled from Yamada Nishiki rice. Usually such alcohol is made from sugar cane.

Now, Mercian Japan, a subsidiary of Kirin that makes wine and other alcohol products, has begun to offer as a product to sake breweries pure alcohol distilled from rice, and in fact, from mostly Yamada Nishiki. The process involves koji as well, which is also made using domestic rice. 

This to me is promising. Why? Because many of those that have trouble getting on board with non-junmai products have as their reasoning that it is not made with rice, and not fully a domestic product. (The sugar cane based alcohol is imported in rough form from places like Brazil and further refined through more distillation in Japan.) Now, if the alcohol added is made from domestic rice, such sake will in fact be 100 percent rice based, and all domestic, and in fact traceable.

If this catches on, a previously contracting sector of the sake world – non junmai, or added-alcohol sake, may see revival. The technical advantages of using alcohol in that way – namely increased aromatics and flavors, lightness, and better shelf life – can be more easily appreciated if these two objections are overcome.

Certainly, though, such alcohol will be significantly more expensive. Of course, it does not need to be made with Yamada Nishiki! If demand grows, and it is made with a lesser rice, it could be a very positive thing. It could help the rice industry as well as inject the sake industry with even more new potential.

But who knows. It might not work out for one of a dozen reasons to which I am not privy. Nevertheless, it feels like a positive development, and one worth following.


Sake Tours 2019 Schedule Announced


If you want to take your interest in sake to the next level, nothing can replace visiting sake breweries. Sake Tours has been at it for some time now, and I can personally endorse  Sake Tours  as outstanding in every way. And the company has announced their 2019 sake brewery tour schedule. 

When you visit sake breweries with Sake Tours , you go behind the scenes to meet the people who grow, cook, brew, and create the incomparable food, sake, and traditional arts and crafts of Japan. 

 On each of these five-day tour, you’ll tour sake breweries, talk with master brewers, and most importantly, taste—a lot. But that’s only part of the experience. The tours are sake centric, but not obsessively sake only. Depending on the tour you choose, you might find yourself trying your hand at making soba, embarking on a ramen crawl through Hakata, Kyushu or visiting a pottery master’s studio. 

You can expect impeccably sourced restaurant dinners, hard-to-find sake, and authentic, under-the-radar cultural experiences that make Sake Tours the most non-touristic “tours” you’ll ever experience. 

Some – but not all – tours begin with a general seminar with me on all things sake and sake production. 

The dates and destinations for 2019 are as below. Learn more about the particulars and specifics of each tour via the links below. 

Kyushu ~ Feb. 4th – Feb. 8th,  2019 

  Akita ~ Feb. 17th – Feb. 22nd, 2019 

Niigata ~ Feb. 24th – Mar. 1st, 2019 

Sake Professional Course in Las Vegas, 11/27 - 29  

On November 27, 28 and 29, I will hold the 31st  US running of the Sake Professional Course at Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan. The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course. Learn more here, and you can read Testimonials from past participants here

If you would like to make a reservation or to be placed on the notification list, please send an email to that purport to 

“No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!”


 All the Sake World Newsletters ever written: 

Over 20 years of writing sake newsletters, much of the online world has changed. As such, unavoidably, the archives are scattered over several locations. Should you want to scour older newsletters for topics that of interest, you can do that across the three URLs below, found in one of the several manifestations of my website. 

Number 1 to 112 are here: 

Number 113 to 185 can be read here 

Number 186 to the most recent newsletters can be read here, not in their original format but rather as individual blog posts, in the archives of the Sake World blog:

About 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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