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Sake World Newsletter
Issue #209
December, 2018

The Busiest Month of the Year?

Even the Sensei is Running Around...

Greetings to all readers, 


Welcome to Shiwasu season. Shiwasu is an ancient word that means the last month of the year, but the characters have nothing to do with last, year, or twelve. The two characters used mean “teacher” and “run.” The implied meaning is that everyone is so busy that even those that should have plenty of underlings and minions helping them are running around keeping busy. It is interesting to think that year end business is not unique to this era, and that they had a word for it ancient Japan as well. Not comforting, mind you, just interesting.

And speaking of interesting and busy, the sake-brewing season is in full swing right now, with most breweries having pressed their first batch of the season, at least. What festivities and what kind of sake come along with that? And how is the season panning out? How is the rice behaving?

Let us look at a couple of topics relevant to all that in this month’s newsletter.

Enjoy the newsletter, 

Happy Holidays to all,


Sake Today Issue #19

The new issue of Sake Today shipped just last week so if you haven't received it already, you can expect it soon!


This issue's featured prefecture is Miyagi, with a take on its sake character and history care of Haruo Matsuzaki, and the usual travel article to supplement it. We have an additional companion piece about one of its best breweries: Urakasumi. We also showcase the fascinating history of Kyoto's Fushimi district in a lengthy, in-depth article from our local Kyoto sake expert Ayuko Yamaguchi. Beyond these highlights are two technical articles from our managing editor, John Gauntner, a short story from famous expatriate writer Alan Booth, and several other shorter columns. Enjoy!

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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.

This Year's Rice Report 

Sake Rice Survived a Couple of Typhoons, But How Did it Fare Otherwise?

In late October, the National Research Institute of Brewing in Japan released their annual rice report, loosely translated as Suitability of This Year’s Rice to Sake Brewing. In short, the report analyzes the weather patterns of the previous summer, comparing it to analytical data, and predicts how well (or not well) this year’s rice harvest will dissolve in the fermenting mash.

Basically speaking, the more sunlight and heat the rice plant absorbs as it grows, the harder the grains will be when harvested. The harder the grains are, not surprisingly, the more stubbornly and slowly it will dissolve in the mash. This is pretty much a function of sunlight and average temperatures in primarily August and September.

So colder summers lead to softer rice that dissolves comparatively faster and leads to bigger and bouncier flavors, and hotter summers lead to slowly dissolving rice that leads to cleaner, more narrow flavor profiles. One is not unequivocally better than the other; it is all a matter of what kind of sake a brewer is trying to make, and getting the rice at hand to dovetail with the rest of the processes involved.


Of course, just how fast or slow a rice dissolves depends on a myriad of factors. How much water the rice was allowed to absorb, the amount and type of enzymes created by the koji, and the temperature of the fermenting mash are just a few of those. So in truth the best a report like this can do is to say, “in comparison to an average year, rice can be expected to dissolve in this way…” Brewers can then take into consideration the factors unique to their facility and methods to get an idea of what to expect.

Having information like this is extremely helpful to sake brewers. Why is this? Because the faster the rice dissolves, the fuller and more rambunctious the flavor of the sake will be. If the rice is expected to dissolve more readily than most years, brewers may want to rein that in. Conversely, if the rice is expected to dissolve more slowly, brewers might want to do what they can to hasten that dissolution.

What can they actually do as a countermeasure? Considering that most brewing decisions for a given product will remain the same, the most visible activity is adjusting the moisture content of the rice. That is accomplished by adjusting the amount of time the rice is soaked in water, and the precision with which that step is undertaken. There are of course other steps, but this is their first line of defense.

More often that not, brewers are loathe to let the rice absorb too much water. If anything err on the side of less moisture, and a slower dissolution. It is easier to speed it up later than to slow it down, or at least it is easier to make up for too little flavor than to rid a moromi (fermenting mash) of too much such sloppiness.

Of course, brewers – and toji (brewmasters) in particular – are not oblivious to the weather. Many will follow it closely and are in the rice fields and getting reports regularly throughout the season. So many may not feel the need to read this short four-page report. In truth, I have no idea! However, what is interesting is that this information is also there, and surely it is considered handy by many brewers in the country.

So what did the report say about the rice grown in 2018?

Interestingly, the report assesses the rice based on two things, where in Japan it grows, and when the ears of rice begin to appear on the rice plant. Naturally, these are related to how much heat and sunlight are absorbed. The sooner it is planted, the sooner the ears appear, and the more sunlight and heat it will be exposed to during a given summer. And this, of course, leads to hardness or softness in the rice grains once they are harvested.

And, so, the report reads thusly.

For early-harvest rice such as Gohyakumangoku for which the ears appear in mid-July, the rice is expected to be harder, and will not dissolve as readily as most years. But for rice in which the ears appear in the first ten days of August, typically grown in Northern Japan, the rice is expected to dissolve more readily than a typical year. And for rice that is particularly late harvest, like that grown in Western Japan (as is much of the best sake rice), in which the ears appear in late August – for the most part will be like a normal year, and compared to last year either the same or little bit harder.

These were the generalizations for the major growing regions. After this the report addressed a handful of smaller rice producing regions, and all were expected to dissolve more slowly excepting Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan’s main four. Normally very cold, global warming is affecting rice growing up there, and Hokkaido rice is expected to dissolve comparatively readily.

The main point here is not to have people look out for Yamada Nishiki’s dissolution rate to be normal in next year’s sake while to be prepared to notice that Gohyakmangoku’s will be slower - all while enjoying sake and sushi with friends. Nah. Forget that; leave that to the brewers. Rather, it is interesting to see the connection between sake quality and climate. With sake, sometimes that can get overlooked.

For those that are interested the report can be read and downloaded here, although it is only in Japanese. 





Along with the arrival of the season’s first sake comes the proliferation of sugidama,. If you are in Japan, certainly you have seen these here and there, the large globes of tightly bound sugi (Japanese cedar, or more accurately, cryptomeria) leaves that are usually about 50cm ( 18 inches or so) in diameter, suspended by a cord in front of sakagura (breweries), sake pubs and sake retailers.

Sugidama are also known as sakabayashi, and originated in the Edo period (1604-868). Historically, they were hung out in front of sake breweries just when the first batch of sake is pressed each year. It’s a sign to local sake fans that says “Yeppir, the new sake is ready!” Over time, sugidama came to be used by sake dealers and sake-serving pubs to let customers know that “yes, indeed, sake can be found here, so shimmy on in and get some!”

The sugi (cryptomeria) tree holds religious significance in the Shinto religion, particularly in connection with O-Miwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, which houses a deity of sake brewing. Traditionally, the leaves from the sugi on the grounds of this shrine were used to make all the sugidama for sake brewers everywhere. Or at least, so it has been said.

Sugi is used in many places in a sake brewery, and at many steps in the process. Until about 70 years ago, tanks for sake brewing were made of sugi wood (now they are porcelain-lined steel), and in fact for the few batches made each year in wooden tanks, sugi is still used. The walls of the koji-making room are most often made of sugi, as are the trays and boxes in which the koji is kept as it goes through the 48-odd hour preparation process. Although one rarely seas wooden rice steaming vats anymore, those puppies too were made of sugi. And, once the sake is done, for centuries it was shipped in 72-liter casks called taru and then drunk from small single serving wooden boxes called masu. And – yes, you guessed it – both taru and masu are traditionally made from sugi.

Although there are several stories, one says that if the leaves of sugi are dipped into a tank of sake, that sake will not go bad. But more practically, this wood is seen as best for protecting the sake from spoiling. But also, sugi is the one type of wood that does not impart a woody smell to the koji, or the moromi (fermenting mash), or the completed sake. Other wood varieties would make sake taste and smell woody, but sugi minimizes that effect.

Back to the iconic sugidama: since they are made in late fall or early winter, the needle-

like leaves are still green. Over the next several months, however, the green needles turn brown. Originally, it was said that when the color had changed to brown, the sake had aged enough to be optimally ready for drinking. So one would enjoy the hanging of a sugidama outside a brewer, and wait with great anticipation until it turned brown and the sake was ready to drink.

I recall a visit to a kura in Yamagata Prefecture named Kamenoi Shuzo, brewers of the sake Kudokijozu, during which the president Mr. Imai pointed to a large sugidama hanging by the entrance. “See that, there? As you know, it should turn brown by the fall. Well, back in 1995, we had a sugidama that somehow miraculously stayed green; it never changed colors. While that alone was a mystery, that particular year the rice harvest was horrendous, and as such the sake that year was bad as well. Somehow, the sugidama knew the sake was never quite ready to drink, and so it never turned brown.”


I dunno; stories like that kind of link sake to the rest of nature in a very cool way, one that almost makes veracity a secondary point.

Often, I have wondered how they were actually made. My inquiries were met with, “Well, ya just keep stuffin’ more and more sugi leaves in there, and trim it ‘till it’s round enough…” But only recently did I see a work in progress when visiting a brewery that was just about to press its first batch of the year. 

In the old days, the experienced guys would ball up a bunch of boughs and stuff everything else into that. These days, many if not most use a ball of wire or styrofoam at the center. As you can see from the photos here, someone just sits amongst the fermenting tanks with a bunch of sugi sticks around them, stuffing them into a globe and trimming it to a round aesthetic perfection. I was genuinely surprised to see it was that simple.

                                    Note the partially visible styrofoam ball in the picture at left, the seemingly haphazard laying of sugi boughs in the center, and the near perfect globe of freshly cut sugi at right. Click on each picture to see a larger version.

Although accounts differ subtly from source to source on the details, the above is the basic gist of the saga of the sugidama. But it has evolved in its use if not its symbolism. Today, sugidama appear not only in front of kura (breweries), but also in front of sake retail shops, as well as sake pubs and other places serving sake all over the country. A few are even found outside of Japan.  


One of the most charming sites of winter - if you are into sake - must be a sugidama with freshly fallen snow resting on the top. If it doesn't evoke an inner warmth, try viewing it with a glass of sake. It soon will.



                  Sake Professional Courses in 2019 

The Sake Professional Course scheduled January 7 to 11 2019 is full. The next one is expected to be in April, most likely in Chicago. Learn more here about the Sake Professional Course. If you would like to make an advanced reservation, please send an email to 




 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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