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Sake World Newsletter
Issue #211
February, 2019

In the Heart of the Brewing Season

Greetings to all readers,


As we move into mid-February, sake brewers all over Japan are in the deepest depths of the brewing season.  Long days and night after night of waking up every few hours to check the koji and take care of countless other tasks that demand the attention of the brewing staff are made even more challenging by the cold – and lack of anything remotely resembling central heating in the brewery. The few times I have worked in breweries during such periods, I knew I was headed home in a few days. And  those short stretches were enough to assure me I had neither the mental nor physical stamina to work a full season.

As I smugly sit here and sip sake while writing this, knowing  I will not need to check koji at one a.m.- and then again at four a.m., I respect and admire those that do year after year.


This past month  I had the opportunity to visit the brewery at which perhaps the most famous toji (master brewer) in all of Japan currently works. He is 86 years young, and is in the second year of brewing in his third trip out of  retirement. He is quoted as having said, “Brewing sake keeps me alive; I will die on the brewing floor.” Funny, that. What keeps him alive would do just the opposite to me.


More on this gentleman and my visit to his brewery next month! 


It is worth noting that not all brewery work is arduous. Some places have it all sussed out, minimizing the burden on the brewing personnel, while not compromising quality with excessive automation. Yet other places insist that if doing it doesn’t suck, it will not lead to good sake. 

Trying  to get at the truth is an exercise in futility. Let us set that fruitless pursuit aside and enjoy the sake we encounter with added appreciation for all  that has gone into it, especially in the month of February. 

Enjoy the newsletter,



Sake Today Issue #19 has shipped, Issue #20 in the Wings

The new issue of Sake Today shipped in December. Those of you  that subscribe should be enjoying that now.


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!

And look for Issue #20 to ship in the next couple of weeks. 

If you aren't subscribed or would like back issues, you can do so here:

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Sake Today #20
Issue #20 of Sake Today will ship in a couple of weeks. Look for yours if you are subscribed. If you are not yet subscribed, what are you waiting for? Read the world's only English sake magazine and learn even more about sake.


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.

  Various Philosphies About "Shikomi" Size 

How big is ideal?


There are countless factors that determine how good a batch of sake will end up being. Some are directly controllable by brewers; others less so. And there are, nor surprisingly, countless opinions amongst brewers about each and every one of those factors. There are methods or practices that some brewers consider indispensable or key, yet other brewers will downplay or even outright contradict them with diametrically opposed philosophies. Like, 180 degrees. It can be odd, actually. Depending on your threshold for vagueness, it can either be frustrating or fascinating.

One of these factors is the size of the batch. Big batches behave differently than small batches, not surprisingly. A batch is called a “shikomi,” and its size is measured in kilos of dry, milled rice that went into a given tank to create that batch of sake. While there are of course myriad other ways a batch could be measured, the weight of the dry rice is how it is done in the sake world.

Off on a bit of tangent, why is that? Because just how much water the rice is allowed to 

absorb, or how much water is added, or what the yields are will vary based on many things as well. Basing size on the weight of the dry milled rice presents one parameter that can be used as a point of comparison for all tanks, all batches, and all brewers.


Perhaps the most commonly encountered size of a typical shikomi is a ton to a ton-and-a-half (a metric ton, mind you, so 1000 kg or 2200 pounds) of all the rice that went into the tank, be it sraight steamed rice or koji rice (the rice that has had koji mold propagated upon it). But there are many brewers of the opinion that much smaller shikomi, say 600 kg or so, are infinitely better for super premium sake.

Perhaps the smallest size I have seen is 500kg on a practical level. (Experimental batches notwithstanding, of course. I have seen batches of sake in a desktop Pyrex jar.) But done at this scale, yields are quite low. The economics of sake brewing are, of course, important, and brewers need to ask themselves, from that point of view, are tiny batches worth it in the end?


 When considering the time required to do each of the many steps, then have it take up tank space, press it and filter it when fermentation is complete, bottle it and care for it and more - it would be so much more economical to double, triple or quadruple one’s yields; yea, verily I say unto thee multiply them by ten-fold for true efficiency. And, of course, many breweries function at such large economies of scale.

Naturally, though, as economically sound as larger batches can be at some point the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vicious vengeance and quality begins to noticeably suffer. But just where that occurs, and how each brewery factors that into their lineup varies hugely.

For example, some brewers not think that smaller batches are always better, citing the truth that it is much harder to control parameters such as temperature in those smaller tanks over the long run. To achieve a given flavor and aromatic profile, brewers guide the moromi (fermenting mash) along a very tight temperature curve. Smaller batches are more subject to various factors that might send them out of spec, so to speak. For a really small tank, a warm day outside might let the moromi get too warm, adversely affecting the final product.

Conversely, a largish tank would lumber along much more sluggishly so that wild swings in temperature et al would not likely happen. A warm day outside is nothing to a ton-and-a-half of fermenting rice. Such a tank would look askance at the weather outside, secure in its sheer mass.

But of course the other side of this coin is that if the temperature and other parameters stray from the fold of the ideal, it is easy to bring them back into alignment with small batches, back to where they should be, whereas in big batches, there is nothing to little that a brewer can do once things have gotten too out of spec.  

Yet more dissention abounds. One hugely famous toji of almost unmatched accomplishment insists that larger batches of about 1.5 tons are ideal. He also insists on

 slightly customizing the shape of the fermentation tanks he uses, so that the sake in his brewery circulates natural as it ferments. This means that they do not have to mess with using long poles to mix it up. It all occurs naturally in his kura as, inside the tanks, carbon dioxide bubbles stick to dissolving rice particles and the countless yeast cells, rising to the top, where the gas is released and the now-dense glob sinks again. And if your shikomi size is right, it all circulates perfectly, around and around and around...

Having said all this, though, it is a fact that almost always the more premium grades of sake are indeed made in comparatively smaller batches, compared that is to the shikomi size of the lower grades of sake for a given brewer. And contest sake, too, is almost without exception made in smaller batches. Certainly this is due to the aforementioned ability to tightly control key parameters.

Admittedly, this information is more than most of us need or want to know. Most folks are more into tasting sake than the under-the-hood workings of the brewing process. But lately I have come across this information on the back labels of one or two sake bottles: they actually tell us the size of the shikomi!

In truth, I think such information is superfluous and even intimidating. I mean, really; who cares? In the end, the flavors and aromas of a sake before us are either appealing, or they are not. Biasing our minds with such information before tasting could actually encumber our enjoyment by unnecessarily prejudicing it.

But as always, there are a myriad of opinions. One big gun of a distributor in the Tokyo/Yokohama metropolis insists that sake must be made in 600 kg or smaller batches to even be decent. He cites his ten-year convincing effort focused on one famous kura to lower their shikomi size from a ton to 600 kg, and when they did, they won a major international award. True, the smaller shikomi size might have had something to do with it, but so might a gazillion other things. But hey, what do I know.

So enjoy your sake for its flavors and aromas. Should you come across the shikomi size on a label or in a kura, bear in mind its significance, and its potential liabilities.


Sake Industry News


Welcome to a new section in the monthly Sake World newsletter: Sake Industry News. I will here try to provide a snapshot of recent news in the sake industry. While some nuggets of information may be only headlines, others may include a descriptive or explanatory line or two.

By all means, let me know if you have any feedback about format and/or content! Send any comments to – and thanks in advance.


The Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement takes effect. What this means is that sake will no longer have any tariffs applied when imported into the EU. Certainly this will help the already-rapidly growing sake market in Europe.

Hyogo Brewers Expand Marketing Efforts in Europe Several prominent sake breweries in Hyogo, including Honda Shoten (brewers of Tatsuriki), Hakutsuru Shuzo (Hakutsuru) and Kikumasamune Shuzo (Kikumasamune, Hyakumoku), will be strengthening their efforts now that the tariffs have been eliminated.

Empress Michiko’s Roses to be Source for Sake Yeast – Hanakobo – or flower yeast – has been in use for fifteen to 20 years now thanks to the efforts of the sake brewing department at Tokyo Agricultural University. That includes yeast taken from roses. Such yeasts strains do not make sake smell like the flower itself, but all do impart a unique and distinctive set of aromas and flavors. Now, seven breweries will use yeast taken from roses in the Empress’ garden to make sake.

Sake Pub with 200 Cup Sake Opens in Shinjuku – a low-key sake pub boasting 200 varieties of cup sake has opened in the Tokyo neighborhood of Shinjuku. Chidoriashi (a reference to the way those that have been drinking tend to walk) specializes in sake in the often-seen 180ml single cup servings, most often associated with inexpensive simple sake. But over the last ten years more and more brewers are selling higher-end sake in this packaging as well.

Nanbu Bijin Introduces the World’s First Certified Vegan Sake – The president, Kosuke Kuji, wondered aloud why more breweries do not do this. Most (not all!) sake would easily qualify.

New Sake Rice Developed in Fukui Prefecture: Sake Homare – Fukui Prefectural Research Institute has taken the development of a new sake rice far enough that they felt ready to bestow a formal name upon it: Sake Homare. Usually, while sake rice strains are under development, they are given temporary names like “Regional #45” or such names, since researchers might start with dozens of samples and hone them down to one. After years of development and testing, one will be selected, and given a more befitting name, one that also has more marketing appeal. Sake Homare stalks are shorter than Yamada Nishiki, so it is easier to grow and harvest, yet is of sufficient constitution and structure so as to be easily milled down to 35% for daiginjo.

Nara Aiming for Japan Heritage Site Certification as the Origin of Sake – Nara Prefecture has applied for the above-described certification, and it should be granted, as it is well-deserved. While many places in Japan had much to do with the history of sake, more technical developments took place in Nara than in any other place in Japan. Learn more about those here


Sake Exports Set New Record for 9th Consecutive Year – Sake exports continued to increase at a brisk pace, and in 2018 set a new record, both in terms of liters, and in monetary value. Volume increased 10 percent to about 26,000 kiloliters! But in terms of monetary value, the increase was a whopping (?) 19 percent. In nine years, the monetary value of sake exported has tripled.

Sake Micro-brewing Licenses Legalized – Last November, the Ministry of Taxation lowered the minimum volume of production needed to secure a license to brew sake, but only in a few specially designated "Sake Zones." What this means is that more places in Japan, in particular small restaurants or lodgings in the countryside as well as brewers planning small satellite pubs and establishments, can now obtain a license to brew sake, as long as they come to be recognized as "Special Sake Zones." Just how this will play out is yet to be seen, but there has been a good dollop of press on this issue; look for more on it here in the coming months.




                  Sake Professional Course in Chicago

                                  April 23 ~ 25, 2019 

From Tuesday, April 23 to Thursday, April 25, 2019,  I will hold the 30th North American running of the Sake Professional Course at the restaurant Sunda, in Chicago, Illinois. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries.
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.

 You can learn more about the course here, see the daily syllabus here,and download a pdf here. If you are interested in being in the mailing list for direct course announcements, please send me an email to that purport. 

Testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well.  




 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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