Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
In this issue:
-BY: Brewing Year
-New book on sake; reminder about old newsletters
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Aged sake, or "koshu," is a topic I am
wary of breaching. There are a number of reasons for this reticence, not least of which is that aged sake represents such a miniscule portion of all sake that is out there. Aged sake is hard to get, quite
expensive, and overall a totally different animal than regular sake - and certainly NOT better in any unequivocal sense. Nor is there any one proper way to age sake, nor any one universally agreed upon way that
aged sake should turn out. In one sense, it amounts to - more than anything else - a diversion in the sake world. Fresh sake is really what warrants most of out attention.
However, before I come off as
too harsh or biased, let me add that most of the time I like aged sake: it has its place indeed. And heaven knows we all need our diversions from time to time.
First, a bit of historical background.
Long ago, even as far back as the 13h century, sake was often aged. There were those in the aristocracy that were very fond of such sake, and typical aging periods were three or five years. Yet the truth
is that most people back then just wanted a buzz, and so even though aged sake was considered precious and was more expensive, most folks were drinking freshly brewed sake.
However, to finance wars with
China and Russia, the government leveled its gaze at the potentially rich source of tax income from sake. When these Meiji-era (late 1800s) tax laws were in place, sake tax comprised more than 30% of all taxes
Furthermore, in order to ensure they got their money as soon as possible, this tax was due the moment the sake was pressed, i.e. when the brewing process was completed. The tax was due, then,
before they even sold the sake. Naturally, this kind of eliminated any motivation to lay sake down. No kura wanted to wait three to five years to get their money back, and also risk the sake going south
(although rare today, it was not uncommon at all back then, especially with aged sake), and their revenues with it! This served the taxman quite nicely, as a faster flow of sake meant more tax revenues.
This law finally changed about 50 years ago, and brewers are now taxed when the sake ships from the kura (i.e. is sold). This opened the door for renewed aging experimentation. Today, the word koshu
means aged sake, but it can also refer to sake that has inadvertently aged for one reason or another, especially in a less than positive light, when compared with newer sake, or "shinshu." But sake
deliberately matured for long periods is known as "choki jukusei-shu." (The word koshu will always do in a pinch!)
So aging sake is not a new concept. However - and this is important - only a
very, very minuscule amount of sake is aged. The amount of sake laid down each year to age for a significant time (more than three years) is about one percent of one percent of one percent; that's it. Why is
this? There are two reasons, in my opinion. One, aged sake is a totally different animal from what we know as premium sake today, and two, aged sake is all over the map in its final form.
Looking at the
first reason in more depth, consider the nature of today's premium ginjo sake: light, aromatic, fruity, and lively are a few words that describe fine sake as we know it today. Aged sake - in its most
drastically altered forms - can be dark brown in color, heavy, cloying, musty, and rich. It is completely different from what we know and love as fresh sake. It is, in short, a totally different beverage.
Granted, aged sake can be just as complex and deep as fresh ginjo, but otherwise unrecognizable as sake. Sure, it can be enjoyable, but it's not sake as we have come to know it.
A quick caveat to
cover my butt: some sake is aged at lower temperatures and at conditions that do not alter the color or flavor in these above-mentioned ways, but rather in ways that present a more well-rounded sake with greater
integration of the various flavors and aromas. This kind of aged sake is very sake-like indeed.
This caveat leads to the second point: methods of aging sake, and the results those methods leads to, are
all over the map. There is no one way sake is aged, and there is no one way aged sake should end up. Some brewers will age sake in large tanks at room temperature. Others will use tanks at refrigerated
temperatures, others in bottles at various temperatures including freezing temperatures. And, yet others will use hybrid methods, aging in tanks for a few years, draining off to leave sediments behind,
transferring to bottles, and aging longer at colder temperatures. There is no "one way."
Each one of these methods will lead to vastly different results. In general, higher aging temperatures
and larger vessels (i.e. tanks vs. bottles) yield more drastic changes in color and heaviness of flavor. Colder temperatures and smaller vessels produce less noticeable, more subtle variations. But it is all
referred to as aged sake.
Further complicating all of this is the grade of the sake that was laid down to begin with. Usually, the lower the grade of sake, the less well it stands up to the tests of
time. At the risk of oversimplifying, higher grades - like ginjo-shu - aged more gracefully.
For example, on one end of the spectrum is Chiyo no Kame of Ehime, who has one daiginjo product aged ten years
at freezing temperatures. It is very hard to tell any difference at all between that and recently brewed sake, other than the flavor is quite well-rounded. On the other end of that spectrum is Daruma Masamune of
Gifu, who will age some of their sake for 20 years at room temperature. This stuff is dark like soy sauce, and wildly strong in flavor - although enjoyable to many for what it is.
And, hovering somewhere
in the complex middle is Azuma Rikishi of Tochigi, who has the most organized aging program that I know of. They age for three years in a tank, then bottle, aging for five to ten years longer at 6C. (Indeed,
this sake is precious.)
And what about aging yourself, either deliberately or inadvertently? Feel free to try it, and know that sake will begin to change noticeably in about a year (depending on storage
conditions). You may even like what happens to it over time. But my mantra on aging sake at home reads thus: if you want to taste a sake - THE WAY THE BREWER WANTED YOU TO ENJOY IT - then drink it young,
like within a year, and keep it cool until then.
And again, all of this complexity and variation applies to but a drop in the bucket of all sake produced. Hence my reserve at promoting it too much. I
think it is much more important for people to know a junmai-shu from a ginjo-shu from a run of the mill table sake, or to know a typical Niigata style from a typical Shizuoka profile. I think it is more
important for the world at large to come to know what truly good sake is, how to enjoy it, what to look for, and what to serve on the table with it. Most importantly, we all need to taste enough to know what we
personally like in a sake (which is all that really matters).
When this understanding reaches a critical mass, we can all venture into more tangential styles. Otherwise, we have a tendency to immediately
head toward the different styles, the diversions, the rare stuff - which in the case of koshu is a very small world, and not necessarily better.
So, at the end of the day, if you remember one line from
this tirade, even if it is a slightly limiting generalization, let it be this: By and large, sake does not improve with age. Drink it young.
But, in the end, everything written here is a
generalization, and is just my opinion. It's all about enjoyment. As I mentioned, I myself do enjoy some koshu from time to time. And to not talk about aged sake is to do readers a great disservice.
BY: The Brewing Year Dating System
As explained above, sometimes sake is aged by the kura before being released. And, very often, they
will tell you right there on the label that it is "3-year koshu" or "5-year koshu," with the term "jukusei" (aged, or matured) sometimes used instead. Of course, this information is
only useful if you know that this sake was only recently released from the kura - if it has been sitting on someone's shelf for a while, that time must be factored in.
But sometimes, we simply see an
indication of the year in which it was brewed. This should make it all simpler - provided we know how to read that information. The problem stems from two points: one, Japan does not use the same dating system
as the West, but rather a year-numbering system based on the reign of the current emperor, and two, a given sake brewing season stretches across two calendar years. But this article will clear it all up
First of all, while Japan does relate to the fact that this is 2003, officially and traditionally it is called Heisei 15, or the 15th year of the era of Heisei. So just remember that and you are
half way golden. If a bottle is labeled as being brewed in year 10, that is five years ago, so 1998. A bit of a mathematical hassle, especially when drinking, but not an insurmountable obstacle.
sake brewing starts in the fall of one year and ends in the spring. So, if a sake were labeled only as year 15, we would not know if it was the season of Fall 14 to Spring 15, or Fall 15 to Spring 16. These are
two different years as far as brewing is concerned, and can be likened to two totally different vintages in the wine world. So, we need a bit more detail.
This point did not escape the clever folks at the
ministry of taxation, who also needed a more efficient way to tax kura on their output. And so long ago they came up with the concept of the "Brewing Year," or BY. Just like fiscal years can differ
from calendar years, in Japan the Brewing Year runs from July 1 to June 30th of the following year. This, then, encompasses the entire brewing season in one 12-month period.
So, BY14 (it might also
appear 14BY) ran from July 1 2002 until June 30 2003. And sake brewed last fall and into this spring would be considered part of BY14.
How does this help you? Well, when you see an aged sake labeled, for
example, BY10, you know that since Heisei 10 was 1998, this sake was brewed in the season beginning in the fall of 1998, and running into the spring of 1999. So it is about five years old. BY6, as one final
example, would be four years older, having been brewed between fall of 1994 and spring of 1995.
Again, since aged sake is such a small drop in the bucket, you will rarely come across this. But if and
when you see this arcane nomenclature, you will know precisely how old your sake is.
New book on sake; reminder about old
Last month, my fourth book was published, entitled "Nihonjin mo Shiranai Nihonshu no Hanashi," or "Things about sake that Japanese people don't even know." Despite the
somewhat haughty title (the publisher's doing, not mine), this light read is a mostly anecdotal approach to the sake world, the people comprising it, and descriptions on how sake is catching on and taking
off outside of Japan. Written in Japanese, it will hopefully help those that are too close to sake realize again what a wonderful thing it is, and how rich the culture, history and people surrounding sake can
Also: A reminder to readers that all past versions of this newsletter are archived on my site at www.sake-world.com. Many of them contain information that is not found elsewhere on the site, and may
be useful in that sense. And do not forget the search function on that site: searching for a topic about which you have a question can save you from wading through 45 newsletters.
Sake Events and Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, August 9, from 6:00 to about 9:00, I will hold a sake
seminar at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The topic will be sake rice "varietals," and the effect they have on sake flavor profiles.
Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the
center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for
getting there will follow with the confirmation email.
On the evening of Thursday, August 28, I will be giving a
sake presentation at the Foreign Correspondents Club, right outside of Yurakucho Station in Tokyo. The presentation will include a buffet dinner and half a dozen sake. The focus will be on drawing parallels
between sake and wine, and noting too where those parallels diverge. Non FCC members are also welcome to attend. For more information or reservations, please contact me at email@example.com.
On the evening
of Saturday, September 6, from 6:00 to about 9:00, there will be a sake and pottery seminar with myself and Rob Yellin at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The topics have yet to be determined, but will be
announced as soon as possible. The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No deposit is required.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food,
without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
Sake Handbook, published by Charles Tuttle.
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
The Sake Companion, published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history
and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140
sake are introduced with an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink
sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at
bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
mo Shiranai Nihonshu no Hanashi, published by Shogakkan, in Japanese
This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner's point of view, including the personalities, events, and
techniques that make the sake world so unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.
Also worth searching for:
-Sake: Pure and Simple
(John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list
on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at email@example.com. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers.
Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not
inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several brewers are
experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more
information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is
available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: firstname.lastname@example.org, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
To subscribe to The
Sake Digest, send the word "subscribe" without the quotes to email@example.com . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to firstname.lastname@example.org. For a list of
other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to email@example.com. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to
To subscribe, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Or visit the Sake World
Website at http://www.sake-world.com
To unsubscribe, send an email to email@example.com
is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake
events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.
NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and
distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.
Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in
their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to www.sake-world.com, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that
have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 Sake World