Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

On the shoulder of Mount Ishizuchi in Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku, perches a Shinto shrine. As with countless such hermitages throughout the island nation, the Shinto priests daily perform their rituals of honor and respect for the kami, or spirits that have been worshipped for the more than 1400 years of Shinto's existence as a religion. The rituals of Shinto are as varied as they are mysterious, especially to non-Japanese, but among them you will find an act common to countless religions across the globe: the offering. And in Shinto, as with many others, one of the things offered in veneration is alcohol.

The offering of sake to the kami of Mount Ishizuchi, as it does in many places in Japan, represents something of an apotheosis of both poetry and pragmatism. A returning to the source. The closing of an endless loop that has become a symbol of Japanese culture.

As with wine, sake is indelibly tied to the seasons, but in ways that differ substantially from the fruits of the vine. The climactic details of any given year will undeniably affect the rice harvest, and as the primary ingredient of sake, the quality and quantity of rice available will affect the sake brewed that year, though usually in ways for too subtle for most consumers to apprehend. For the individuality of a given sake comes less from the rice (which for the highest quality sakes is usually the Yamada Nishiki variety grown in Hyogo prefecture, far from where the sake is made), but from the brewers choice of yeast, their decisions in the brewing process, and from the single most plentiful ingredient in sake making: water.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

Which brings us back to the foothills of Mount Ishizuchi, carpeted with its thick coat of cedar, pine and bamboo under which burbling streams slowly wear their channels deeper into the stone of the mountainside. The water, of course, comes from deep within the mountain itself, where season after season of snowmelt replenishes the groundwater.

Good sake therefore often depends on a good winter, both for the snows' contribution to the brewery's local water source, as well as the low temperatures that brewers cherish to limit airborne organisms and make controlling their fermentations easier.

So when the priests at Ishizuchi-jinja make an offering of sake to their kami, they are returning something of the mountain to itself. Because the sake they offer is made a few kilometers away by a brewery bearing the same name as the mountain under which it sits.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

Ishizuchi Shuzo has been brewing sake since 1920, making the brewery quite young by Japanese standards, where brewing histories can stretch back centuries. But while its age has not distinguished Ishizuchi Shuzo, its operation entirely by a single family has made it something of a pioneer in the sake world.

At the risk of glossing over what could be a very rich cultural and socio-economic history of sake, suffice it to say that historically most sake breweries, usually owned and run by wealthy families, have employed a staff and a master brewer, or toji, drawn from the local community. In earlier times, the master brewer and employees would usually have been farmers all too happy to have work through the depths of their relatively unoccupied winter.

While Japan's economy has moved beyond its agrarian roots, the ownership and employment structure of most sake breweries has been much slower to change. So Ishizuchi Shuzo became something of a rarity in 1999 when Minoru Ochi came back to serve as toji for the family business run by his brother Hiroshi Ochi.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

In 1996 the elder Ochi took over daily operations from his father (who remains president of the brewery) and now runs things with his wife and his brother. The winery also has 2 more hired staff that assist with the brewing, and nine more employees that assist with the commercial aspects of the business.

"When we shifted to being a family-run operation we made a conscious change," says Ochi. "I'm personally a big fan of sake," he adds with a smile, "so I decided I wanted to make the really good stuff. Not just something that would get you drunk, which is what sake really was for a lot of people in the past. Those sakes were cheap and not made with care. I wanted to make something that could be appreciated with the finest foods."

Today Ishizuchi makes a bit more than 100,000 bottles of sake each season and 87% of that sake is premium grade (known as junmai-shu) sake. The brewery has also made an effort to try to use a locally grown rice strain, called Matsuyama-mii in many of its sakes, an unusual but growing trend among sake brewers.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

To explain how he makes his sake, Ochi holds up his hand.

"This is the most important part of brewing," he says. "The hand. And you have to keep the hand clean. That is the most important thing in sake brewing. The yeast and the koji, these microorganisms are the ones that make the sake. Our job as brewers is to keep the environment clean so that these microorganisms can do their job."

Ochi goes on to point out that the natural acidity of wine helps control which yeasts and bacteria actually end up affecting the fermentation, but that isn't an option with sake, which has very little acidity by comparison and is therefore susceptible to all manner of contamination by even minute populations of wild yeasts.

"In my opinion," says Ochi, "if the brewery isn't clean, the sake doesn't taste good."

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

"In the beginning," he continues, "I thought that sake was just about the ingredients. Procuring the best ingredients, like food. But that didn't work."

Ochi goes on to explain that, apart from cleanliness, good sake comes from a combination of precision and consistency in how the process is carried out. From the precise percentage of of moisture in the rice after washing and steaming; to the temperature used to propagate the mold spores that will begin to break down the starches in the rice allowing fermentation to occur; to the temperature and length of cold stabilization; to the strength of pressing the final sake from the mash -- it all matters.

Which is why Ochi and his family, like brewers have done for centuries, live at the brewery during the brewing season. Sake brewing is relentless, repetitive work, even with the modern conveniences of refrigeration technology, which Ochi says is an absolute requirement in the face of global warming.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

"I want to take a day off," jokes Ochi, "But the yeast doesn't give me a day off. We go to sleep but they're always working."

Ochi does take a couple of hours, however, to bring us to the Ishizuchi shrine for a Shinto blessing, and the offering of some sake to the gods of the mountain. Ochi winks and tells us that he can personally vouch for the quality of sake that his local gods get to drink.

As it happens, the gods don't manage to drink all of the sake that is offered to them, and so the priests at the shrine bottle up some of that venerated and spiritually anointed sake, and offer it to their most honored guests, a group to whom, it seems, I am lucky enough to belong.

And what does the sake of the gods taste like? Something like the view across the rice fields plains of Ehime, looking towards the sea.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

Of course, you'll not be pleased to know that these sakes are not available outside of Japan, so you have my apologies for perhaps enticing you fruitlessly with their story and the tasting notes that follow. But perhaps you can seek out a bottle, or better yet, persuade an importer to bring them in!

Ishizuchi Shinsei Daiginjo Muroka Genshu Fukurotsuri Shizuku, Ehime Prefecture
This sake is unusual in two respects -- the first is that it is a shizuku or fukurotsuri sake, which means that it was not pressed at all, but allowed to drip through a fabric bag, making it roughly equivalent to "free run" juice at a winery. It is also a genshu which means it is full strength (somewhere around 18% alcohol) rather than being diluted back to around 16% which is normal practice for most premium sake. This sake offers aromas of bitter melon and apple and white flowers. In the mouth, rainwater and apple and melon flavors mix with white flowers and the higher octane notes of alcohol. Made from 100% Yamada Nishiki rice. Score: between 8.5 and 9

Ishizuchi Junmai Daiginjo Funashibori, Ehime Prefecture
This sake is also a genshu strength sake, and is pressed in individual cloth sacks, which is a more traditional and painstaking method for pressing the sake lees. It smells of wet leaves and snow and a hint of bitter greens. In the mouth, flavors of rainwater and bitter melon and a touch of green apple have crisp and bright quality, like a spring day before sunrise. Very clean and delicious. Made from 50% Yamada Nishiki and the local 50% Matsuyama-mii rice. Score: between 9 and 9.5

Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funashibori, Ehime Prefecture
This sake smells of freshly unwrapped bubble gum and pastry cream. In the mouth, the sake is quite silky and viscous, with flavors of cedar and earth and bitter greens. Made from 20% Yamada Nishiki and 80% Matsuyama-mii Score: between 8.5 and 9

Ishizuchi Muroka Junmai Funashibori, Ehime Prefecture
This sake smells of bitter melon and cold cream with hints of bubble gum and cotton candy. In the mouth the sake is creamy and just a touch thick on the palate, with flavors of cold cream and bubble gum mixed with white flowers. Made exclusively from Matsuyama-mii rice. Score: around 8.5.

Sake of The Mountain Gods: Ishizuchi Shuzo, Ehime Prefecture

John Gauntner: The Man Who Loved Sake

John Gauntner is the Julia Child of sake. No single individual has had a greater impact on the awareness of sake among the world's non-Japanese population than this engineer turned sake evangelist, who started writing about sake in the English language pretty much before anyone else on the planet. America's gourmet revolution can easily be traced back to Child. America's love affair with sake is still in its adolescence, but it's a safe bet that if someone is evangelizing, or even just selling, fine sake in America, it's John Gauntner's fault.

When I was first introduced to high-quality sake in Japan 18 years ago and started searching for information on this mysteriously delicate beverage, the only resources available to me were Gauntner's prolific and enthusiastic writings on the topic, both in his newspaper columns and through his pioneering e-mail newsletter and web site. Not only has he been writing about sake continuously since then, he has been teaching an in-depth, and usually sold-out, course to professionals and enthusiasts several times a year since 2002.

If not for the gray of his close-cropped blonde hair and some crinkles around his eyes, Gauntner's easy smile and casual stride, not to mention his boyish charm, would leave you guessing that he's much younger than his 55 years. His immersion into the world of sake is total and has been for years, resulting in a frenetic schedule of competition judging, visits to breweries, writing, speaking engagements, teaching his class, and helping to run the sake export business in which he is a partner. Gauntner has kept up this pace for more than two decades, yet manages through it all to maintain a level of enthusiasm for sake that all but leaks out of his pores.

Gauntner was born in Cleveland, the son of a NASA engineer and a traditional Midwestern stay-at-home mom. Seeing his father go off to work every day on the Space Shuttle engines inspired Gaunter to tinker with whatever he could get his hands on as a kid.

"I loved playing with electronics," says Gauntner, "and when I was in seventh grade my dad told me that if I loved it so much, I should think about becoming an electrical engineer, and that was it, I was done. I was happy that I didn't have to think about the whole career thing ever again."

When it came time to apply for college, Gauntner says he "didn't ponder it" and just chose schools in Ohio that had good co-op engineering programs. He applied the first day possible, and set off the next year to Cincinnati University to become an electrical engineer.

In many respects, Gauntner's path could easily have led him no farther than the borders of his state, as many Americans seem content to get an education, find a good job, and settle down not far from home. But during college something else stirred in Gauntner - a burgeoning appreciation for the complexity of the world, and a curiosity extending beyond America's borders. By the time he graduated, he had his heart set on teaching English in Japan.

By his own account, the two years Gauntner spent in the JET: Japan Exchange and Teaching program were a worry-free blast, but while his time as a high-school English teacher satisfied his cultural curiosity, it didn't point towards anything new from a career standpoint.

"I was about to just go back home, when a guy I knew asked me to join his company," recalls Gauntner. "It was a half-Swiss, half-Japanese company that made plasma surface tooling equipment. I wasn't particularly interested in plasma tools, but it was a chance to stay in Japan and make a decent living, and I knew it was a chance I couldn't pass up."

During those three years, Gauntner's love for Japan deepened, even as his love for engineering waned. On New Year's day in 1989, however, he was at a colleague's house to celebrate, and someone handed him the first cup of sake that would change the course of his life.

"I had tasted sake a few times during my stay in Japan," says Gauntner, "and it was interesting enough for me to buy a book on it in Japanese, but to tell you the truth, up until that point I hadn't even read it. It just sat on the shelf."

But this sake was different.

"This older gentleman pulled out five big bottles and a basket of sake cups, and it was the first time I had tasted sake that was more than just 'not bad,'" recalls Gauntner. "It was the first time I had the opportunity to compare one sake to another, and certainly the first time I had had truly premium sake. I was blown away. It had complexity and depth, and not just in flavor but in the culture behind it."

This older colleague talked as the two drank, telling Gauntner stories about the producers, explaining how sake was made, and the many choices that go into its final form.

"I realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg," says Gauntner. He was hooked.

The first thing he did was read the book sitting on his shelf, and then he began drinking as much sake as he could get his hands on.

"I started going to sake pubs and sitting at the counter and just asking as many questions as I could," says Gauntner. He joined a tasting club to exercise his newfound passion, but never considered doing more than that.

After three years Gauntner quit his engineering job and hung around Tokyo for a while.

"I told myself, 'I'll just relax for a couple of months,'" recalls Gauntner, but really, he was dreading the inevitable return to the U.S. However, during his loafing about, he attended a picnic with a large group of friends and eventually a man he didn't know came around with a bottle of cheap sake to pour for everyone.

This was the second cup of sake that would change Gauntner's life. But he refused to drink it.

"'What, you don't like sake?' this guy said," and Gauntner replied, "'No, I love it. Which is why I'm not drinking that.' Then the guy said, 'doesn't it basically all just taste the same?' and I said, 'No, actually it doesn't' and so we started talking about it."

By the end of that conversation, the man with the cheap sake, who happened to work at the Japan Times, suggested that Gauntner ought to write a piece about sake for the paper, and the sake evangelist was born.

"I wrote a piece, and they published it," says Gauntner matter-of-factly. "Then they said I ought to write a regular column about sake, so I did. And then a publisher came along and asked me if I wanted to write a book about sake, so I did. And all of a sudden, I was writing about sake professionally. It all happened in about four months. The book came out about a year later."

Gauntner rapidly found himself swimming in the deep end of the pool. There were literally no resources available on sake in English, so in addition to his tasting, and continued frequent visits to his favorite sake pubs, Gauntner devoted himself to learning how to read Japanese with an intensity that surprised even him.

"I realized that if I was going to write for a newspaper, I couldn't make shit up, and I couldn't repeat myself,' Gauntner says with a chuckle. "I had to learn as much as I could. I had to study, I had to find new topics. And the more I dug, the more I learned, the more fascinated I became."

A column in the newspaper and a book in English about a drink that most English speakers didn't pay much. "They weren't enough to pay the rent, I can tell you that," says Gauntner. So he took a job at an engineering company based in Fremont, California, and lived in constant fear that they were going to call him back to headquarters at some point, and, lacking the means to stay, he would have to go.

But in 1997, Gauntner took stock of his life and decided to take a leap of faith.

"I was constantly haunted by this thought that if I went back home and took the safe route, that years later I would later see someone, another American guy, walking the path that I created, being the sake evangelist that I pioneered. I knew I couldn't tolerate that, so I just made a decision. I told myself, no matter what happens, even if I end up in the gutter broke, I'm going to try this. At the time I was single and had no kids and owned no property, so I didn't have that much to lose really, so I did it."

It's one thing to follow your passion, it's quite another to do so in a place where you are a cultural and linguistic outsider. But Gauntner maintains that he wasn't scared. "I generally don't feel financial pressure. I'm also a guy who doesn't normally take risks, but I thought, 'what's the worst thing that could possibly happen?' I'd go broke. I'll go home and live with my parents. I'll figure something out. I could be an electrical engineer again. I had something to fall back on."

So, with a little bit of money saved up from his Engineering job to help pay the rent in Tokyo, Gauntner set out to become a self-anointed sake evangelist, and, surprisingly, a career materialized. He was hired by some brewers who wanted help promoting their sakes overseas. He wrote a speech here, an article there, and on occasion found an opportunity to offer someone paid advice about sake.

"I wasn't extremely busy, but stuff kept trickling in. It was, how do I say...thin?," smiles Gauntner. "I don't like to think about what I was making, but I was doing lots of little things."

Eventually Gauntner helped a friend start a business exporting sake to the U.S. but found himself depressed at the sales numbers.

"I realized that the importers and distributors we were selling to didn't know a thing about sake," says Gauntner. "If you've got this catalog of 10,000 wines and twenty sakes, and you don't have the willingness, or if you're afraid to sell it, you're not even going to try. I realized my number one job had to be educating the trade."

So, in 2002, Gauntner established the Sake Professional's Course. It was not, it must be said, a runaway success.

"Year one, I had three people," admits Gauntner.

But one of those pupils was a San Franciscan named Beau Timkin, who would, a year later, open the first dedicated sake store in the world outside of Japan and become a major evangelist himself. Gradually the trickle of students became a constant river of wine, food and hospitality professionals from around the globe. At last count more than 1500 people have become Certified Sake Professionals under Gauntner's tutelage.

John Gauntner: The Man Who Loved Sake

Gauntner recently completed his 43rd edition of this course, graduating 25 people into a very different world than when Gauntner was a guy wondering if he could make a living writing about sake. Fine sakes appear on the wine lists of the world's greatest restaurants, from the French Laundry to The Fat Duck, and you're likely to occasionally find a twenty-something sipping a sparkling nigori sake in a nightclub in New York instead of Champagne.

On the other hand, since Gauntner first arrived in Japan the number of sake breweries in Japan has declined from more than 2700 to somewhere close to 750.

"Until very recently I was comfortable saying that 95% of all sake breweries are family owned," explains Gauntner, "and I think the cultural pressure or significance of a family owned business is big. In other words, if you're the 14th generation and you take outside investment to keep the company going, which is a wise business decision, and you eventually sell the company, when you go to heaven you've got 15 pissed off dudes you've got to answer to. I think there's a lot of pressure not to do that."

Combine the lack of funds for innovation or even upkeep with the disappearance of the labor pool (traditionally fishermen and farmers who needed something to do during the winter sake brewing season) and younger generations that want to work cushy jobs in the city and party on the weekends with beer and spirits, and you've got a recipe for a major decline both in sake production as well as sake drinking by the Japanese public.

"The average age of master brewers is now something like 123," jokes Gauntner. "It's really more like late seventies, but the old apprenticeship models are in decline. Where you have new blood coming in, it's great, and there's lots of creativity, but in general, we're pretty much in decline."

Gauntner goes on to explain, however, that this is not the full story. While sake consumption and production as a whole has dropped in Japan, exports have doubled in the past 10 years. The lower quality grades of sake, which make up 75% of the country's production, are in steep decline, but premium grades of sake are on the rise.

"The industry is coming back," maintains Gauntner, "but the statistics don't show that yet. We're seeing a generational change in the brewing industry. We're getting new marketing approaches, nice labeling, and brewers that are actually getting up and doing stuff. Brewers are actively trying to get involved in exports, and about three or four ministries of the government are getting involved. All that makes me feel like we're going to be OK. But I don't want to be overly positive. The industry still faces a lot of challenges."

If the industry does recover and begin to grow again, it will almost certainly be on the basis of increased demand from outside Japan. And that demand, in large part, will always be thanks to John Gauntner. Wine magazines such as Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator have begun to occasionally feature sake, and critical outlets such as The Wine Advocate have begun to rate sakes. But thirty years after he became the first person to regularly write about sake in English, John Gauntner remains the primary English-language voice singing the praises of his favorite beverage.

And for this, I and every other English speaking sake lover, owe him a great debt of thanks.

A Long Awaited Journey

I have a confession to make. I have been drinking sake seriously for more than 18 years. I have been writing about it and reviewing sakes here on Vinography for 14 years. I have taught seminars on sake at places like the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. But until this week, I had not been to a sake brewery. It's a little shocking to think about, even for me, given my history and experience with wine. By the time I started writing about wine I had already visited dozens of wineries. I even lived in Japan for more than 18 months, but I never made it to a sake brewery during that time, nor in subsequent visits over the years.

But now I've corrected that mistake, thanks to the generosity of the Japan Sake and Shochu Maker's Association, who brought me back to Japan and provided the opportunity to make my overdue journey into the heart of sake.

Winter is the season of sake, and the best time to visit breweries, or kura as they are known in Japanese. Depending on their location, the brewing season will last from October to March. Brewers rely on the crisp, chilly air of the season to minimize ambient bacteria and yeast populations, as well as to assist with the low temperature fermentations that make for the highest quality sakes.

A Long Awaited Journey

Unlike wine, whose yearly vintage "crush" consists of a flurry of autumnal activity lasting a few weeks, sake brewing happens continuously through the winter season, depending on the production size of each brewery. During this season the toji, or master brewer, and a crew of several helpers will literally live at the brewery, rising well before dawn, seven days a week without a day off, to perform the series of backbreaking activities involved in making sake.

Leaving aside the milling of rice - the process of sanding each individual grain down to a fraction of its former size - which most breweries now outsource, the work of sake brewing involves the following activities that often begin as early as 5:00 AM: washing rice; steaming rice; cooling rice; turning a portion of the rice into koji by inoculating it with a special mold; creating a starter batch of sake by mixing koji, freshly steamed rice, water and yeast; tending that starter and adding more rice in successive batches; completing fermentation by pressing and filtering the sake; and then putting the sake into tank or bottle for aging.

A Long Awaited Journey

The nature of the sake making process (especially the making of koji), the need to carefully control the microbiology at work (since the slightest bit of unwanted bacteria or yeast can lead to nasty odors or flavors), and the physical capacity of tanks and the people manning them means that sake must be made in many, many, many successive batches. The largest, most commercial breweries can make more, larger batches at once, but even they run into the limitations of needing steamed rice to be at just the right temperature and moisture content, and the fact that koji must be made fresh in carefully tended batches every 48 hours.

While some breweries employ (pretty sophisticated) machines that assist with these tasks, they remain incredibly intense physical activities, as I learned firsthand yesterday morning as I was pressed (quite willingly) into shoveling steamed rice, carrying bags of rice, and stirring fermenting batches of rice at a brewery I visited in Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.

Needless to say, winter mornings are when you'd want to visit sake breweries, as they are ceaselessly abuzz with activity for more than five months, as their increasingly sleep deprived workers repeat the same tasks over and over and over with a dedication and precision that astounds.

But before you pack a bag and head out to visit your favorite sake brewery, you should know that the world of sake differs from the world of wine in many important ways, especially when it comes to tourism and the consumer experience.

A Long Awaited Journey

To be blunt, while many breweries will happily receive you at a small shop next to the brewery where you can purchase a bottle or two, a sizeable percentage of breweries lack even this most basic of hospitality offering. And as for getting up early and showing up to poke your head into the kura to see sake making in action? Unless you're on a pre-booked and carefully organized tour with an outside agency, you can forget it. Language barriers aside, brewers generally don't want the distraction (or liability in what can be a dangerous environment) of tourists underfoot.

And you thought making visits to cellars in Burgundy was tricky.

Exceptions to this generalization continue to grow in number, as forward-thinking breweries continue to seek ways of compensating for generally shrinking consumption of sake in Japan, but despite more than 400 years of history, the sake industry remains quite undeveloped when it comes to tourism. Advocates for the industry, as well as third-party tourism agencies do regularly organize tours, so anyone who has their heart set on visiting a brewery will find it is possible with a bit of extra effort. Accompanied by a bi-lingual guide, this can be an immensely rewarding and educational experience. For now, however, just finding your way to a brewery hoping to do a little tasting remains a somewhat fruitless pursuit.

Should you make it to a brewery, don't expect it to be like your average winery facility just with rice instead of grapes. Compared to even the most modest wine regions around the globe, the world of sake brewing remains significantly under-capitalized. The vast majority of brewers who manage to get bank loans almost always do so for the purposes of buying equipment or higher quality rice. Only the most visionary producers (who also often happen to be the most newly established) are working to create anything other than a purely functional environment at the brewery.

A Long Awaited Journey

Most breweries are old, industrial, and by wine world standards, quite dingy. While fastidious in their focus on minimizing microbiological contamination (those allowed to visit the kura must wash and sterilize their hands, wear hair nets, remove their shoes, not consume yogurt or other active culture products in the days before a visit, and generally not touch anything while inside), the insides of breweries are dark, noisy, tarnished, and in most cases a bit decrepit. Think of the most humble, Old World winemaking facility you've been to, double the number of hoses, tanks, and carts, and then add a bunch of steam pipes and odd looking machinery in various states of antiquity and you'll get the general idea. The gleaming, spotless, well-lit fermentation rooms of Sonoma these most certainly are not.

But what these environments may lack in both curb appeal and interior design, they make up for in the humble passion of the people running them, and the ethereal purity of their products, which can taste like blooming flowers and the first deep snowfall of the season in a cedar forest. Despite a steady decline in Japanese sake consumption for more than thirty years the dedication and craftsmanship of those brewers who choose (sometimes barely) to remain in business is as remarkable as it is inspiring.

A Long Awaited Journey

At the center of each grain of rice lies a small white heart that the Japanese call the shinpaku. This bundle of pure starch contains the carbohydrates that must be broken into sugars to fuel the fermentation of rice into alcohol. The complex process of making sake begins with the painstaking work to expose and exploit this miniscule resource, hidden by the rough exterior of a brown rice husk. Each grain is milled down to a fraction of its former size, stripping away the fats and proteins that hide the shinpaku until it becomes visible, a tiny fleck of brilliant white amidst the cloudy refined form of the polished grain. Even after milling, soaking, and steaming the shinpaku remains out of reach. Only thanks to the magic of koji does the shinpaku release its grip on the valuable sugars within.

While I learned many lessons during the time I spent living in Japan, one of the most important was that there were always deeper levels of significance and meaning beyond my surface understanding of any aspect of the culture. Sake embodies this truth perfectly. Look past the grimy patina that marks the walls of most breweries, taste a few really good bottles, and you'll catch a glimpse of the soul and complexity of sake, a profound expression of Japanese craftsmanship and a unique landscape of flavors.

When Sake Smells Fishy

Something unusual happened recently. Or rather several somethings in the world of sake. For the first time since 1998, the august publication the Wine Advocate reviewed a bunch of Japanese sake. And, as my friend and colleague Blake Gray discovered, a web site called The Taste of Sake was published the very same day as those scores came out, and listed every single sake that rated 90 points or higher, and nothing else. That's right. The Wine Advocate rated 78 sakes over 90 points, and The Taste of Sake sold those, and only those 78 sakes. And it put them up for sale at the same moment the scores were being released.

Which would seem to imply that someone behind The Taste of Sake had inside information. And why would this matter? Because the top rated sake in the publication, which, according to Blake, used to sell for $45 directly from the brewery, is now trading for $5000 per bottle.

Check out Blake's discussion of his discovery and his investigation into what was going on (among other things, the Taste of Sake's web site has been taken down).

A couple of days later, Blake posted another update on the story, filled with all sorts of facts unearthed by him and some of his readers about the companies behind this online retailer, as well as some comments from the Wine Advocate, who, perhaps not surprisingly, seems alarmed to learn of this situation.

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this little episode that I'm calling #sakegate. Stay tuned for more!

Image © Oblachko | - Sake casks

Sake Day Celebration and Tasting: October 1, San Francisco

Japan has given many things to the world that I cherish, but few of them have an unofficial holiday that gives me the excuse to celebrate them. Every October first, along with sake lovers all over Japan and around the world, I get to observe Nihonshu no Hi, also known as Sake Day.

Like wine, no one knows exactly when sake first made an appearance. In a similar fashion to grape wine, the knowledge that fermented rice eventually yields an alcoholic beverage was probably discovered in accidental and then later deliberate stages, as innovative and curious folks explored ways of getting drunk.

Sake production and demand is likely to have peaked in Japan the mid 19th century when a law was passed allowing anyone to become a brewer. As many as 30,000 breweries were opened in the year of the law's passing, though that number dwindled as taxes on sake and its raw materials increased through the end of the century.

Despite ups and downs, and not being anywhere near its 19th century production levels, sake is seeing a major renaissance around the world, and that is worth celebrating for any sake lover. More and more excellent sake is leaving Japan and making its way abroad.

All of which means that in early October you'll not only have something to celebrate but, some really good stuff to celebrate with, should you care to partake in the 11th Annual Sake day celebration put on by San Francisco's own True Sake store.

As in past years this celebration is a benefit for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, who direct funds to many good causes.

Sake Day is an opportunity to taste an assortment of sake, eat some good Japanese food, and listen to a little music in a casual atmosphere. Various tasting stations will be set up that will allow attendees to compare different styles of sake, blind taste some varieties, as well as explore flaws like heat damage.

If you're looking for a way to learn about sake, you'd be hard pressed to find a better occasion to experience a number of them than this little event.

11th Annual Sake Day Celebration
Saturday, October 1
5:00 PM to 9:00 PM
SF Armory
1800 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103 (map)

Tickets are $75 and should be purchased in advance online, as the event may sell out. A valid photo ID will be required for entry.

A word of caution for those used to wine tastings. Spitting is not normal at sake tastings, and consequently, spittoons aren't usually available. For those who want to taste without getting wasted, I recommend bringing an empty water bottle into which you can surreptitiously spit.