Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saké's Hidden Stories by John Gautner

There are not many current books on Saké, maybe less than a dozen, available in English. Those books available are primarily educational and also usually provide some Saké recommendations. There is little though about the stories and personalities behind Saké, about the Toji (the master brewers) and Kura (breweries). Until now.

Saké's Hidden Stories: The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew is a new E-book written by John Gauntner. The E-book was just published and consists of 156 pages, including photographs, charts and a map. Gauntner is a famed Saké authority and educator. He lives in Japan, working and interacting in the Saké industry. The Japanese media refers to him as the "Saké Dendoushi" ("Saké Evangelist"), for his intense devotion to the promotion of Saké. He has written other Saké books, which I have read and also recommend.

Gautner has been working on this new one for a number of years, and this is what he has to say about it: "Sake's Hidden Stories will give you a view to what goes on in the sake industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew."

This book sounded very interesting to me so I quickly ordered a copy and voraciously completed it soon after I received it. I thought it was fascinating, a compelling book with so many interesting stories. It fills a gap in the existing books about Saké and I strongly recommend it. I also hope that Gautner writes more books like this one.

The book begins with The Prologue: The Basics of Saké, which is a primer about Saké. It includes information about the different types of Saké, the brewing process, and much more. Though brief, it is actually fairly comprehensive and a very good introduction to the subject. Gautner has a casual, easy writing style so you won't be bored.

The book then is divided into thirteen chapters, each discussing a different Japanese brewery and the personalities involved. I loved the stories in each chapter, and learned plenty. There is such a diverse collection of characters involved in Saké brewing, many with fascinating stories. Here are just some of the things that especially caught my attention.

  • "Precise and efficient, rice milling machines like this are the one concession to modern technology that any brewery will agree to, no matter how traditional." (p.14)
  • Saké quality took off about 60 years ago when modern "seimaiki," or rice milling machines, were first developed. Until then, the highest degree of milling, was about 70%.
  • A brewery using bags of fake rice to help in the process of steaming rice.
  • I enjoy Dassai Saké and its name actually caused it some initial problems. "Dassai" is similar in sound to the slang word "dasai" which means "geeky" or "uncool." So would you drink "nerd" Saké?
  • A brewer who uses a stethoscope to listen and determine when the rice has been milled sufficiently.
  • A Saké called "Kikuyoi" whose written characters refer to "eternal happiness with a buzz." How is that for truth in advertising?
  • "Just like grapes for wine, sake rice is closely tied to region. In other words, a given strain of rice will grow well in one part of Japan, but move it just a relatively short distance away and everything changes. And, just like grapes, there are some rice types that are significantly better than others for sake brewing. Furthermore, just like grapes, each of the many strains of sake rice will lead to potentially different flavors and aromas in the final product." (p.60)
  • A brewery where a single man does everything, from brewing to sales! Even the smallest breweries commonly need three or four brewers.
  • A brewery that sometimes holds rap concerts inside it.
  • A slightly modified method of rice milling that gets rid of more fat and protein with less milling. Known as "Super-flat Rice Polishing," it has to do with the shape and geometry of rice grains.
  • A unique Saké known as "Holy Turtle."
  • A Toji, master brewer, who brews Saké during the winter and grows tobacco the rest of the year.
If you love good stories, then check out this book. If you want to know more about Saké, then check out this book.


Designer said...

As a lover of fine sake, I look forward to enjoying this book over a bottle or two. Thanks for the info.
All the best,

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Michael and welcome to my blog:

I think you will really enjoy this book. If you do read it, please come back and tell me your thoughts.

Morgan Hartman said...

The book is an absolute delight. You will hone your knowledge of how sake is produced and gain some insight into the personalities behind this amazing beverage. I LOVED reading this book!