By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Think back to your formative weeks and months of getting to grips with choosing which sakes to try out. Fun but confusing, right?

It may have been in a restaurant, liquor store or online but chances are you’d find yourself flailing around, your eyes squinting trying to pinpoint something on the label or menu to give a clue to the contents within. Unlocking the clues to the bottle or drinks list you’re considering can sometimes be a challenge, but also a rite of passage.

A quick cheat that sake newbies latch onto, understandably, is the milling rate – the seimaibuai – expressed as a numerical percentage most commonly on the back label. This gives an immediate lifeline, a calibration of sorts, to understanding the quality of the sake.

In just the same way, knowing which category of special designation sake (basically premium sake) you’re mulling over – the tokutei meishoshu – doesn’t necessarily give you a finite answer as to the quality of it. When it comes to sake, we like to think there’s really good sake and just plain good sake.

What should the seimaibuai and tokutei meishoshu category mean to you? Blake Richardson, President/Owner of Minnesota Rice and Milling, is well placed to shed some light on this, having previously set up North America’s first craft sake brewery, moto-i, in 2008.

A frequent visitor to Japan, Blake saw an opportunity back home to combine the popular and established domestic brew pub concept with Japan’s seductive beverage, sake. And by frequent, we’re talking fifteen or more trips, involving study tours with John Gauntner as part of his Sake Professional Course as well as some hands-on production experience at Tsukinowa brewery in Iwate Prefecture.

The defining image of brew pubs is largely based on two requirements: an on-site brewing facility and a significant range of brewed beverages to amuse and entertain thirsty customers. As a brewery school graduate with twenty five years of craft brewing experience, Blake emphatically ticked this first requirement, but it would be the latter that would cause more of a challenge seeing as back in 2008, 60% milled US grown Calrose rice was easy to get hold of, but that was about it.

Before we continue with Blake, just what is a 60% milled sake all about? Well, this (kinda) important seimaibuai percentage will mostly be in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and there’s no chance you’ll mix it up with the ABV (alcohol by volume) figure which is generally in the 15-17% region. One less thing to worry about at least.  Having identified this number, rightly or wrongly, we can start to immediately draw some conclusions.

Image courtesy of Urban Sake (

Firstly, the lower the number, the greater the amount of rice that has been removed. A 40% sake indicates that 60% has been removed and won’t take any further part in the brewing process (although it won’t be wasted – this nuka rice powder will be side-lined into cosmetics or animal feed) whereas a 70% tells us that (just) 30% has been removed.

Secondly, this informs us a little about how deep we’re going to have to dig into our pockets, even before getting a glimpse at the price ticket. The more the rice is polished, the less remains that can be transformed into sake. Unsurprisingly, gram for gram sake rice is more profitably used for making sake than it is for these secondary by-products.

On the plus side, sake is generally honestly priced, so if you’re paying twice as much for one bottle than another, it’s in all likelihood going to be noticeably better, maybe not twice as good (and how on earth do you measure that anyway), but better nonetheless.

What is important to remember here is that milling takes place right up front in the sake production process. The end liquid pouring out of the tank some weeks later (months later if you count the traditional six months of storage at the brewery) is affected, influenced and morphed by so many human decisions and natural factors that it’s just not possible to segregate really good sake from just plain good sake by this milling rate alone, without opening the bottle.

But why mill at all, is it really necessary? For Blake, controlling what rice varietals got milled and to what level would be the significant missing piece in the jigsaw for moto-i, but his options were rather narrow back then in the early days of the business.

Some digging around identified a milling facility out West but no matter how hard he tried, Blake couldn’t persuade them to support his Minneapolis business and relatively low order quantities, branding him a “pest” no less.

Scouring through a newly identified “graveyard of used rice milling equipment”, as Blake describes it, initially looked promising but none of the decaying kit seemed to be in a state that could polish below 70%, which just didn’t meet his long term vision.

All of a sudden, a phone call asking, “Do you want to buy our old mill?”, came out of the blue from the West coast. Blake’s searching was over, and the rest is history.

In the absence of Japonica rice strains, Blake began milling experimentation with Italy’s finest short grain rices – vialone nano and arborio – with limited success. “The Italian grains are very light, success wasn’t good with them”, he explains. Grain composition is an important factor but density is critical also in that the weight of the rice against the milling stone has a correlation with just how much gets polished off each “pass” through the mill.

In simple terms, rice is poured into the milling machine’s hopper at the top and released at a specific flow rate to be gently “scraped” by a pair of silicone carbide wheels before returning to the hopper for what can be hundreds, if not thousands, of passings through this spinning gauntlet for more and more scraping.

Control is the key word here. The grains are delicate and easily prone to cracking, some varietals more than others, as well as being liable to succumb to starch gelatinization if things get too hot. A 70% polished batch can take up to eight hours, for 50% you’re looking at a constant two days of non-stop machine time, so it’s no surprise all that energy results in some hot machinery. Plus, a hot ambient temperature can affect things adversely, as well as a change in humidity.

This is where Blake’s skills come into their own, tweaking and adapting flow rates onto the stone, managing the opening and closing of apertures as well as the rotational speed of the stones. Although the machine came with a manufacturer’s “recipe book” that recommended milling procedures for full and half batches, it’s just not as simply prescriptive as that.

To confuse things further, the rice grain itself changes over time during milling depending on what is being polished off. Proteins, fats and starch have different hardnesses, and the grains’ own internal temperature increases also as things heat up.

Things get really interesting around the 70% mark. Up until this point, polishing is relatively easy, but from then on in I really need to pay attention. I have to be super-careful, there’s a lot happening”, confesses Blake.

Milling has certainly become “easier” through Blake’s relationship with Isbell Farms directly due South (at almost a similar latitude to Hyogo, Japan) down in Arkansas. “I’d heard about what Chris was doing down there and liked the sound of it so basically asked him if I could mill his rice”, Blake tells us. Luckily for him, Chris agreed, and the partnership is entering its sixth year and going from strength to strength.

Chris and Blake met through mutual friends at Nøgne ø of all places, in Norway, a chance encounter interwoven into this fascinating story. Isbell Farms’ Yamada Nishiki rice is now the mainstay of Minnesota Rice and Milling, being shipped to breweries in Nashville, Texas, Mexico and beyond.

The quality of rice has a major impact on the milling process and final product which is certainly recognizable in the Yamada Nishiki being produced by Isbell Farms since the early 1990s, being in fact the first US business to grow this strain. Blake feels that milling Isbell Farms’ Yamada Nishiki is relatively easy due to the shape, hardness, weight and size of the individual grains. Omachi, a rice that is comparatively softer, is the latest varietal addition and “seems to mill quite nicely”, he humbly says, and his milling proficiency now means 35% seimaibuai is readily on offer to brewers. This requires four to five days of constant milling, and so the stakes are high.

What about 2021? Blake acknowledges that in the era of Covid-19, production will be seriously down on previous years, but that comes as no surprise after last year’s disappointments and challenges. Yet Blake only sees opportunity and Isbell Farms is preparing to offer two other Japanese rices along with some new Southern grown rice varietals that are being added to the portfolio that Blake and Minnesota Rice and Milling will be working with in the future.

These new Japanese rice strains are Wataribune and Gohyakumangoku, well known candidates from the country’s hundred or so readily recognisable options. Of the two, Gohyakumangoku may well be one many know (it’s hard to forget that name), its famed large round shinpaku giving the ‘King of Rice’, Yamada Nishiki, a run for its money and a popular choice in Japan, accounting for around a quarter of sake rice production nationally.

Wataribune rice is synonymous with Ibaraki Prefecture, an ancient strain recently revived and believed by many to be a parent of Yamada Nishiki. Either way, people definitely agree on its lively, aromatic and complex identity, ensuring big and full sakes with multi-layered flavours.

Blake’s last message to the industry is this: “Try some on us”. Blake is at the front of the sake ambassador queue (those many visits to Japan compelling him perhaps) and invites North American brewers to arrange rice samples for testing, enough for a proper sized fermentation, not just a quick experiment.

This year offers new hopes and opportunities, and I want to help make that happen”. What are you waiting for?


A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.