Book Review: Sake by Akiyama Hiroichi

I typically review books elsewhere, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books about my favorite drink and I thought perhaps others would be interested in hearing about them. Thus, from now on I will be posting my thoughts on the various sake books I read.

Sake: The Essence of 2000 Years of Japanese Wisdom Gained from Brewing Alcoholic Beverages from Rice

By: Hiroichi Akiyama
Translated by Takashi Inoue, Checked by Elizabeth Anne Kamei
Second International Edition, 2017
Published by the Brewing Society of Japan

This is the English translation of an updated version of 日本酒 by 秋山裕一. The original book was published in 1994, and is now in its 26th printing in Japanese. The updated version has an added chapter on Koji, apparently.

Sake offers a wide-ranging look at everything from the history of the drink to the best way to choose one, written by a researcher into brewing and translated by a beer brewing expert. It reaches very deeply into the chemical and scientific bases of brewing (the enzymatic action of koji, for example) but other topics are fairly thinly covered.

There is so much fascinating stuff in here that I would love to recommend it, but sadly I hesitate to do so unequivocally. The reason for that is the translation is simply terrible.

It has all the hallmarks of a translation by a non-native speaker. The language is stilted and unnatural, yes, but it is also simply grammatically incorrect. There are issues with subject verb agreement, spelling, word choice… It’s a mess. I sincerely doubt that the checker had any input into this book. And then there is a problem with simple readability.

The book rambles. It goes off on tangents. It often leaves you wondering, “And?” The sections about enjoying or buying sake can be left out completely, as they basically amount to “try lots of stuff that you might like!” There is no editorial oversight apparent, so it can be really difficult to grasp the real significance of some of the information, if it actually has any.

At the same time, what is here can be absolutely great. There are clear explanations of the various enzymes released by koji and their role in flavor creation, as well as an interesting look at the different developments in brewing in China and Japan. Some of the historical information is very handy in helping, for example, to contextualize the growth of Nada’s sake industry beyond just the water, and so on.

For those wishing to really explore the depths of brewing and history, it does have a lot to offer. For real sake nerds, it borders on essential reading. Just be ready to scratch your head a lot.

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