Sakagura: How Big is Big? How Small is Small?

In any industry there are big players and little players. There are always huge companies that produce DSC02231widgets – or sake – in volume, with stable quality and cost-efficiency. And there are also companies that produce much less and do everything on a smaller scale. This juxtaposition exists in the worlds of widgets, beer, wine and of course sake.

It is important to acknowledge that both scales of operation are good. They are all good companies, the big and the small. Or at least, if they are not good companies, it is not a function of their size. So it is important not to lean one way or the other, not to prejudice against either the big or the small, and to appreciate what both big and tiny sake companies contribute to the overall picture.

There is much to say about this situation, and I go out of my way to support brewers of all scales of operation. But let us save that long and interesting conversation for yet another day.

What is quite interesting to grasp, though, is just how big is big, and just how small is small? And how do the twain compare? The figures can be eye-opening.

CIMG3925To begin with, the sake industry is very polarized. There are just about 1200 kura (breweries) actively making sake these days. Or at least, 1200 that say they are making it. The truth might be more like 1000, but I digress. Let this be a part of the conversation we have set for yet another day.

Of those 1200, about only 15 combine to account for over half the sake made on the planet. Fifteen. Make. Half. And at the other end of the polarized spectrum, we have about 1000 breweries that combine – all one thousand of them – combine to comprise 25 percent of the market. Numerically expressed 0.8 percent of the kura pay 52 percent of the sake taxes. Conversely, 94% of the industry combines for 25 percent of the sake taxes. Dotted across the chasm between these two there are 200 or so kura of medium and stable size.

Look at those number again. Think about them. It’s a huge spread.

What is interesting is that the large companies have their own challenges and responsibilities as an CIMG1932enterprise, and problems-opportunities that only large companies can have. And the smaller companies, which often make barely enough to be sustainable and barely profitable, have their own sets of trials and tribulations to face – as well as challenges and opportunities. Neither one is inherently better than the other.

The difference in the size of the big and the small is astounding. For example, if one tours Hakutsuru in Nada, the biggest company in the industry, there is a raised hallway from which we can look down on four identical pressing machines that are more or less continuously cranking out just-completed sake.

There is a sign on the wall that runs through some rudimentary math, and tells us that if we were to drink two full glasses of sake a day, every day (hey, no problem here!) it would still take 220 years to finish what was pressed in the room below in a single day. And bear in mind this is but one of their several facilities (albeit the largest for sure).

Hovering clustered near the other end of the scale are about a thousand breweries that make in an entire brewing season about half of what the above-mentioned place makes in a single day. It’s whacked to say the least.

CIMG1947During the Japan-based winter running of the Sake Professional Course each year, I take the group of attendees to four kura. One is impossibly tiny, the brewers of Soku in Kyoto. They have five tanks, each of which will yield about 2000 bottles of sake at a pop. He will rotate through them and end up using each two to three times. He employs like five people, including his wife and his mom.

The next day we visit the largest brewer in the industry, the aforementioned Hakutsuru. In one of the two brewing buildings we visit, there are about sixty tanks, each of which can yield about 20,000 bottles – ten times the other place. They make four a day of these, and press four a day. That alone is 40 times the production of the other – from but one of their kura. And it’s delicious honjozo as well!

Each has different means, ends, and philosophies as well as different resources, infrastructures and goals. And I emphasize again: they are both great companies, and both companies make some great sake.

Many of us love to love the smaller kura because of their romantic appeal, and surely it is there. I’ll not CIMG1948deny that. We all love a good story, wherein a small kura has the flexibility to try new rice or yeast types, to make sake of which there is little and it’s hard to get, where little old ladies put on the labels by hand and where they can’t even spell the word machine, much less use any. Sure; that’s fun.

But there are just as many interesting, impressive and satisfying stories about the large brewers, and their sake can be great and always well priced. Bear in mind, companies like that can make exactly what they want, and with great consistency. And their contributions to the industry over the years have been indispensable to its progress.

So in the end, don’t let size be a factor. But at least be impressed with the difference in scales of operation in this highly skewed and polarized traditional industry

Naka-Whatevuh: the Middle Way of Sake

nakaNaka in Japanese means middle. The character (shown at left) is one of the easiest to remember of the gazillion or so that there are to learn.

Shifting gears and going back to sake, most readers likely recall that sake ferments for typically 18 to 35 days, and after that has run its course, the moromi (mash) is a thick white liquid that is basically sake with a suspension of rice solids that did not or could not ferment. These need to be filtered away to yield clear or slightly amber sake.

Yes, in truth, this is a filtration. And filter is a perfectly valid term. But I prefer to use the term “pressed,” as this eliminates confusion (or at least I think it does) since there is another filtration performed with charcoal or a solid-state ceramic filter later in the process. Also, the term “pressing” is a closer translation of the original Japanese term “shibori” used in reference to the step of separating the sake from the suspended rice solids.

Terminology notwithstanding, this is usually done by machine. The moromi is pumped from the tank yabutakuji1into a long accordion-like contraption, in between alternating mesh panels and inflatable baloon-like membranes. When the membranes are inflated, the moromi is forced through the mesh, and the sake goes through leaving the rice particles behind.

These machines do an awesome job, and are used for perhaps 99 percent of all sake made. But as hydraulics were not exactly in their heyday in the 1500s, this is not the traditional way that sake was pressed.

takasago tying offTraditionally and historically there were two ways, and both are still used today. One was to pour the moromi into cloth bags about a meter long and lay those bags inside of a big wooden box called a fune. The lid of the box, slightly smaller than the opening, was then cranked down into the box to squeeze the sake out and leave the rice solids neatly in the bags. Well, sorta neatly; cleanup is still a hassle. While less common, pressing using a fune is still done today for much premium sake, and doing so leads to slightly more elegant, refined and lively sake.

The other way is to pour the moromi into the same bags, but then tie them off, and just let the sake drip out, with no pressure at all applied. This method is called shizuku, which means drip, and, not surprisingly, sake pressed in this way is yet even more elegant, refined and lively.

However: in doing it either one of these two traditional ways, there are a myriad of complications and conditions. Most relevant to our discussion here, the stuff that drips out at the beginning is different from what drips out at the end, and that is different from what comes out in the middle. And there are terms for each of these; but the problem is that these terms are not legally defined or regulated, and there is some variation from brewer to brewer – more than there needs to be, truth be told.

However, the most useful point related to all of this is this: of all the sake that comes running out of the box or the bags, the middle one-third or so is considered the best. And it is often marketed as such. But here is the crux of the issue: the terms used to indicate this will vary a bit.

nakadoriIn particular, there are three terms that are used more or less interchangeably, but all include the nakagumicharacter for naka- or middle. Naka-dori (“taken from the middle”), naka-gumi (“scooped from the middle”) and naka-dare (“dripped out of the middle”) all refer to the middle third of the pressing. So if naka is in there somewhere, you’re drinking the best part of the pressing. Just remember that and you’re golden.

NakadareBy the way, the first third is called “ara-bashiri,” or “rough run,” and is usually rougher and brasher than the smoother middle part. But this term too is sometimes used outside of this context, and at least in one case is used to simply imply fresh youth and generally sake made in the early part of the brewing season (one such case is Masumi from Nagano).

SemeAnd the last third is called “seme,” and in reality the last part of the pressing is often thin and worn out. It is often mixed in with cheaper sake. I used to confidently say that no brewer would ever write “seme” on the bottle and market it as such. But never put anything past the sake world: I know of at least two brewers that proudly write seme on the bottle, as if to confidently boast, “even are dregs are so damn good that you’re going to love it!”

Remember that this term is not legally regulated or defined, so who knows for sure just when it came out or how it was pressed.

These terms do not so much apply to sake pressed by machine, but more to sake pressed in the old, tobiniritraditional methods using the fune (box) or shizuku (drip) methods. However, at the risk of beating a dead sake-horse, there is some variance and vagueness owing to the lack of an official definition.

And, not surprisingly, there is more. Let us save that for the next time. But just remember that naka-dori = naka-gumi = naka-dare, and that they all = good sake, and that = you taking your sake experience to a slightly higher level.

Such is The Middle Way of sake.