Tis fall, and the brewers gather around their vats
By JOHN GAUNTNER
In sync with the new colors and cooler weather of fall, the brewing season begins. Except for a few dozen brewing factories operated by the largest sake-brewing companies, sake is brewed in the colder months, generally from the end of October to the beginning of April. Larger brewers’ facilities keep fermenting tanks cold all year round, but this is indeed the exception, not the rule.
For taxation and accounting purposes, the sake-brewing year begins Oct. 1. The shogun made it official in 1798 by dictating that no sake brewing was permitted before the autumnal equinox. Stipends and taxes were paid in rice, and sake was brewed with what was left.
Much has changed over the last several centuries, yet much has remained the same. There are a number of “then and now” comparisons that can be made.
One thing that has not changed much is the connection between sake brewing and the Shinto religion. Every brewery in the country has a small Shinto shrine on the grounds. At the beginning of the brewing season, the brewers, owner and other employees will gather with a priest for a ceremony to pray for a successful and safe brewing season. This takes place at even the largest breweries.
Until a few years ago, kurabito (brewers) and toji (head brewers) were almost exclusively farmers from the backwoods with no work in the winter. They would travel a fair distance from their homes and live in the brewery throughout the six-month brewing season. This is an integral part of how the culture of the sake world developed.
Today things are rapidly changing. It has become obvious to the industry that young blood is desperately needed, and many places now use local people as brewers, normal folk who go home at night to their families and in many cases punch a time clock.
Many kura also use a sort of hybrid system, in which the eldest and most experienced brewers and the toji are experienced men from the countryside living in the brewery, but the heirs apparent, the next generation of brewers, are young and local. It is a phase of transition.
Still, many young brewers find it difficult to relate to their older senpai, and quit under the pressure of the harsh, authoritarian treatment of old.
The presence of women in the brewery is another interesting point. Until quite recently, this was anathema. Bizarre beliefs dictated that the mere presence of a female amid the fermenting tanks would cause all kinds of problems, both technical and psychological.
Today, while many older male brewers still have some resistance to women in the kura, many breweries have women helping in the day-to-day brewing tasks. There are even a handful of women toji.
Young or old, male or female, any day now the brewers will gather at their brewery and begin the arduous task of preparing for the season. The first couple of weeks involve nothing but cleaning. Sanitation is paramount, especially with the open fermentation methods of sake brewing. Everything will be scrubbed, cleaned and sanitized.
Then the milling of rice will begin, followed soon thereafter by the first batches of sake. Brewing begins with lower grades of sake. As the weather becomes progressively colder, higher grades of sake will be brewed, with the ginjo-shu brewing period peaking in January and February.
The inside of today’s sake breweries also contain a mix of ancient and modern. Much of the equipment is modern, things like boilers, fermentation tanks and even the occasional computer. But much remains as it was long ago. Most brewery buildings themselves are old, classic studies in Japanese architecture. And many of the tools remain rudimentary. There are plenty of bamboo poles and brushes, and other implements fashioned from traditional materials, as they have yet to be bested by modern counterparts.
Nothing can be more interesting than visiting a brewery and seeing, smelling and tasting for yourself; it will take your appreciation of sake to a new level. I will be leading a group on a tour of a Tokyo-area brewery Nov. 12. (I will lead a similar tour in the Osaka area later in the brewing year, as well as a couple more visits in the Tokyo area too.)
If you are interested in participating, please contact me by e-mail or fax (contact information below). There is no cost beyond the investment of half a day or so.
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Uragasumi (Miyagi Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 65 percent
Uragasumi is a very recommendable sake for many reasons. One, it is quite readily available all over the country. Two, the quality and consistency are great. The toji is famous within the industry for years of sake-brewing prowess and accomplishments. There are actually two versions of this honjozo sake, one called “hon-shikomi” and one called “karakuchi.”
Both are characteristically simple and straightforward sake, easily enjoyable by anyone. Neither the fragrance nor the flavor are too obtrusive; instead gentleness and approachability are the strengths. If you enjoy gently warmed sake, Uragasumi (especially the “karakuchi”) is a fine choice.
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Japan Times Ceramic Scene writer and pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will hold a joint seminar Nov. 18, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and me. To make a reservation, contact me (see below, e-mail preferred), or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail.
Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter at www.sake-world.com. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to email@example.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.