Brewing Season Begins; Moto (Part 3)
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
October 20, 2000
IN THIS ISSUE:
The Sake Brewing Season Begins
The *moto* yeast starter, Part III: Kimoto, Ko-onka, and Bodai-moto
Sake to look for
Sake Home-brewing Scene
[The Sake Brewing Season Begins]
Fall has fully entrenched itself, complete with its colors, cooler weather, and culinary delights. It is also the most significant time of the year for the sake-brewing world: the brewing season is about to begin.
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, give or take a few weeks each way. Sake fermentation takes place at lower temperatures, and as such cannot be sustained during other times of the year. Larger brewers have facilities that keep fermenting tanks cold all year round, and although the quality of sake brewed in such facilities can be just as high, breweries with these facilities constitute the exception and not the rule.
For taxation and accounting purposes, the sake-brewing year begins October 1 of each year. Although this has always been the most practical time to begin, the shogun made it official in 1798 by dictating that no sake brewing was permitted before the Autumn Equinox. Stipends to samurai and taxes were paid in rice, and sake was brewed with what was left. Hey, first things first.
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 Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto. Every brewery in the country has a small Shinto shrine on the grounds, and often a larger one nearby the brewery. 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, amidst gleaming, modern equipment.
Until a scant few years ago, kurabito (brewers) and toji (brewmasters) were almost exclusively farmers from the rice-growing countryside 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.
For the most part, this is still the case today. Most brewing personnel are fairly advanced in age, and still make the trek each season to live away from home. But things are indeed rapidly changing. It has become painfully obvious to the industry that young blood is desperately needed. As such, many places now use local people as brewers, normal folk that go home at night to their families and in many instances punch a time clock.
Many kura also use a bit of a hybrid system, in which the oldest and most experienced brewers and the toji are experienced journeymen 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 to the future of sake.
Still, many young brewers find it difficult to relate to their older sempai, and quit under the pressure of the harsh, feudalistic treatment of old.
The presence of women in the brewery is another interesting then-and-now comparison. Until quite recently, the presence of women in the brewery was anathema. Bizarre beliefs (or excuses expresses as such) dictated that the mere presence of a female amidst the fermenting tanks would cause all kinds of problems, both technical and psychological.
While many older male brewers still have some resistance to women in the kura today, 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.
Soon after, 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. Many of the brewing 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.
Yet, mixed in with these tools of old are modern gadgets, everything from temperature sensors and automatic mixers to full-on koji making machines and conveyor belt driven continuous rice steamers. Each kura draws their own line on how much automation to use.
Regardless, this time of the year holds great significance in the traditional sake-brewing world. And so, as the centuries-old traditional cycle begins again, let’s all hope for another safe and successful season.
[The moto, part III]
Last month, we looked at a special method of creating the moto, the yeast starter from which a batch of sake is created. Beyond the standard method (sokujo moto) and the yamahai-shikomi method discussed last month, there are a few other ways of creating this moto, which is also known as the shubo (written, by the way, with the characters for sake and mother).
One such method is known as kimoto. As mentioned in the previous newsletter, until about 1920, all sake was made by mixing rice, koji, and water to a puree in order to help the yeast cells reproduce faster. This puree-creating mixing was exhausting work, albeit the quintessential sake-brewing image for drawings of old. Then, it was discovered that the hard work of mixing by pole could be skipped, and replaced with more water, time and vigilance in watching the moto closely. This new method came to be known as yamahai shikomi. Soon thereafter, it was discovered that a bit of lactic acid added first made it all even easier. (Please refer to the last two newsletters, archived on the sake-world.com site, for more detail.)
Kimoto, then, is the old method. Indeed, even today, brewers creating sake made using a kimoto yeast starter will stand around a small tub and mix, mix, mix in a rhythmical, robotic action to mash up the rice, koji and yeast to a paste-like consistency. Monotonous and tiring work to be sure, but aren’t all traditional methods?
This activity, by the way, helps speed up the natural production of lactic acid in the moto. Lactic acid will then protect the developing moto from stray bacteria that would contribute to strange flavors or even spoil the sake.
Kimoto shubo takes a bit longer than yamahai to create, but ironically, the sake that results from these two methods is similar in flavor profile. Like sake brewed with yamahai moto, sake brewed with a kimoto moto has a higher sweetness and acidity, with richer, deeper, significantly more pronounced flavors. Bitterness in the recesses is not uncommon. As with all sake brewing methods, though, the moto used is only one factor. In fact, the intention and skill of the brewer will dictate more about the final product than how the yeast starter was created.
As kimoto can exhibit these rougher, more pronounced flavors, one does not usually see this type of brewing method used with very high grade sake. Kimoto (and yamahai as well) is more commonly seen in perhaps junmai-shu grade sake, and less so in ginjo or daiginjo sake, simply because of the usually delicate nature of ginjo and daiginjo sake. Such refined flavor profiles might be overpowered by the slightly harsher facets resulting from kimoto or yamahai.
But there are exceptions, and wonderful exceptions at that. Take Daishichi, from Fukushima, for example. Daishichi is a wonderful brewery that is not afraid to take technical risks. One of these risks was to be the first brewery to brew a ginjo-shu (and then a daiginjo-shu) from a kimoto yeast starter. Although now there are many other premium kimoto sake, it is far from being a common practice in ginjo-shu brewing.
There are several other methods of creating the moto, and perhaps the next most significant one is Koh-ohn toh-ka. Although not common at all (I know of only two sake produced with this method), the term does pop up now and again, and is worthy of discussion. It also seems to be used a lot by sake homebrewers, a group I want to support and encourage.
In short, this method allows the moto to be created very quckly, in about six days or so. Developed in 1940 in Hiroshima by the brewers of Seikyo, and the wondeful ginjo “Maboroshi”it is also known as amazake sokujo shubo, for those who simply must know.
In this method, saccharification is achieved more effectively and quickly with the use of slightly higher temperatures at the beginning, allowing the yeast cells to multiply more quickly after that. (For those readers with a deeper interest, I have some technical texts that may help. Contact me if you are interested in more detailed technical information.)
Sake brewed with the koh-ohn toh-ka seems to be a but more lively and gummy-sweet, which if kept in balance is fine. However, there are so few sake brewed this way (or breweries that tell you as such) that it is difficult to make generalizations on the flavor profiles of sake brewed this way.
Finally, one more method of moto creation warrants mention: Bodai-moto. Although similar in result to yamahai and kimoto, it is perhaps of special cultural significance.
There was an era of sake brewing history when most sake was brewed at temples and shrines, as they had much land and a labor force of monks and priests. Many of these temples and shrines doing the brewing were in the Kansai area, especially modern-day Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Nara Prefecture can really be said to be the where modern sake was first brewed. There was even a sake-brewing department on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Nara.
Bodai-moto is created using methods used 600 years ago at a particular temple in Nara. This moto was/is created with raw, uncooked rice, using water from this particular temple. Four years ago, 14 Nara breweries formed a study group to get back to their roots and revive the methods. Using an ancient rice from that region, along with water from the temple grounds, they have attempted to recreate the lactic-acid producing bacteria and other conditions used in the sake of a half dozen centuries ago. One unique aspect of this type of moto is that they create it with raw rice kernels, i.e. rice that has not been steamed.
Again, not much of this sake is brewed, just a small share of that from the 14 Nara brewers. But it gets its share of attention for the unique story behind it.
The moto is one of the aspects of sake brewing that make it unique among beverages throughout the world. Although we certainly do not need to be inundated with technical information to enjoy a glass of sake, a bit 双 brewing background begets enjoyment, methinks.
[Sake to Look For]
>Daishichi (Fukushima Prefecture)
An amazing 80 percent of the sake brewed here is of the labor-intensive kimoto method described above. In fact, Daishichi was the first brewery in the country to brew a kimoto daiginjo. Many would question the logic of that, brewing an sake of supposedly light and elegant style using a method that typically gives more rough-and-tumble flavors, but they have made it work here.
This meaty sake has a light but wild fragrance, with bits of funky bitterness and acidity in the recesses. The flavor is full and chewy, melting after a moment and leaving bits of lighter flavor behind as it fades.
Daishichi also makes a junmai ginjo called “Kaiden” that is NOT of the kimoto process. Although lighter, more autumnal and nut-laced in flavor, it maintains a richness of maturity that reassures.
Both of the above sake, while superb slightly chilled, are also nice very gently warmed. Both are also available in the US.
>Hyakurakumon (Nara Prefecture)
This is one of the rare Bodai-moto sake brewed by the 14 Nara Prefecture brewers.
The fragrance is quite interesting, with a slightly rich, banana laced frontal assault and slightly acrid and burnt traces deep in the recess. The flavor is rich and sweet at first, but melts into a gentle transparent layer, with the same acrid touch in the background. Hyakurakumon is not currently available in the US.
>Kariho (Akita Prefecture)
Yamahai-shikomi Junmai Ginjo
Made using the Yamahai method described in last month’s newsletter. Good yamahai calls for hard water, and although most of Akita Prefecture has rather soft water, the water near this kura is somewhat harder. Soft and dry, but with a good solid undercurrent of acidity-bolstered flavor, capped by a slightly sharp and lively fragrance. Although the slightly wilder flavors of yamahai sake are present, Kariho sake overall maintains a bit more of a tighter, compacted flavor profile to it, and this product follows suit. Kariho Yamahai-shikomi Junmai Ginjo is indeed available in the US.
>Mansaku no Hana (Akita Prefecture)
Beni Mansaku,Junmai Ginjo
A defining quality of much Akita Prefecture sake is that it is in general easy to drink, but in spite of having that in common, each place seems to have just the right amount of individual character. Mansaku no Hana fits that description. Like most Akita sake, it is a bit dry, conservative in flavor, and unobtrusive. Yet, it has a lulling softness, a luring sweetness in the recess, and an inviting gentle rice-flower-fruit nose. The name of this particular product, Beni Mansaku, means Red flower in full bloom. It has been aged just a tad longer than average, about 18 months. Also the alcohol has been kept a smidgen lower than average to enhance the impression of lightness. Beni Mansaku is available in the US.
>Seikyo (Hiroshima Prefecture)
A truly wonderful daiginjo, and not one of the overly flamboyant school. A well-established fragrance of more rice laced with violet than fruit leads into a rich, mellow, soft, mature flavor, with decent umami but still clean and light. Truly deep recesses to the flavor profile, allowing you to gain more insight with each sip.
Maboroshi comes in two versions, one in a green box and one in a red box. The red-box version is nearly twice the price, although neither are cheap. The difference? The quality of the rice used, how much it was milled, and a myriad of other details in the production. Both will satisfy immensely. Maboroshi is not currently available in the US.
[Sake Home-Brewing Scene]
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at email@example.com. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, often generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails.
To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word Subscribewithout the quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to email@example.com. For a list of other useful commands, send theword “help”, less the quotes, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to email@example.com
There is a renewed effort to liven up the US Sake Home-Brewing seen, with the AHA (America Homebrewing Association) possibly allotting one or more classifications to sake. Those interested should contact Bruce Hammel at OudBruin@aol.com. This effort needs to be encouraged and supported, as it will lead to a faster grass-roots knowledge of sake and its complexities, which in turn will lead to more consumer demand for the good stuff, which will lead to more availability and lower prices. At least, that’s the way it is supposed to work; in theory, anyway.
Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery on the evening of Saturday, November 18, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and I. Seating is limited and fills up fast.
To make a reservation, please email me or fax me at
Sake writer Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, November 25, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho). Although this seminar will be entirely in Japanese, Matsuzaki-san’s smarts and tasting ability are amazing and entertaining. Guaranteed fun. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommended konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. Those interested can make a reservation through me at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available at http://www3.ocn.ne.jp/kikisake/ in Japanese.
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