Interview (continued); Pressing Sake
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
April 20, 2001
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Interview with a brewer (Part 2)
-A Pressing Matter
-Sake events and other miscellany
Interview with a brewer
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit Kuji Shuzo, the company that brews Nanbu Bijin sake in Iwate Prefecture in the northern part of Japan. Here is the second installment of the long visit with Kosuke Kuji, the face and spirit of Nanbu Bijin sake.
When we last left Kuji-san, we were inside his classically beautiful kura (brewery) building, heading downstairs after visiting the koji-muro, the special room in which the all-important koji (the heart of the sake-brewing process) is prepared.
We head back downstairs, near the shallow well of pure water. This same water is used to wash the talc off of the rice after milling, and to soak it before steaming. Although these two processes lend themselves quite nicely to automation, many places find that washing and soaking by hand gives better results. Kuji Shuzo has found a balance.
For the koji used in their ginjo-shu, if the rice has been milled to 50% or more, the rice is washed by hand. The kakemai, however (rice added to fermented tanks as adjunct) is washed by machine.
The whole point of soaking before steaming is to create a water content in the rice that will lead to an optimum texture when it is properly steamed. There are many types of equipment used to steam rice, and many names for this equipment. Most commonly, the large vat into which rice is laid to be steamed is known as a koshiki. Kosuke approaches the koshiki, and explains what makes this type the best – in his opinion.
“See how it’s wide in diameter, but not so tall? This allows the rice at the top of the koshiki and the rice at the bottom to get blasted by the same amount of steam,” he explains. Back against the wall are stacked a dozen or so bushel-size baskets. These, it is explained, are used to carry the freshly steamed rice earmarked for koji up the stairs to the koji muro (koji-making room).
From here we make our way to the back of the kura, where 15 or so fermentation tanks are lined up against the wall. Each is perhaps four meters tall, and two meters in diameter. About a ton and a half of rice will fit into each one, along with the requisite water. This will lead to about 3000 bottles of sake.
Here, they brew about 80 of these tanks, using each one of the 15 or so several times in rotation throughout the six month season. Nine people labor to accomplish this. In the end, they will have produced about 2500 koku (a traditional measurement equaling 180 liters) of sake here at Kuji Shuzo in one year, which is the equivalent of about 450 kiloliters.
To accomplish all this with only nine brewers, they begin a new tank every other day (known in the industry as doing “hanjimai”) as opposed to every day (known as doing “hijimai”). These keeps the workload on the brewers to a tolerable level, albeit barely, which in turn keeps quality high.
* * *
Originally, Kosuke Kuji wanted to be a schoolteacher. But, being the oldest son, he really had little choice in the matter: he was destined to take over the Nanbu Bijin brewery. To prepare for this, Kosuke went to university at what is known as Nou-dai, an agriculture university in Tokyo that has a course of study in sake brewing. Many of the country’s sake brewers attend school here. Upon graduation, he spent three years working as an apprentice at another brewer in the northern part of Japan, Katsuyama. Following that he worked at the Koro brewery in Kumamoto, a historically significant and well-known brewer. This is his fourth year back at Nanbu Bijin. Now, he is truly and passionately in love with his work.
Although many people perceive Kosuke to be the face, indeed the spirit, of Nanbu Bijin, there is much more depth to the ranks. The toji, Yamaguchi Hajime, six years ago won the top award from the Nanbu-toji association for two consecutive years. The following year he ended up taking second place, being a runner-up to his younger brother (who works at a brewery in Tochigi making a famous sake called Shikizakura). Seems like great sake brewing is in their blood. He has been with Kuji Shuzo for over three generations, and is understandably proud of his accomplishments. Having won over 50 awards during his tenure here, he can indeed look back with pride at his career as a toji.
But no toji can do it all, not without a great supporting cast: the other “kurabito” (brewery workers). Those that have been around awhile (the toji and a few others) hail from a town in Iwate called Hanamaki. The younger folks, though, are local. In a time when the average age of brewers is well over 60, Nanbu Bijin has a refreshingly young brewing staff. Although Yamaguchi-toji is 74, everyone else is in their 20s and 30s. Most of them are now enrolled in the classroom version of the Nanbu Toji group’s toji classes.
Kosuke himself is a healthy 29, and spends as much time as he can afford working directly with the brewers. This is possible in part to the great efforts his father put in years ago to develop wonderful distribution. Nanbu Bijin is well known and easily available throughout Japan (as well as in the US and Europe).
About 40 years ago, when ginjo-shu first came into being, Iwate prefecture was one of the places that resisted the new-fangled, fruity style. “Back then, we made one tank a year of ginjo. It was basically just to allow the toji to polish his skills. Believe it or not, we blended it into other tanks of regular sake instead of selling it. But once you start brewing that kind of sake, you can’t stop or you’ll forget how. So, eventually we started to sell it; we’ve never looked back since!”
(To be completed next month)
A Pressing Matter…
Pressing Sake from the Fermenting Mash
It’s April, and as the last few cherry blossom petals flutter down, kura (sake breweries) everywhere are winding down the brewing season’s efforts. Although larger breweries will continue cranking throughout the year, most have but few batches to go, if that. Soon enough, there will be nothing left to do but wait for the moromi (fermenting mash) in the tanks to run its course, and then separate the sake from the fermenting lees. This step is called jousou, or shibori.
Naturally, this pressing process has been taking place since the fall, as each batch is pressed immediately following its 18 to 35 day ferment. There are several methods by which this is accomplished.
By far the most common is by machine. The moromi is pumped by hose to something resembling a five-meter accordion, which slowly compresses and traps the solids between mesh screens, sending the fresh-squeezed sake out a hose. Technically known as an assaku-ki, but more often referred as a Yabuta (in honor of the company monopolizing the market for these machines), the amount of labor it saves is immense.
Much sake, however, is still pressed the old way. It’s significantly more labor intensive, but it does arguably lead to better sake. Some would say that the difference is all but negligible, but the market gets what the market demands.
The moromi is first poured into small cotton bags (perhaps a meter long) which are laid in a large wooden box (perhaps two meters high and three meters long), on top of which a lid is placed. Known as a fune, the sake is pressed out by cranking the lid down into this box.
Sake pressed in this manner, called funa-shibori, is often divided into three sub-batches. When the sake-bukuro (the bags with the moromi) are first put in, sake is allowed to run out by gravity alone. This sake is known as ara-bashiri (“rough run”), and as the name implies, can be a bit rougher than usual. Next, the lid is cranked down applying pressure to the sake-bukuro. What comes out is known as naka-dare, and is generally the most prized of the press. Finally, after sitting overnight, the remaining sake squeezed out is known as seme.
Still another method exists, taking already sublime sake a step further. The bags of moromi are tied off at the neck and suspended, allowing the sake to drip down. No pressure whatsoever is applied to the moromi. This is called shizuku (drip), or the more evocative kubi-tsuri (hung by the neck). It has its ardent fans, but many folks would be hard-pressed to notice the difference.
Whichever method is used, just-pressed sake, known in general as “shibori-tate” sake, has a charm all its own. The alcohol content is high, about 20 percent, as it has not been “cut” with water yet to bring it down to the usual 16% or so. The fragrance practically leaps out at you and tweaks your nose mischievously. The flavor is much what you’d expect: young and somewhat brash, and could do with a bit of mellowing.
Now is a fine time to try shiboritate. Most sake shops carry it. Much of what is available now is also namazake, or unpasteurized sake. Although it may not present the finely-hewn profile that six months of aging will lend it, nama shiboritate will always impress and please with its liveliness and freshness.
As mentioned above, the sake brewing season is drawing to a close. Except for the handful of large breweries that brew year-round in climate controlled factories, most kura will be finishing up their brewing sometime this month. Naturally, there will be ceremonies tied in to significant activities within the kura. One such activity and ceremony is known as koshiki taoshi.
The large vat used to steam the rice in sake brewing is called a koshiki. In traditional breweries, the koshiki is made of wood (cedar) and sits on top of a large iron pot of water called a kama that tapers a bit at the top. (If you have ever had kama-meshi, rice, vegetables and meat steamed in a small iron single-serving pot, the kama for this is very similar in shape.) Beneath the floor, this kama is heated (long ago by wood or coal) to produce the steam for steaming the rice.
When the final batch of rice for the season has been steamed – usually sometime in April – the koshiki is removed from on top of the kama and turned on to its side (taoshi) for a thorough cleaning. This is what “koshiki taoshi” refers to.
But more takes place than simply knocking over the vat. It symbolizes the beginning of the end of a long season of brewing, and as such a party is in order. A big announcement is made. The kuramoto (brewery owner) and all of the kurabito (brewery workers) have a celebratory meal. Also, a bit of newly-made sake is offered to the gods in thanks for the blessings of the brewing season.
Note that just because the last batch of rice has been steamed does not mean there is no work left to be done. There are still several tanks fermenting away, and it can be as much as another month before these will be finished and pressed. Completely finishing the final batch of the year is referred to as kaizou. But the koshiki-taoshi is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.
Today, things have changed a bit. Rare is the wooden koshiki sitting upon the coal-fired kama. Infinitely more common is a stainless steel koshiki with steam pumped in by hoses from a natural gas fired boiler. Often these are equipped in such a way that they can be turned sideways to make it easier to scoop out the rice. Kinda makes knocking them over a bit anticlimactic.
Large brewers sometimes have “renzoku jomaiki” (continuous rice steamers), huge contraptions that steam rice and pump it out onto a conveyor belt on a continuous basis. Some even use rice liquefying machines in place of steamers. Naturally, these monstrous machines are not tipped over. Some concessions to modern times must be made, even in this feudally traditional industry. But nonetheless, a ceremony and small party are held to acknowledge the significance of the last steaming of the season.
Also, the breweries that brew year round often shut down in July or so for yearly thorough equipment maintenance. This is the time when such breweries will celebrate their koshiki-taoshi.
After a cold winter of long days of grueling labor, a glimmer of the quiet half of the year to come must certainly be welcomed.
Sake events and other miscellany…
UPCOMING SAKE SEMINARS
April 21, 2001 (Japanese)
I know this is last-minute, but…
Famed sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, April 21, from 6:30 until the last train at Romantei in Akebono-bashi (Yotsuya Yanagicho; you can take the brand new O-Edo subway line!). The topic is related to the sake production of the “O-te” brewers, the huge brewing sake companies of the industry. Seminars feature a short lecture with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at email@example.com.
June 16, 2001 (English)
On the evening of Saturday, June 16, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and John Gauntner will be hosting their third joint sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the millenium, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu/Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email John Gauntner. Participation is limited to 45. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.
Japan Times Article Changes
For those of you that follow my articles in the Japan Times, either regularly or sporadically, please note the days on which it appears have changed. The articles until now have appeared on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. However, as of this month they appear every other Sunday. The next article will appear Sunday, April 29.
If any readers at any time have any opinions on this newsletter, its format or its content, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is anything you would like to see more of (or less of), I am always open to suggestions.
The Sake Companion, published by Running Press
A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
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, regularly 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. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: firstname.lastname@example.org, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
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I think this sake home-brewing 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. Or so we hope.
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Look for the next issue of this newsletter May 15 – 20, 2001.
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