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Will the Real Miyamizu Please Stand Up

#87

Feb. 2007

INSIDE THIS ISSUE
– Will the Real Miyamizu Please Stand Up
– Interdependent Importance of One Single Step
– Sake Events & Announcements

Will the Real Miyamizu Please Stand Up
Water is massively important to sake brewing. Sake is, in the end, about 80 percent water, or at least that’s what the conventional logic says. In fact, water is so undeniably important to making good sake that it is safe to say that all sake breweries exist where they do because they are over a good source of water. The two largest brewing regions in Japan, the Nada region of Hyogo Prefecture (half of which sits in Kobe), and the Fushimi region of Kyoto city, are what they are for a myriad of factors, but more than anything else the water upon which they sit is ideal for making great sake. I have written much about water in the past amidst these newsletters, and those interested can find those archived at www.sake-world.com

Surely, though, the most famous water supply related to sake is what is known as Miyamizu, or “Shrine Water.” It comes from a set of (currently) about 50 wells and has been in use for centuries. One cannot study sake for more than an hour or so without coming across a reference to Miyamizu, It is that historically significant.

But until I was politely but firmly corrected during a recent visit to the region from which it hails, I was mistaken about what can and cannot be called Miyamizu, and where it can and cannot be drawn from. As my ignorance was duly if inadvertently perpetuated in my writings, I am now honor-bound (and also interested enough) to set the record straight.

But first, let’s look again at what makes Miyamizu so special. It is well water that began as snow trickling through a mountain range a bit further north known as the Rokko range. But it also has a bit of river water seeping in from the Shukugawa river, and even a pinch of sea water seeping in through the rock for good measure. The details are vague, but somehow these all mix and the chemical magic that takes place results in near-perfect sake brewing water.

Now let us look at just a tad of geography, no more than we can visualize in our heads while reading. Five villages known as “Nada Go-go” (“the five villages of Nada”) which are basically on the seacoast, or at most a stone’s throw away, shipped much sake to Edo (the old name for Tokyo) using the special ships called taru kaisen mentioned last month. But I had long been assuming these five villages were lined up right next to each other on the coast, when in fact, while they are in a straight line along the coast running east-west (are you still visualizing this?), the two farthest east sit in a city called Nishinomiya, and the three in to the west are in Kobe city. These two groupings are separated by another city, Ashiya, that is nice and residential and has little to do with sake brewing.

In truth, any dolt looking at a map – even a commuter train map – can see this. And in fact this dolt looked at such maps zillions of times. But what I *thought* I knew about the region effectively blocked what the map was telling me.

All that aside, the point is that the five villages comprising the historical and current sake-brewing Nada region are divided into two in Nishinomiya, and then several kilometers down the road to the west, three in Kobe.

Back to Miyamizu. It was actually discovered in about 1840 by one Tazaemon Yamamura, the owner of the company brewing the sake Sakura Masamune. He had two breweries, one in the eastern three (Kobe), one in the western two (Nishinomiya). The one in Nishinomiya yielded much better sake, but no one could figure out why. They tried switching rice, tools, brewing personnel, and finally – you guessed it – the water. He lugged water from Nishinomiya to Kobe, and Voila! The mystery was solved.

Those still visualizing along with me may see where this is going. I had thought, and have written, that the water of all five villages was known as Miyamizu, but in fact, it is only the water from the eastern city of Nishinomiya that gets that designation.

Now, nomenclature alone does not a big deal make, but there is a bit more to this Miyamizu stuff that makes it all quite interesting. All of this was drawn to my attention by Kenji Tatsuuma, the young, very friendly, lively and open president of Hakushika, one of the largest and historically most significant breweries in Japan, and located right there in Nishinomiya. As we rode toward his brewery, he offered to show me the Miyamizu wells. I responded about having seen one in the Kobe part of Nada, and he replied, “Yeah, but that cannot really be called Miyamizu.” He then launched into the explanation summarized above. He commented that several breweries were bringing Miyamizu to the Kobe part of Nada, and some still do. But most of what they brew with is of a different source. “And it ain’t quite Miyamizu.”

What was so interesting was that the source of this great water is located in an incredibly tiny area. I was led to a fenced-in, locked-up area by an employee of Hakushika whose job it is to care for the wells and the Miyamizu. The secure area, replete with slowly panning cameras and alarms, houses about a dozen wells, and is shared with two other breweries, Ozeki and Hakutaka. Hakushika owns six of them, but is currently drawing water from but one as it is subtly superior in water quality to the other five. It is pumped underground to the brewery for use there.

From what remains of the dozens and dozens of kura that once filled Nada Go-go, a few others use Miyamizu too, namely, Nihonzakari and Kikumasamune on top of the above three. Others have wells there, such as Sawanotsuru, Sakura Masamune and Hakutsuru. Some of these are in Kobe (the western three villages) and how much they schlep back there, I am not sure. The fenced-in enclosures may just be “trophy wells;” this was not clear. But all in all, there are a total of about 50 wells, and they are all located but a few meters apart inside an area of about 500 meters by 500 meters. They are quite small, only about 5 meters deep, and perhaps two meters in diameter. But they are faithful and strong. “We draw from it constantly; it takes 48 tons of water to fill one of our large tanks, but it just seeps back in and the well fills up again quite quickly.”

As plentiful as this stuff is, after the devastating earthquake that decimated the region in 1995, the brewers that use Miyamizu all agreed to use it only for “shikomi-mizu,” or brewing water. Most kura will use the same bountiful source of water for brewing, washing and soaking rice, cleaning tools and such, steaming and whatever else might call for water during brewing activities. But after that reality check, they are a bit more careful and stingy with that most precious or resources.

Actually, the location of the wells providing Miyamizu has changed twice over the decades. Once, about 1911 or soon thereafter when port construction contaminated them, and again after a gargantuan typhoon in 1934 filled them all with salty seawater.

Hundreds of years ago, before the breweries had the wherewithal to own the land over the wells, there were entrepreneurs called “Mizu-ya” (“water merchants”) that drew the water up from the wells and sold it to the sake breweries. “Well, now, that won’t do, now will it?” thought the enterprising brewing industry, and indeed, the Mizu-ya eventually faded into oblivion while the sake breweries prospered.

*  *  *    *   *   *   *  *  *    *   *   *

Hakushika has grown steadily over their 380-year history, much of which has been using Miyamizu. And they are now feeling the contraction of the industry. Certainly they have seen tougher times than this across those four score and three hundred years, but Tastsuuma-san underscored how much things have changed. Lamenting not the change but the sluggishness of the industry in adapting, he explained, “Back in the 70s, our problem was not how to sell more sake, but rather how to gently turn down those who wanted more but for whom we had none. We’d sit around the office, and the phone would ring. ‘Don’t answer that,’ someone would say. ‘It’s probably an order. Just ignore it. They’ll go away.’

“But it sure is not like that anymore, and the truth is that we as an industry never learned to actively market our product. We didn’t have to. But things sure are different now, and we are all busy playing catch-up.”

In truth, along with the rest of the industry they are doing their best to find the formula that works with today’s consumers. They have the technology, skill, passion and dedication to quality to make it in the long run, even if the current shakeout continues.

*  *  *    *   *   *   *  *  *    *   *   *

As mentioned earlier, the person generally credited with discovering Miyamizu was one Tazaemon Yamamura of Sakura Masamune. And recently, I received an email from the man himself. There it was, plain as day, in the “from” column: Tazaemon Yamamura. An email from a ghost, and not just any ghost, the discoverer of Miyamizu!

Nah, not really. Tazaemon Yamamura is alive and well, and actually fairly young. That is because he uses a “shu-mei,” or traditional inherited name passed down across the generations. This is common in many traditions here in Japan, including Kabuki and other arts as well. In the sake world, when (typically) a son takes over the reigns from his father, or at some point after that when he deems himself worthy, he will take on the shu-mei as his own name. Not legally, really, just publicly. Tazaemon’s passport and driver’s license likely say “Frank” or something similar in Japanese. But within the sake world, he is known as Tazaemon Yamamura, and shares that moniker with his ancestor of generations ago, the discoverer of Miyamizu.

Not all brewers have these traditionally inherited names, but for those that do it is an interesting cultural backdrop that somehow makes their sake a tad more enjoyable.

What this article may lack in single-topic coherency, it makes up for in cultural diversity.

Interdependent Importance
of One Single Step

The sake brewing process is a complex one about which it is said that each and every step is the most important one. Things are incredibly interdependent. Surely, from a scientific, objective point of view, making koji – propagating enzyme-producing mold onto steamed rice in such away that those enzymes produce the perfect starch to sugar conversion for the myriad of conditions of that step, sake and day – is the most important. But if the rice has not been steamed properly (so as to be dry-ish on the outside, and soft and moist in the center), the mold will not grow well. But in order to steam the rice properly, it has to be washed to remove powder from milling and then soaked to the perfect moisture content. And in order to absorb water nicely (i.e. without cracking), it must be milled gently and properly. As you can see, any errors will cascade and be magnified later on down the line.

Recently, I found myself in the koji muro (the special wooden-walled, warm and humid room where koji is made in a sakagura) of Daimon Brewery, with Philip Harper, the first and only non-Japanese toji (master brewer) in history. I noted that he was making koji for daiginjo using a medium-sized wooden box, and ever the curious one, I asked how much it held. Twelve kilos, was his answer. Is there any significance in that, I asked? Or maybe superstition, I thought to myself. Twelve is one of those numbers that seems to carry mysticism with it into whatever culture it goes.

He smiled a quick flash of a grin, and I knew it would not be a short answer. “Well, we wash our rice in those special units downstairs,” he said, referring to a pair of meter-high silver drums with curious plumbing inside that allowed water to circulate vigorously to remove that powder without hammering the rice too hard. “The producer reckons you can wash 30 kilograms in there at one time, but I’m just not happy with how the rice comes out.

So we began backing off how much we washed at a time, and when we got to between twelve and thirteen kilograms, I was happy with the result.

“And so,” he continued, “we wash in twelve kilo units, soak in twelve kilo units, steam the rice in multiples of twelve kilos, and in fact we have the rice put into twelve kilos per bag after milling. A natural extension of all this is to make the koji in twelve kilogram boxes as well.”

All of this, dictated from the realm of steeping the rice in water.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar February 17, 2007. On the evening of Saturday, February 17, from 6:00 pm until 9:00 pm, Rob Yellin and I will hold our first joint sake and pottery seminar of the not-so-new year. The sake half of the evening will focus on the basics of sake, and is ideal for those wanting to learn more about the fundamentals, and open the door to veritable vistas of sake experience. The pottery seminar will be equally enlightening. The cost for the evening, with six sake, dinner, two lectures and printed materials, will be \7000. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing at www.sake-world.com.