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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2000

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Recalling the toil of winter in the rites of spring



It's May, and for almost all of the nation's 1,700 or so sake brewers, this means brewing activities are over for the season. There are a handful of larger breweries that have climate-controlled factories, and do brew year-round (known as shiki-jozo). But everyone else is limited to the coldest months of the year. With the peripheral work involved, and cleaning up included, most places wrap up about the end of April.

Here are some significant facts and occurrences related to this time of the year:

* After the last batch of rice has been steamed for the season, plenty of work still remains. That steamed rice must then be added to the final hungrily waiting fermenting tanks, the 18-day to month-long fermentation must run its course, and the sake must then be pressed and stored. Indeed, there are still several more weeks of work. But after that last steaming, a light appears at the end of the tunnel. And that is cause for celebration.

That celebration is called koshiki taoshi, and refers to the overturning (taoshi) of the rice-steaming vat (koshiki). Today, many koshiki are large, steel contraptions that do not overturn easily, unlike their wooden counterparts. Regardless of whether anything actually gets flipped over, each kura (brewery) celebrates the end of each season with a ceremony, and perhaps a formal meal with wonderful sake (surprise, surprise).

* Until recent years, sake was brewed by a team of men, usually farmers from the boonies, with nothing else to do in the winter. As such, traditionally, just about this time of the year, the brewers of each kura would head back to their families in the countryside, whom they had not seen in six months, since entering the kura the previous fall.

Today, however, things are changing in many ways, albeit slowly. Change is necessary, as modern society won't support things the way they were 100 years ago. Sake-brewing work, wonderful craft though it may be, is very hard work, and young people have too many other options available to them nowadays.

These include jobs that don't call for 14-hour days, seven days a week, for six months out of the year. As such, fewer young people are going into brewing, and so the average age of brewers has risen to well over 60 years old. Naturally, the industry won't last for long if this situation continues.

One solution has been to use local people to brew, instead of the craftsmen from afar. Scheduling days off and utilizing labor-saving machines (without compromising the final product; a delicate balance, mind you!) are other areas where the industry is attempting change for survival. Still, progress is slow as tradition dies hard. Fortunately, so do all the experienced brewers.

* Freshly pressed sake, also known as shiboritate, is relatively easily available. Most sake is aged for six months on average, often longer, before shipping. This allows the brasher flavors to mellow and learn to work with each other, much as in wine or even beer. Shiboritate is available only this time of the year, and its appeal is that very brashness and youth it exudes. Not all breweries market their shiboritate, but enough do to make it fairly easy to find.

* 'Tis also the season for namazake (unpasteurized sake). If sake is not pasteurized by passing it through a coiled pipe set into 65 C water, it must be kept refrigerated so that enzymes do not reactivate and destroy the flavor. As such, most sake on the market is pasteurized. Namazake, although available all year, is most popular and ubiquitous now. Namazake has a fresh, lively, zingy flavor, and many people perceive it as sweeter. This is its appeal, although often these very qualities can obscure the sake's true nature.

It is all a matter of preference, of course, but namazake certainly is worth tasting from time to time, and now is perhaps the best time to do so.

* Note that sake brewed this past six-month season will be referred to as being brewed in BY11. BY stands for brewing year (written and referred to just like that, in the English alphabet). The brewing season officially begins and ends in the fall, for tax reasons, and it is referred to by the calendar year in which it began, which for the present year is Heisei 11. So sake pressed in the spring of Heisei 12 is still considered BY11. Occasionally, sake will be referred to by its BY, especially aged sake. Now you know the secret code of the brewing industry.

Such are the rites of spring in the sake world. It's time to put away the sake-warming equipment until next fall, enjoy what sake spring has to offer, and remember the toils of the past winter of the brewers that created what we sip.

* * *

There is often a natural tendency to hold a bias against the big boys, assuming that any sake from a mass producer of sake is simply swill. Yet, a blind tasting might indicate otherwise. It's time to see for ourselves.

On the afternoon of June 17, I am hosting a blind tasting of a dozen or so sake from large brewers, with a ringer or two thrown in. Ten Japan Times readers are invited to attend. Results will be presented in a future column. Those interested in participating should e-mail me at the address below, or fax The Japan Times at (03) 3453-5265. There is no cost, but don't expect much food or fanfare. Participants will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

* * *

Harushika (Nara Prefecture)

"Cho-Karakuchi" junmai-shu
Nihonshu-do: +12
Acidity: 1.6
Seimai-buai: 58 percent

Harushika, or "Spring Deer," takes its name from the deer that roam free in Nara Park. Long ago, this brewery got its start by brewing sake for the well-known shrine Kasuga Taisha.

Seventy percent of what they brew here is junmai-shu, and they actually use different water sources for different steps of the process.

As the name Cho-Karakuchi implies, this sake is quite dry indeed, although not as dry as the whopping +12 nihonshu-do might indicate. A very subdued nose and clean, smooth flavor combine to give a non-obtrusive flavor profile. Although Harushika is quite pleasant slightly chilled, it goes down smoothly when gently warmed as well.

* * *

Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting a seminar on sake and pottery June 10, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, and half a dozen or so sake. To make a reservation, e-mail me at sakeguy@, fax me at (0467) 23-6896, or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail later.

The Japan Times: May 11, 2000
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