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
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 16, 2001 (English)
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 email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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: email@example.com, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
To subscribe to The Sake
Digest, send the word "subscribe" without 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 the
word "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
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.
To subscribe, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Look for the next issue of this newsletter May 15 - 20, 2001.
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NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided
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All of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to
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Copyright 2001 Sake World