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Brewing Dynamics; Sake & Weddings

# 58

Aug. 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

 Issue #58
 August 1, 2004

-- Sake-Brewing Dynamics
-- San-san-ku-do: Sake in Traditional Weddings
-- Sake Events/Announcements
-- Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-- Publication information

Sincere apologies to readers for the tardiness of this August newsletter. A long road trip and the ensuing chaos resulted in missing self-imposed deadlines.

Sake-Brewing Dynamics
Sake, being brewed from a more-or-less storable grain, has a different set of dynamics surrounding its brewing schedule than wine and its very perishable raw material, grapes. This set of interwoven factors have come to define the history, culture and economics of the sake world.

Rice is harvested only once a year, sometime between August and October, depending on the region, the strain of rice, and the weather each year. Sake is brewed, then, using the most recent harvest's rice only, typically from September to the following April. While there are exceptions to all of this, it is the normal pattern to which kura have long adhered. Sake rice can, in theory, be stored longer than that, and used the following year, but the sake resulting from that will not be very good, as the components of the rice will have altered, almost "spoiling" to a small degree.

So, brewers start with freshly harvested rice. But unlike grapes, this does not need to be used all at once, immediately after harvesting. And in fact, brewers spread out the year's harvest over the following several months. Of course, there are large-production kura and small-production kura, and everything in between. They all move at a different pace suited to their particular circumstances. These circumstances include how much they make and how fast. But there are a range of conditions that are adjusted to create the particular brewing rhythm to which they ascribe and survive.

For example, let us say two kura both brew 200 kiloliters of sake. This is a typical size of a smallish kura that dot the countryside all over Japan. (The largest brewers might brew this much in a couple of days.) What are the factors that affect how fast they can do this?

Obviously, one factor is how often they start a batch. Most places start a tank of sake either every day or every other day. Since sake brewing calls for a gazillion interlocking steps, and rice is steamed and added to the batch (in the form of regular rice, or koji) about eight times, it can get a bit hairy and confusing if one is not careful. So, while starting batches daily might allow the season to be finished faster, obviously it calls for twice as many brewers. So it is evident that the number of available warm bodies is part of the equation as well.

Next is the number of tanks and other equipment, which is related to how much space a kura has. Most kura have been around for at least a century and sit on long-owned family plots. Those that have been endowed with huge tracts of land and with bigger budgets might have twice as many tanks  - and more, better tools and equipment - in which to brew. Since sake sits in a tank fermenting for the better part of a month at least, there are limits to how many times a tank can be used in one season. The more tanks you have, the more often you can start a batch (i.e. daily as opposed to every other day), and the easier it will be to use them several times within a single brewing season. So more is better, assuming again you have the personnel power to utilize them.

The size of these tanks is vital too. The batch sizes that fit into these tanks are usually described by how much steamed rice goes into them, and can range in capacity from a couple hundred kilograms to as much as 42 tons of steamed rice. (That last number, while true, is the largest tank in Japan, and borders on the ridiculous in about 42 ways. But I digress...) A more practical range is 500 kilograms to 12 tons, with perhaps the top of the tank-size bell curve at one to five tons of steamed rice.

This is an important distinction; you can often tell the approximate scale of a given kura by the average size of their batches. If they are brewing four-ton batches at a time, for example, they are going to finish faster and/or make more than if they are doing 800 kilos at a pop, again assuming that they have the manpower and equipment to move around all that rice to the right places at the right times and utilize their capacity.

Other equipment affects all this as well. How much rice can they steam at one time, how much koji can they make at once, how fast can they press the sake when fermentation is complete so as to free up the tank for the next batch; these factors are relevant at every level and scale.

Not to be forgotten is weather. In short, if a kura is located in a region with longer winters, it can afford to take its time, stretching out the season longer, with less brewers, less tanks, and a more mellow pace (as far as sake brewing can be considered mellow). Conversely, places with shorter, warmer winters need to crank through it all with a bit more zip, so as to protect their fermenting investments from potentially spoiling high temperatures.

So, as you can see, it is hardly a simple set of circumstances that surround the dynamics of sake brewing. I am personally quite interested in these dynamics, and go out of my way to ask a handful of annoying questions each time I visit a kura. How much do you brew in a year? How many people brew?

How big is your batch size? How often do you start one? It's all part of a fascinating jigsaw puzzle.As a real-case comparison of extremes, one brewer I know, "Ama no To" in Akita, brews about 150 kiloliters a year. They do it with like 10 or 12 people, start a batch a day, work their tails off, and wrap the whole season up in like eight weeks. B-d-boom, b-d-bang, b-d-bing. Another, "Nanbu Bijin" of Iwate, has only seven or eight guys brewing, and they brew about 450 kiloliters, or three times that of Ama no To. But they start in early October and go to almost May, starting a batch only half as often, so they are brewing almost seven months out of the year, albeit at a less-than-torrid pace. Their cold little valley allows them to do this.

All of this has greatly affected the history and culture of the sake world. The fact that brewing takes place over the several winter months, and not in one fell swoop, created a need for symbiotic relationship with farmers and such from the countryside that developed into the kurabito and toji (brewery worker and master brewer) system that exists today. While these traditions too are changing in the face of modern societal changes, it is interesting to note that they were originally defined by the nature of rice and the complexities of sake brewing itself.

San-san-ku-do: Sake in Traditional Weddings
Sake traditionally has permeated every aspect of society in Japan, and naturally enough this includes wedding ceremonies, and in particular Shinto (Japan's indigenous religion) wedding ceremonies. San-san-ku-do literally translates as "three-three-nine-times," and is a formal and ritualized drinking of a small amount of sake by the bride and groom as part of the actual religious ceremony binding them in matrimony. It usually takes place on the grounds of a Shinto shrine, presided over by a Shinto priest.

The "cups" used are actually more like shallow bowls, several inches in diameter, and of the orange-reddish lacquer so tightly associated with all things Shinto. The special set of three cups sit stacked, smaller ones on top. The top cup represents heaven, the middle one earth, and the bottom cup represents humankind.

The bride and groom will together first go through the motions of pouring a small amount of sake into the top cup, but not actually pouring any sake during the first two passes. On the third motion, sake will actually be poured into the cup. The bride and groom will then in turn each sip sake from the cup, taking three sips each to finally drain it of its sacred contents.

This ritual is repeated for the middle and finally the bottom cup. In the end, they will have sipped sake three times from each of three cups, with the total being nine times. Hence the name of the ritual, San-san-ku-do, or "three-three-nine-times."

Why three and nine? Why not two-two-six or the even more intoxicating four-four-twelve? Because odd numbers are far more auspicious in Japan, and in particular three. Nine is the ultimate culmination of lucky odd numbers, being three times three.

It is said that the San-san-ku-do tradition began in the early Edo Period, which ran from 1600 to 1868. However, this beautiful ceremony is less commonly seen these days, as so many young Japanese couples prefer fancier, more ostentatious Western style wedding ceremonies.

Sake Events and Announcements
-- August 20, 2004
"Sake Course for Average Folks" by Matsuzaki Haruo
On Friday, August 20, from 7:00 at Shin-Romantei in Tokyo, famed sake critic will hold his 65th Sake Course for Average Folks seminar. The topic will be hana-kobo, or sake brewing yeasts derived from flowers in the natural world. Many brewers are experimenting with these yeasts, with mixed, curious, and interesting results. A lecture will be followed by a tasting and party. For more information, and a reservation, email John Gauntner.

-- August 21, 2004
Sake and Pottery Seminar, August 21
On the evening of Saturday, August 21, from 6:00 to about 9:00, Rob Yellin and I will hold another joint seminar on sake and Japanese Pottery at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The sake topic will be sake for the seasons, with examples of sake that might be best enjoyed in summer, spring, fall and winter. The emphasis will be on summer, of course. Rob Yellin will also have available for perusal and purchase his new book, "Ode to Japanese Pottery."
More information on Rob's book can be found at:

The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email. No deposit is required.

Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.

-- September 28, 2004
Advanced Info: Sake Event at Japan Society, New York City, Tuesday September 28
On the evening of Tuesday, September 28, 2004, there will be a lecture by John Gauntner followed by a tasting, with sake poured by the brewers of The Sake Export Association, at the Japan Society in New York. While I did not think that this had been officially announced, the word seems to be out to some degree. Please check with the Japan Society of New York for details. The presentation, which does not have a formal name yet, will be about sake and regionality: a tentative link.

More Advanced Info: The Joy of Sake Events
Sponsored by: The International Sake Association and Japan Airlines

-- September 30, 2004, from 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM
In New York City:
The Puck Building, 275 Lafayette Street
$75 per person
Join visiting brewers from Japan and sake enthusiasts from New York and Japan to sample this year's newly released fall sakes. Over 140 sakes, including gold and silver award winners from this year's U.S. National Sake Appraisal will be featured. The Joy of Sake is the largest sake tasting held outside of Japan, and a rare opportunity to experience great sakes in peak condition.

Good food and fine sake are made to be enjoyed together. A splendid array of sake appetizers prepared by 13 outstanding restaurants provides an ideal ccompaniment to the many fine daiginjo, ginjo and junmai sakes available for sampling.

Enjoy traditional and contemporary dishes from these fine restaurants: Asiate, BAO III, Bond Street, Bouley, Geisha, Hasaki, Kai, Riingo, Sakagura, Sushi Samba, Tocqueville, Woo Lae Oak and wd-50

NOTE: This event will also be held in Honolulu, on August 27, and in San Francisco, on September 9.

For more information, go to:



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