By now, the sake brewing season is well underway all over the country. As is usually the case, most brewers will spend the first few batches getting accustomed to this year's rice,
this year's weather, and this year's crew, making what adjustments they must in order to maintain consistency with last year's quality.
Rice Growing: Where It All Begins
For many, there are several degrees of separation between ourselves and rice. "How is it grown? Isn't it all the same? Is it really all that important to sake making? And if so, why do we not hear
more about it?"
While all of these questions pop up a lot, perhaps a great place to start is with the last one. As explained by Niichiro Marumoto of the kura making Chikurin in Okayama, the big
reason we hear much about milling and yeast and other technicalities but less about growing rice is that many brewers themselves are not that savvy about it.
"Brewers use honed skills, experience
and technology to deal with whatever rice comes in. They look at it, assess it, and say, 'OK, it's dry this year, so we have to adjust things in this way,' or perhaps the protein content is high, or potassium
is low, or the size or the hardness are not up to snuff." He continues, running through a list of potential pitfalls and flaws with a given harvest.
"Regardless, they stoically assess it, and
decide what needs to be done to make great sake with what they have." Maybe they mill it more, or adjust soaking time, or koji mold growth, or fermentation curves. He makes it sound so simple. "But
as a result," he adds, "often they do not know so much about rice and how it grows. Hence the dearth of information about it."
What is really odd about this, he explains, is that brewers
will go to sometimes borderline-ridiculous detail in brewing, making incredibly minute adjustments designed to make the most appropriate brew with the materials at hand. "Why in the world do more brewers
not show that attention to detail in growing the rice as well is beyond me," he concludes.
It is not that they are not paying attention. It is rather that they leave it up to others, thereby
sacrificing a degree of control. Sure, experienced farmers know what they are doing. But they also understandably have their own agenda, one that is related to cost, labor, and marketability of their product.
And this might not always jibe with a brewer's figures of merit.
In fact, one of my favorite brewers, Takashi Aoshima of Kikuyoi in Shizuoka, is big on this point. "As a brewer, you just gotta grow
rice yourself; you have to be out there touching at least some of it in order to know what it's going to be like this year." While not all brewers feel that way, he is adamant (in his oh-so-pleasant way,
"For example," he continues (during a conversation last year, not this year), this past season was very hot and with little rain, right? That means the rice is dry. I know this cuz I
was out there, growing it. This gives me a head start when I start to brew, since I do not need to experiment or guess as much at the beginning. It really is indispensable!"
And so, after two
decades working in the sake industry, I decided it was time to kick-start my rice-growing experience (read: lack thereof) and get my hands dirty. So last spring I began making treks down to Okayama to help
grow (again, read: stay out of the way) Yamada Nishiki rice. All I can say is, "Wow."
With the exception of a very small area, rice has a single growing season in Japan. This begins in the
spring and ends in the fall with the harvest. But there are countless rice varieties, both for eating and for sake-brewing, and countless micro-environments across the vertically long country that Japan is. As
such, just when it is planted and when it is harvested is a function of rice variety, region, and more.
While April is more common, we began in June. It all starts with seeds from the previous year
being carefully grown into seedings in shallow soil. When these are perhaps 20 to 30 cm tall they are then transferred into a water-filled paddy that has been carefully prepared.
Why is it
water-filled? To keep out weeds that would rob the rice of vital nutrients. The water is typically 10 cm deep or so; the seedlings stick out the top and have a head start on the weeds, which are thereby
How is the paddy carefully prepared? The soil is mixed up very well to make it more fine, thereby creating a dense layer that holds the water for a day or two, after which more will be added.
If it was not prepared in this way the water would almost instantly absorb down into the earth, and not be retained. How water is added or drained, and when, is a function of many things, including region,
preferred methods, and water sources. But most often many paddies share the same water source, flowing down from a mountain or high pond sequentially from one to another.
This of course means that a
great amount of cooperation and mutual consideration are necessary within a given farming community, the essence of which is said to be the fiber of Japanese agricultural society and culture. While this alone
is a fascinating study, it is a bit beyond the scope of this newsletter, at least this issue of it.
After the seedlings (called na-e) have been transplanted into the paddy in the process known as ta-ue,
they are allowed to grow into maturity. Despite the restraining effect of the water, weeds will come in, and these are dutifully removed. To make this easier for both humans and machines, the seedlings are
aligned in very neat little rows throughout the paddy.
As the rice plants grow, they will eventually flower. Each
stalk will have lots of very, very tiny flowers that open once a day for the requisite self-pollination to occur. Later, the rice grains themselves will begin to appear, on ears called i-ne that grow out of the center of the stalk. These continue to appear and eventually they all get heavy and droop down from the main plant. When these are mature enough, the rice is harvested.
I received six seedlings myself to take home to mess with, which I am sure my benefactor considered to be an exercise in futility. But I took the gift seriously and planted the six - along with a
seedling of normal eating rice my son had received from a school trip to a paddy - in a large planter. I then garnered advice and direction over the summer to end up with the world's first Yamada Nishiki grown
in my city of Kamakura. Needless to say, all were surprised, not the least of which was myself. But more importantly what I learned watching them grow day by day, especially in comparison with the regular
rice, was nothing short of amazing. All I can say is, "Wow."
The next issue or so of this news letter will cover a bit more about how the rice plants grow, how and when they are harvested,
how the harvested rice is handled and more.
In the meantime, to see a slideshow of rice from seedling to harvest, check this page on the Sake-World site.
Let me wrap this up with the reminder that the above is really
oversimplifying the great agricultural skill of growing good rice, and also is but one method of doing it, and furthermore is a bit incomplete in its presentation. But for me and for many of us in the West, it
is also so much more than we ever fathomed.
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- Sake & Pottery Seminar, December 13, at Takara
On the evening of Saturday, December 13,
from 6pm to 9pm, Rob Yellin and I will host another Sake and Pottery Seminar at Takara in Yurakucho. Those interested in attending can make a reservation by sending me an email.
- The 2009 Sake Professional Course in Japan. All Seats Full. It is that time again: I am officially announcing the 2009 Sake Professional Course to be held in Tokyo (with a trip to Osaka, Kyoto, & Kobe)
January 26 to 30, 2009. This is simply the most thorough and finest sake educational program on the planet. For more information, please go here. All seats for this seminar are taken; however, there is a waiting list if interest still remains.
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Available this month!! I am thrilled to be able to finally and definitively announce the release of my first e-book, to be entitled
Kuramoto: The People, Philosophies and Culture Behind the Sake, available later this month in pdf format by download from the Sake-World site. The book tells the stories of a handful of sake brewers,
dropping bits of technical expertise and culture along the way. It begins with a general treatise on all things sake, and this is followed by an in-depth introduction of
the breweries, as well as the personalities behind them. Each of the kura highlighted has a story that fills in all the gaps of our understanding about sake, and takes it away from the "this is ginjo, this is junmai" world and into the human side of it all. It's not too short, nor is it too long, and will be downloadable from this site for a mere $10. Surely this book is the best and fastest way to feel even more familiarity, understanding, and knowledgeable about sake and the world suffusing it.
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Educational Products from Sakeworld.com
Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your
education and further sake enjoyment. See Educational Products at Sake-world.com . Currently, we have three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course
covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.
- Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with
plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon
which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on www.sake-world.com
known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's personal recommendations and preferences.
Available for $15.
- Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing
environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
- Bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.
Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier. See Educational Products at Sake-world.com.
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Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More information on the following topics can be found at
- Sake Homebrewing
- Books on Sake
- Information on the archives of this newsletter
- General information related to this publication
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.