ASK BEAU – What is the most important step in making sake?
I like to answer it the long way! And of course this answer keeps in mind that the sake making industry is referred to as the industry of “10,000 Methods” meaning there are many ways to brew sake.
Whenever I visit a brewery and there have been a lot of them, I always ask the toji – head brewer – and the owner – kuramoto – what they think is the most important step in making sake at their brewery. There are many packaged answers including a rhyme that goes along the lines “Koji, shubo, moromi” and you hold up fingers as you go along.
Koji production seems to be the answer most given by brewers. They say if you don’t get the koji right then you don’t get the sake right. Many feel that proper koji production is at the heart of the entire process and if you butcher the koji then you butcher the brew. I will say this that in the time that I have made sake to the multiple times that I have watched sake being made, the most attention and care is given to the koji making process for sure.
But not everybody says koji first! Some brewers say that the proper breeding of the shubo or yeast starter is the most poignant and important part of making sake. If the yeasty beasts aren’t performing well then you have unbalanced and under-performing brewing. Several tojis swear that they focus too much on the koji and actually should focus more on the yeast starter for better control.
There are exceptions and I love these because they stand out in the industry of “10,000 Methods.” One owner of a brewery swore to me that the steaming of the rice was by far the most important step in making sake. He stated that if the rice wasn’t steamed well then how could the koji and subsequently the shubo work effectively if the rice was not conducive to accepting the mold or yeast? Good point. And he was not alone in this belief. When I really press brewers who automatically say the “koji” they often say that proper steaming is incredibly important. They then follow that up with the usual, “Every step in making sake is the most important step.”
On my recent trip to Akita I met perhaps one of the most amazing and “freaky” tojis who I have ever happened across. He has been a head brewer for the past 30 years, and the twinkle in his eye told me that he has about 30 more years in the tank. He was quite simply the most fantastic toji that I have ever spoken to. And I would be honored to make sake with him some day. In this regard, I will write a little bit more about this particular brewery in upcoming issues of the True Sake Newsletter.
So when I asked Captain Fantastic which step was the most important step in the sake making process his eyes lit up and he beamed a huge smile. Then he waited. And waited. And then held up one finger and said the “Washing process.” What? I thought that he was joking me. You mean the process of washing off the outer bran that was left on the rice after milling? “Yes!” Come on? “But we don’t wash our rice once or twice, we wash the rice four times,” he held up 4 fingers as he took a step back to watch my amazement reflect across my face. Come on? Are you joking? No! He absolutely believed that the reason that he makes excellent sake is that they wash their rice four times, twice after milling and twice more after resting. This was a first and he swears by their method, their most important method!
Please send your sake specific questions to askbeau2 @ truesake.com. (This address is not for general questions and I only review the questions once per month. All other correspondence should use info @ truesake.com.)