Sake Moment - Bullet Points From The Bullet Train Nation
As many of you know I have just returned from a two week "stint" in Japan - completely refreshed my sake batteries and loaded up on buckets of new information - information that I can only gather from the brewers themselves. I visited several breweries, worked in two of them, attended the Sake Samurai Ceremony in Kyoto, participated in several massive tastings - judged one of them where I set a personal recorded of 511 sakes tasted in one "standing" (you do no sit and taste) - spent time in Osaka, Kyoto, Yamagata, Kamakura, and Tokyo. Of course I hit a plethora of izakaya from one that specialized in octopus to one that served up some seriously yummy whale. (Sorry Green Peace) And stayed with a real actual Japanese family - not one played on TV - real Japanese people who didn't speak much English! Can you say foreign exchange adult?
Now I could spend countless Newsletters describing each and every awesome adventure, flavor, brew, brewery, brewery worker, restaurant, bar, National Government Tax Office, or liquor store, but instead I thought it would be much better in this fast-paced world to give a "bullet point" tour of my sake-soaked brain for time's sake - a yellow Clift-Notes version of my deepest passion. How cheap is that? Seriously I have too much to say and cannot wait for future months to spell it out - I need to dump now! For those who enjoy depth - I apologize! For those who enjoy speed - I pity you! For those who like depth and speed - I pray for you!
Herewith is one man's sponge that was recently soaked:
- So when does Sake Season start? Is there an official kick-off? Do breweries start brewing on the same day every year? And don't some breweries brew year around? The answers are many and they are all right for each and every particular brewery. For example one brewer always starts brewing on November 1st each year. When I asked why he said that was the day that his employees all were done with their other jobs and could start making sake. But breweries that have a dedicated work force might start when their rice is ready. And yet others pick days that just fit. It's all arbitrary, but it's all good because they are making sake right now and will continue to do so through March.
- I would say that 9 out 10 sake breweries paint their floors a deep dark green. Why? In Japan the colors white and green are considered "mellow" colors, and as one sake brewery owner said to me when I asked why his floor was painted green replied that "sake making is a high tension business and we use green to calm our kurabito (sake brewers) down. Another owner literally said "I like green, it makes me easy."
- In the sake-making world the number two expense for breweries each and every year - by far - is rice. Without a doubt brewing rice equates to the second largest expense on the books right behind worker's salaries. An informal poll - yes me asking ten different brewery owners (kuramotos) informally - found that expenses usually went 1) Salaries 2) Brewing Rice 3) Electricity/oil 4) Taxes 5) Bottles 6) Labels 7) Trucks 8) Shipping 9) Caps 10) Boxes in this general order. For a small brewery to crank out 150,000 bottles, caps, and labels for each product is a pricey proposition, but they do not want to skimp on the "look" and "representation" that their brews need to have in the very "packaging-centric" Japanese market place. One brewer in Yamaguchi uses odd shaped 720ml bottles so that they have the necks of 1.8L bottles. Why? Because this saves on bottling equipment and cap expenses as they are all the same!
- I visited a government rice inspection station in Yamagata, where officials look at and grade the quality of your rice for both making sake and for selling it. To maintain quality standards every Junmai-class rice offering must be sampled and graded. The ranking is as follows (I apologize for the spelling I was writing as fast as I could when the rice inspector spewed out the categories) "Tokuju" Super Premium 1st Class - "Tokto" Premium 2nd Class - "Itto" 3rd Class - "Nitto" 4th Class - "Santo" 5th Class - and "Tougai" No Class. The process is pretty awesome. Basically you grow your brewing rice, harvest it, let it set a while and then bag it. Then you take the bags to the inspector and they do a set number of random inspections for how many bags you have brought. For example if you brought 150 bags of rice the inspector would take 20 random inspections from 20 different bags. If I recall 200 bags called for 30 inspections. They use a long knife looking instrument to puncture the bag and it fills with rice from deep within. Then they put a little patch on the hole. They take this sample and place it in trays - black and white - to look at the size, color, surface area etc. Then they compare this sample to a perfect sample that they keep in little pouches. So they look to compare it against what is deemed Tokuju quality rice to see how yours stacks up. A very cool process that does place a lot of power in a few people's hands.
- Guess which month is the largest tax month in the brewer's year? January - always! Because December is the number one selling month in all of the year in Japan. Brewers sell sake like crazy at year's end and it's not all for the January 1st New Years traditional sake toast. Just like in the US December represents the month with the most parties and drinking events. Basically it's a typical have a ball and pay the fiddler later scenario, and we all know the fiddler!
- If Bob Barker ever went to Japan to learn the price that was "right" in the brewing industry he would soon find out that a "typical" stainless steel tank for brewing Ginjo or Dai Ginjo sake (which is far smaller than a typical large scale tank) would ring up a cost of roughly $16,000 per tank. Yikes! Now think smaller and guess how much a typical "cap" costs for a 720ml bottle? How about 20 cents!
- File this one under Sake Fact Or Fiction. Guess what kurabito (brewers) are NOT eating for breakfast during the brewing season? They are not eating natto or fermented soybeans. You know that really slimy and stringy and hard as hell to eat brown stuff. Personally I love natto and was having breakfast with a brewery owner who informed me that this would be his "last natto of the year." I said what? And he replied that because of the very powerful bacteria and enzymes in fermented natto one should never eat the substance during sake making because it could drastically alter the process for the worse. Come on! How could it get transferred to the rice - the imagination boggles? So I had to ask another brewer who confirmed for certain that he always asks visitors if they had natto for breakfast. I said no way - you just ask them this to get out of taking guests on a tour during the brewing season. He laughed and said "no way" (parroting me) and said if somebody has eaten natto then they would not be allowed in that day. Fact or Fiction - you make the call.
- It's true; some breweries make sake for larger breweries. They produce and sell sake by the tank to these major breweries and need not worry about labels, bottles, packaging etc. This is the tradeoff for not letting their family name come proudly to the forefront. As a small brewery that has been making sake for hundreds of years using their name and their brand it became a difficult (and easy) choice to sell to the big boys. Gone were the hassles of trying to sell out each season's stock. When you have a major buyer basically you sell your entire product line each year, which is a comforting fact for a small brewery. Some breweries do both. They make their own brand and then sell sake by the tank to others. When speaking to these guys they are not that keen to say "yeah we sell our sake to so and so." Instead they say that we produce taxed and non-taxed sake. Taxed sake would be their brand and named brews and non-taxed sake would be the tanks sold to the big boys, who then have to pay the tax on the sake when it is sold. Thus taxed and non-taxed sake, which sounds better than our proud sake and the "stuff" that we sell for another name.
- There is old adage in the sake making industry that has been passed down for hundreds of years and it has to do with THE most important step in making sake: First Koji - Second Moto - Third Tsukuri (fermentation). What this means is that brewers feel that it is imperative to make good koji and that is THE most important step for making great sake - or even good sake. The second most important step would then be the yeast starter, which is followed by the third most important step, which is the actual fermentation. Ask any brewer and they all have differing points of view that are mostly founded in a mistake or screw-up of some significance in the past. I would say that the majority of the brewers would say that the koji is THE most important step, but I heard a great answer the other day from a brewer in Yamagata. This particular owner said that THE most important step is the actual steaming of the rice! He felt that his sakes drank better when they are steamed properly, and that is why he took great pride in his horizontal steaming system that is unlike the typical vertical koshiki or kettle/tub with holes in the bottom, which he said, gave un-even steams and heated the lower rice too much. Like all things in the brewing world this is debatable but I love that he has thought this THE most important step.