Ask Beau - "What do you do when you visit a brewery off season when they aren't making sake?"
Of course it's so much more fun to visit a brewery when the team is producing so you can see all of the working parts in action - the smells, the sights, the real time sake making. But I find that I learn more when I visit a "sleeping brewery" because you notice the little things that slip by when there is so much action at hand.
I know how to make sake, so in this sense I don't need to see a group of brewers doing what they do, because I've not only seen it a million times, but I have done it myself to a limited degree. So rather than paying attention to the action, in a brewery that is off for the summer season you pay far greater attention to the machinery, layout and special tools that a kura uses. I find that you don't get distracted in a brewery that is quiet.
This point was just proven true on my last visit to Ishikawa where I stopped in at four different breweries that were all basically done for the summer. In each instance I gained far more knowledge walking around in the quiet, and asked far more probing questions of the tojis or owners who escorted me around. For the sake of your question David I'll focus in on the brewery called Tengumai (we sell their tremendous Yamahai Junmai) where I noticed things that I had never seen before but are still part of the sake story - one that I would probably have missed if the brewery were actually making sake at that time.
When we were in the fermenting room looking at all of the tanks I noticed the paddles that they use to stir the fermenting sake had different color tape strips on their handles. I asked the very simple question why? The toji said that each color represented a kobo or yeast used in that fermentation tank. For example a green strip of tape may represent Association #9 or Kanazawa #14 kobo. So the workers know to use the specific paddles for the specific tanks that are using those specific yeasts, so as to not mix that paddles residue that could affect the other kobo's tank. Yeasts are fickle beasts and this is a simple method to not take a chance of mixing yeast or yeast residue in the wrong tank. So simple but pretty smart!
Then walking around the corner I saw a guy washing something in a tub using a lot of water. From afar it looked like he was washing rice, but upon closer inspection it looked like he was washing marshmallow fluff. What the heh? I asked what in the world was that? And I was told that he was making filtration paddies. Cool! He used a powder then added water then stuffed the concoction into a mold and made the filtration paddies used in the large filtration machine that filtered the sake when necessary. The cakes hardened into disks that went into each section of the filter. This was a first for me and I would never have seen them do this during the brewing season, because it is "summer work."
Again, it is a lot of fun to be at a brewery when they are brewing, but it's also stressful on the brewers to have somebody there during the making time. So the summer months are far less stressful and you can ask the questions that take a little more time to answer. And as just stated you can notice things like tape on poles or white paddies far easier than when the action is happening!
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.)