Sake Times – A Time To Clean!
On one of my earliest trips to Japan I joined a friend at his sake brewery in Yamagata prefecture a few weeks before he started his sake-making season. Was my timing poor? No it was perfect, because I got to participate in one of the most important steps in making sake. I gotta clean. Personally I am a little bit of a clean freak. I don’t mind a little mess build up, but I like staying on top of cleaning. (This was not true in college where I lost a roommate for two days in a living pile of clothes and garbage somewhere near the closet.)
Cleaning is imperative in a sake brewery. Some brewers take it far more vigilantly than others, and they swear the proof is in the end product. On this trip I actually met a fascinating kuramoto (owner of a brewery) who was known Japan-over for having a very clean brewing facility. In fact he was so well known that he often hosted other owners to share ihs cleaning techniques and practices. My friend who I was visiting participated in one such training endeavor.
Cleaning is cool. Well at least to a white boy who was still learning the ropes on his second trip to a place that made his livelihood! I found myself smiling as I used super heated hot water – no chemicals! – to wash the inside of the koji room. I slid a special cloth over each wooden board and then came back and washed between the cracks of each board. Around and around the room I went. Not once, not twice, but three times.
It was excruciating work, but I felt what I was doing was so very valuable to the “process.” And oddly, as a white boy “tourist” not a lot of koji rooms were ever opened up to me back in that day and time. Big white and hairy gaijin! It was a stigma, and I sort of took it personally, but then I discovered this was true for the Japanese as well. Brewers simply did not like guests, because we represented bad bacteria and distraction to the process. Brewers today are far more accommodating! Far more, and this makes me happy as it’s just so satisfying to see where sake is born.
(On a side note – and this pleases me to no ends, but the first brewer to ever not only let me enter a koji room, but actually told me to take my shirt off and help inoculate the mold in the rice by digging my hands and arms into the “process” was non other than the man with the “cleanest” brewery in Japan. This truly was one of my proudest moments on my own personal sake path, and it makes me smile to this day when thinking about him grinning as my jaw hit the floor! Man have times changed!)
As we have mentioned time and time again, many sake breweries start making sake on October 1st as this is the first day of the “process.” We call it Sake no hi or the day of sake, but before this day in many breweries around Japan they are cleaning. And cleaning a kura is actually the first day of the sake brewing process. And I’ll bet you that there are still a few breweries this month who are using super heated water, special brushes and cloths to scrub and scrub every inch of their facility and I wish I could be there to help them, because despite being difficult work it is extremely important. It could be perhaps the most important step in the “process.”