February 2013

Sake Senses - Nosing Around a Brewery

Posted by Beau Timken in 2013, February, Newsletter
You may not believe what I am about to tell you. But it's true! I promise.

When I open a case of sake that has been sealed since leaving Japan I can smell the brewery where it came from. At first I was shocked. No way! But then over time it has become quite a nice reality. You can actually the smell the aromas of a brewery coming from the freshly opened case, and trust me when I tell you every sake brewery (kura) has a distinct and splendid smell. Don't believe me? Well, you and your nose are in for a bit of sake reality.

Sake breweries smell! Is it a bad smell? Not a chance. It's really an aroma like no other in my mind. I'm sure that wineries smell like something in general. I am also sure that beer breweries have their own smells in general. But none have the sweet and distinctive essences like a sake brewery. So what is the "smell"? Hmmmmmm! This is going to be tough to convey, but I will try. (I once had the privilege of visiting the pyramids of Egypt and when people asked "What are they like?" it was so difficult to convey the "energy" the "mystical power" the "life source" that surrounds them. I could not do the pyramids justice in any way shape or form.) So, wish me luck when I try to relate to you the actual "general" aroma profile of a sake brewery.

True Sake First of all there is always water in a brewery. Always! As a major ingredient of sake water is incredibly important, but also there is so much cleaning that goes on in a brewery that water is always present. Water here, water there, water over there, water everywhere. Does water smell? Well it shouldn't! But wet surfaces smell. Wet materials smell. Old wet wooden stirring paddles smell. Wet floors smell musky. Wet equipment smells moldy. And the best description I can say is that a brewery has the smell of "damp." You may have smelled the smell called damp in your basement, or the dampness of dew on morning grass. Sake breweries smell damp!

Now don't get me wrong, "damp" does not mean dirty! Sake breweries may be old, but they are kept very very clean during brewing season. Wet-clean-surfaces is the image your nose should see! Wet wood, wet cement, wet cloth etc! Wet and damp.

Another image your nose should see are the old (in some cases ancient) buildings that make up a sake brewery. Old wooden timbers, old plaster and clay walls, old wooden staircases and lofts. I love seeing all of the old very beautiful support beams in a kura. Each piece of timber is oddly shaped (round or curved in many instances) and usually they are very dark,which is a great contrast against the white old plaster/clay walls. So the smell of old wood, which can be best described as musky, is very prevalent in an old kura. And typically you will find a series of old wooden brewing vats that are not used any more but are too historically valuable to trash. These old vats are a nasal gold mine. Sake breweries smell musky.

Can you describe the aroma of cold? Does cold smell? I will have to say yes, and a visual that best portrays the aroma of cold are the many refrigerated rooms found in sake breweries. Yes, you bet! You need a lot of refrigeration in a brewery, and refrigerators smell! No not like your fridge, because everything is sealed in your fridge, and of course you have your yellow box of Arm and Hammer, but the smell of huge sealed metal vats that are really cold and damp. In a sense it is sort of a crispness aroma that is especially evident in the mornings in a kura. And since sake is predominately brewed in the winter you of course get the cold smell of winter! Sake breweries smell crisp.

I am sure most of you by now have been saying, "What about the rice, fool?" Don't sake breweries smell like rice? Yup! You guessed'er Chester! They do indeed! And I will harken back to one story an old owner of a brewery in Hyogo once told me. He said that people in their daily lives would walk out of their way to walk past his kura to smell the wonderful aroma of fermenting rice. But as would happen he noticed that the usual town folk weren't walking by anymore, and he became incredibly curious as to why not. So one day he approached one of the old regulars who used to walk by and he asked, "Why don't you walk by the kura any more?" The answer was simple. The old man said that the brewery smelled differently and he missed the old aroma that used to emit from the ancient doors. Stunned the owner of the brewery knew immediately the reason for the change in the smell of the brewery. That season they started brewing with a new rice varietal that they had never used before. Sake breweries smell ricey!

Just like there is a lot of cold in a brewery there is also a lot of hot! There is a lot of steam in a brewery. They of course steam the rice before fermenting and that steam lingers and lingers in terms of aroma life span. Piles of freshly steamed rice liter many floor surfaces in a kura as they move the rice from one room to another. Steamed brewing rice in heaps and piles fills the soul of a brewery. There is also a lot of really hot water used to clean equipment. Sake brewers do not use chemicals to clean their tools, rather they use lots of scorching hot water. This steam of water and rice essences has a high in the rafters aroma that becomes more prevalent as the brewing day gets along. Sake breweries smell steamy!

Mold is a big player in the life of a sake brewery. And of course there are all forms of mold that play a role in the aroma profile found within the four brewing walls. Special brewing molds get spread on steamed rice, and this koji rice or molded rice has a very unique smell zone from chestnuts to apples. Koji rice is a small player in the overall smell of brewery, but it is there at the heart of some of the most vivid aromas. It is the unseen engine of the overall fragrance of a kura and can best be described as the Quarterback. But the other form of just basic mold is the huge offensive lineman who protects the QB. Where there is so much water and aged materials there must be mold. Well there is. Moldy rafters, moldy under tank storage units, moldy "things" abound. Sake breweries smell moldy!
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The point of the entire sake making exercise is to ferment rice. And it is in this fermentation process where you get the most abundant and radiant of aromas in a brewery. True Sake Depending on the rice varietal and the brewing yeasts involved you get a plethora of aromas from yeasty and fruity to chestnutty and sour from tangy and bright to deep and rich from ricey and starchy to sweet and woody. It's all there! Fermenting rice smells unlike anything you have ever smelled and it smells like every smell that you know by heart. But for me the smell that wins out can best be described as yeasty. Sake breweries smell yeasty!

So there you have it! In general sake breweries smell damp, musky, crisp, ricey, steamy, and yeasty. I am sure that I am forgetting another overall huge component of the smell of a brewery, but when I open those sake cases I smell the above. As I use a razor to cut the packing tape, I lower my head to the box and open the doors of Aromaville! Immediately I am transported to a sake brewery that is in the midst of production. Ahhh the aroma is so sake!

I wanted to get another person's take on the "aroma" of a brewery so I asked a person who actually makes his daily living in a kura. In a brief email I asked Philip Harper, the toji (head master brewer) at Tamagawa Brewery. His reply was - per usual - amazing:

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Hey, M. Beau. That's probably the biggest question I've ever been asked. Life is an olfactory pageant (yeah! a chance to write "olfactory"!) in a brewery, as smell is probably the brewer's key sense, on a par with or perhaps even more important even than taste during the many processes of brewing. Not sure I can do justice to this in time for your next newsletter, though. I'll see what I can do, but don't hold your breath as I'm up to my armpits in daiginjo now.
Well I did hold my breath and voila Philip did do justice! Herewith are the thoughts of a sake brewer about what a brewery truly smells like:

Sake Brewery Smells: Tamagawa Version

Aroma timelines


Day One (start)
Steamed Rice smell

Day Two
Milky smell of rice changes to pungent smell as koji starts to grow

Day Two
Wet dog smell around time of nakashigoto mixing

Day Three, early hours
Rich cereal smell deepens

Day Three, lunchtime
Chestnut aroma

Day Three, late afternoon/early evening
Mushroom scent

Kimoto/yamahai yeast starter

Days One to Five
Steamed rice/koji (amazake)

Days Six to Ten
Pungent nitrite odor

Day Ten onwards
Lactic acid (yoghurt) smell

Two weeks onwards
Yeast, fruity scents, spice and cloves
Is that cool or what? Thank you Philip! You are and continue to be "The MAN!" I look forward to opening the next case of Philip's sake to pull some "wet dog."

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