Sake Friends – A New Generation of International Sake Makers
Upon my return from Hyogo Prefecture and the Tenth Anniversary of the International Wine Challenge (IWC) I received an email from a friend “in the industry” who makes sake in Norway. First making sake in Norway is cool, but to be able to say that I have a friend who makes sake in Norway is even cooler. The email stated the following:
Looks like you and all the rest of the IWC judges had a wonderful and rewarding time at the Challenge. We are so pleased that our Junmai and Nigori got 'Commended Wine' awards at the 2016 IWC. I can't even begin to tell you what it means for me personally. It even made news with NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster: They called Sake 'risbrennevin' meaning 'rice spirit'. Oh well...........baby steps.
First – if you haven’t read the May Issue of the True Sake Newsletter I would do so! It talks all about the IWC, how we judge, and what a “Commended Wine” actually means! Secondly, I love my sake peeps so I immediately pinged Brock and asked him a few more questions about him as a brewer and what it means to make sake outside of Japan.
But – wait – wait for it! (You know me by now folks – there is always a back story, and in this case it is a Brock story and we have to go in the way back machine!)
Many many moons ago I co-founded a sake making program in Osaka Prefecture called the “Mukune International Sake Brewing Program.” Pretty cool heh? Well it was. Along with my partner Yasutaka Daimon of Daimon Shuzu, makers of Mukune “Root of Innocence” Junmai Ginjo amongst others, we crafted a week long program for people from all over the world to go and live and work in a sake brewery and learn how to make sake step by step all by hand and all for real! It was awesome. The only question for us was who from the hundreds of candidates who would we select? Well two dudes jumped off the paper on first inspection and quite frankly maybe our system of selection worked as they both went on to make sake in pioneering fashion.
I remember mentioning two names to Daimon-san in our initial meetings on who to invite. The first was Kjetil Jikiun a beer maker from Norway, and Brock Bennett a chemist from Canada who obviously had a tremendous passion for sake. Daimon laughed and said “wow” in only the way he could. “Wow, there are really people out in the world who want to make sake?” The answer was yes and it was fun sending those two their acceptance emails welcoming them to that extremely unique opportunity.
So I felt great pride when Brock reached out with that email, because he’s doing exactly what he is meant to be doing. There are a lot of people alive who aren’t so lucky! I then felt it would make a nice piece for the newsletter to tie this little bit of sake history up, so I hit Brock with some extra questions and herewith are his replies:
Can you tell me how long you have been at the reins of Nøgne Ø Sake?
I have been the Sake brewer at Nøgne Ø for the last 5 ½ years. Meaning I have done all the koji making, rice washing, steaming, sandan shikomi basically working solo. I get help when I am pressing and pasteurizing and our brewery bottling crew does the bottling. It’s the Nøgne Ø Sake Brewery /kura. Hadaka Jima is the brand name for the Sake (but we don’t emphasize that so much these days). On paper I have been in charge of the Sake Brewery since July 31st 2015 which was the day of Kjetl’s resignation as Head Beer Brewer and toji. To make it simple you could just say that I have been the Sake Brewer since September 2010 and I have been in charge of the Sake Brewing since August 2015. We of course met in 2009 at the Mukune Internship and stayed in touch after we went back to our respective countries. When he asked if I was interested in coming to brew Sake in Norway I jumped at the chance.
Tell us a little about you?
I was an Industrial Chemist prior to becoming a Sake brewer. I became very interested in Japanese culture after an Akira Kurasawa retrospective came to Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver; my teenage son and I saw almost all of his films together. Two other things were to spark for my interest in Sake; I was at a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver with a friend and there on the menu were Premium Sakes and in my ignorance I didn’t know there was such a thing, we tried a bottle and we were amazed! And also I met another homebrewer in Vancouver who had made Sake so I decided to try brewing it. I quickly got obsessed with Sake brewing and its intricate combination of complex biochemistry with artful handcrafting of rice, water and koji. However the absolute watershed for me was to be accepted into the Mukune Intership. On the night I received the email that I was accepted I felt as though I had won the lottery, I couldn’t sit still for hours; to actually have the opportunity to actively participate in a working Sake brewery with other enthusiasts such as myself and under the skilled leadership of Daimon-san and his exceptional crew of Sake brewers. I came back from that experience believing that I could turn my hobby and passion into a career.
Tell us a little about your kura:
It was started in December 2010 by Kjetil Jikiun the founder of Nøgne Ø beer brewery. He is passionate about all kinds of brewing and decided to start Europe’s first Sake brewery. He believed in following all the traditional Japanese brewing methods including making koji, and using rice from Japan and this has continued to be a core value.
Currently I brew small batches throughout the entire year using 300 kg of rice per batch. We have a fune for pressing the Sake and an air-conditioned fermentation room maintained at 5oC which allows for the year round brewing. Except for limited release Sake all of our products are pasteurized because there isn’t dedicated refrigeration at Vinmonopolet stores (Norway’s government controlled liquor monopoly stores). Our product line right now consists of Sparkling Sake, a three year aged Kijoshu, and our flagship Junmai. More Nigori is in production and will be available in the autumn of 2016.
And which two sakes did you submit to the IWC?
This year we submitted the 2015 Junmai, and Nigori
Didn't you guys get a “Commended” last year?
In 2014 we submitted Junmai and Junmai Ginjo, which received ‘Commended Wine’ awards, and in 2015 we received a ‘Commended’ once again for our Junmai.
Do you receive guests for tours at your brewery?
We normally receive guests with open arms to both the beer brewery and the Sake Brewery. However through the summer and autumn of 2016 we won’t be receiving guests to the Sake brewery due to construction that is happening because of the expansion of the beer brewery. People are welcome to contact me at email@example.com and I can answer further queries and can keep folks up to date about when the Sake brewery will be up for visitors once again.
What is your sake goal?
My goal is to further develop the appreciation and love of Sake in Norway and beyond. I intend to do this by continually striving to make better Sake and by staying true to Japanese brewing traditions while making Sake that will also be appealing and pleasing to Western palates.