Daishichi brewery, Nihonmatsu (Fukushima Prefecture, Japan).
The Daishichi brewery is owned by the same family
since 1752. It is now the 10th generation since the Ohta family settled
down in this region. It is rare to have a traceable continuity over such a long period. Emperor Showa (better known in the West as Hirohito) became Emperor in 1926, and when he was officially enthroned in Kyoto in 1928, the Daishichi sake was the one that was served in this ceremonial event.
It is a middle-size sake Japanese brewery and it is considered as making sakes of very good quality. From the outside, its facilities are very modern as they have been rebuilt when the nearby street was enlarged, but this brewery combines very modern techniques and machinery with traditional methods. Mr Ohta, the president of Daishichi, received us in person at the beginning of our visit and explained how he felt the duty to maintain unique traditions as well as innovate. He told us how he was impressed when he visited the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy : He was amazed to see how simple and traditional the facility and the tools were at Romanée Conti. This was a shock and it strengthened his willingness to keep alive the traditional ways at Daishichi.
Our friend Terumi from Tokyo, Mrs Kamata, B. and myself were then guided through the brewery by a guide. we walked past this cute ombrella corner at the entrance of the brewery [pic at the bottom] and walked into the bottling room and the warehouse where bottles and cases wait for the deliveries. The bottling line is a huge state-of-the-art German-made machine (Krones Mecafill) which can bottle 3000 to 4000 bottles an hour. This bottling machine works under an oxygen-free atmosphere and sake is goes into the bottles without having any contact with air or oxygen (Pdf file about the technique).
We walk then upstairs where we see workers busy delumping rice that has just been shovelled out of the steamer. The work looks very similar to what we saw before in the small artisanal brewery : several people moving the rice, putting it into bags and bringing them to a crusher or delumper. The rice must offer the largest surface to the fermenting agents. They tested a new system to steam the rice while it is transported on conveyor belts. The trial lasted a year and they were not convinced of the results. They change the settings and tried another year, but ultimately stopped because they never found real progress compared with the traditional way.
The following operation consists to bring this steamed-rice in the vatroom, where a worker pours it into an already-fermenting vat. See the picture at the top : you can see the large wooden trays (background and left) used to carry the bags of steamed rice. There is still a bag on the left waiting to be dumped into the vat.
Daishichi is known for having maintained a unique type of mold culture technique, known as Kimoto Zukuri, a time-consuming method which uses natural yeasts to produce the lactic necessary for the sake fermentation. This technique which invented in the early 1700's needs a lot of manual work, so most of the sake breweries don't use it anymore. The traditional Kimoto is a non-additives method and Daishichi decided to also use this method with organicly-grown rice : the result is the Organic Kimito Sake.
That's for the traditional methods. On the innovation front, Daishichi engineers modified the milling machines to allow a super-flat rice milling (Chohenpei Seimai in Japanese) that has brought much better results in term of remaining starch and fermentation capacity. You may have noticed that usually, the more the rice is milled, the more round it becomes : the machine would rip off excessively material from the extremities of the oblong rice grains and not enough from the narrow sides, for a result in terms of protein elimination which is not optimal. With this new super-flat polishing technique, proteins are polished off evenly all around the rice grain, the rice keeping its oblong shape and the elimination of proteins being more effective. This technique, which needs three more time for the same quantity of rice, but makes much better sake, has put Daishichi under the spotlight several years ago and as you can read on this Daishichi page from esake.com, its chief miller was named as Master Craftsman in the Fukushima Prefecture, which was a first : usually, only the Toji gets this sort of title...
One of the rooms in the facility is off limits for visitors, this is the warm, high-humidity room where workers prepare manually the Kimoto on tables, stirring steamed rice and mixing it with natural yeasts. A washbasin near the closed door has special soap plus a disifectant to make sure that workers don't bring inadvertendly some unwanted bacterias in. Another interesting thing to note is that all the indoor walls in the brewery have been painted with a type of wall plastering which regulates naturally the humidity. Sato San, the Toji (the chief sake-brewer), is busy in the starter-yeasts room nearby when we pass by. He overlooks a staff of about 15 sake-brewing workers, the whole workforce at Daishichi being 60 people.
That's in this room that takes place a central stage of the sake making : A small volume of steamed rice is isolated in this room and sprinkled with the Koji mold so that the micro-organism can develop and multiply. Before being sprayed over the rice, the koji looks like a dark, thin powder, a bit like pepper. The room is quite warm and with a high humidity to make it a perfect culture ground. Entry in this room is strictly restricted because the koji mold is sensitive and must not be disturbed.
We visit two vatrooms including the one on the top where this worker stirs the rice-mix after adding some more. This is a Daiginjo vat. The worker says that it has to be done over the course of 48 hours, several people working on the job alternatively. There are 36 vats in this large room. Walking between them, I am amazed by these traditional tools that come side by side with the technology, like the various shapes of bamboo- or wooden pigeage-tools that they use to move the rice, or also this analysis set that I spotted there : a long bamboo stick with a cup at the end to take the juice sample, delicately placed on the top of 8 neatly-set filters, with the 8 corresponding bottles underneath to get the filtered liquid before tasting- or analysing it [picture on left]... This is definitely Japan, with something that makes me think to the water basin near shrines where visitors do their purification, or also to the coded ritual of a tea ceremony.
As we walk out of the brewery, we pass the press : this is a modern press which look like an accordion and is more efficient than the old fune system. This big press can press more rice in a row and also emptying of the press is easier than with the traditional funes. You can see another such press in the background behind this one.
At the end of our visit, we have the chance to taste several of Daishichi sakes (from left to right):
__The first one : nose quite concentrated. Some sucrosity felt on the nose too. The mouthfeel is in line.
__Second Sake. This one has been left to rest for a year (in the bottle). Served in a narrower glass. Color : More yellow. The nose is less fresh. Very very nice viscosity in the mouth. B. feels the same.
__Third sake. A Daiginjo with a 50% polishing of the rice. Complex nose, if I can dare. Refined. Drier in the mouth. Terumi says that it should pair well with cheese.
__fourth sake. The extra quality, filtered with the ancient method. 2 years elevage in bottles. Apple notes on the nose. Nice complexity. Feels higher in alcohol. B. notes its length in the mouth.
__fifth sake. The nose : kirsch cherries (morello cherries). Plum too. They left some Ume fruits (an indigenous Japanese variety between plum and apricot) in the sake for 2 months. This fruit is unique and can't be eaten, raw or cooked. The mouth is very plum-like, with a marqued acidity which brings lots of freshness.
Here is a link to a page from Timothy's Urban Sake, where he says he's just tasted what he considers the best sake of the world... a Daishichi...