Sake brewing, even for a Western wine amateur with a taste for learning the hows & whys of vinification, is mostly unchartered territory : blame the distance of Japan from our Western shores, the apparent remoteness of its breweries even from Tokyo, or the language and cultural barrier, this all makes sake making something that we may have heard about but rarely have the chance to witness firsthand. Thanks to the help of friends in Japan we had this rare opportunity to get a close look at this mysterious and ancient Japanese tradition. I'll not pretend that I understand now fully the whole of the sake-making process but the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together, making a clearer picture appear.
This story takes place in the small town of Nihonmatsu, North of Tokyo. We reached the place the previous day after taking a train from Ikebukuro to Omiya, then a Shikansen to Koriyama and lastly a local train to Nihonmatsu. The sake gods were with us and the snow began to fall exactly a few hours before we arrived in this mountainous region [pic on left].
This brewery still works on a very traditional and artisanal manner, and it also keeps making its sake in the winter season only, like it used to be the rule for centuries in Japan. Let's remind that during the other seasons it was not possible in these non-airconditionned times to brew and keep sake safely. The sake of the Himonoya brewery is sold locally only and it is probably a typical example of the authentic artisanal sakes which stay under the radar for the world- or even the Tokyo consumer, and that you can only discover when you wander in the villages and small towns of Japan
A sake brewery looks a lot like a winery, there are vats, water pipes and presses, a bottling line (artisanal or automated), but the whole process is very different. Just think : instead of grapes, rice is the ingredient, and if that was not enough, it is patiently milled until it looses 30% to 70% of its original volume so that the fermentation can work easier inside the kernel. Then, while the grape already hold the water that the vines sipped through the roots from the subsoil, for the sake, water has to be added from scratch and its quality must be well appreciated because it will make 80% of the final product...To learn more, check this esake.com page, or also John Gauntner's excellent sake-world.com. We wanted to meet john Gauntner near Tokyo but couldn't alas find the time to visit him. We arrive as workers are emptying a vat full of steamed rice on a treadmill with a shovel [pic above], then loading it into sacks and bringing it to the vat room where they unload it into a vat for the fermentation [pic on top]. I show you different operations as they were showed to us, but the order is different.
this man plays a very important role for the making of the future sake : he is the rice-mill Toji, he is the one who overlooks the correct milling of the rice so that the right proportion of the outer shell of the rice is peeled out. This will allow a sperior type of fermentation and a premium sake. He must be I guess an expert on rice and on the biological aspects of this process. The mill looks like a very modest workshop where there's lots of dust, and it is hard to think that the great sakes are born during this very operation, right here in the dust and the noise...
This story is not finished and more things must be said, particularly on water and rice.
Thank you to Terumi, Haruko, Akiyo and to the lady in Nihonmatsu who coordinated this visit and later ones, and of course to B. whose fluent Japanese helped a lot.
We bought two bottles in this sake brewery and will give tasting notes soon.