We know that water counts a lot in the style and quality of sake, and here in the sake region of Nada near Kobe, the water quality and minerality is very different from the ones found in the rest of Japan. Nada is like Fushimi a highly regarded sake region, and also one of the biggest, but precisely because of the water, the sake amateurs will either be hooked up to the sake of Fushimi or at the opposite to the sake of Kobe, because the sake expression is so different between these two places that you're obliged to prefer one of them.
Kobe is the second port of japan, and it sits very close to the beautiful Rokko mountain range that you can see from the train (picture on left) and from which the water tables feed off. Starting from Kyoto to reach Mikage near Kobe where the brewery is located, you first take a Hikari Shinkansen to Osaka, then change for a slower Hankyu-line train to Okamoto, passing Kobe in the way, and change again for one stop to Mikage, which is located maybe 5 or 7 kilometers east of Kobe. In Kobe, through which we drove on our way back, you don't see any trace of the big Kobe earthquake of 1995, and the huge Hanshin expressway of which whole sections collapsed has been built anew (picture on right).
The Kenbishi sake brewery is active since 1505, making it the 3rd oldest brewery in Japan. The iconic kanji sign of Kenbishi has been in use since the origin of the brewery, here in Kobe. This is in this regard the oldest brand of sake, the two other having changed their name since they were founded. The simple and elegant logo on the bottles displays both the symbols of man (above) and woman (below) in it, to represent the harmony between their forces. The brewery changed hands 90 years ago, and the Shirakashi family took the reins then. Our host for this visit, Mr Masataka Shirakasi is the heir of this family. The brewery has been sitting in this area of Nada since 50 years.
First, after speaking about the origin of the brewery, he says that the rice for the sake comes from the other side of the forested Rokko mountains ovelooking the bay. The rice is from the Yamada Nishiki variety, which is like Iwai rice a top-quality rice with a shinpaku (white inner core) perfectly fit for good fermentation. Like wine grapes, he says, the rice quality depends here also from the soil properties; this variety shows its best in this area, where it originated from. The best category, rated AA, can be found on the other side of these mountains.
The brewery has contracted growers in 23 different villages behind the mountain range to provide the rice supply. There's another rice variety they use, it's called Ayama, it's a variety which Shirakasi-san's grandfather discovered was good for sake making, and it also grows on the other side of the Rokko mountain. These rice types are 1,5 more expensive than regular sake rice, but they offer a better quality in the fermentation features. Kenbishi uses one fifth of all the Yamada Nishiki rice produced in the region, that's also why they need to have contracts with growers to secure their supply chain.
Kenbishi is along with Oseki the only brewery that has a say on the quality control regarding the rice that the growers sells to them. The norm elsewhere is that this control is enforced by the the powerful Japanese Sake Association. I didn't think to ask why this allowance was so rare and why Kenbishi enjoys it.
We were particularly impressed by the artful work behind the Sugimada, this big ball made usually with cedar trimmed-leaves or branches. You will find them at the door of every sake brewery, but this one, with above, the long rope extended across the facility door, was a beauty of its own kind. the color of the bowl changes as it dries, beginning with a fresh green in autumn, it gets lightly brown during the winer, carrying a visual message saying that the new sake has matured and that it's time to drink it. I agree with that...
Like for other top breweries, the water supply is also central for the quality of the sake, as water comes at different stages, first at the washing stage, where the rice is immersed in water and takes in some on the way, then in the steaming phase and lastly in the fermentation vats, where water will be added to steamed rice, moromi and the yeast culture (which also has some water component). Kenbishi relies on no less than 13 wells for its water supply. They make their choice for the water after lab analysis of the water, selecting every year the ones which will offer the desired minerality. Kobe water has always been famous among the seafarers because its water was the best to stock for long journeys as it didn't spoil. Trucks like the one on the left (pictured along of one of the Kenbishi facilities) carry big volumes of water to the 4 facilities so that the sake bears the same characteristics. Sakemaking follows the same rules with the same water, and there is no difference between the productions of the 4 facilities, if there were any, smiles Shirakashi-san, it would be upon the kurabito workers' responsability....
Religious thoughts are not let aside, and a small shrine above on the wall (picture on left) overlooks the main room of the brewery, generating good spirits and vibes.
The brewery may look very recent to you, but Shirakashi-san says that before the earthquake of 1995, all their facilities were wooden buildings. As everything was destroyed or severely damaged, they rebuilt concrete buildings as in the urgency it was faster than using wood. The reconstruction took them 6 months..
On this picture you can see how this steaming system works (from what I understand) : The steam comes from beneath this large opening, onto which a metal base will be fixed, adding lastly the traditional wooden open vat in the bottom of which a hole lets the steam pass through the rice. The mechanized system allows I guess to pump the right type of steam in terms of heat and humidity, while still keeping the benefit from the inertia of the wood for a softer action on the rice.
Sake making is less linear than winemaking from what I understand, you don't find a continuous process from october to april. For example, just to get the enzymes working takes 40 days Shirakashi-san says, then fermentation takes 30 days, right now, our guide says, this is the fermentation season.
You can see also the rice-washing unit in the corner, I think that it's the equipment here on the picture on right.
Two kurabito were busy gently brushing the walls with water when we walked in.
Shirakasi-san says that they use a natural mold that they grow and keep at the brewery like it used to be done in the past. Nowadays, breweries go buy ready-made mold and don't bother with having to keep a live culture from year to year. The sort of raise and multiply the spores so that they always keep a supply line. The interest I guess is also to have really the same type of spores/mold so that you get a continuity between the sakes of different vintage. Maybe also if the mold is kept and multiplies in the brewery from year to year, it can have an easier connection with the ambient atmosphere of the brewery, and work better. Just an idea, not sure it works this way, I mean like natural yeasts in a winery who may be present in the walls and the vatroom.
These wooden trays are for the 2nd day of the koji-making process : the mold has first been sprinkled on the rice spread over the long table. In the hot and humid atmosphere, it has developped quickly on the span of 24 hours, after which the rice is put manually on these trays, the trays being piled high along the walls of the koji room, and the rice will stay another 30 hours there, making a total of about 55 hours in the Koji Muro. By allowing some air to pass between the trays, or by bringing the lower trays to the top, the kurabito staff can modulate the temperature precisely so that the koji cultures gets an almost individual attention, which is not possible when on the long table. At the top of a tray stack, the temperature can be as high as 45 ° C (because the closer you get from the ceiling, the hotter it gets), that's why moving the trays up and down is important. If I'm right, the last tray at the top has a wooden lid. I guess that they can take out the trays one by one when they feel they're ready for the next step, which is cooling and being mixed with yeast, water and steamed rice. Again, I may have missed something but that's the way I understand the process.
Speaking of ventilation, if the Koji room itself is too hot for some reason, they can bring the temperature down by opening manually the small trapdoors in the ceiling (picture on right), which the most traditional way you can think of to cool down this room. They found the design of this room in 150-year old documents, including the trapdoors.
One of the reasons also why only certain workers can go inside this room is that it takes particular physical capabilities to be able to endure 30 ° C and 90 % humidity for a long stretch of time. This high temperature comes only from the rice being transformed by the mold, here they don't use outside temperature control to heat the room like it is common in other breweries. As it can go by itsel to 50 ° C, they can counter-act by opening the trapdoors in the ceiling. 10 kurabito work inside the koji muro when it's active, they need lots of staff to move the trays out.
Note again how neat and clean this place is, not that I see a problem in a messy vat room, but we're in Japan, and in a country where the sidewalks are so clean that you could almost eat off the floor, breweries and vatroms make no exception.
I think that this preparation of the rice to get transformed by the natural yeasts takes place in these stainless-steel tanks on the picture below, if I understood well : these tanks are filled with steamed rice with koji and stirred for a very long time until something happens. The temperature is controlled by either immersing cold steel containers or hot wood boxes. The wheeled scaffolding platform helps the kurabito move from tank to tank and gives them the proper height to handle the wooden sticks.
Watch the fermenting rice in this short video of mine.
Read this extract from John Gauntner's sake-world about the kimoto method :
Beyond the standard method (sokujo moto) and the yamahai-shikomi method discussed last month, there are a few other ways of creating this moto, which is also known as the shubo (written, by the way, with the characters for sake and mother).
One such method is known as kimoto. As mentioned in the previous newsletter, until about 1920, all sake was made by mixing rice, koji, and water to a puree in order to help the yeast cells reproduce faster. This puree-creating mixing was exhausting work, albeit the quintessential sake-brewing image for drawings of old. Then, it was discovered that the hard work of mixing by pole could be skipped, and replaced with more water, time and vigilance in watching the moto closely. This new method came to be known as yamahai shikomi. Soon thereafter, it was discovered that a bit of lactic acid added first made it all even easier. (Please refer to the last two newsletters, archived on the sake-world.com site, for more detail.)
Kimoto, then, is the old method. Indeed, even today, brewers creating sake made using a kimoto yeast starter will stand around a small tub and mix, mix, mix in a rhythmical, robotic action to mash up the rice, koji and yeast to a paste-like consistency. Monotonous and tiring work to be sure, but aren't all traditional methods?
This activity, by the way, helps speed up the natural production of lactic acid in the moto. Lactic acid will then protect the developing moto from stray bacteria that would contribute to strange flavors or even spoil the sake.
Kimoto shubo takes a bit longer than yamahai to create, but ironically, the sake that results from these two methods is similar in flavor profile. Like sake brewed with yamahai moto, sake brewed with a kimoto moto has a higher sweetness and acidity, with richer, deeper, significantly more pronounced flavors. Bitterness in the recesses is not uncommon. As with all sake brewing methods, though, the moto used is only one factor.
You understand by reading this that kimoto is the closest you can get from natural-wine making, producing sake without lab additives and apparently resulting in sakes which are very alive and aromatic... there are very very few sake breweries relying on the ambient yeasts to make their sake, and as you can check on this page about natural yeasts by John Gauntner, that Kenbishi is among them.
The age-old brewery logo on the left is said to represent either the sun with the moon or the harmony brought by the togetherness of male and female energies.
We then walked to another fermentation room where the vats are covered with two-part wooden lids. Underneath, the rice is gently fermenting and a kurabito can grab a stick and stirr the white mass. Our host showed us how to do it. The stirring stick is made in a such way that you can by a swift movement bring the rice of the bottom back to the surface. It allows the temperature to be evenly distributed from top to bottom and avoid disprecencies to build up (see Shirakashi-san doing the job on the picture on top). By separating lightly the two parts of the lid, you can do that without bringing in lots of oxygen, that's a wise lid design. Each of us were given the chance to try our skills at moving this stirring stick, and that's not so easy : the stick tends to try to go up horizontally by its own, maybe because it's made of bamboo with pockets of air inside, and the very important thing is to keep the stick vertical, so that by a swift movement upward you bring the deep part of the liquid rice at the surface. But on the whole, we weren't that bad. Again, i want a trainee position here...
The fermentation cycle lasts 30 days. When it begins, like on the picture above with lid-less vats, there's no foam or activity visible on the rice, then after a few days, things are moving fast, and they put a motorized switcher (twin-blade propeller-like tool) to keep the foam under control.
Depending of the type of sake they make, they may increase the alcohol by 1% or 2% by adding their own shochu alcohol (distilled rice alcohol), following thus a 200-year-old method, this is the main distinction between the junmai sake and the other sake. The law allows up to 50 % of alcohol adding, which makes sake cheaper to produce, but here at Kenbashi they stick to a modest 1% to 2% alcohol enhancement.
This type of old-style work require a lot of kurabito, and as asked about the number of workers at Kenbishi, Shirakashi-san told us there were 100 people working in the 4 breweries altogether.
This tasting allowed us to experience a very different style of sake compared to the ones I had tasted until now, and it highlights the unique particularities of the Nada sake region, which is rooted in the mineral nature of its water, as opposed for example to the neutral style of the water in Kyoto. The other factor behind these tasting features maybe the natural-sakemaking method used at Kenbishi, the kimoto, which seems to be known for yielding more intense sake than the method using lab yeasts.
__ Kenbishi Sake Nouveau. First, we're poured a sake that has just been pressed, a wholly-new, unpasteurized sake, something you can't find in the retail, you have to be here when sake is being made to have the opportunity to drink this. This is just outstanding, intense, with at the same time a beautiful viscosity on the palate, unusual. A bit tickling on the tongue, and a nice length too Aromas of apples maybe. 20 ° in alcohol. Unique sake, beautiful. They should try to bottle some of this for a handful of good restaurant of the area, it would have a terrific success, for sure.
__ Kenbishi basic sake. Made partly with Kobe rice (Ayama & Yamada Nishiki), partly with rice from other regions. Tastes wet stone. Roasted aroma too, says B. About 16 ° in alcohol. Pasteurized twice. Blend with 1 year to 3-year-old sake. 1900 Yen (17 € or 23 USD for 1,8-liter bottle).
__ Kuromatsu sake. 100 % Kobe rice, Ayama and Yamada Nishiki varieties. Intense feel in the mouth, very enjoyable mouthfeel. Also 1 to 3 year blend. Very gourmand, chewy, B. says. 2200 Yen (20 € or 26 USD for 1,8-liter bottle).
__ The green bottle in the middle. Again a sake with a beautiful, intense mouthfeel, and this from the start and on a much longer time. Speaking of the temperature to pour the sake, our host says that he likes the sake to be warmed at 40 ° C, not higher like it's often done in Japan. We're tasting the sake at room temperature here and I prefer it this way, by large. This is a 1-3-year blend, made from the two Kobe rice varieties. To make the final choice for the blend, several people taste many vats at many times, there's a "blend Toji" who does much of the tasting work but at the end, it's the president of the brewery who decides. The choice has to be made among the vats of the 4 Kenbishi breweries, with sake 1 to 3 years old. They make micro-blends in glassware to simulate the possible blends, like we do for wine.
I must say tha there's a nice quality of intoxication (I find the French word ivresse more gentle) in these sake, you really feel well without second thoughts. 3000 Yen (27 € or 36 USD for 1,8-liter bottle)
__ Kenbishi Mitsuho. The small bottle. A junmai made with a blend of 2-year to 7-year old sake. The minerality in the mouth is particularly strking, with a honeyish aroma too. Our host says that it pairs well with chocolate, sheep cheese, blue cheeze and Gordonzola as well as oysters. 1500 Yen (13,7 € or 18 USD for a regular, smaller bottle)
__ Kenbishi Zuisho. 7-year to 15-year-old sake blend. These sake are stored at relatively high temperatures, like 20 ° C, and they still fare well. Aromas on the flowery side, maybe like hawthorn. Very enjoyable mouth, refined and intense at the same time. Gliding feel of the sake on the palate is just outstanding. B., who has a talent for food pairing, says that it would be very beautiful with duck. Comes with a price, 5000 Yen (45 € or 60 USD a 1,8-liter bottle).
From what Shirakashi-san says, I understand that the high minerality found in the water tables of the Nada region helps the koji develop more aromas.
Thank you to Mr Masataka Shirakasi for his time and his welcome.