There are several distinct sake regions in Japan, and Kyoto is one of them. Most of the wineries of the area are located in the Fushimi sector, and actually Fushimi is said to produce some of the best sake of Japan thanks to a long tradition and excellent water quality. On the small surface of 2 square kilometers around here, there are 25 sake breweries (there were 41 breweries 40 years ago), and this southern district of Kyoto has made the whole region shine in the eyes of sake lovers. The Saito Shuzo brewery sits in this small town of Fushimi, on the outskirts of Kyoto, and it is now part of the wider Kyoto area. Fushimi has been in the past on a strategic road where all sort of goods would pass through, including rice. The area had also a very fine-quality spring water named Fusui and that was enough, along with an important population living nearby to motivate the setting up of sake breweries.
Like other quality sake breweries, Saito Shuzo closes down during summer and the larger hot season, so all the work is done mostly in winter and early spring. Thanks to our friend Ayumi from Kyoto, we could visit the Saito Shuzo brewery, and the three of us walked from the Fushimi train station to the brewery (pictured on right).
We were offered to wait in a comfortable guest room, and after a while a discreet man came with three cups of tea and he left us for a couple of minutes. When he returned accompanied by another man to begin the interview, we discovered that this man was no less than the president of the brewery and the family heir of this old brewery. This is Japan, where humility and etiquette go on pair with excellence...
During several minutes, Saito-san explained to us how the brewery was founded, giving key dates and turning points in the long history of Saito Shuzo.
Picture on left : Mr Toru Saito, president, sitting on the right, with Mr Fujimoto (general director) at his side.
A sake-type variety of rice is made slightly differently from a regular table rice (to use a term akin to table grape) : the fat and the proteins are on the outside part while the starch is located in the core of the grain, that's why the grain looks opalescent with a distinctly-white nucleus, or shinpaku (picture on right). This shinpaku has tiny cavities that take water in quite easily, which is good for the steaming and the fermentation. The intake of water is actually more arduous on "regular" rice, but for costs reasons, most sakes of the cheaper price range are made with common rice, leaving the exclusive varieties for high-end sake. To make it short, this Iwai rice costs twice the price of a basis-variety rice. On the picture on right (click to enlarge), you can guess the shinpaku nucleus (shinpaku means white heart, by the way). The purchase of Iwai rice is reserved for sakemaking, you can't buy some for kitchen use.
The outer shell of the rice is polished out also because excessive amounts of proteins would imbalance the fermentation of sake and result in less refined aromas, from what I understand. The polishing ratio can go down to 35 % of the original grain volume, the best sakes being made with the thinest-milled grains of course, and the best varieties, which also explains the price. If you keep ony 35 % of the grain (and from a costly variety), that means that you need to buy much more rice for the same volume of sake.
You can learn more by reading this page where you'll find pictures of grains with varying polishing ratio..
This short History sum-up is necessary because when you reach the facility in this urban landscape typical of large Japanese cities, you can't imagine that behind this square, modern building, a long tradition has been slowly brewing through more than a century.
We begin our facility visit by the rice-washing part of the brewery : as you know, rice has to be washed and immersed in water a certain time before the steaming and the fermentation, so that it gets soaked at the right proportion. On the picture above, Mr Fujimoto shows us the washing room. The water quality is central and at Saito Shuzo, they pump water from two wells, one 10 meter deep and the other one 70 meter deep. The water of the region is a soft type of water, with a low level of minerals.
These tanks above are washing tanks where the rice is washed per batches of 10 kilograms. The washing is now made with a machine at Saito shuzo, having replace the labor-intensive traditional washing that you can still find in small breweries throughout Japan. You can see several pictures about this hand washing work that I shot during our visit 4 years ago at the Himonoya sake brewery, in Nihonmatsu, Kukushima Prefecture. This hand washing of the bags is very impressive, almost ritual like, it is timed very precisely like a music partition, all the workers dumping the rice bags at the same time in the water and taking them out together a couple of minutes later, that's a real choregraphy we were happy to witness then. Today's machines at Saito Shuzo reproduce this traditional water washing and soaking with a scientific precision.
Sake making, while having many things in common with winemaking, is not immediately apprehended by a beginner like me, and so I recommend reading a summary about the process, for example the sake-brewing-process page that John Gauntner wrote on his Sake-world website.
Of course, already at this stage, the quality of water plays a role, even if there will be much more of it added at the filling of the fermenters. Note the immaculate hygiene in this brewery, this place is spotless in spite of all these intermingled tools, containers and conveyor belts.
This stacking of crates may look easy to understand but there's a very subtle play with temperature in this stage : they check regularly the temperature of the rice in the different crates and they can put the different crates of a stack at a varrying angle so that air comes in and the temperature drops a bit. A sheet also covers the whole stack to maintain the humidity level. There's also a very hot temperature in there when koji is being made, about 35 ° C. This room looks like a sauna room or a Russian banya, but that's almost what it is, just a bit cooler so that the mold can handle it.
The wood panels around and above this room, beyond the temperature inertia they may bring, could also have a role in providing a yeast cloud to help the koji process from batch to batch, that's something that would be interesting to ask.
On the picture on left, you can see the high security double-door airlock leading to the first koji room, with the devoted work-shoes in-between and the small sink & disinfectant sprayer on the left. Koji making is a serious business, and the sensitive mold is well taken care of...
Even though the base yeast is provided by the Sake Makers Association, they make their own culture broth in laboratory glassware before using the liquid in these larger tanks.
Sake making looks very different from brewery to brewery, and you can have a look on the different sake-making stages in a small brewery by visiting this very informative web page in English with many pictures (they're small but click-on to have a large version). It's made by someone who manages a sake shop in Sapporo (the blog is alas on hiatus since july 2010). And for the previous stages of rice polishing, rice washing, rice steaming and koji making, see this other page, this is really a unique first hand report.
Two of the vats in there hold the iconic Eikun Daiginjo Iwai sake, which has been winning the top prize for 14 consecutive years at the Japan National New Sake Awards. Now, coming in may, the 100th edition of these Sake Awards will take place, and they will see if they get gold for this sake for the 15th year in a row, the suspense is thrilling because no other brewery until now ever got a sake prized there for 15 years in line... The tasting is blind, so there's no trick for such or such brewery to safeguard its position. For the anecdote, this Eikun sake was made from the Yamada Nishiki rice variety for the 10 first years it got a gold medal, after which they took the risky step to make it with the Iwai variety, and they kept winning gold for the 4 following years until now...
Read this sake-world page about the 2011 edition of the Awards, which was eagerly followed by sake amateurs as it took place a full year after the earthquaque/tsunami and the nuclear accident.
You can see on the left the lined funnels and their respective bottles to take the samples of the differents vats for lab analysis. Watch this short video shot is a small brewery to see how the samples are taken from a given vat (from several parts of the vat). There's lots in common with wine in many regards, which helps understand things without needing further explanations.
You can see here the diverse volumes being brewed, there's room for small high-end cuvées and also for more generic sakes, the latter being probably made from more a more affordable variety like Yamada Nishiki while the smaller vats may use the rare Iwai rice.
The fermented rice or moroni is split between these many hanging sheets which are pressed together by this powerful machine. After the complete removal of liquids, the almost dry mash is being recovered almost intact in flat rectangles named kasu which will find their way in the food chain, as either after a short cooking it is an appreciated ingredient of the Japanese cuisine, or it can be grilled and eaten as snack. See on this short video how the pressed moromi or kasu is being taken out carefully to get an additional drying and packaging before being shipped to specialized shops. See the other videos shot by this user, they are very interesting, including this one showing how free-run juice is recovered from hanging bags full of moromi.
Fujimoto-san shows us such moroni pancakes ready for shipping (pic on right).
Fujimoto-san says that much of the sake of a given vintage is already sold in december, I guess that there is also a lot of advance purchase by the wholesale buyers and the shops. Sake making begins in october and continues during the winter until april, in spring, making roughly 6 months of production.
The room pictured on the left is a very cold, air-conditioned room with 8 mysterious-looking demijohns. From what I understood, sake is left there to sediment its lees and is afterwards filled into bottles which are kept in ice-cold buckets of water (covered with white sheets here). This is competition sake where the filtration mode is different and the least violent as possible, the lees and solid parts just deposit through time and cold temperature. After 5 days here, the bottles will be pasteurized and cooled immediately. What you see here is the best of the best sake made in this brewery, this sake will take part to the Japan National Awards.
__ Koto Sen Nen (Junmai). From last year, 60 % polished. Nice mouth feel. We're said it can be drank at a warm temperature.
__ Koto Sen Nen, but Junmai Ginjo, polished at 55 % (milled more thoroughly). Onctuous sake, delicious, with a nice length. A few more micro-milimeters of milling certainly make a difference. Can be had warm too. But it's so good this way, I really don't see the point to heat sake, in general.
__ Another Junmai Ginjo. Here the mouth feel is straight, almost mineral, very classy sake. Light bitterness too, says Fujimoto-san.
__ Eikun Junmai Daiginjo, polished down to 35 % of the original grain. Iwai rice variety. the top sake here. Very refined and aerial type of sake.
__ Same sake than #4 (no name), but from this vintage. Very aromatic sake with hints of menthol, laurel leaves, and fruits like apple and pear. Very nice.
__ Eikun, the top sake, just brewed very shortly ago. Very intense mouth, with the aromas and sapidity echoing through the palate. Very enjoyable drink.