The Shinkame sake brewery looks like any other family sake brewery in Japan, but it stands apart because it is the one that started the revival of authentic sake making several decades ago. From a Western perspective we often look at sake without distinguishing the deep differences in the sake-making types, considering that apart from various degrees in the polishing or milling of the rice kernel, sake is anyway always made of fermented rice, mold/yeast and water. But in the recent history a few decades ago, sake ceased to be junmai (just water and rice) as breweries discovered shortcuts using additions. This phenomenon reached a point where not long ago back in the 1960s' there was actually not a single sake brewery making any pure sake.
We often take for granted that sake (called nihonshu in Japan) is made with just rice, water and yeasts/molds, with a long fermentation process taking place and yielding the famous Japanese beverage. But during World War II, because of an acute shortage of rice, the sake-making process was changed so that it could use much less rice, the trick was to add alcohol and other additions like sweeteners ans flavoring substances to, say, a base of one third of real sake. This way the struggling Japanese could sustain the war effort and keep having their booze, which even if somehow less rewarding in terms of taste and drinkability was welcome in those dire years of destruction. France also had its Ersatz products in those years (this German word which remains in use in France means replacement product) like for coffee for example, but the real products came back immediately after the end of the war even if chicorée and rutabaga survived as a niche market. But in japan, the altered sake remained the norm until much later.
Speaking of the sake found today on the market, you can know which type you're having by reading a sake label, here is a sake classification page to get it straight.
There are of course broad differences between winemaking and sakemaking but many of you will probably see parallels here with the the revival wine has been going through in France and elsewhere after years of correction in the name of efficiency and profatibility. Yoshimasa Ogawahara says that he understood when he was young in the 1970s' that people were beginning to be tired of drinking sake, and the problem was the sake itself. I notice that in a similar issue involving health and consumption fall, there is even a possibility that people who develop chronic intestinal intolerance to bread and wheat products in Europe and elsewhere these days do it because bread had changed over the recent decades from a real product to a highly-process product made from industrially-altered wheat (read this insightful article at mid-scroll). The problem with these seemingly-attractive business schemes is that reality often swings back with a revenge, resulting in dwindling sales and double thoughts about the whole thing.
Whatever, regarding our subject today, the fact is that in the mid 1960s' and 1970s', sake (nihonshu) was beginning to loose its aura with Japanese consumers loosing their appetite and pleasure for drinking it. Sake was fading away and something had to be done by someone. Mr Yoshimasa Ogawahara foresaw this and moved to change that.
I reached the Shinkame brewery from Tokyo using a train taking only maybe 40 minutes from the Ikebukuro station to the small town of Hasuda in the Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo.
Mrs Yuko Kuwahara whom I had met by chance a few days earlier in Paris was there to greet me and drive me to the brewery. Yuko-san had been for a few days in France to help promote pure sake and she had organized a private sake tasting dinner centered around the wines of the Shinkame brewery. My Japanese trip was already planned and I thought, why not visit this brewery and learn more ?
The brewery is built in the middle of a lot with dry weeds, a few fruit trees (I always marvel at discovering fruits in winter on leafless trees in Japan) and all sort of disused machinery or tools, like often for these old family businesses who have built their activity over many years and don't capitalize on appearances. A cat shyly hid under a tarpaulin (pic on left) when I pointed my camera in its direction, this gaijin was not a familiar figure on the premises.
Although the weather was still cold at least there was sunshine and while waiting that the owner Mr Yoshimasa Ogawahara took care of an urgent office issue, we watched as a local sakaya (sake shop) took delivery of his order on his cute and so-Japanese pickup truck. In a very-Japanese way, Mrs Kumiko Yushida, the young sales & shipment manager helped herself with the hard work of loading the boxes in the back of the vehicule.
The first thing we saw was the soaking of the rice, where rice is put in water for a precise time depending of the water temperature so that it softens it and get inside the kernel, in order to facilitate later the fermentation process. Washing and soaking comes right after the milling process, as you can check it on this page listing the sakemaking stages. What you can see here is a brewery worker filling a wheeled vat with rice and water, the water will be renewed (a couple of times if I remember) then the vat will be filled with water for a few minutes.
Like for whisky, water is a key ingredient and the best breweries sit in regions where water has certain qualities, having a particular type of minerality that will find its way into the sake. When the rice gets soaked in water, we're having an important stage as the water within the rice kernell will later help the whole thing ferment and develop a particular character as a result of the combination of the rice quality or variety, the milling, the water quality and the mold quality. It looks like what you do in your kitchen when you wash the rice before cooking it but it is certainly of a more significant importance here.
When the right time was reached, which it seems to me was determined by both the watch of the few floating kernels and the intuition derived from the experience, the valve at the botom of the vat was opened to let the water go. The rice would then wait several hours until the steaming stage that would take place the following morning.
Everything is precisely timed in a brewery, it is always impressive to see several workers working silently and efficiently. The different stages of sake making take place at different times of the day, so that depending of the time you show up you at the brewery you may see only this or that stage. The steaming is usually made early in the morning and this is one of the most interesting visually, especially when they take all the rice out in bags.
all the while (pic on the side) we could see workers haul bags of rice, presumably to prepare for another batch of washing and soaking.
But let's have a closer look how Mr Yoshimasa Ogawahara made Shinkame become the first sake brewery to produce again 100 % of pure sake, or junmai sake, made only from rice, water and mold :
First, Shinkame is an old family brewery, it is about 170 years old and has thus deep roots. When Yoshimasa Ogawahara was in his student years the sake context was quite different from what we know today, sake was mirred in production norms that prevented the production of quality sake. We saw that during WW2 sake was systematicly blended with alcohol, sweeteners and other additives, but the odd thing is that these alterated sakes which were named Aru-ten shu remained the norm largely after the war-era hardships faded away and while Japan was booming into prosperity. What is very surprising indeed is that after the war ended and as restrictions for the rice supplies were lifted, the corrected sake remained the norm because it had become a national policy and because the authorities didn't want the breweries to come back to the making of pure sake, the reason being apparently that the tax returns were more profitable this way for the state. We could call that the untold story of sake-making : An edict from the Ministry of Finance even obliged until 1972 the Japanese breweries to each produce 35 % of 3-Zu-Shu sake, which is sake made of 2/3 of additives including alcohol.
Pictured below left is the bottling line which comes from Italy, made by Cavagnino & Gatti.
Understanding in his early years (in the 1960s') that sake needed a rejuvenation in its making process to be saved from boredom and consumer's weariness, the young Yoshimasa Ogawahara asked to the authorities in 1967 to be allowed to make a single batch of real sake, which was refused by the tax office. He reiterated his demand and finally won the right for this one-time try, the tax people probably thinking that there would not be further experiments of this sort, and he could work on making a 3000-liter batch of pure sake. the quality was of course so much better than sake laced with alcohol and sweeteners, but never mind, if he could hope from then to ultimately repeat this pure-sake production year after year, it was an uphill battle when he wanted to get the authorization to make a larger volume of it, because the tax authorities made more profit with industrial sake and wanted this experiment to remain marginal.
Another thing is that in those years mainstream sake was made quite sweet, possibly because of the use of generalized use of sweetening additives, and his first batch of sake was super dry, another challenging difference compared with the conventional sake of that time.
Who had this first sake ? the University teachers, friends and relatives, and for the anecdote it's about 7 years after this first junmai-shu was brewed that his teachers showed appreciation of his efforts for junmai-shu sake. And it's only after 4 years that he could sell this junmai-shu sake because it was very dry and the customers hadn't developped a taste for it yet, having been accustomed for many years to sake laced with sweetening additives. Again, this makes me think to these naturally-acidic wines which are so difficult to appreciate for certain wine amateurs (and critics...) who have been formatted on conventional wines.
Yoshimasa Ogawahara says that he was harassed and opposed by the tax people for 20 years from this historic shift in 1967, and every step from his part was a hard fight, putting a strain on his health with the permanent stress and threats on his family business.
To make things more difficult he could not afford anymore to make discounts to the liquor stores like it was the use, because pure sake needed more work and was more costly to produce, so the local stores were'nt very enthusiastic to sell his sake, and he had to look for buyers other than local. To make ends meet he had to sell land that was in the family for ages, and had trouble paying the salary of his chief brewer. He was lmost ready to give up but his wife encouraged him to keep standing for his choices at this crucial time. Now, looking back, he is very grateful to those who helped, as well as to his grandmother who died in 2004 and who was a tenacious individual who had resisted pressure for closing the brewery during the war and who sort of protected this place all along.
We then walked upstairs to see the koji rooms. The brewery has been obviously growing along many years and you feel the intricate superposition of structures and buildings/outbuildings typical of these family facilities where remodeling took place all the while keeping the whole thing running, it's very different from a big operation which has been financed with deep pockets, The place looks like it's a bit messy but you feel experience and work behind all the details, and not just stylish real estate like in these wineries popping up out of nowhere.
You can see in the middle of the room on the table the big cloth-bag of steamed rice which will go through its trays stage next. Typically, they open this big bag the following morning and fill the trays evenly, the koji (mold) having already been sprayed on the rice in the big bag after the steaming stage.
Around the room, three workers are busy mixing each tray of rice with koji and making the whole even though a methodic movement which they repeat on each tray.
The small individual trays are meant to make the rice reach the room temperature faster; depending the way they arrange the stacks of trays, they can let air go in and speed or slow the temperature exchange. The koji will help raise the temperature and you can control it naturally this way.
These workers are skilled in their Art, no sake school trained them, they all learnt the trade on the job, but Ogawahara-san says that they just need to love sake and knowledge comes. Speaking of the workers it's interesting to say that this brewery functionates only from october to early april like traditional sake breweries, but the workers are paid a fixed salary year around, which is rare as most breweries just pay the workers during the winter months, if with a higher salary than for a regular worker. There are 9 workers in this brewery for the rice handling and fermentation stage, plus 6 other people for shipment, bottling and so on.
Ogawahara-san encourages us to eat some of this rice, this is very interesting, it's almost a bit sweet and barely crunchy as it has already softened during the koji stage in the hot and humid room. It tastes like chestnut too, very interesting.
This rice has been milled so that 55 % of the kernel remains, it will yield certainly a very good quality of sake. The geometric lines on the rice are meant to help the temperature of the rice go down quickly, it helps also for the aeration of the rice after its previous humid and hot stage.
The rice comes from the Shikoku island in the Tokushima prefecture, other rice is sourced from the Aomori prefecture and the Tottori prefecture and other prefectures. The rice farmers from the Tokushima prefecture sell their rice only to Shinkame and the small group of 21 Japanesebreweries making 100 % of pure sake.
Ogawahara-san said later that he doesn't add enzymes like other [conventional] breweries routinely do, he leaves the wild bacteria do their job without interfering. He says that when you add industrial enzymes from the outside you get an imbalance in the sake, you get something heavier, plus, through letting the process work slowly like it's done naturally with long fermentations, the taste will be much better.
This first stage of fermentation involving sake and water in small-volume vats will take 18 days. Looking inside a vat we see large bubbles coming out slowly and blasting on the surface, very beautiful, looks like the moon surface or some strange white fruit.
Like for the fermenting wine I guess it's not safe to bend your head to low in the vat because there must be lots of CO2 near the surface. I imagine my obituary : wine writer/photographer, died instantly while smelling fermenting sake in the Saitama prefecture, Japan...
This 2nd stage takes place just outside of the sake mother (shu-bo) room, the vat is bigger and more water and rice have been added. Adding water and rice at each stage, the fermentation will expand to very big vats at the end. Ogawahara-san took a way the heavy two-part wooden lid on the top of the stainless vat so that we can see how it looks inside. There aren't any slow bubbles like in the shu-bo room, but the fermentation is still making its way and the bubble will pop up again as koji has also been added with the additional rice and water.
Watch this video on the inside of the vat and the rest of the room.
I later interviewed Mr Yoshimasa Ogawahara as we were having lunch together and my first question was : what made him decide to make pure sake in his brewery in the 1980s' (in 1987 to be precise), and he answered that pure sake is a true product, and that he wanted to brew only sake that he could drink, and this was precisely junmai-shu, pure sake, because it is so much better. It all began really in the 1960s' while he was a young student at the Tokyo Agriculture University in 1967.
Asked if there was really so little pure sake made in these years (in the 1960s') in Japan, he says that at the time there was 0 % of pure sake made in Japan. Very surprising indeed and I think that few people, at least among the occasional drinkers of sake in the West know that. A few years later in the mid 1980s' it grew slowly to 5 % (due to his initiative for the revival of sake), and now it's a bit more : 18 % of the toal production of Japanese sake is pure sake, or junmai-shu, so even today it is still somehow marginal.
Incidently, the first other sake brewery to join the Shinkame brewery in its pursuit of a 100% of junmai-shu was the Moriki Shuzo in the Mie prefecture. They came to Ogawahara-san for help and advice. It was after the most difficult years had passed and the administrative blockade had eased.
At this point I asked again what type of additives the breweries would add when not making junmai-shu, and Ogawahara-san says that they would add alcohol, sweetening products, flavoring agents and different types of acid. One of the common additives used for sake was glutamic acid (still used nowadays), a flavor enhancer which is bad for the liver, and when he learnt about that he decided to never add glutamic acid in his sake.
Yearly production at Shinkame : 140 000 liters
Asked about the pasteurization, Ogawahara-san says that the sake is a long-maturation sake and that there's a 1st pasteurization before the maturation, and a 2nd one after the maturation and before bottling. You can see the whole process of pure-sake making on this pdf page.
I was given two bottles by Ogawahara-san after the visit, and we had one of them in Tokyo the next day. It was just outstanding, so intense and alive in the mouth and the throat. It is strange for me to believe it's been pasteurized and even filtered because coming from the European wine culture I associate these processes with a loss in taste and life, but here everything seemed to remain unscathed, this was a very nice experience. The filtering seems to have been very light because there was some turbidity in my glass.
Edit : I'm told that actually this bottle was Funakuchi sake, or raw sake, that is not pasteurized, and only the first press(funakuchi) at the fune, which yields the most delicate sake compared to the middle press (naka-dori) or end of press (seme). And this sake had only some micro filtration to remove the yeast. This sake you can get virtually only at the brewery and at this season. I remember the last time I had raw unpasteurized sake, it was at Kenbishi (Kobe) and it was also awesome.
The pictures on the sides will help people fluent in Japenese see the cuvée name. After a quick look at the label, B. told me that it was a junmai-shi Sei-shu, but there was be more in these kanji signs.
I look forward to drinking the 2nd bottle, a daiginjo, which we should do some day in Paris with B.
Looking back to this visit, what I find awesome is that while Ogawahara-san was all these years totally unaware of the natural-wine revival in France and Europe, he has been in some way following the same urge for authenticity and, well, simply working for making a fermented beverage that he would himself enjoy truly (the latter being something that I often heard from artisan winemakers in France). And this, much earlier, just think, as early as 1967. Kudos to this pioneer !