What’s Old Is New Again: Japanese Sake

Japan’s ancient world of sake is a new discovery for international drinkers. Understand a nation’s history, landscape, culture, traditions and cuisine in an iconic tipple.

Words by Editor, Hannah Sparks

It’s seven in the morning and I can only feel about two of my toes. I’ve been standing here for the last 15 minutes watching two young men stare up at a large, metal, industrial humming machine (sadly, there’s not much sexy about it). We’re all waiting for something, partially for the hangover from last night’s sake indulgence to dissipate… A worker shouts out. I flick on my camera. The machine grows louder, but alas, still nothing. I’m beginning to realise that everything moves very s-l-o-w-l-y around here. I stifle a yawn and wriggle my toes one last time even though I know I’ve lost the battle. I have no idea how much longer this will take. Yet, despite all this, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

I’m located on Japan’s southern island of Shikoku, on the coastal, mountainous, somewhat rural prefecture of Kochi. I was warned about this place before I arrived – something about the locals being big drinkers. Beer and sake are consumed like water here, is what I recall hearing. And after last night’s activities, I would second that.

There are a few tourist attractions in the prefecture; several popular onsens (hot springs), nice rivers, castles, markets and it’s here that the famous Japanese Tosa washi paper is made. But what it’s really known for is sake.

I’m sure it’s not top of most people’s lists to watch rice being steamed at 7am. Heck, it wouldn’t even be top of mine normally. But after all, I’m here to learn about sake. And rice is the mother of sake.

Brewers at the Tsukasabotan Brewing Co. wait for newly steemed rice

So that’s where I am, inside Tsukasabotan Brewing Co.’s facilities, waiting for the first batch of freshly steamed rice to be processed. Once it’s been processed, it will be carried by the brewery workers to the koji room – everyone’s favourite place to be in winter. For the koji to grow (a mould that converts the starch in the rice to sugar, used later for fermentation), it needs warm temperatures and high humidity. That’s quite the contrast to the temperature inside the brewery right now, which matches the minus degrees outside. Let’s just stay in there all day, shall we?

Sake has always been made in winter. As per tradition (which there are many of in Japan and sake production), the season is marked with the hanging of a ball of green cedar leaves in front of each brewery – usually in late October. By the time the leaves have turned brown (towards the end of March), the season has ended, and locals know this as a sign that the first press of sake is ready to drink. It may seem odd to pick the coldest season, but there is a rationale behind the decision, with a cooler climate helping the brewery workers or kurapitos to have better control over fermentation and natural airborne yeasts.

Yeast is a bit of a buzz word in sake. While it wouldn’t be a hot topic of interest for most of us, it makes sense why it does to brewers, particularly when you know that this little ingredient plays the biggest part in the aroma and flavour of sake. I was told before going on this trip that if I asked a sake brewer which yeast they used they’d be impressed. Boy, was that person right.

With hundreds of strains to choose from, brewers will be proud to tell you about their yeast. Where I am, in Kochi, there is a scientist – dubbed the “mad scientist” by local sake makers (it turns out he was rather mad, but that’s not for publication) – dedicated to studying all the different types of yeast and their influence on sake.

There has become somewhat of an ‘allegiance to yeast’ (at least, this is what I’m calling it) that has come about in recent years, splitting those who prefer the ‘classics’ to those who prefer the ‘modern’ strains. Classic yeasts tend to give sake aromas and flavours of melon, banana and grapefruit, while modern yeasts tend to give tropical fruit and liquorice. Before I lose you on the matter of yeast (because believe me, I also found myself falling into a black abyss at times) this is important, because it represents sake brewer’s acknowledgement of changing tastes. Particularly Westerners, who I’ve noticed (and agree with) prefer sake made with modern yeast. The classics tend to be a lot richer and overpowering.

So what else happens inside of a sake brewery? Almost every day begins with a group prayer to a shrine inside the brewery. Buddhism and Shinto religions are still very strong in Japan and there is a god for almost everything – including sake. Google ‘Berobero No Kamisama’. He likes sake. So typically, his shrine consists of a few bottles and other trinkets.

Almost every day follows the same repetitive processes too, with not only quality control an important thing here, but maintaining traditions held by past generations too. Tsukasabotan’s toji or master brewer, Mr Toru Asano, told me that it’s easy to make good sake, but difficult to make great sake, meaning that by repeating the same steps followed for hundreds of years will ensure the year’s production won’t go wrong. But to make great sake is a secret only held by some (although, anyone at Tsukasabotan Brewing would tell you that. Its name translates to top king or thereabouts).

To check this, however, I asked several other tojis, and it turns out there’s some truth behind the statement. The role of a toji (those who hold the knowledge to create great sake) is highly respected and only the most skilled will be appointed, which means the average age is around 50. Mr Asano may not look it, but he is 65. The youngest I met on my travels, in Kochi’s neighbouring prefecture of Ehime at the Sakura Uzumaki Shuko Co. brewery a few days before, was 32. But that’s a real rarity and even caught the interest of a local reporter following us.

The toji leads the kurapitos in day-to-day activities. This often involves starting at 5 am, washing the rice, steaming the rice and separating the steamed rice. Then kneading the rice to spread the koji mould evenly, before stirring and plunging the tanks containing rice, koji, yeast and water during fermentation. And finally, pressing this mixture through fabric bags to filter the sake. You may be thinking right now that all this doesn’t sound so bad; that you might just take up the life of a kurapito and move to Japan. But what if I told you that everything is done by hand? That’s right. Everything. Unless you’re like Tsukasabotan and recognise the  benefits of introducing more machinery to improve consistency in production and well, an easier life.

Steemed rice is transferred in the early hours of the morning at Suigei Brewing Co.

As a side, such physical tasks largely explain the small presence of women in sake breweries today, however, I am reassured this is changing. But still, slowly as most breweries still believe in the old way of doing things. But if breweries are to capture the changing tide of trends, which includes foreigners’ embrace of the beverage, they too will have to change their thinking.

A brewery worker at the Sakura Uzumaki Shuko Co. brewery washes bags used to filter sake

It would seem that Japan has been making sake for about as long as it’s been growing rice. Or, for at least as long as anyone can remember. It’s made in breweries (you’ve probably picked up on that already; not distilleries or wineries as many think) right across the country. The only exception has been, until recently, the island of Okinawa believed to be too hot for sake production. Although, since returning to Australia, I’ve been told that a distillery there is now also giving it a go. In saying all this, the number of breweries today is not what it once was.

So often, the best explanations are paralleled to stories already known, and sake in Japan is like fortified wine in Australia. It has, for want of better words, become somewhat a drink of yesteryear. At least locally.

Figures show consumption of the rice-based beverage has been in decline in Japan since 1973. It may come as a surprise to those that have enjoyed a recent trip to Japan and are now equally enjoying discovering sake back at home, but as is the way with many traditions in countries, some stay, while others go. And sake, as a tradition, has mostly stayed with only those who remember it in its heyday.

Poor rice production after World War II meant that a lot of low-quality sakes hit the market, while the arrival of other beverages such as beer, wine and spirits on a wider scale caught the appeal of younger generations. The snowball effect has been that over the years, many sake breweries have had to shut up shop. Sadly, there are now just shy of half of the 3,100 that existed in its peak.

Most are small, family-owned and run breweries, harnessing their craft and focusing on creating premium quality products. Tsukasabotan is the country’s 14th oldest sake brewery, at 415-years old, and has experienced the beverage’s decline first-hand. As a benchmark, the brewery was making roughly 20,000 koku (the official measurement used for sake) at its peak and is producing just 4,000 koku now. On the up-side, that’s considered quite high for sake breweries today. Its focus over the years, as a consequence of the decline, has moved away from lower futsu-shu (every day) grade sake to premium. This is also the case at Sakura – the brewery in Ehime where the toji is just 32. And at the Ishizuchi Shuzo Corporation, also in Ehime, where premium sake accounts for almost 87% of production. This is mirrored again at Suigei Brewing Co., back in Kochi, with a 97% focus premium. The list goes on… Not only is premium sake helping to change people’s perceptions of the beverage, but it also affords breweries a better price.

To create a premium grade of sake requires more labour and more of the processes to be done by hand. I hadn’t really anticipated just how labour-intensive or how much of a craft sake making is until I stepped into a brewery. In fact, I now firmly believe that if any beverage is worthy of the title craft, it is sake. Take just the milling of the rice as an example – the first stage of sake production (also referred to as polishing) that takes off the outer layer of the grain using a large, fast-rotating, doughnut-shaped stone to get closer to the holy grail – the starch centre. A premium sake is made from rice that has been milled by 50%. To put that into perspective, it takes 80 hours to mill just half a grain of rice. The one thing that this does mean is that sake is usually fairly priced.

Another positive transition is that intrepid travellers’ discovery of Japan and its iconic tipple is seeing a resurgence in sake around the world. It is perhaps not where the Japanese would like it to be, but it is a resurgence nonetheless.

A busy street in Tokyo

This is particularly the case in Australia – I mean, my God, we’re practically obsessed. First drawn in by Japan’s top ski and snowboard resorts, on arrival we discover a country that surpasses expectations. It’s no wonder we want more; not even Disneyland has geishas and robotic toilets in the same attraction. And as most feel about any enjoyable holiday, we’re determined not to let the experience end there, with our embrace of Japan’s iconic tipple growing tenfold back home. And there’s no sign of that slowing down.

As someone that has fallen in love with Japan and sake through this journey, I can see why many others would too. A pleasing thought. A sign of hope for an industry that has weathered many seasons in recent years. And perhaps, as the world of sake opens up, our experience and tastes could change its future in more ways than originally thought. Click here for my sake recommendations or click here to learn about sake styles from our own Sake Samurai.

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