Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sake Brewery

So many of you may not know that I've joined Jujitsu. There is a man living in Izumo named Yoshi who I think is secretly Brazilian (he thinks so too.) Anyway he speaks really great English and teaches the class for 100 yen a week, and it's fun. I always enjoy the chance to get to beat up other people under the guise of "martial arts" so I'm all in.

What does this have to do with a Sake Brewery, you ask? Well well well. One of the guys practicing jujitsu, Yamada-san, also happens to work at a traditional-style Sake Brewery called 開春 Kaishun. Last week thanks to Yamada-san gave us an exclusive tour of the factory , complete with taste-testing. I'm not gonna lie. It was pretty sweet. Yamada-san is a blue belt which basically means that he could annihilate me with ease. But, he's really a kind and funny guy. He explained the whole process to us in detail, mostly in Japanese but sometimes with startlingly good English. Thanks, Yamada-san!

First things first: you gotta have the rice. There are three kinds of rice in Japan: rice for eating as is, rice for making mochi, and rice for making sake. This can further be subdivided into brown rice, 玄米genmai or white rice 白米 hakumai. Maybe this will reveal how blonde I truly am, but before I came to Japan I thought brown rice was a different kind of rice than white rice, just like green apples and red apples are two different varieties of apple. Wrong. White rice is actually just polished brown rice, aka with the outer hull removed. The hull is what makes brown rice so healthy: all that fibery hull-goodness. The more the rice has been polished, the more it costs and higher quality it is considered. On your left is some mighty fine white sake rice.

What happens next? The sake rice is mixed with water, bacteria, and lactic acid in a big vat. No, that's not rice pudding. That there is the beginning of some delicious sake. The aluminum kettle you see is filled with ice water to keep the mixture cold as it ferments. We got to taste this intersting looking goo. It tasted kind of like super strong yogurt. Very interesting. Below you can see the beaker of lactic acid and also some powdere bacteria. Apparently there are different grades of both these ingredients that are used to make the higher quality sake. Apparently some bacteria are fancier than others. Who knew? I think this is what is called a starter mash.

After the rice is all nice and chalk full of delicious bacteria, the rice is allowed to cure for several days. Here is our rice, curing in a nice warm room. Mmmm. We got to taste this as well. I was skeptical, but went for it. At first it was like chewing on oddly textured rice- not cooked but not soft either. Then came a big yogurty punch. Weird.

After that the rice is brought to these huge barrels and slowly mixed with water to create the sake mash. This is where the magic happens. It's allowed to ferment for about thirteen days at this factory. The high grade sake brew longer at colder temperatures. Interesting fact about these huge vats: Don't stick your head over the openings. Fermenting sake releases carbon monixide, which can instantly make you dizzy and faint. It's seriously like getting in a closed garage with the car turned on. People have died because they faint and then fall in these huge vats to their liquidy death. Morbid? Yes. But darn, what a way to go!

Below are some photos taken carefully from the brim of the vat. On the left is a new mixture, it had only been put in two days ago. In the middle is one that had been brewing for seven days. It used a more traditional brewing process that allowed the mash to ferment a lot more. Yamada-san said they could only fill these vats halfway up with mash or else it would froth over during fermentation. On the left Yamada-san is explaining to Brent, a fellow jujitsu-er, about the process.

Sucess! After brewing, the rice is pressed to let all the delicious sake goodness drain out of the rice. It's hard to see in this picture, but literally little waterfalls of sake are running down this structure. And I got to stick my spoon in and taste it. Ohhh, yeah. Before it's bottled, the last bit of sediment that will float on top of the sake is skimmed off. This is sold as super cheap sake. The rest gets bottled and consumed by millions of Japanese businessmen and fellow sake lovers around the world. We got to sample as well. It was quite delicious. Higher end sake has a kind of fruity flavor, whereas the stuff they skim off the top tastes mostly like rubbing alchohol. I'm making my very serious sake-tasting face, in case you couldn't tell. Masumi-san, the lady in the middle, was going to have to drive in a few hours; so although a shot of sake probably wouldn't hurt, she opted to go by the spoonful method. Brent is very happy to receive free sake.

It was really cool to see how some of the traditional ideas were kept while still moving on to some new technology. I got to learn about an interesting process, see some cool and crazy science, and drink some delicious sake. Nice.


  1. Not a big sake fan myself, but I liked reading your entry and seeing the pictures! :D

  2. Damn, that was a good post. You need your own TV show. I hear the Travel Channel is taking applications. ;) PS - the weather is nice here and I'm bummed that I don't have you as my work out buddy. :(

  3. I would so watch that show. And you've already been on TV, so hey. Experience!

    As for the white vs. brown rice, don't worry. I had to explain to Evelyn a while back that white eggs were not actually brown eggs that had been bleached. They just come from different chickens. It's like the opposite of rice.