Working my way around the world has certainly produced moments of complete absurdity. The morning of 8th of January was one of those instances. Picture this: it’s 4:30 am, the thermostat by your bed reads -4°C and you awake in rural Japan to find yourself in the workers’ quarters of an artisan sake brewery. A knock on your door signals the start on a fourteen-hour shift. Your colleagues speak no English. You speak no Japanese. If this wasn’t difficult enough to comprehend, then imagine all of this on the back of a saké tasting that has now rendered you incapable of even putting your socks on. Welcome to my world.
My sake experience began several months ago when, following my post on Mexican insect cuisine, I received an email from a Japanese based entomophagist, Charlotte Payne. A quick Google search led me to believe I would soon find myself tucking in to some of Japan’s most inviting invertebrates. But sadly the cold of winter meant giant hornet hunting and other similar activities were off the menu. Given this Charlotte made some other suggestions. For a truly quintessential Japanese foodish experience, she said, I should work at a countryside sake brewery. And so several months later I found myself hurtling at 198 mph towards the little town of Iwamura to begin job 34 at the Lady of the Castle brewery.
The brewery is named in dedication to Lady Otsuya who in 1572 protected the town’s castle from an invading army. Walking around the castle ruins, brewery owner Watarai ’George’ Mitsuteru told me about sake’s history in Japan since first brewed in the 8th century. You will struggle to find a more passionate producer than George who brews sake so well he hates to see it leave. The brewery was first founded in 1787, and apart from a few technological advances, the brewing process has remained loyal to the same artisan techniques from over 300 years ago. Or in other words I was going to have to do some hard work.
Good sake requires cold temperatures. Having followed summer for 8 months, I now found myself working long hours in freezing conditions. I spent my first few days understanding the ingredients used in the brewing process — water, rice, yeast and koji. I learned how important mineral rich water and good quality rice are to the process. For example, the degree to which brewers polish rice can greatly affect the calibre of the brew. Sake is often mistakenly called rice wine, but since the process involves grains, and not fruit, production is closer to beer making.
If you want an example of Japanese efficiency, then look no further than sake; it is the strongest alcohol you can produce without distillation. The reason for this bonus booze is koji — a fungus sprinkled over steamed rice and allowed to incubate. Conventional beer brewing has two distinct steps 1) Starch to sugar 2) Sugar to alcohol. But in sake brewing, the koji permits these steps to happen simultaneously. Koji and yeast form a double team: the koji converts starch to sugar while the yeast converts sugar to alcohol.
Working with this magical koji came with good and bad news. The good news is koji requires hot and humid condition to incubate, so I often enjoyed breaks from the cold by getting half-naked (for hygiene reasons of course) to attend to the koji in the ‘hot room.’ The bad news? Koji requires a lot of care and attention resulting in early morning rises and late night finishes. Because of koji the toji (master brewer) cannot leave the brewery.
The sake brewing process is difficult to master and the language barrier often limited my learning. On many occasions my translator app spectacularly mistranslated questions, for example: “why is there ham in the van?” But Suzuki the master toji, always a beacon of happiness, was patient and made sure I assisted him in every step of the process, thereby learning by doing.
Although the days were long and hard the brewers had some privileges — including tasting the freshly pressed sake straight off the pipeline. My sake tasting at the start of the week presented many delicious tipples, ranging from high-grade junmai daiginjo-shu to the sweeter aged choki jukusei-shu sake. But nothing to date can compare with my first sip from the production line. The sake was so pure and clean. I really struggled to comprehend how something made of rice could produce such remarkable floral aromas and tropical flavours.
At the end of my week I felt extremely sad to leave the brewing team who were some of kindest and friendliest people I’ve encountered on this trip. Their merriment is beyond belief given that sake employees do not get a single day off during the 6 months brewing season. On my last evening, enjoying a one last glass of saké, I asked Suzuki about how he felt about dedicating his life to sake. “It’s ok Alex. In summer, I have a holiday”, he told me. I jokingly suggested he must feel relieved to not see rice for a while. “No, Alex. In summer I rice farm.” KANPAI, Suzuki! And thanks for the memories.