Brewing sake amid a cacophony of miracles

by Philip Harper

Being a 41-year-old male puts me at the end of my yakudoshi, a period when Japanese believe all kinds of calamity are due to befall me and mine. Running to form, a family crisis meant I had to fly home to Britain on Dec. 23. I was back at work before the new year, but these few days off were still more than the total in my preceding 16 winters as a sake brewer. So, for the first time since joining the bottom rung of an old-fashioned brewing team in 1991, I found myself coming into a sake brewery in winter from the outside, so to speak.

Arriving at the Kinoshita Shuzo brewery in Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture — on the coast of the Sea of Japan — I trudged through a good foot of snow, looking up at the variegated pattern of the pine trees bearing their fresh, white loads on the slope of the mountain behind the brewery, the source of the water we use in our sake.

Under the brewery eaves was a shaggy-looking globe made of cedar needles. With links to sake brewing’s ancient religious roots, such sugidama greet visitors at the gateway to pretty much every sake brewery. Like the mountain, it rarely registers in the day-to-day bustle of the winter season, but my absence had given me fresh eyes.

Cold is good for brewing, and the temperature inside was no different than outside — always a shock for visitors, who expect to escape the winter cold when they enter the brewery. I was struck by a faint, earthy background scent to the air, raw in my nostrils. The brewery buildings are about 160 years old, massive timber frames swathed in a covering of wattle-and-daub as thick as the great slabs of snow currently blanketing their roofs.

The pressing machine whirred as I walked by, one of the noises that make up the soundtrack in a sake brewery — a sound I would scarcely notice normally.

Then I slid back the massive wooden doors to the fermentation room, revealing the tremendous curved beams arching in support of the massive roof. A dizzying tidal wave of scent washed over me, apple and pear and banana, all kinds of yeasty fruit aromas surging from the seething mash in the fermentation vessels.

Visitors comment on the gorgeous aromas long before reaching their source, but to me they are normally muted by constant exposure. It was a delicious shock to encounter this fragrant eruption afresh.

By the time you read this, I will be in the thick of brewing high-end ginjo sake (about which I’ll write more next month), and too busy to register all these sights and smells. But it was a winter treat to be reminded that I work in a place imbued with miracles.

Master Brewer Philip Harper is the author of “The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide” (Kodansha International)