The thermometer inside the brewing facility at Shimazaki Shuzo registered a chilly 8 degrees. Like everyone else who had signed up to take part in the final sake-making session of the Karasuyama Taiken (www.karasuyama-taiken.jp), I was dressed for work — in a thin white jacket that resembled a lab coat, white plastic boots and a gauzy hairnet. While this uniform was neither the warmest nor the most fashionable of ensembles, it ensured that none of us would compromise the brewery’s hygiene standards.
This was my third visit since May to Shimazaki Shuzo in Tochigi Prefecture. The gohyakumangoku rice we’d planted in the spring and harvested in the fall was now ready to be turned into sake. After a brief overview on the brewing process, around 60 of us (a second session was scheduled for the afternoon for the other half of the group) filed into the main building, where rice was steaming in the koshiki, a rice cooker large enough for a few people to stand in. Clouds of steam rose from the vat, and the cloth tarp covering the koshiki puffed up like a giant, terrestrial jellyfish.
As brewery president Kenichi Shimazaki pulled back the tarp, the delicious aroma of freshly cooked rice filled the space. Shimazaki scooped a mound of rice from the pot with a shovel, tasted it, and then held it out to be sampled. The children, clearly ready for a snack at 11 a.m., swarmed around him like ants at a picnic.
“Hold on! You’ve eaten enough to fill an isshō-bin (1.8-liter bottle of sake)!” Shimazaki joked.
The rice was warm and dry, with a chewy texture reminiscent of nougat. Unlike table rice, sake rice is steamed without ever touching water. If the rice gets too moist, it will dissolve too quickly during fermentation. Our gohyakumangoku, polished to 60 percent to make junmai-ginjō-grade sake, had an intensely sweet aftertaste, thanks to the abundance of starch at its core.
First, the rice went into a machine that separated the grains with hundreds of spinning metal fingers, before being spread out onto wooden plates. Our job was to turn the rice in order to bring the temperature down from nearly 30 degrees to 10. It’s harder to do than it sounds: The goal is to make sure that the rice cools evenly, so you have to move swiftly, digging your fingers in and breaking up clumps constantly. After 30 minutes, each group added their parcel of rice to the fermentation tank.
Of course, the real kurabito (brewery workers) had done nearly all of the work for us already. Several days before, they had completed the laborious, all-important task of making the kōji — batches of rice inoculated with the benign mold aspergillus oryzae, which helps turn starch into sugar. It’s a process that requires careful monitoring and often translates into no sleep for two days. They’d made a healthy yeast starter, and our batch of fermenting sake was progressing nicely.
That was my last session with Shimazaki Shuzo. Now all I have to do is wait for my finished sake to arrive at the end of December — and think of a special occasion on which to drink it.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.