There are at present about 1,700 sakagura, or sake breweries, in Japan. This number is dropping somewhat quickly, with several kura going under each year. But for those 1,700-odd kura brewing again this year, just about now is when the brewing season begins.
As you read this, thousands of brewing personnel are en route from their snowy homelands in places like Iwate and Niigata and the backwoods of Hyogo to the sakagura where they are employed to brew — their home for the next six months or so.
Long ago, that is about a millennium ago, as sake brewing slowly began to spread from just temples and shrines to the general (tax-paying) business world, most breweries were operated by owners of fairly large tracts of land. Often (but not always), sake was brewed with rice that did not get sold or used during the year.
But these land owners were not the people doing the actual brewing. No way. The actual brewing was (and is) done by farmers and fishermen from particularly snowy regions who would otherwise be sitting at home twiddling their oya-yubi amid the falling snow, since no farming would be possible. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. This traveling distances to find work is known as dekasegi.
Sake brewers were not the only craftsmen to do dekasegi. Many other labor jobs existed. But the sake-brewing work called for the most skill and provided better than average remuneration. Such work was relatively sought after.
Which isn’t to say it is easy work; far, far from it. Upon arrival, there will be a ceremony to pray for the safety of the brewers and the success of the sake-brewing for that season. Every kura has a kami-dana Shinto shrine inside, usually to a deity known as Matsuo-sama, a patron of sake brewers.
Then, they will spend a week or so cleaning everything thoroughly, as proper sanitation is paramount.
After polishing enough rice to get started, they will begin brewing slowly. For the first month or two, sake of average grade will be brewed. When it gets really cold, like in January and February, they will dig into the ginjoshu, the premium sake.
That is when things really get tough. Most days begin about 4:30 or 5 a.m. There is plenty to do: chemical analyses, cleaning of tanks, mixing of moromi (the fermenting mash), all followed later by steaming rice, distributing that rice, washing of more rice in cold water and more.
Then, of course, there is koji-making and moto yeast starter mixing. It all wraps up at about 8 p.m. that night. With few exceptions, there are no holidays; this goes on seven days a week.
Precisely when they begin the brewing year depends on a combination of several factors: how much sake they will brew, how many people they have to do it and how many tanks and other equipment they have. Many already are brewing. Other, tiny kura will not begin until much later.
Regardless, the official sake-brewing “fiscal” year begins in October. In fact, aged sake is often labeled by its BY, or brewing year. Sake said to be made in BY10, for example, was brewed between October of Heisei 10 (1998) and (usually) April of Heisei 11 (1999). Potentially useful information if you like to explore the world of choki jukusei-shu, or aged sake.
Things are slowly changing to accommodate modern times. For one, some of the large breweries brew year round. This began with Gekkeikan, the largest brewer in Japan, in the early ’60s. Significant investment in equipment allows brewers doing “shiki jozo” (four-season brewing) to keep the fermenting sake cold even in summer.
Although there are perhaps 20 breweries equipped to do this, at such places, brewers work much more normal hours, and do so year-round. Although this amounts to only 2 percent or so of all the breweries, these larger companies brew more in one day than most sake breweries brew all year; that’s no exaggeration.
Beyond that, many kura are beginning to break tradition in many ways, adapting to survive. Today, at many kura, brewing schedules are altered so that the kurabito (brewery employees) and toji (head brewer) can have regular time off. Weekends and holidays like New Year’s Day or holidays, and more often local people — and not long distance traveling dekasegi laborers — are employed to brew.
However, in truth, places that allow this are still in the minority. Too often, the toji — and to some degree the kurabito — do not want to be away from the sake and the process for that long. Sake is a living thing that calls for constant attention and care. Too much can go wrong too easily and quickly to be away.
I have heard of one kura that has attempted to solve this problem with bit of modern technology. Sensors measuring the vital statistics of each tank of sake send the data into monitoring computers. Should something get out of specified boundaries, the computer would send an alarm to a wireless pager that the toji carried when at home. Not a bad compromise.
When, in a month or so, the first tank of sake is ready to be pressed, they will hang out a green ball of tightly bound cedar leaves called a sakabayashi. This is supposedly from sugi trees on the grounds of a shrine called Miwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture. Also called a sugidama, it is likely that you have seen these at sake pubs, izakaya and sake retailers around the country. It is said when the green leaves turn to brown, the sake is ready for drinking.
And so, as you settle in for that next sip of nihonshu, so perfect in the fall, remember the craftsmen who toil to create it. Sake brewing is indeed an intense craft, and deserves recognition as such.
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Shichi Ken (Yamanashi Prefecture)
“Kinu no Aji” junmai daiginjo
Seimai-buai: 40 percent
Shichi Ken has been brewing since 1749, using water from the Minami Alps, certified as one of the “Meishu Hyakusen,” the best 100 water sources in Japan. There are only 14 kura presently brewing in Yamanashi Prefecture, and this kura is the largest (which is not saying much; they are still quite small). Sake has likely had a tough time surviving amid all the wine from the region.
Shichi Ken provides an interesting flavor profile, light but unique at the same time. The fragrance is lightly laced with peaches suffused with green apples, and is overall subdued but steady. Initially it comes off as sweet, and is fairly airy. The taste soon fades to a rather dry, somewhat astringent tail, but the high acidity helps a light fruitiness pervades for a while.
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