Sake breweries are usually fairly quiet in the summer. Except for the few large breweries where brewing continues all year, most places are dark and quiet and empty, as the brewers themselves have gone home for the summer. Traditionally, the kurabito (brewers) traveled great distances from their rural farmland homes to work at the kura (brewery), although today many places employ local people.
There is one yearly event, however, that livens the whole place up: hatsu-nomikiri. Held sometime between June and September, this is an event in which the condition of each tank of sake brewed the previous season is sampled and checked.
Until about 100 years ago, sake was brewed in cedar tanks with bamboo bindings. As such tanks are significantly less airtight than the solid stainless steel tanks used today, there was a greater possibility that the sake had “gone south.”
This might mean one of several types of contamination, with the most common being hi-ochi, a condition that can arise in unpasteurized sake. Sake suffering the dreaded hi-ochi becomes cloudy and yeasty, with the various flavors going haywire to the extreme.
So, each summer, most commonly just after the rainy season, the toji would trek back to the brewery. In front of a small gathering of insiders, the valve at the bottom of a tank would be opened, and a small stream of sake would be guided into a special tasting cup that allowed the fragrance to spread.
This would first be offered to the owner of the brewery. After he gave the nod, the toji himself would sniff and assess. They would then proceed to the other tanks one by one, checking the condition of each in the kura.
This is precisely the situation, by the way, in which the traditional tasting cup, a 180-cc white porcelain tumbler with two blue concentric circles on the bottom, would be used. The blue circles on the white background allow one to easily assess the clarity of the sake.
Each tank brewed throughout the season takes on a short life of its own, and the way each matures over the aging period of several months will be slightly different. Some will seem more well-rounded and balanced, others more brash and immature. So one other reason for tasting from each tank is to determine in which order the tanks will be bottled and shipped, with the more mature-tasting tanks going first.
These days, ceramic- or glass-lined stainless steel tanks are the norm, thus eliminating the worries of the past. Still, the event takes place, with the toji and owner being joined by perhaps a few important sake dealers and several kantei (professional tasters) from the prefecture’s sake research center, or some similar organization. These sensei will record their opinions in detail, to be used by the brewery for internal reference only.
Things proceed much in the same way as the old days, with sake being drawn off from a valve at the bottom of the tank. The temperature is recorded, sometimes written in chalk on the ground or tank. The number of the tank is recorded, and the sake brought to another room for a formal tasting in a more official setting.
The results of this exercise will also help determine how the blending of the various tanks will proceed. For example, blending tank No. 4 with tank No. 21 may create precisely the type of sake aimed for, based on the tasting notes. Other information, such as whether or not a sake will benefit from pasteurization or extended aging, can also be inferred.
Naturally, things vary from brewery to brewery. For example, most kura have already completed their hatsu-nomikiri. Many kura in Akita Prefecture, however, are gearing up for the event this week. Also, as this is the hatsu (first)-nomikiri, kura traditionally would then check the condition of the sake several times after that.
This, however, is not something to be done haphazardly. When the tank is opened and sake drawn off like that, there is the risk that the act itself allows contaminating bacteria into the tank. It must be performed carefully, with clean implements.
Today, there is great diversity in methodology. Many kura age their sake in bottles, not in tanks. Also, some breweries age their sake a full year or two (usually at low temperatures) before even considering shipping it. Although the condition of such sake will also be assessed occasionally, the actual hatsu-nomikiri might not take place for a while.
Although the timing and logistics of the hatsu-nomikiri have evolved and are adapted to each brewery’s needs, the event takes place everywhere, with at least a bit of fanfare.
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Taiheikai (Ibaraki Prefecture)
Nama Honjozo, Junmai-shu and others
Seimai-buai: 55 percent
This brewery recently created this new label, and releases the sake four times a year, in slightly different manifestations. Last January it was as a honjozo, March saw a junmai-shu version.
Overall, Taiheikai has a rich and full start but a clean and lighter underbelly. It is also namazake (unpasteurized) and muroka (not micro-filtered), so a rich and lively fragrance suffuses the whole experience. Not much is made, so it can be hard to find, but it is carried by Machidaya in Nakano, (03) 3389-4551.
The main meigara (brand name) used by this kura is Fuchu Homare. They are also well known for an exquisite daiginjo called Wataribune, named after a locally grown sake rice that is one of the parent rices of the mighty Yamada Nishiki. A bit hard to find, but wonderful indeed.
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