Sake at the Summit

Sake at the Summit

Making nihonshu (Japanese sake) at the Saura brewery in Miyagi prefecture.

The secret to refined flavor is in the polishing

Sake is an inseparable companion to traditional Japanese cuisine. It is the only liquor in the world that is brewed with the help of two different kinds of microorganisms, rather than a single one. Sake brewing in Japan may date back more than 2,000 years; the centuries have brought continuous refinement to the brewing techniques in this rice-growing country.

There are more than 1,500 sake brewers in Japan, many of which are long established in their regions. The Saura brewery in Shiogama, Miyagi prefecture, produces the famed Urakasumi sake. Founded in 1724, during the Kyoho era of the Edo period, Saura has had the great honor of supplying sake to to Shiogama Jinja, a shrine associated with the feudal lords of Sendai (Date) domain. The brewery is beloved in this coastal town for its esteemed offerings. “Sake has unique characteristics as a drink, but it also stands out for the integral part it plays in local food culture, a role it has attained through close ties formed between brewers and local communities over generations. That level of interaction is probably rare among the world’s liquors,” says thirteenth-generation president Koichi Saura. “Whether served chilled, warmed, or at room temperature, sake is always delicious, and it takes on a different character at every temperature. I hope people overseas start enjoying sake as regularly as they do wine and beer.”

The preparations for brewing begin in September. As they part the short noren curtains to step into one of the brewery buildings lining a flagstone alley, visitors are enveloped by a sweet aroma permeating the air. The smell emanates from the moromi fermentation mash, which is a mixture of the shubo yeast starter – a concentration of pure yeast cells – and steamed rice, kome koji (rice inoculated with microorganisms), and pure water.

The initial step of brewing begins with polishing whole grains of rice. This removes the protein and fat found in the outer portion of grain, which would impart a bitter taste to the sake. The flavor and quality of the sake are determined by how much of the grain is removed by milling. The more the grains are polished, the more refined the taste of the sake will be. Roughly speaking, there are three categories of sake: junmai sake; honjozo sake, which has a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added; and ginjo sake; their flavors range from light and clean-tasting to rich and full-bodied. Daiginjo sake, usually ranked highest in quality, with a fruity, fragrant aroma, is made with rice grains polished to less than 50% of their original size.

The next step is to wash the polished rice. When preparing to make top-grade ginjo sake, the brewery workers carefully wash the rice by hand in a bamboo colander, since those grains are highly polished to their soft cores and therefore bruise easily. Measuring time with a stopwatch, they then soak the grains until they have absorbed just the right amount of water.

After soaking, the rice is steamed in a giant steamer for an hour so that the cooked grains will be soft inside but firmer on the surface. Each brewery has its own steaming method. With plumes of steam rising around them, the workers shovel out the steamed rice. When the rice cools down, the koji mold, which aids fermentation, will enter the picture.

Good brewers use all five senses

In the culture chamber, which is maintained at over 30°C with high humidity, spores of the microorganism Aspergillus oryzae (koji mold) are sprinkled over the steamed rice to propagate. For two days and nights, the humidity and temperature are meticulously controlled while the spores multiply, permeating the grains. Finally, the production of kome-koji is complete.

Next, a batch of steamed rice, along with yeast cultured in water, is added to the kome-koji. The mixture is then left to ferment for two weeks as the yeast cells multiply. The resulting yeast starter, which contains enormous numbers of yeast cells, is blended with steamed rice and water to make the moromi (fermentation mash).

Thirty-one tanks are lined up inside the earthen-walled brewery, which harks back to the Edo period (1603–1867). Each tank, containing moromi made with about two tons of rice, will eventually yield 4,680 liters of junmai sake made with grains milled to 60% of their original size.

Inside these tanks, the fermentation mash is bubbling and making popping sounds as two fermentation processes occur simultaneously. The koji mold is producing enzymes that convert rice starch to sugar, and the yeast is fermenting the sugar into alcohol. As the brewery workers stir the fermentation mash up and down, they hit the bottom of the tank with their long paddles, making a rhythmic sound that reverberates around them. Constant stirring helps keep the temperature and thickness of the mash even, accelerating fermentation.

The koji and yeast may be invisible, but both are indisputably alive. To deal with these living organisms, the brewery workers must keep their senses sharp at all times. Of course, being able to judge the taste of the finished sake is of the utmost importance. But workers must also have a thorough understanding of the characteristics of the rice at hand, which vary from harvest to harvest, and be able determine how long the rice should be soaked and steamed. They focus all their attention on subtle changes of color, and test how the grains feel to the hand. In addition to sight and touch, they also use their ears: they can gauge how the fermentation process is going by the popping sound that the moromi makes in the tank. They also listen to the sounds of the air conditioners to be sure the machines are regulating the temperature properly. Brewing sake really does require engaging all five senses.

Sake is best enjoyed with food

After being left to ferment for 20 to 25 days, the moromi is pressed to separate the sake from the lees. Pressing is often done by machine, but the ginjo sake is handled with extra care; canvas bags filled with moromi are piled on top of each other, and the sake is collected as it drips down below. Most sake is filtered at this point, and then pasteurized by heating quickly in order to deactivate the enzymes; it is then left to mature for a certain period. Before shipping, a bit of pure water is added to bring down the alcohol content. Other interesting types of sake may deviate from these steps, however, such as unprocessed sake straight from the press, unfiltered sake, unpasteurized sake that is shipped immediately before it loses its freshness, or sake that has been aged for several years. Furthermore, every brewery strives to produce its own distinctive offerings, making the options for enjoying sake nearly limitless.

The brewmaster and brewery workers at Saura take great pride in their sake, and they look after the rice, koji, and other ingredients day and night. Like all artists, they want their work to be thoroughly savored and appreciated. The brewery holds the philosophy that sake is not a leading player, but is at its best when it takes a supporting role. For this reason, Saura sake is brewed to be complemented by the foods that it accompanies, rather than drunk on its own. This holds to Japanese tradition, in which sake has always been enjoyed with a meal, playing the important role of cleansing the palate for the next dish. It also functions as a social lubricant at the dinner table, stimulating fellowship and conversation. Sake brings harmony to meals by complementing the food and connecting the people who are eating it.


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