At 8am the toji, the sake brew master, makes his morning rounds. He inspects the moto, a mingling of rice, water, koji rice, yeast and lactic acid that fulminates for about two weeks. He steps into the warm, fecund koji room to check out cottony mold blooming on steamed rice spread on large wooden trays. He works a twelve foot pole to stir the moromi -- the sake mash -- moto, rice, water and koji percolating in thirteen hundred gallon steel tanks, a mixture like gurgling oatmeal that ferments for about twenty five days before being pressed to release clear liquid -- sake.
I'm spending the week at the Daimon Sake Brewery in Katano City outside Osaka. Mr. Daimon, the 6th generation owner and toji of this sakagura, launched a phenomenal program this sake season -- graciously inviting small groups of sake enthusiasts to work alongside his kurabito, brewers, to touch, watch, smell, inhale traditional sake making. This is the first program of its kind in Japan. What an amazing idea. I'm extremely fortunate that Mr. Daimon (pictured above) asked me to join the latest session, which started on Monday at "Mukune Village," as the complex of stately, old Japanese wooden buildings here -- constructed in 1826 -- is known.
One of my fellow interns, sake educator and writer Melinda Joe, has been adding to Mr. Daimon's fascinating talks about what's going on at the brewery. Sake making, she explained, is closer to brewing beer than producing wine. Wine is a process of "simple fermentation," that is, the sugars in grapes are converted directly into alcohol. Sake, on the other hand, relies on "multiple parallel fermentation" -- the starches in rice converting to sugar converting to alcohol all at the same time, essentially. Mr. Daimon follows age-old methods and formulae to accomplish this.
Everything starts with rice, which is first polished to remove the outer fats and oils to reveal its starchy parts. How much polishing depends on the rice and the quality of the sake being made. One of the kurabito told us that polishing rice for daiginjo, the finest sake, takes 90 long hours of burnishing (gradually, so the rice doesn't overheat) until just 35% of the rice grain remains.
This morning we cooked rice -- half a ton of it, in a huge steamer sitting in a cavernous hall. Once steamed, we shoveled it onto muslin sheets, and moved it into a side room. There, we unfurled the muslin on a flat metal screen, and started breaking and turning clumps of piping hot rice to cool it and let heat escape. A half dozen of us worked silently, gently inserting our outstretched hands in the rice, turning, turning. The room filled with steam and the nutty, irresistible aroma of cooked rice. I popped a couple of hot grains into my mouth; the rice tasted chewy and firm, but lacked the flavor of edible rice -- that essence had been polished away with the outer layer.
Mr. Daimon walked over as I worked. "How do you like the feeling of rice," he asked. Funny, I was just thinking the same thing, thinking how pleasing it was to handle this elemental grain, and what a remarkable experience it was to touch this world.
The program's interns have been recording their experience on the Mukune blog. Please check it out.
Also, you can take a peek at the Daimon sake brewery in action on YouTube. Click here to see.
Finally, to learn more about sake making, check out John Gauntner's Sake World.