Sake, known domestically as nihonshu, is one of Japan’s great contributions to world cuisine. While major brands like Gekkeikan have been exporting outside the country’s borders for decades, it is only recently that the smaller, more specialized breweries have begun to enter the market, as the Japanese food craze continues to expand. Among those local producers who have managed to make inroads in the overseas markets is the Yoshikubo Sake Brewing Company of Mito, Ibaraki, and they were kind enough to give us an idea of the amount of work that goes into making a premium, craftsman’s sake.
Mr. Hiroyuki Yoshikubo, the brewery’s managing director and hopeful 12th generation president of the Yoshikubo Sake Brewing Company, gave us a guided tour of the facilities, complete with detailed explanations at every step along the way. For someone who has spent years enjoying the taste and effects of a good sake, it was quite an eye-opening experience to see the production method firsthand.
The brewery itself has a history spanning over 220 years, stretching back into Edo period Japan. After having begun with the traditional seasonal system, which involved hiring farm laborers from the north of Japan who had no work during the winter months, they eventually realized the changing of the times and twenty years ago began hiring year-round employees as well. Currently they have 5 full-time employees and 3 seasonal laborers, for a full staff of only 8 people. And yet, these 8 people manage to produce roughly 360 kiloliters of sake in the scant 6 month period when brewing is optimal. Sake itself needs cold temperatures to become a full-flavored beverage, and to avoid the possibility of rot or spoil, which means that brewing is only done during the period from November to April. As soon as the new rice crop is harvested and shipped at the beginning of November the Yoshikubo brewery opens for business, with its employees working nearly round-the-clock to keep the sake at its best.
In the past, Mr. Yoshikubo related, it was possible for brewers to start at around 6am, when it was still cold out but just about daylight; however, due to the impact of global warming in Japan, it is now necessary for the workers to start their shifts at around 4am. The brewmaster, who must have many years of experience in brewing and pass a rigorous test to prove their skills, lives onsite throughout the production period in a special room, so that he can nip out and check on the temperatures and other details of the lengthy process.
The story begins with the rice, but not just any rice. The rice used in sake brewing is different from the rice consumed with meals; it has a longer stalk, thicker grains, and a much higher starch content. In fact, this rice would probably be very unappetizing if eaten, because of the lack of refined flavor found in edible rice, but it is the very qualities that make it bland that turn it into good sake. First the rice is polished using special machines, removing first the outer husk of the raw grain and gradually eroding more and more of the grain itself. The more polished the rice is, the higher the quality of the flavor; however, that also increases the price, as it will take more rice to produce the same amount of alcohol. Yoshikubo Sake Brewing prides itself on polishing its rice both more than the national average and than the Ibaraki average (in most cases using only half the grain of rice), making for a higher quality sake without too much of an increase in price. Another point of pride is the very dry flavor; Yoshikubo has some of the driest sake available, maintaining high levels of bite in all of its products.
After polishing the rice is taken to be washed. On a side note, the powder left over from polishing is used for different purposes depending on its grade: the outer husk portion is used for pickling vegetables, the middle portion for animal feed, and the inner portion for making rice crackers. The rice washing process is done by hand, to avoid splitting the grain. If the grain is split the fermentation time is halved as well, meaning the flavor of the overall brew will be uneven. They also carefully monitor how much water is absorbed by the rice, to maintain consistency and moisture content at a specific level. After washing, the rice is steamed for an hour in a large machine (for the regular grade) or a small barrel (for the premium grade), and then transported to the malting room. Here, a special kind of malt that has been used exclusively at Yoshikubo breweries for generations is applied, and the rice is covered with blankets to trap the heat and speed up the growth of the malt. The temperature of the rice mixture has to be varied over time to maintain the growth of the malt without letting it consume the rice, and eventually the malted rice is transferred into smaller and smaller containers, and spread out horizontally to allow more and more contact with the air.
When the malting process is complete it is time for fermentation. The rice mixture is transferred into large cylindrical metal drums and water and yeast is added. The water itself is from a special spring that was favored by the local lord from the Edo period; in the past it was available throughout the city, but now they have to drive a huge truck over to the source every day to withdraw enough spring water for the day’s production. Over time you can see the progress of the mixture: first the grains are still substantial, and there is quite a lot of bubbling; over time the grains get broken down more and more and the bubbling becomes less noticeable. Eventually the mixture is moved to the storehouse for its final evolution, which takes between 3 and 4 weeks. During this stage the mixture is so toxic that they leave the tanks open to breathe without any concern about insects; if a human being were to fall into one of these tanks they would die within two seconds, because even though it is open to the air there is no oxygen inside whatsoever. The space is filled with carbon dioxide and pure alcohol vapor, and even if someone is rescued within the critical two seconds they usually never recover from a vegetative state. Mr. Yoshikubo invited us to take a whiff of the safety spout, just to prove his point; one noseful was enough to burn my lungs and throat and leave me with the vague sensation I’d just lost quite a few brain cells.
Once the fermentation is complete the mixture is pressed and the alcohol is bottled and readied for transport. Mr. Yoshikubo was kind enough to give us a taste test of some sake that had been pressed only three days earlier, and the sweetness and purity of the flavor were exquisite. It was easy to tell why their flagship product, Ippin, had made such inroads in markets such as the US, Korea, India, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Despite the higher fees for air transport (to maintain temperature) and imports, it has gone on to gain quite a favorable reputation for its refined taste and even won several awards both domesticall and abroad. As a fan of sake myself I was more than happy with the quality of it, especially after having seen all the hard work and time that went into making it.
Here the nihonshu odyssey came to an end. After showing us some Korean-style makkori liquor (sake with rice still inside) and some cherry blossom sake made specially for the spring season it was time for us to say goodbye. It will be a different experience drinking sake from now on, having witnessed the process firsthand, and I have to admit that I am rooting for the further success and expansion of Yoshikubo’s brewery. In a world where automation and mass production are usually the words of the day, Mr. Yoshikubo and his family have protected and maintained many tradition, artisanal brewing techniques through generations, and continue to create premium products such as Ippin by hand. If you have the chance, why not give it a try and see for yourself?