Saké to Drink, Saké to Enjoy—Part 1

In place, the sugidama sends out a message to all that see it.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
The British drink beer, the French drink wine and the Japanese drink saké.  Well, as severe generalisations these statements are useful, although nothing more than what they are—generalisations.

Cedar fronds are pocked into a wire ball.
Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
A wire ball needs to be completely covered with cedar fronds.
Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
The ball is trimmed and then the sugidama is put in place.
Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
It is probable that saké was first made in Japan some fifteen-hundred years ago.  Initially it seems not to have been a particularly strong liquor but gradually fulfilled various religious needs as well as being used on festive occasions at the imperial court and for drinking games in a slightly more potent form from the end of the eight-century onwards.  It was not until much later that it became a drink of the general populous and these days it would not be wrong to call it the national tipple.

The inner sanctum.  The white plaster walls of the sakekura—a store house with thick wall—are as much a part of the brewing scene as the distinctive aroma.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
Steaming of the rice.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
Today there are saké breweries all over the country.  Some of the larger ones produce in excess of seventy-thousand kilo litres a year, while the smaller ones each make between 200 to 1000 kilo litres per annum, mostly using traditional labour-intensive methods.

No outsiders allowed.  This is the room in which the koji is put to work on the steamed rice.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
A small brewery such as the Nakajima Brewery in Wajima still follows traditions, including the making of what is called a sugidama.  Cedar tree fronds are fashioned into a large ball, which is usually hung under its very own little roof, beneath the eaves of the brewery.  And what is it for?  Firstly it is made to give thanks to the deity of saké and to ask for protection.  Secondly it is a sign that a new brew of saké has been made over the winter.  The fresh green of the cedar fronds shows that the new brew is now beginning its maturing process and so, as the green gradually darkens to a warm brown as the fronds dry, it is an indication of the ageing of the saké, which will be ready in the autumn.

Traditionally, cedar wood barrels were used in the making of saké, hence the use of cedar tree fronds to make a sugidama.  Modern brewing methods, however, have seen the introduction of ceramic-lined or stainless steel tanks, resulting in a major improvement in the quality and purity of the saké, especially since the beginning of the twentieth-century.

Fermentation tanks.  The gentle sound of bubbling and the aroma from the mash are a sign that things are happening.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
Although sometimes called “rice wine”, saké is brewed more like a beer than wine.  Rice is first washed and steamed before yeast and koji are mixed in.  Koji is a rice cultivated with a mould—aspergillus oryzae.  The mixture is then allowed to ferment with more rice, koji and water added over four days in three batches.  The resulting mash sits from between 18 to 32 days and is then pressed, filtered and blended.  Result: a clear liquid with a distinctive fragrance and broadly speaking either a dry, sharp flavour or a  heavier sweetness both of which have their own followers.  Me?  Well, I enjoy the dry, sharp flavoured brands.

There are a number of different types of saké as well as several grades.  The top ranking grades are more expensive, they have the most complex flavours and rich aromatic qualities.

Part 2 will follow soon.

Grateful thanks to Masao Matsumoto for the photographs and information, and to Nakajima Sake Brewery for its cooperation.  Thanks, too, must go to John Gauntner at sake-world.com for his expert advise.

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