When it comes to making sake there are many ways in which this is done. There are many ways to make art. There are many ways to make a masterpiece in a cup. There is science and tradition. There is culture and there is invention. There is history and there is discovery.
It is little wonder why sake people get so excited about the next thing they create. They have rich cultured traditions to maintain, and a legacy to keep in their hearts. And then there is the mecurial spirit within which daydreams, experiments, and crafty designs bring forth the next delight of a new sake that beguiles and enchants.
On this page I hope to give some general step by step to you on how sake is “basically” created. As you learn more about sake and the processes, you can see variations from sake brewer (called “kura“) to sake brewer. It’s a lot of fun, so let’s start.
First you have rice. Brown rice. The rice is grown and then cultivated from the field. But this is usually not just any ordinary rice. This is not “table rice”. This is rice particularly grown and cultivated to one day be a treasure in a sake bottle. The agricultural wizards of sake rice are deeply passionate about their crops. They compare and develop particular strains of rice from which to start. It is from here that sake begins.
Once the rice is harvested it gets polished. Different sake types will be polished to various percentages. As the polishing percent is higher there is less of the original rice left over, and this kind of sake takes a lot of rice! The higher percent of polishing results in a more “pure” sake as the polishing takes us closer to the core of each rice grain.
After being polished the rice is washed and soaked. The length of which may differ from kura to kura. Then the rice is steamed.
After the rice is steamed it is divided into two batches. One batch is used for “koji” making. The other goes into the yeast starter containers. While most Japanese food is based on four primary building blocks of their diet (those being rice, wheat, soybeans, and salt) “koji” is the seemingly mysterious microbiota that turns rice with salt and soy into miso, and also turns barley with salt into soy sauce. It has transformational powers in Japanese food and drink.
The batch used for “koji” is spread out and carefully checked by hand. The process is very time consuming and requires eagle-eyed care and attention. “Koji” is sprinkled through this batch and the fermentation process begins.
The other batch of rice is put in the yeast starter and waits a spell. To this batch, water and yeast is added. When the “koji” is ready, it too is combined with the batch and other ingredients may also be added. Schedules for fermentation and when and how to add ingredients are strictly maintained and changes meticulously recorded.
After a spell, the sake enters its “three-stage-brewing” where the degrees of sediment of materials in the batch determine flavors and textures. More steamed rice, koji, and water may be introduced at this stage.
From here the sake rice and ingredients are put into a mush, and the fermentation process continues. The sake rice may be separated into bags and what is dripping through the cloth is collected. The container may have a lid fitting inside its circumference and a wooden lid may press down on the rice. Sake begin to flow from the bottom of the cask or container through pipes or tubes.
The sake is collected and then put through a filtering process, following a pasteuraization process that cures the sake and brings out its flavors through both fire and water.
From here the sake is put in a tank for storage. Water and further elements may be introduced to the sake, and new flavors or creations may be brought into fuller form here. After some time in storage, the sake is filtered again and may be put through a second pasteurization process.
From this point the sake is ready to drink. It is sampled and checked by the brewmeisters, and then the mecurial liquid is piped into bottles.
The moment of truth is at hand. Is this sake “successful”. Is it within the expected range of flavors that are traditionally created at this kura? Is it something new that is coming out for the first time? Does it surprse or delight? Is it something unexpected and creative?
There is only one way to find out.
Fill your cup.
This process, as decribed in the most general and broad-stroked manner possible above, fails to describe the incredibly nuanced craft of sake brewing. The people who are involved in the process of bringing sake from field to cup are an interesting kind of people. They are scientific and artistic. They are in tune with the ebb and flow of nature, and can handle precision instrumentation with surgical skill. They are logical and curious, rational and passionate. To bring about the alchemy of sake to its fullest fruition, one must be all of these things, and also be free to let personality and human feeling shine through it all.
It is a marvelous thing to witness. You should come down and see this with your own eyes,and bear witness to a unique Japanese experience and expression that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.