Tour offers sake from tangy sweet to dry and delicate

Sunday, March 14, 2004

By Kenji Hall ~ The Associated Press Writer

FUSHIMI, Japan -- We wound our way through the drafty attic of the brewery, toward the source of the aroma.

My wife, her mother and I had caught a whiff the moment we arrived at the Tamanohikari sake brewery a half-hour earlier: the faintly sweet, floral scent of fermenting rice. We were now following that scent to pots the size of an office elevator that held the stewing rice.

I had picked Tamanohikari -- which means "the brilliance of a gem" -- from dozens of breweries in Kyoto's Fushimi district as the first leg of our tasting tour only because I had tried one of its varieties of sake at a Tokyo restaurant months earlier.

It turned out to be a treat, especially for amateur sake enthusiasts like us.

Most breweries here offer tours, including Gekkeikan, the 367-year-old company that is the largest sake producer and exporter, as well as supplier to the imperial household since 1909. And because they are within easy walking distance of each other, it's an ideal place to delve into the country's sake-making history.

Sake in Japan has been traced back to the third century, when its forerunner, a fermented gruel, was brought from China. Since then, the country's national drink has been memorialized in history texts and literature.

Despite the decline of sake consumption since the 1970s in the face of growing demand for beer, wine and distilled liquors, sake remains the drink of choice for religious rituals, wedding ceremonies and festivals.

Fushimi's heyday as a sake-producer came during the 17th century under the rule of the shogun. Brewers were drawn to the area's abundant spring water -- from groundwater and melting mountain run-off -- as well as its proximity to river ports. Over time, Fushimi also became increasingly important as a key trading post with the newly relocated capital to the east, Edo, which was later known as Tokyo.

Tamanohikari was a relative latecomer to Fushimi. Since moving here in 1949, it has refashioned itself as a boutique brewer, making only premium "junmai" -- pure rice -- sake from rice and water.

Aficionados say adding a bit of alcohol after fermentation gives sake a smoother taste. Most of the 1,500 breweries nationwide employ this technique, which became widespread during World War II when a scarcity of rice forced brewers to boost yields by diluting batches.

But Tamanohikari doesn't add alcohol; its sake has only the alcohol that comes from fermenting rice.

The result: a more explosive taste, weaker aroma and higher acidity than other types.

Only 9 percent, or almost 21 million gallons, of the sake sold in Japan qualifies as junmai, according to the quasi-public overseer National Research Institute of Brewing. Purists regard this as "traditional" sake.

"My father was the first among brewers to make junmai sake after World War II. This was in 1964," Tamanohikari vice president Hiroshi Ujita said. "There was a lot of debate in the government about what to call it and how to tax it."

To distinguish itself, Tamanohikari has stuck to low-tech brewing methods. Our free tour gave us a firsthand glimpse.

By the time we arrived, the morning work was finished. We had the place to ourselves.

We started with a mini-course on sake-making led by production chief Ken Tsujimoto. Then, we donned lab coats and shower caps and followed him to the brewery attic.

Before sake rice is fermented, it is polished to get rid of the proteins and fats that surround the kernel's starchy core. Proteins and fats can spoil a sake's flavor and give it an undesirable tint. As a rule, the more polished the kernels, the more elegant the final product's taste.

At Tamanohikari, computer-controlled polishing machines shave 30 percent to 50 percent off each kernel, 2,640 pounds of rice at a time. The rest of the work is labor-intensive.

While 24-hour automation has done away with backbreaking jobs at big breweries, Tamanohikari is relatively traditional: Its workers still get their hands dirty.

After the rice is polished, workers soak and steam it. They spread it out on long tables to cool and later fold in the koji, or mold, which breaks down and converts the starch into sugars.

Water, moto, or seed mash, and yeast, which helps ferment sake and is responsible for its bouquet and flavor, are added later.

Tsujimoto led us to a room, kept at 84 degrees and 38 percent humidity, where workers combine rice and mold spores to make koji in shallow wooden troughs coated in persimmon tannin. There, we bit into the firm, starchy grains and inhaled their nutty scent.

Back in the attic, Tsujimoto pointed out the crosshatch of beams supporting the gabled roof. Living in the wood, he said, are mold spores that mix with the cultivated spores in the open pots of fermenting rice.

"That interaction between spores will give our sake a flavor that no other brewer can replicate," Tsujimoto said.

Once the rice, or mash, has spent four weeks becoming soupy, it is filtered. An impromptu tasting session began outside the filtering room. From plastic cups, we drank the tangy, lightly carbonated sake, which reminded me of apples. It would later be stored and then bottled.

We returned to the classroom for more tastings, where we tried a light, sweet sake, called Yamahai, and Omachi, a drier, more floral and robust "junmai daiginjo" sake that is made with rice polished to 50 percent of its original size.

Our next stop was Gekkeikan brewery's Okura Museum. On display were relics of the past: Rope-bound wooden casks, mixing buckets named after the fox and raccoon, "tokkuri" earthenware jugs, woodblock stamps and branding irons to label casks. Brewers' work songs played softly in the background.

Outside the museum, water trickled from a natural spring into a wooden bucket.

For brewers, Fushimi's biggest allure is its water. It is rich in the carbonates, phosphates and potassium needed for yeast cultivation but has little of the iron that can degrade sake or manganese that can discolor it.

Experts say water can make or break a sake, and claim they can taste any impurities. Nowadays, many breweries chemically filter water to get the desired balance of elements.

Gekkeikan's spring water had no aftertaste, unlike the tap water in Tokyo we were used to drinking. After seeing local brewing tools and techniques, it was a fitting end to our tour: Here was the source, the lifeblood of Fushimi's prosperous sake trade.

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