Archive for the ‘Session 1’ Category

Daimon’s Ferrari

Saké brewing is a very old and traditional craft but that doesn’t mean that it cannot use very modern technology. Daimon-san is very representative of this new generation of young Toji who are using this technology to improve quality and control over the different phases of premium-saké making.

the mold developping itself on the koji-riceThere is a very important phase in preparing the Koji that is called “mori”: this is on the second day of the koji-making process when we take the koji from the first room of the “muro” (the almost “sacred” room where koji is initiated by spreading koji-mold on EVERY grain of the rice prepared for it) and then put it in a second room, usually in smaller trays. In old times, you would have needed to check temperature of the koji-rice, humidity  of the air and development of the koji-kin (the mold itself) on a very tight schedule that wouldn’t allow you to sleep. (You can see the white fibers of the mold developping itself on the koji-rice – this picture to the right was taken after 27 hours ->)

Trays installed in the machieBut here Daimon-san (who is also the kuramoto ie the owner of the kura) took an important decision 12 years ago and decided to invest a LOT of money in buying this state-of-the-art machinery that turned this second room in an automatic and computer-controlled system.

Daimon-san explaining the graphsI remember how proud he was, explaining and showing us on the screen how it works and how accurate and precise is now the control he has over the different parameters like temperature, humidity,… and their evolution through time (the whole process takes about 25-27 hours and usually, 6 hours after “mori”, the “mixers” are turned on – this was done by hand before).
Trays are moved and rice is mixed

Again, it is a mix between ancestral tools and modern machinery, as for example, the boxes that are used are of the same kind of those used before: they are made out of wood and divided in 2 compartments of 2,5 kilos each. Also, to have consistency in temperature for all the boxes, those below go up, and those up go down thanks to the machinery (of course, this had to be done many times by hand before…).Trays move automatically

Years after having taken that risk, Daimon-san could now explain to us that it was the right thing to do: invest in what he calls, with his great sense of humor, his “Ferrari”.

For me, this is very emblematic of the way of thinking (and living) of those great people keeping alive the tradition of saké-making: they don’t buy Ferrari, they don’t take vacation: they take heavy risks to have the chance to keep doing what they do… all that for the sake of Saké.

From now on, for every cup I will drink, for every bottle of saké I will open, I will know the people, the work, the courage and the generosity it takes and I will always be thankfull.
And what better way for us, to give back… than to drink and to share with as many people as we can the saké they have made for us… How hard can it be?

Now that I’m back in France, I’m missing the smells, I’m missing the hotness and the coolness of the different parts of the kura, I’m missing the touching of the rice and all those tasks the kurabito’s  have teached me but upon all,  I miss those warm and great people I had the chance to work with.

To keep the spirit alive, I’ll try to explain, to share with my french compatriots…through my all-new blog about saké, through the tastings I will organize, through the small izakaya I want to open in Paris…

But I know that I need (and that I will) go back to the small village of Mukune..

… where they use a “Ferrari” to make Saké!

From all my heart….. Arigato!

… and Kanpai!

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Memoirs of a Kurabito

dscn15751

As I reflect on my week in Osaka, I still am amazed at the beautiful experience and the effect it has had on my life. Now that I am back in the US, I think of the phenomenal people, fantastic conversations and hard work. All in all, I must say it was truly one of the most happiest times of my life.

To work in the kura made me think of life a bit differently. I was appreciating the simplest things. I knew before I left that it could be a life changing experience. I had no idea how it would change. I just knew that this was a great gift to me. Fully immersing myself in the life of a kurabito, as best as possible, was an escape from life as I have known it. The washing, the soaking, the steaming, the pressing, the labeling and the tasting provided me the chance to shift my thoughts and dream of a better tomorrow.

Well, tomorrow is now today and yesterday is just a memory. This memory is so deeply imbedded in my mind and steers me into the future with new sense of purpose and confidence.  I have been renewed and inspired to accomplish all of my goals and create more goals to accomplish after those. It was a mere 7 day program that began a new journey for me in life.

I am embarking with new vigor and intensity to achieve more than what I had ever wanted. As I reminisce, I gain faith through all the blessings that I was just given to enhance my mind and soul. How could a grain of rice be the basis for this life changing experience? To work with the rice has taught me so much more than I could ever have known. I must worship the rice gods for the harvest which provided such a wonderful opportunity to me!

I will never forget the time I spent in Osaka for it was and is so very dear to me. To future interns, I know you too will be forever impacted by your stay at Daimon Shuzo. I look forward to reading about your experiences and learning more about sake through your posts.  Live, Love, Laugh, Learn and don’t you dare forget to seal it with a KAMPAI! Yeah baby!

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No, it is not over.

After almost 3 hectic weeks in Japan, visting countless sake breweries and working in two of them, I am home.
Being in Europe, now it all feels unreal.  Did I really do this?  Did I really learn what I think I may have learned?
I have my photos, and I have my notes.  These are so important to me that I carried them as carry on baggage on the flight home.
So, are these just memories from a great trip?  Certainly not.  They are the beginning of the future.  A future of sake brewing, and a gateway to trial and error.  The process of learning from own mistakes can now begin.
Yesterday I ordered 100 koji-buta from a local workshop.  Next week I will hopefully get a quotation from a Tokyo based broker on the different stuff I need to get started.
Thank you Daimon-san for opening the doors to the mysteries of sake brewing.  I am forever grateful!!

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I Bow To The Brewer

Ahhhhhhhh – life goes on. And on. And on. But my thoughts are back at Mukune Village. It’s easy to miss people, things, heck even smells…… but I miss the feeling of running through a cold morning brewery from one task to another. In case you didn’t know it – sake makers run – and they run – and they run all day. From here to there – from heated rooms to cold ones – from “T” breaks to “QTing” time. And I miss that. I miss running through the kura. I miss my fellow kurabito – local and otherwise. But most of all I miss the “system” of brewing. And this is something that you only discover with repetition – and trust me when I say that brewing is all about repetition. (Repeating actions becomes a chore unless of course you love that action – that is why I bow to the brewers – they love to brew and consequently they love to repeat tasks – over and over again…….)

Our host crafted one hell of a “Commencement” dinner party on the last night attended

The Fluid Of Repetition

The Fluid Of Repetition

by many sake dignitaries from around Japan. It was a superb evening. And I mean superb. In a sense the momentous events that had transpired the days before culminated in a sake celebration that was just that – a celebration of sake as six new sake astronauts were launched out into orbit to explore new ways to promote the “betterment of sake.” We found the religion on that last night. We also drank a lot of that religion. And I mean a lot!

As my training had taught me – no matter how much or how late you drank – you must heed the bell and make sake again the next day – the only problem was …… Sunday Feb 15th I was no longer a brewer – I was just Beau again…….. sort of like the departing day on Fantasy Island when all of the complex and ridiculous stories came to a gentle and smiling humble ending. Not for me brother. I woke at 6:30 – an hour before our usual starting time and I pulled on my nifty white brewing boots and I ran through the kura. I went and checked on the moromi… the moto…. and I organized all of the tools that Daimon-san used for his usual “Toji walk-through” early morning check. And I set them up – placed them out in a thread of sunlight – two metal buckets half-full, the “tank scraper,” the tank towel, the mesh basket, the metal pans – the mixing polls. (I wish that I took a photo, because D-san would later say that he saw these implements laid out and it got to him!)

So I waited…… 7am – 7:15 – 7:30 ? – 7:45 – 8 – Sunday… they do brew on Sunday no? And then I was reminded about arrival the Sunday before and yes indeed – there is work to be done on Sundays……… as we jumped right into it then……. so where was Toji-san? In a word – he enjoyed himself the night before – as well he should! Daimon-san achieved an incredible milestone in that first week and many of his peers in the industry saluted him the night before… and we too saluted… and cheers-ed.. and sante-ed…and toast-ed…… and the man needed a rest! He slept in! And for that I am very proud of him!

Since my return I have been dealing with tax auditors and putting down one of the really great dogs in this world amongst other “daily” ordeals….. my life is hectic….. but like using a nine-foot pole to push fermenting rice around in a massive vat – I am doing it…. one push at a time…. one pull at a time ……. one push…… one pull…… and my mind finds warmth in the cool rooms of Mukune Village……

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There and Back Again?

It’s hard to believe that the internship has now come and gone.  I managed to squeeze out a whole two weeks of vacation from work for this trip to Japan; this was my first trip abroad and it was truly something special.  I had the pleasure of spending a week travelling with new friends from Los Angeles and then spent an entire week at the brewery.  From strolling through the falling snow of the Sapporo Snow Festival to getting my hands sticky with starch while working the just-steamed rice, I have left Japan with a treasure-trove of memories, new friends and acquaintances, and dreams of doing it all over again.  I am a little saddened to have to go back to my routine this morning, returning to a grey cubicle.

For what little time was spent in the country, I have hardly scratched the surface of what I want to see and do.  Perhaps when enough vacation is saved once again I can visit Kashira-san, the kurabito, and Daimon-san once again. Perhaps if I learn Japanese, I may not need that vacation time… perhaps.

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Graduation time!

dscn02301The first session of the Mukune International Sake Brewing Program has come to a conclusion and six inspired, dedicated Sake lovers are ready to spread the gospel. Everyday I thought to myself this cannot get any better, but everyday Shachou, Daimon-san, would take things to a whole new level…Amazing! Everything was instilled with such meaning, art and beauty.

My introduction to the wonders of Sake came from homebrewing of all things. I had been making beer from kits and I had this big old bag of rice in my kitchen (a casualty of the South Beach diet craze) and I thought I should make Sake with it. Let me just say that the first few batches I made were almost undrinkable. My friends would run when they saw me bringing a bottle of Sake to a dinner or party. But my friend, Joe (my Sake Yojimbo), told me the words of wisdom from a Kung Fu Master….Invest in Loss…. So I did. I drank my awful Sake night after night and thought deeply about how to improve it.  There is a happy ending to this story. I finally got hold of Fred Eckhart’s “MAKING really good SAKE AT HOME” and this 15 page comprehensive masterpiece showed me the way. So I was finally able to make a drinkable brew and in the process fell in love with Sake brewing.

I never in my wildest dreams thought I would get the opportunity to work in an actual working Kura. The Sake gods have smiled down upon me. And now we have all this new knowledge, passion and experience that Shachou and the Kurabito have passed on to us as the first graduates of The First Session of The Mukune International Sake Brewing Program. A proud achievement for all of us!

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A Kurabito I Shall Become

Life here at the kura is certainly a change of pace from the daily grind back in Los Angeles.  But in order to take part and truly become a kurabito it is necessary to adopt every part of their lifestyle down to the bedding, accommodations, food, and of course, drink.

A Traditional Japanese Futon

A Traditional Japanese Futon

Upon arrival at the kura, we were shown our rooms.  To many Americans, the size of the room is about the size of modest walk-in closet.  The rooms are complete with an electric heater mounted to the wall, tatami mats on the floor, and a surprisingly comfortable traditional Japanese futon bed.  Just outside our rooms we have a small clothes drying rack to hang any wet clothing from the day’s work.

To hygiene we have a shared shower on the first floor not too far from the “command central” (where we spend our break and blogging time).  For those who are spending longer in the country, there is a washer and dryer located in a covered shed outside.  It’s been a lifesaver for me just a couple days ago – I’ve nearly run out of clean clothes to wear when heading out for the evening.

Bento Meal

Bento Meal

The food thus far has been excellent.  Every lunch is provided as a bento lunch with traditional Japanese foods.  For drinking during our morning and lunch meals we’ve enjoyed an assortment of cold and hot teas, Japanese-style milk (very creamy compared to American milk),water, and coffee (the instant type).  Dinner so far has not been without some of the most excellent sake provided by Daimon-san himself.  Some of the bottles he brings with him are even unlabeled!  My palate has never been so entertained and amazed in the United States.

One of the other big lifestyle changes necessary to becoming a kurabito is the observance of shoe-rules.  Different places throughout the brewery are intended to be tread through without shoes.  Sandals and slippers are plenty and easily located whenever it’s necessary to change from the rubber boots worn on the brewery floor.  I’ve been trying a no-shoes policy at home on my own, but the practice has never been so closely followed as it has been here.

I am still learning much on how to live and adapt in this very different environment, but it certainly has been a pleasurable experience.  It’s amazing what one will discover when pushed just outside their comfort zone.

Our First Meal Together as Team Mukune

Our First Meal Together as Team Mukune

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Poor guys

Being sake yeast is certainly not easy. As a matter of fact it is downright hardship. That these cells cope is to me a mystery.
During their whole short lives they are being tortured.
First they get pitched in a dry porridgy substance which is low in both sugars and oxygen, with a very low number of friends around. Then as the sugar level becomes decent, somebody turns the heat down. The poor guys may think that is temporary, because the day after the heat comes on for then to be switched off again. And that is what life is all about for the sake yeast cells: torture. They are heated and cooled, and expected to cope. The strange thing is: They do cope very well. I have never seen anything like it. They seem to forgive allmost everything a toji do to make their lives miserable. They even turn the other cheek by making the most wonderful aromas.
At the end, when fermentation is over, you may think that these hard working fellows would be rewarded for their loyalty by being repitched into another moto. But no, they are pressed dry together with the leftover rice solids and cooked and eaten as sake kasu.
There is surely no fairness in life!

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Got Rice?
Got Rice?

Got Rice?

The koji room is warm and inviting. Working with the rice has been the best work yet. It is unbelievable to see the amount of care to each grain. We are careful to separate each clump. This will prepare the rice for the very important koji powder to be spread evenly all over it. The conversion will soon begin!

I look at rice differently these days. Only one short week has passed and I respect the rice worker in the fields. I respect the kurabito for their dedication to this craft. I have a respect for my fellow interns, knowing their passion and desire has brought us all together in the name of sake. We are all thirsty travelers.

Surrounded by rice, I am in awe that it will make such a delightful beverage. Sake is a liquid treasure. It all starts with a simple grain. Without rice we have none.

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Every grain of rice is precious

Over these past four days of the MISB Program one aspect that has really impressed me is the almost religious attention to the rice. We have washed it, steamed it, soaked it, cooled it, milled it, mixed it, unclumped it and sprinkled koji-kin on it. And in every stage each grain is painstakingly saved and used. A good example of this today was when we cleaned the round mats that separate the different layers of rice during the steaming process. The soaking water was poured through a seive so that the few grains trapped on the mats could be saved, rinsed and  then added back into the moromi.

From this most basic of processes I realized that this ethic is at the very heart of Sake making. Over hundred and hundreds of years Sake brewers have developed an incredibly complex and elegant process; and through this art, like the blooming of a flower, each and every grain of rice is coaxed open yielding it’s unique flavors and aromas. And these are gathered into the most pleasing and joyous of beverages…. Sake!

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