Archive for February, 2009

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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Koji and the Toji
Shaker Can of Koji

Shaker Can of Koji

Aspergillus oryzae, more commonly known as koji, is one of the special ingredients that goes into making sake.  Koji has the unique ability to tunnel into grains of properly prepared rice and convert the starch of the rice kernel into sugar.  This process is known as saccharification.  Yeast is then used to convert the sugar into alcohol.

Today we had the pleasure of working koji for the second time.  The koji room is on the second floor of the brewery.  In here the temperature is a very warm mid thirties (degrees centigrade) with a very high relative humidity.  These environmental factors are key to the propagation and growth of the koji mold spores over the surface and into the core of the rice grains.

Kjetil Working the Koji Can

Kjetil Working the Koji Can

After prepping the rice with the usual washing, steaming, and preliminary drying/cooling, it was carefully transported to the koji room to be laid out atop a polyester sheet.  The rice was worked briefly to spread it out evenly across the large trough to maintain temperature uniformity and moisture content.  Throughout the day the rice was worked to reduce clumpage and maintain homogeneity of physical attributes (and to help break apart clumps).  By the end of the day the rice had reached the proper temperature and moisture to have the koji mold spores sprinkled atop and mixed in.  Following the mixing, the rice was piled high in a single “mountain.”  This mountain was then wrapped in the polyester sheet, several cotton sheets, and a final plastic sheet ( to lock in moisture).  A temperature probe was inserted prior to wrapping to monitor the temperature of the exothermic reaction of the mold growth.

Timing and practice are all part of the Toji’s skills.  Here he demonstrated just how the koji was to be sprinkled from a shaker.  Every Toji has their set of rituals and Daimon-san is no different.  In the way the koji rice is wrapped after mixing with the mold spores and how long to allow them to propagate and grow are just two examples of his knowledge and skill.

Gotta Love Our Hats

Gotta Love Our Hats

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Soaking!

I knew that soaking was an important process but as is every single step leading to making high grade saké. I had never realized though the complexity and the variability of this soaking time.

Your servant learning and enjoying soaking It just hit me yesterday when I was doing soaking with Kashira-San (the kashira is the second in command in a kura. Here, this very important job is undertaken by a young but skillful fellow called Ryosuke Uei which is very rare because young people don’t show must interest in the making of saké these days).Young Kashira-San doing the math

We were preparing different batches of rice (2 different types of rice: the well-known Yamada-Nishiki and Nihonbare with different polishing ratios) that needed to be washed and soaked. We had bags of 10 kg each and for every one of each, time was precisely measured.

Kashira-San would put on a board at what time each bag should be pulled out of the water after having been carefully manually undulated.
But he would very often revise those timing after checking the weight of the soaked rice bag in order to obtain a precise ratio (129% for some, 130% for some others… for example 13kg after soaking) especially when we would go from one type of rice to another.

I really enjoyed those many fine tunings and I really understood what it was about… thanks, Kashira-San!

This program is really great, I never thought I would have had so much fun putting rice bags in water!

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Water World……..

Hello sake people……

Another day of brewing has come and gone. When you move – are moving – or discussing where to move next – the day just flies by. I sat once today – twice now if you count this blog moment. Amongst all of the movement I starting seeing water. Water here. Water there. Water everywhere. You prep with water. You clean with water. You add water to the moromi. You wash your hands once – twice – nine times – and more. Sake is 80% water but the production thereof is even more water centric.

We all know about good brewing water – the strengths and weaknesses. We all know that better water makes for better sake. We also know about different “kinds” of water withing a brewery – washing/cleaning water and brewing water – filtered water etc. There is city water and purified water. And let’s not forget the water from the eyes when you are just so damn happy making sake!

Washing, Soaking, Cleaning Oh My!

Washing, Soaking, Cleaning Oh My!

Sake makers are clean freaks – and the grease that keeps the cleaning machine running is water! This afternoon we washed and soaked Ninhonbare milled to 60%. I will explain the water journey that this brewing rice took this afternoon. First it was poured into a washing machine of sorts that swirled the rice for one minute in a pressurized chamber. Then the rice was released with the water down into a mesh bag in a basket. Then it was washed with a shower of water for 15 more seconds. At this point the washing was done and the rice was about to hit the pool. This particular batch was soaked for 14 minutes per 10k mesh bag in individual blue plastic boxes. (We undulated the bag 50 times to shake off the remaining nuka in the soaking water).

Water for the moment was done. Or was it? As we pulled the bags of washed and soaked Ninonbare we weighed it, dried it and set the rice aside. Ahhh. No more water needed. NOT! (said in my best Borat accent). After this work process I looked at the dark tiled floor and saw white nuka water all over the place. And nuka sticks. And sticks. And is a residual that just lingers around. So what do you need? Water. And lots of it to clean everything that this washing and soaking water touched. But you cannot just splash water on it. You have to scrub with a brush then wash. And wash again. The cleaning process is insane. So much insanity awash in water. The great part of cleaning everything is that you continually look to a brewer for approval. If they turn their head then you did not clean it well enough. If they smile and say O K -ay! then you know that you cleaned well. But back to the water. When you wash/soak/clean water is always on. And on. The sound of water is always heard in a brewery. The hoses that brewers use are larger than typical hoses – this more water comes out. More water. More water. Thankfully Daimon-san provided us with very spiffy white rubber boots!

I am amazed and continued to be amazed how much water is around. I probably between the addition to the moromi, the washing/soaking/cleaning…. the more cleaning….. personally touched a small lake worth of water – and that is not including my shower. The irony is that I did not have a drink of water until 6PM. What a water dork!

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