Drinks July August 2019

On a hectic trip through Japan’s major cities, I make a stop to learn about craft sake and the work behind it.

by Chris Tom-Kee

Each batch of sake begins by thoroughly washing the rice. After each brewing, more is washed to maintain a steady flow
Each batch of sake begins by thoroughly washing the rice. After each brewing, more is washed to maintain a steady flow

In the small, sleepy town of Kakegawa, about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, at the Doi Brewery, Yaichi Doi goes about the normal routine of his day. The brewery produces sake under two brands, Kaiun and Takatenjin (Kaiun is the only one available in Alberta). It is still brewing season, which means there is always something to do. The hours are long, and each stage of the brewing process must be strictly monitored to maintain the quality for which the brewery has become known.

Doi-san is the fifth master brewer since the brewery began in 1872, and, like so many things in Japan, his work is steeped in history and tradition.

If Tokyo is K-days, then Kakegawa is akin to the Muttart Conservatory. Leaving the train station, I was greeted by a fresh breeze, lush vegetation and a serene atmosphere. I noticed during the short ride through fields of green tea that resembled rows of perfectly manicured hedges, that there were no signs or clear markings that would suggest one of the most respected producers of sake is in the region. The property resembles a large villa rather than a production facility.

We are greeted by our translator and Doi-san himself. I am nervous in anticipation—Japanese social customs are strict, but unenforced for foreigners. Still, I don’t want to make a mistake. I bow as we are introduced and hand him my card. He quietly greets us and we begin our tour.

It is 10:30am, and, for Doi-san and his staff, the day is half over. While production volumes can vary depending on the style, brewing happens twice a day to maintain a steady flow. The first round of brewing starts at 4:30am and finishes around 10am. The next round of brewing starts at 2pm and will go to around 7pm. The facility is unassuming with large bins of polished rice being washed in the courtyard in preparation for the evening batch.

While Sake can be made from any rice, for most craft brewers the choice is Yamada Nishiki. The rice is a major factor in how craft sake distinguishes itself from larger commercial production. Doi-san explains that this rice must be polished to remove the hull and outer layers of the grain before production can even begin. The percentage of what gets removed in the polishing process will play a large role in determining what the final product will be. The rice has starch that must be converted to sugar before fermentation can occur, and the bulk of starch is in the heart of the kernels. Lower polishing rates result in a bolder, more punchy flavour, while higher polishing rates result in more subtle and clean flavours. The rice is then washed, steamed, and inoculated with enzymes to be able to ferment with the addition of yeast and water.

As Doi-san takes us through his brewery, it was clear how much control must be maintained in order for the batch to maintain his standard. Each step, from the steaming, to the aging, to the fermenting, happens in a different room where cleanliness and temperatures are keenly monitored. Batches of rice are slowly added in stages to extend the fermentation time and floral fruity aromas waft from the vats of bubbling rice.

When the fermentation process is complete, the rice mixture (called maromi) is pressed, and the solids removed from the sake, which is now ready to be filtered before bottling. On average, it takes anywhere from 1 to 1.5 kgs of rice to produce one 1.8 L bottle of sake depending on the style. This, coupled with the stringent nature of sake production, means that small batches are the only way to make the sake that Doi-san has spent years making.

While the brewery does hire staff, it is very much still family run. Doi-san lives with his family on premises, their house quite literally an extension of the main brewery. I was most curious about his passion for the craft. Did he still love making sake? Or have the long, hard hours and decades of experience taken a toll?

“It is difficult,” he says.

I didn’t press him further, but there must have been more to it than that. I’ve had time to mull over his answer and my best guess is to ascribe it to Japanese cultural stoicism. The dedication to continue to work hard and live up to familial expectations. I felt there was a sense of pride in his work, but I can’t really say for certain if his excitement matched his work ethic. He didn’t share and I didn’t want to pry. I imagine Doi-san will likely brew sake for many years still, and there has been some pay off for his dedication. In 2018, two of his sakes won grand gold in the Fine Sake Awards competition (only about five per cent of entries earn this mark, so having two is certainly a feat) and more recently, his Junmai Dai Ginjo won a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge (about 100 made this mark out of 1200+ entries).

Though the man himself remains somewhat of a mystery to me, knowing how much work and effort goes into each bottle made me slow down, savour each sip, and marvel at how rice can produce such a wide range of flavours and aromas.

Sake Categories

Dai Ginjo
A sake with added distilled alcohol and a milling rate of at least 50 per cent meaning that only 50 per cent remains after being polished.

A sake with added distilled alcohol and a milling rate of at least 40 per cent, meaning 60 per cent remains after the process.

A category of sake with a milling rate of at least 30 percent. This type of sake also includes added brewer’s alcohol (neutral spirit jozo arukoru).

Made without the addition of jozo arukoru, Junmai can also apply to Dai Ginjo and Ginjo levels of polishing.

Unfiltered sake with a cloudy or milky appearance.

Undiluted sake with about 18-20 per cent ABV. Typically sakes are diluted to about 15 per cent to make them more manageable, so be careful with this one!

Chris Tom-Kee is a former chef, current foods teacher, and alcoholic beverage enthusiast/nerd. He’s got an opinion on what you’re eating and drinking, so be careful about opening that can of worms.