“Five, four, three, two, one, stop!” The call signalled two men, who had been hard at work washing rice, to halt. They immediately removed their sieve, heavy with rice grains, from the washing water. In the freezing cold of the winter morning, their workroom was filled with quiet tension. This scene is a common procedure at Izumibashishuzou, a sake brewery which was established in 1857, during Japan’s Edo period. These days, most commercial sake brands wash their rice using automated processes and machines, but at Izumibashi, traditional procedures still hold sway. Yuichi Hashiba, from the family-run brewery’s sixth generation of owners, explains their choice of keeping things old school.
“[Washing] is an important part of the sake-making process. Depending on the temperature and the condition of the rice, we need to adjust how long we soak the grains in water down to the second, because every batch of rice is different. That’s why we need to do it by hand.” It’s clear that Izumibashi is a sake maker that focuses a lot on raw ingredients. Most sake makers these days buy sake rice from other parts of Japan, but the rice Izumibashi uses is 90 percent local rice; from their own rice field as well as those of contracted local farmers. “In winemaking, everyone is making wine with local grapes. I think that is very natural and makes good sense. Similarly, I would like to express the terroir of this area in our sake,” Hashiba says.
NOT ALL SAKE IS CREATED EQUAL
Historically, the roots of sake have always been closely intertwined with the grainy stuff. Japonica rice was introduced to Japan around 1000-500 B.C. There is no clear documentation of the process, but it is considered general knowledge in Japan that the local people began to appreciate sake just after rice arrived: People planted rice in spring, harvested it in autumn, and made sake in the wintertime.
The first written record of sake-making is estimated to have been made sometime in the eighth century. A collection of ancient manuscripts, the Harimakoku Fudoki, mention that the people found a mould growing on soggy rice, named it koji-kin (now known scientifically as Aspergillus oryzae), and made sake from it. The ingredients of sake back then were very simple—rice, koji-kin, and water. Nowadays, not all sake is made with these simple ingredients, and this is what separates them into two main categories: one is Jyunmai-shu (純米酒), and the second is non-Jyunmai-shu, which includes the sub-categories Honjouzou-shu (本醸造酒) and Futsu-shu (普通酒).
The name “Jyunmai-shu” roughly translates to “sake made with pure rice”—indicating a type of sake made only using rice, koji-kin, and water. Non-Jyunmai-shu indicates a sake brew that includes distilled alcohol, mainly made abroad, from sugarcane molasses. Distilled alcohol is added to these brews to give the sake a clear appearance, and also makes it easy to obtain a high alcoholic percentage at affordable prices. As a result, some sake aficionados shy away from non-Jyunmai-shu, in favour of purer sakes. One sake that is well-liked is Jyunmai-daiginjyo (純 米大吟醸), which is widely considered to be the best sake in Japan. As its name implies, this is a form of Jyunmai-shu, but the difference is in the rice polishing ratio (RPR). What exactly is RPR? If the RPR is 70 percent, it means that the rice in question was polished until 70 percent of its original brown rice weight remains—30 percent of its original whole grain weight has been polished away. A typical sake has an RPR of roughly 70 percent; only sake made from rice that is less than 50 percent polished can be called Daiginjyo (大吟醸).
To make Daiginjyo, sake makers polish the rice grains more, to remove all the husk/bran and bring out the purest flavour profile possible from the rice. The husk or bran, which is the outer part of a whole rice grain, as well as the outer sections of the white grain itself, contain more protein and fat, so sake makers refer to them as zatsu-mi ( 雑味)— “distractions from the pure flavour”.
A PAINSTAKING PROCESS
To better appreciate Izumibashi’s refinements, it’s helpful to understand the general process of sake making. First, rice is polished by machine until it reaches the desired polishing ratio. The polished grains are then chilled, and stored in a cool place for two to three weeks for their quality to stabilise. The rice then goes through a washing and soaking process, before it is finally steamed. The steamed rice is divided into two batches. A typical ratio is 1:4, to be used in the making of koji (rice that has been fermented with koji-kin) and kake (steamed rice) respectively.
The koji rice is transferred to a koji-muro or culture room, a clean, warm and humid space where the temperature is usually kept at around 35 degrees Celsius. Here, they sprinkle koji spores on the steamed rice, mix it in thoroughly, and let the inoculated rice rest for about 10 to 12 hours. Then, they mix in more koji spores. This is repeated at different intervals depending on the selected production process, but typically, after 48 hours, the rice mixture has turned into koji. At this point, the rice has lost most of its original moisture.
Next comes the making of shubo—the starter mash, where the initial “mini fermentation” that ultimately decides the quality of the finished alcohol product occurs. Koji is combined with kake rice and water in a small tank and left to ferment. Lactic acid plays a very important role in this step; it has a powerful anti-bacterial effect, and prevents most other spores from flourishing in the fermenting mixture. Koji spores, however, are still able to thrive. The lactic acid used to produce shubo is usually made in one of two ways: Kimotokei, where naturally occurring bacteria and fungi excrete lactic acid as part of their respiration, and Sokujyokei, in which ready-made liquid lactic acid is added to the mixture. After this stage is over, what we have is shubo.
Koji, kake rice, and water are added and left to ferment in three stages, after which there is another wait for the final stage of fermentation to complete. After this, the mash is filtered to obtain the sake. Traditionally this is done using a cloth bag, in which the mixture is gently pressed to strain the sake (Funa-shibori). But nowadays, most companies conduct this procedure by machine (Yabuta-shibori). Funa-shibori results in a more premium product, as the flavour of the sake obtained is purer and more delicate. Once this is done, the sake is usually heated to sterilise it. Some sake is non-filtered on purpose, and is called Muroka (無濾過); this is said to keep its aroma and character. Sake that does not undergo heat sterilisation is called Namazake (生酒).
The alcohol is then allowed to rest in a tank for a while, before being blended with product from other tanks to obtain the desired final flavour. A specified quantity of water is then added to obtain the required alcohol content of the final product. If the sake straight from the tank is left as is, with no added water, it is called Genshu (原酒). The sake is then sterilised one more time using heat, before it is finally bottled.
PROTECTING LOCAL LIVELIHOODS
Izumibashi sake is 100 percent Jyunmai-shu, made purely with rice. Hashiba explains that this is because they wish to support Japan’s agricultural ecosystem. Now 49, Hashiba grew up in the Ebina region of Kanagawa Prefecture, which is roughly 50km away from Tokyo. That is where his ancestors started making sake, and the family brewery has been situated there ever since. Ancient artefacts found in the region indicate that rice cultivation began there 2,000 years ago, and Kanagawa boasts huge expanses of rice fields even today.
Unsurprisingly, Izumibashi is surrounded by beautiful rice fields, and many of its neighbours are mostly rice farms. Unfortunately, some of these rice fields have recently been abandoned, because younger generations aren’t keen to take over the family businesses. “The price of rice is too cheap,” Hashiba laments. “Sometimes the price of one bowl of rice drops as low as 40 yen (S$0.50) — cheaper than a 500ml bottle of mineral water.” Previously, like other sake makers, Izumibashi bought most of its sake rice from other parts of Japan. But in 1996, together with his neighbourhood farmers, Hashiba started growing sake rice. In 1997, he made the company’s first batch of sake from this rice. The price of sake rice is usually twice or thrice that of normal eating rice, so this motivates farmers to continue working in the rice fields.
At the same time, Hashiba decided to make only Jyunmai-shu at Izumibashi. “I want to use rice as much as possible, to support the local farmers,” he says. If he were to make non-Jyunmai-shu, he could easily buy distilled alcohol from abroad, but prefers to make all the alcohol from rice, on his own. In any case, he says, his ancestors grew their own rice and made their own sake from it. ”It is natural to work in the rice fields from spring through autumn, then make sake during winter. That’s how our ancestors used to do it.”
TRAILBLAZING DESPITE THE ODDS
That was easier said than done. In 1996, when Hashiba first started thinking about making sake from homegrown rice, he encountered many barriers. He wanted to concentrate on making Jyunmai-shu, which meant he could not buy distilled alcohol from outside Japan, and had to produce 100 percent sake on his own. That in turn meant that he needed to produce more sake. To increase production, he invested a lot of resources in equipment. Unfortunately, Kanagawa is not a renowned rice and sake producing region like Hyogo or Niigata, so Hashiba’s product had low name value. His approach was also very new to the Japanese market, because prior government legislation prevented sake makers from producing sake from their own rice between 1942 and 1995. For practical reasons, Izumibashi had also been using cheap eating rice in its sake production. Hashiba made the change to using only premium local sake rice, and ingredient costs also shot up.
The company began making premium quality sake, but sales struggled to pick up. Hashiba started thinking about what unique, strong points his brewery had, and found that location could be one. It was not known for rice or sake, but was very accessible from Tokyo. So he changed his mindset, invited sake suppliers and sommeliers to his rice field, and explained his philosophy to them. Through word of mouth, his brewery soon developed a name for itself as a rice-growing brewery. In 2007, Hashiba achieved his heart’s desire —Izumibashi was finally producing, and known for producing, 100 percent Jyunmaishu. The journey from obscurity to success and fame had taken a full 10 years.
THE FUTURE OF FLAVOUR
It’s not just about supporting agriculture in Japan, however. Currently, Hashiba is looking to bring out the full flavour of sake rice in his work. One example is how Izumibashi’s shubo-making process, which features in 50 percent of its sake products, utilises the traditional kimoto-zukuri method. Only one percent of sake in the market is made this way, primarily because the process is so time consuming. To facilitate the saccharification of rice in kimotozukuri, sake makers mix the shubo base, which consists of koji, steamed rice, and water, with a wooden paddle.
The process is heavily dependent on human labour, but the upside is that it brings a complexity to the finished sake’s aroma and flavour, due to the many types of native bacteria at work in the brewing process. Kazunari Shata, an 8th generation sake maker from the brand Tengumai, raves about Hashiba’s vision and methods. Shata’s brewery was established 1823 in Ishikawa Prefecture, and he is making non-filtered sake in a similar bid to bring out the flavour of the rice he uses.
“He’s truly a pioneer and visionary,” Shata says of Hashiba. “He started growing his own sake rice when no one else was doing it, even though it was — and is — very difficult. He dared to take up the challenge. We too are using local sake rice from contracted local farmers, but most of our rice is still purchased from other prefectures for ‘risk hedge’ because sometimes the quality of the rice is affected by weather, like typhoons or cold summers.” There are several other sake makers who grow their own rice, though. In Aichi Prefecture, Sekiya–jyouzou, which was established in 1864, started growing their own rice in 2006. Takeshi Sekiya, a 7th generation owner, says: “To grow rice ourselves brings much benefit to us. Our brewers understand more about rice, how the weather affects the quality of the rice, and more. This knowledge pushes the quality of our sake higher.”
Hashiba proudly marks all his sake with the image of a dragonfly. This image is also his company’s logo. It is an insect that is ubiquitous in and around rice fields, especially when the rice is being harvested, and he grew up seeing them. Their presence is also proof that the land is healthy. “I cannot say all of my rice is organic, but I try to use as little pesticide as possible. I want to hand over this beautiful rice field to the next generation, and the dragonfly is a symbol of a healthy rice field, and also a healthy environment. If more sake breweries start growing rice, we can support our country’s agriculture, and also express our terroir more,” Hashiba says.
Undoubtedly, a new era of sake has begun.