“Dignity!” (Mr. Stevens)

One of the highlights of my trip to Fukushima Prefecture earlier this month was the visit of the Daishichi sake brewery, together my daughter. Mr. Ohta 10th generation kuramoto (owner) kindly devoted some time to receive us. His aide Mr. Saito assisted him, carrying our belongings, opening and closing doors, supporting our movements throughout the large kura rebuilt between 2001 and 2010. His impeccable service and posture, in the reception rooms of the high-ceiling building faced with red bricks, and furnished with classic Western style elements, reminded me of Mr. Stevens, the hero and narrator of The Remains of the Day(*), played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1993 screen adaptation of the eponymous novel.

Located less than 100 km away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Daishichi and its people went through very difficult times in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake: on the news of radioactive pollution, the staff stopped ventilators and air-conditioning, sealed windows and doors, until expensive protective equipment was installed (air curtains, creating positive pressure inside, special filters, etc.). Then of course the company has had to put in place a series of detection tests of radioactive elements at all stages of production (water, rice, sake). Fortunately the buildings have very thick walls, and all water comes from a well located within the brewery, fed from rain and snow slowly filtering through the slopes of the Adatara volcano, further West. In short, I can say I feel safe with their products.

Ohta san has brought a number of innovations to his sake brewing process over the last few years. It finishes with a new bottling line where sake has minimum contact with air oxygen before the bottle is sealed (the bottle is filled with nitrogen first), and it starts with “superflat” rice polishing, aiming at optimizing the peeling of fats, minerals, vitamins and proteins of the outer layers of the sake rice endosperm. The challenge is to fine-tune the rotation speed of the polishing roller, and the debit of the rice flow falling down by gravity on such roller, so that the shape of the rice grains (which has a long and a short axis), is respected. Interestingly enough, I understood that Daishichi actually re-sold computer controlled polishing machines to get back to an earlier, much more “manual” version from a previous generation (see picture, source Daishichi). After the polishing itself though, a modern machine using imagery technology checks every bit of raw material that will be used in the brewing process, rejecting unsuitable grains (not ripe, or broken), small stones or dust, etc.

What Daishichi is mostly known for though, is their attachment to the very traditional “Kimoto” method of producing the yeast starter. Taking twice as long a time as the more recent “Sokujo” method (publicized in 1909), and much more labor intensive (see picture, source Daishichi), a kimoto style yeast starter generally leads to a sake with a broader and richer flavor profile, all other things being equal. In particular one may find a few more lactic aromas (as lactic fermentation is left naturally developing prior to alcoholic fermentation in the tank), a great asset for the pairing with cheese and other fermented foods. It works, really….and I am looking forward to the result of the recent introduction of tanks made of wood in the process.

As my readers will know, I like ancient stories about sake. I enjoyed hearing the story of a very special “cuvee” brewed and bottled for the 1200th anniversary of the founding of Mount Koya (“Koyasan”) and its 100 temples (in 816 in Wakayama Prefecture) by the Grand Master Kukai, whose posthumous name is Kobo-daishi. According to tradition, Kukai’s mother, who was not allowed to enter the site (a woman…), used to prepare sort of a medicine to protect her son’s health, which was related to unfiltered amazake (sweet sake, with no or little alcohol, and lees in suspension). Sanbo-in, a Koyasan temple, is partly dedicated to the soul of this loving mother. Adjacent to the temple is the dense forest of giant cryptomeria sheltering Koyasan’s beautiful necropolis. There rest the lords Niwa in peace, rulers of Nihonmatsu, the city of Daishichi. Hence the “homage”. Nihonmatsu’s castle is represented on the label of this nice bottle of Honjozo Kimoto sake for daily consumption.

(*) the novel was written by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki!

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