Spirit and courage

“ The number one virtue is a spirit of inquiry; then second comes courage”.

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Toji (brewing master) Touichi Takahashi, 73 years old, was the focus of a March 2019 episode of the NHK program “Professional”. His words, inserted as the conclusion of the episode, resonated all the better as I had met Takahashi Toji at Saiya Shuzoten (Saiya brewery) one month before, while visiting Akita for my own education about Yamahai (*) and Kimoto sake. I had been very kindly received and guided by Kuramoto (brewery owner) Kotaro Saito.

Yuki no Bosha (their brand) had always intrigued me. Many of their sake are brewed from a Yamahai yeast starter … but will not hit one’s palate with the typical assertive acidity and often gamy funkiness of most Yamahai sake (which I do not necessarily dislike, depending on drinking circumstances!). Yuki no Bosha sake is tasty, umami rich, offers a pleasant acidity, and is always very well balanced, without any wild side to it. What is the secret of this delicacy?

Plunging into the history and idiosyncrasies of Saiya Shuzoten, I learnt a lot about Takahashi Toji’s spirit of inquiry (“challenge your methods”), dedication to creating the best environment required for brewing (for men and microorganisms), and courage to make changes indeed.

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Sake brewing starts with rice. Yuki no Bosha aims at expressing the taste of “traditional” Akita sake and Akita sake rice. All the rice used at the brewery is cultivated by farmers having contracted with the brewery directly, or brewery workers. Most of it comes from the vicinity of the brewery (Akita is located 500 km North of Tokyo, on the Sea of Japan), and a small proportion comes from Hyogo Prefecture, the land of Yamada Nishiki rice (a bit less than 500 km West of Tokyo). During the summer season, Takahashi san, who cultivates premium celery, regularly tours sake rice fields to inspect the development of the plants, exchanging with farmers about their treatments of the field, with a view to obtain the rice that the brewery wants. For example, all other things being equal, the quantity of fertilizers has a direct impact on the ratio of proteins to starch in the grain. More proteins lead to heavier sake taste and an excess to unwanted flavours.

In October, after rice is harvested, Takahashi san moves to the brewery with his quilt. He spends 6 months in residency there, joined by the team of Kurabito for the season (brewery workers). Although these Kurabito are local people, all live in residency as well. The development of the team spirit for a single mission, the daily exchanges at the end of the working day, are seen as an essential part of the Yuki no Bosha brewing style and education.

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About atmosphere, smiling Takahashi Toji is adamant that the yeast and Koji mold “watch the face” of the Kurabito. “If people are not happy in their heart when brewing sake, this will show in the taste of sake”. Recent renovation work in the eleven classified brewery buildings led to the opening of a large skylight in the roof of the broad, high ceiling modern room where rice is washed (4 times!), soaked and steamed, cooled down and inoculated with the Koji Kin (Koji mold spores). On a sunny day like the day of my visit, such luminosity made quite a difference, on people’s spirits, and technically, when it comes to inspecting the rice at all stages. Since that same renovation work, workers can enjoy individual rooms at the brewery, rather than a futon in a dormitory.

Talking about environment further, in the early 90s, Takashi san started to break the vicious circle of the regular use of chemical cleaning disinfectants to control the microbiological population living in the Kura, with a view to create a stable equilibrium. No more chemicals. Effectively spotlessly clean Saiya Shuzoten (as far as my eyes could judge) became the first organic sake brewery in Japan, although they do not seem interested in the certification for the sake of it. This was all the more interesting to me as it looked sort of counter intuitive when I was reflecting on their “clean” Yamahai: was it the result of the systematic eradication of unwanted microbes?

Unlike Takahashi san who joined the brewery 34 years ago after working in Aomori, Kurabito hired by Saiya Shuzoten in recent years must have no education in fermentation, no experience in another Kura, and are “prohibited” from bringing in books or technical information about sake brewing. “They have to learn fermentation and sake brewing with their 5 senses, and not let their mind get influenced by other external information” explained Saito san in essence. Indeed, challenging the conventions, breaking with tradition, Takahashi san was a pioneer in a new brewing style, after he joined the brewery received the trust of Saito san’s own father. Over a few years he stopped the use of pole ramming altogether (agitating and mixing the Moto (yeast starter) and the Moromi (main fermentation mash)), demonstrating that this process was actually not required by the yeast … and getting rid of a piece of hard labour for Kurabito. This style, when applied to the whole brewing process can be labelled Yamahai as well (**).

While the brewery received a first gold medal at the Kanpyokai (National New Sake Appraisal Competition) for that new sake style, sales did not increase as a consequence, pushing the management team into further introspection. That is when Takashahi san, with the support of his employer, decided to retire some of the brand new, automated, expensive thermo-controlled brewing tanks, and come back to much simpler steel tanks with a ceramic layer. Sake the following year made Takahashi Toji’s heart happy, and this bold move marked the beginning of stronger commercial success for the brewery, according to the management. As Takahashi explains in the NHK footage, an optimal fermentation across the tank does not necessarily mean that the output will be the “best” sake. It takes away the complex alchemy in the taste of a less uniform Moromi at the time of pressing.

Soon after he arrived, Takahashi san started to select yeast from the best tanks and cultivate it. The treasure chest of the brewery is a freezer (-85degrees Celsius), where a dozen of strains of such yeast are stored for the future usage of the sole brewery, contributing to Yuki no Bosha’s unique aromas and taste. Do I need to add that Saiya Shuzoten was the first brewery in Akita, and one of the very few beyond the Prefecture’s border, to stop buying yeast from the market altogether? When preparing a new flask filled with a blend of awakened yeast, he thinks of the small cells as children. As he puts it, he is not producing sake, he is raising it, “it” being effectively the living yeast solution, Moto then Moromi.

While driving the fermentation with his 5 senses rather than curves and charts, Takahashi san does not refuse technology … especially if it can contribute to lightening the burden on the shoulders of the Kurabito, without compromising with taste. I was surprised to find a big Koji making machine in the Koji Muro (Koji room). That particular piece of equipment monitors and controls humidity and temperature precisely during the 48-hour mold development phase. When the time of brewing Daiginjo sake comes (the most expensive sake in the brewery line-up), Takahashi san actually sleeps in the Koji room to be able to monitor Koji close to his senses. When on the second day temperature rises above 38 degrees showing strong mold activity, it is usually time to mix the rice and expose a larger surface to air to control growth. These steps are called Nakashigoto then Shimaishigoto, taking place in the middle of the night. Coincidently, on the day when the NHK crew was at the brewery, things did not go as expected. Temperature did not rise as expected, a sign of slow mold development. It was fascinating to see stressed Takahashi Toji look after the Koji as he would take care of a feverish child. He eventually decides to cancel the Shimaishigoto … for the first time in his 50 years career! The following morning though, he gives a high rating to the finished Koji. Has he found a new way to make Koji, let me re-phrase, to raise Koji mold, with less human interference, lightening the burden on Kurabito further?

Sakaya Banryu! There are 10,000 ways to brew sake, and Yuki no Bosha is only one of them, but Takahashi san is responsible for sort of a revolution and became an influential person.

In the NHK episode, he explains that from his early years, he has been inspired by his child memory of tasting the Doboroku (rough homebrew sake) prepared by his grandfather and has been looking for the emotions associated with it ever since. I do not know if he feels he has reached that goal, but I can only say that I wish I had had an opportunity to meet the grandfather who inspired such an amazing person…and taste his Doburoku.

(*) Shubo or Moto prepared in the Yamahai method: sort of a natural, slow way to let yeast propagate and multiply in a small tank filled with Koji, rice and water. Over four weeks or more, a number of other micro-organisms (nitric acid bacteria and lactic acid bacteria, wild yeast) have time to trigger various fermentation and biochemical processes contributing to the flavor profile of Yamahai sake. The main difference with Kimoto Shubo is the absence of pole ramming, crushing the rice in the water.

(**) Yamahai is a contraction of “Yamaoroshi no Haishi”, literally abolition of Pole Ramming

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