Learning the Sake ABCs at Japan's Oldest Brewery

Let's learn about sake. Are you ready? I am. I'm also interested in drinking some, but that's beside the point. I have a beer in my hand, so I'll have to give myself a raincheck, for at least the next half hour.

I'm going to go through the sake-brewing process, from start to finish, with a case study based on our trip last fall to Kenbishi, Japan's oldest sake brand. Kenbishi, located west of Osaka in Hyogo Prefecture, has been brewing sake since 1505. The name Kenbishi means "sword diamond," and they've used the same iconic sword-diamond logo for hundreds of years. You can actually see it in some old Edo-period woodblock prints, like the famous Utamaro print below, now at the New York Met.. This is sake with history, a classic brand paired with centuries of technical expertise. The product itself is bold and distinctive, and made a real impression on me even before our trip there. 

Kenbishi's current owners--the fourth family to own the brewery--are dedicated stewards of a half-millennium tradition. Masataka and Noriko Shirakashi generously spent four hours with us, giving us a private step-by-step, room-by-room tour of the entire sake-making process, followed by a sake tasting. It was an incredible experience, and a surprisingly intimate one. We learned a ton, not only about how sake is made, but also about how well it pairs with Western foods like cured meats and cheeses. Because they let us bring our camera along for the tour, we have a great photo record to accompany the sake story, and hopefully make it easier to follow.

Sake Brewing Basics

Before we enter the kura (sake brewery), let's make sure we understand some basic sake principles. Sake is a drink made by fermenting rice, which has been milled to remove the outer layers. The fermentation process used to make sake is known as "double-parallel" fermentation. This means two types of fermentation are necessary to make sake, and they happen in the same pot at the same time. First, the starches in rice must be converted into simple sugars. This process is carried out by a fungus, known as koji. Second, as with other alcoholic beverages, yeast (also a fungus) is used to convert sugars to ethanol. 

The end product results from controlling an astounding number of variables: the variety of rice, the amount of rice milled, the rice cooking process, the rice moisture content, the species of koji and yeast used, the quality of the water, filtration, pasteurization, aging, and much more. The dedication to the craft, the attention to detail at every step in the process, is the hallmark of sake-making. At Kenbishi, the commitment to traditional methods is on full display. Instead of using synthetic, off-the-shelf ropes for its sake barrels, Kenbishi makes its own ropes in-house. It still manufactures its own rice-steaming barrels and wooden warming elements, just as it has for hundreds of years. No corners are cut, the commitment to the craft drives every step of the process.  

We visited Kenbishi's primary kura, one of four. Incredibly, Kenbishi saw huge damage in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. At that time, they had eight kuras. Only one survived. A devastating loss, and one that could easily spell the end for a business. But with 500 years of tradition, the strength of its brand, and the quality of its product, Kenbishi pulled itself up and rebuilt. Today it is thriving. Across four brewing sites, Kenbishi has about sixty permanent employees. During the winter months, peak brewing season, that number doubles with the addition of seasonal workers. 

Rice Milling

The first step in making sake is milling the rice down to its starchy core. The milling strips the outer layers, which contain proteins, fats, and other impurities that can compromise the taste of the final product. The process is performed using a milling machine like the one shown below. The powdered outer layers are not discarded; they are used in various cooking applications, for livestock feed, etc. 

If you've seen the terms ginjo or daiginjo on a menu, they are indicators of the percentage of rice milled.  Ginjo means the sake uses rice milled to at least 60% of its original volume; daiginjo to at least 50%. Often sake is referred to as being "premium" the closer it gets to a daiginjo. The important thing to understand, though, is that this doesn't mean a daiginjo sake is better, or that you'll like it more. It just means (a) it costs more to make because less of the rice grain is used, and (b) it's likely to have a cleaner taste with more of the grain's outer impurity-containing layers having been removed.  In other words, ginjo and daiginjo refer to manufacturing styles (and, relatedly, Japanese regulatory and labeling distinctions) rather than to the rank of the sake.

Kenbishi only mills its rice to a bit over 70% of its original volume, and the sake has a big, complex taste. They adjust the exact milling rate each year to make the best use of the rice harvested that year.

Rice Steaming

Once the rice is milled to the desired level, it has to be steamed. Remarkable care is taken to control the steaming process, because the ultimate moisture content imparted to the rice is critical for the success of subsequent fermentation processes. Kenbishi, with its focus on traditional methods, steams rice using large cedar barrels, called koshiki.  They believe the wooden koshiki is a superior vessel, because it prevents condensation and absorbs excess water.  They steam their rice in the very early morning, to take advantage of cold air coming down from the nearby mountains. It helps with temperature control. 

Amazingly, Kenbishi's wooden koshiki are all made by an in-house craftsman, using traditional methods. This particular craftsman is the only person alive today with the know-how to make these things. As it turns out, he's quite old, so for the past five years, he has been training others at Kenbishi to carry on this craft tradition after he's gone. Now Kenbishi is in a position to keep its historical brewing methods alive into the future.

Koji

Once the rice is cooked, a portion is used to make koji. This is done in a special room, which feels a lot like a sauna or a steam room. It's essentially a huge cedar box, kept at elevated temperature and humidity. The brewers begin the process by working the koji spores into the rice by hand. This painstaking manual procedure is necessary to achieve uniform coverage across all grains of rice. The rice is then placed into little open cedar boxes, which are moved around the room four times a day for 4-5 days. This constant rotation is necessary to make sure all the grains of rice are exposed to the same environmental conditions, to promote uniform koji growth. When the growing process is complete, the koji rice is set aside for use in the fermentation tank. 

Somewhat surprisingly, we were allowed into the koji room during our tour. It was steamy in there, and you get the sense of how demanding it must be for the brewers to spend so much time in this hot space working around the clock to assure optimal distribution and growth of the koji fungus. We were invited to touch and taste the finished koji rice. You can see in the picture how the look of the rice has changed; it appears to be covered in a matte-opaque white material, and has become a bit clumpy. The taste was pleasant, sort of sweet, and the texture a bit chewy. 

Yeast Starter

The next step is to make the yeast starter, also known as shubo. This is the first step that makes it clear alcohol is being brewed. The yeast starter is an oatmeal-like concoction of steamed rice, koji rice, and water, in which yeast propagates. This is where parallel fermentation takes place: the koji is breaking down the rice, converting the starch to sugar, while the yeast is simultaneously taking the koji-produced sugar and converting it to alcohol.  

At Kenbishi, the preparation of the yeast starter takes about a month. Most other breweries do it in about half the time because, unlike Kenbishi, they physically mash the rice during the fermentation process, exposing the interior of the grain to the koji enzymes. The process involves a traditional method of slow, indirect heating, using wooden jugs periodically filled with boiling water. Once again, Kenbishi is uniquely traditional here, because they employ the only craftsman in Japan who can still make these wooden jugs.

From a scientific perspective, a lot of cool stuff is happening in the yeast starter, which I'll write about in detail later. 

Fermentation Mash

When the yeast starter is complete, it is time for bulk fermentation. Now the process moves to significantly larger tanks, into which yeast starter, koji, steamed rice, and water are added in three intervals over a four-day period. The reason for the intervals is that the transfer to a bigger vessel with more surface area puts stress on the yeast, which need time to adjust to changed environmental conditions. The moromi mash is kept in the tank for about three weeks. At this point, it's time for final processing.

Finishing the Sake

With fermentation complete, the mash is filtered to remove residual solid particulates. There are a number of ways to perform the filtration; Kenbishi uses the press filtration machine in the image below. Be aware, though, that not all sake is filtered to clearness. You may have encountered niigori sake, which is cloudy as a result of filtration using a coarser mesh.  

Following filtration, the sake is pasteurized. Not only does this heating process kill bacteria, it stops enzymatic activity in the sake, which helps stabilize product quality. Some breweries also filter their products over charcoal, which helps remove organic impurities and clear up the sake's color. Finally, Kenbishi transfers the sake to large tanks, where they age it before bottling. Their popular kuromatsu product is aged for less than a year, but they have another product that's aged for up to fifteen years.  

So now we've gone through the entire sake-making process. It's safe to say the main contours of the process at Kenbishi are representative of how sake is made generally. The steps always include rice milling and steaming, the preparation of koji, and then the yeast starter, before moving on to bulk fermentation. The fine details of an individual brewery's processes, combined with variations in rice, water, microbes, etc., together contribute to each sake's unique characteristics. There are obviously more subtleties to Kenbishi's process, which are too detailed to go into here.   

Sake Tasting, With a Surprise

After our tour, we sat down with the Shirakashis for a sake tasting. We tried six products, each aged for different periods of time. Only a couple of them (kuromatsu and kuromatsu mizuho) are available in the U.S. Kenbishi's basic product, kuromatsu, is a bold, rich drink, but it was the lightest sake we tried. Most striking was a sake that had been aged for more than five years, taking on a golden hue and delivering a powerful sensory experience. Not quite a brandy or a liqueur, but trending in that direction relative to most sake out there.  

The most eye-opening part of our tasting was that Kenbishi paired its sake with Western foods--blue cheese, Camembert, prosciutto--in addition to some Japanese items, like pickled sea urchin and fermented squid (ika no shiokara). All of these cured or fermented high-umami foods paired well with Kenbishi's strong sake, with the richest sake pairing best with the richest foods, the blue cheese and the sea urchin.

The point is that Kenbishi chooses to showcase its products in an international context, drawing on food pairings best suited to the sake, and disregarding the artificial barrier between this Japanese drink and Western cuisine. Kenbishi is being forward thinking here. It realizes, as a matter of business, that the future of sake is a global one. At the same time the Japanese sake industry sees a shrinking market at home, sake is starting to gain a foothold in the uncharted West, with Americans and Europeans starting to drink it more seriously.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we just saw Shirakashi-san at the JFC sake expo in the Bay Area last month, and his Facebook feed says he's been in LA and Italy in the weeks since then.

Kenbishi reveres tradition when it comes to making its product, but it's positioning itself at the vanguard of sake's big extraterritorial expansion. For both of these things, we tip our hats and raise our glasses. Kanpai!    

What We Ate in Japan

On Shiba Ramen's trip to Japan last month, we had some memorable meals in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I gave myself free rein to act like a food fanatic, taking pictures of most things we ate. Sushi, ramen, tonkatsu, gyoza, cod sperm, raw chicken, and even Denny's. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to being an online food commentator. Please enjoy the photos! 

Read More

Tokyo and the East

Tokyo. I can never get enough of that place. Repeat: never. If you've been, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, scroll down and you'll understand. Tokyo is a giant of a city in every respect. But despite its size, intimate scenes of nature and even of urbanity are around every corner. Its food is the best in the world, its gardens unparalleled. Oh, and make no mistake, it's crazy. Teeming streets and cultural oddities abound. 

Last month, we spent 48 high-intensity hours in Tokyo. We ate fabulously (without breaking the bank), visited glorious urban parks (Hama-rikyu Gardens and Shibakoen), strolled through the crowded streets of Ginza, Kabuki-cho, and Harakjuku, went shopping for restaurant supplies in Kappabashi and for Japanese finery in Tokyo Midtown, and spent an absolutely insane evening at the Robot Restaurant. In Tokyo, there is sushi for breakfast, and it is good.  

Hama-rikyu Gardens.  Once the private preserve of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Ginza architecture.

Oguni jinja. Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. Hiroko's hometown and our first stop in Japan before Kyoto and Tokyo. 

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Ginza

Robot Restaurant.

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Shiba Ramen Update from 38,000 Feet

We are somewhere over the Pacific, maybe halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco. I like it here. It’s dark, I have a bottle of my favorite [non-alcoholic] drink, Ito-En Oi Ocha green tea.  A cinnamon roll beckons at my right. Music is playing. I played math puzzles on my sumaho, then scrolled through the hundreds of photos I took in Japan.  There is no Internet [my choice], no toddler, and nobody needing me to write a brief, sign a document, or cut a massive check.  As far as I know, there is nobody on this airplane I need to yell at, although I’m quite sure there are people on the ground who have something coming to them. Perhaps best of all, Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen; I am blissfully unaware of which unqualified individual he appointed to lead a federal agency today.  In short, life on United 876 is pretty good. 

  Hama-Rikyu Gardens.  This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Hama-Rikyu Gardens. This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

I’ll tell you something: I needed this trip.  People tell you not to bite off more than you can chew.  That’s good advice, but it’s often hard to know in advance just how much you can fit in your mouth.  I tend to assume my mouth is big. It’s not cavernous, but it’s definitely oversized. In 2016, I’ve been exploring the limits of my capacity.  I’m working through a massive bite right now, and I think I’m going to make it through, but my jaws are seriously aching.  Just as we were coming up for air from opening Shiba Ramen almost exactly a year ago, we signed not just one, but two new leases in August.  The first was for our downtown Oakland Shiba Ramen, set to open in roughly January.  The second was something of a calculated lark, the kiosk adjoining the original Shiba in Emeryville Public Market, to do an entirely new concept—The Period Table, our taproom and sake bar.  These two excellent opportunities came up at the same time. Were we supposed to turn one down?  

Unsurprisingly, each project requires a not insubstantial amount of blood and treasure.  Also unsurprisingly, the amount of each is quite indeterminate until you’ve traveled well past the point of no return.  So I’m out looking for money.  Lots and lots of money.  I’m learning where money hides, and I’m learning how to flush it out.  People keep wanting more of it, so I need to keep finding more of it.  That’s the way it goes.

  Shiba Ramen Oakland.   Should be finished in January.

Shiba Ramen Oakland.  Should be finished in January.

In the meantime, we have to execute the projects.  Shiba Oakland has been the big one.  It’s been a live design-build scenario since Labor Day.  That is, the design is unfolding as the construction happens.  We're taking over a café that went out of business, but even though a lot of infrastructure was in place, it’s a huge renovation.  Total makeover of dining room and bathroom, all new kitchen equipment and corollary plumbing and electrical work, and significant upgrades to storage.  In addition to overseeing the contractors’ execution of the project, we have spent positively inordinate amounts of time choosing all the finishes, fixtures, and furniture.  You cannot imagine how many pendant lights we’ve looked at; the Internet is a vast sea of them, and 99.9% are no good for one reason or another.  Anyway, there are worse ways to spend your time.

The Periodic Table project, mercifully, is on a staggered timeframe.  This is a full buildout from a cold dark shell, not a renovation.  The architecture has to be done and permits obtained before anything can be built, and that’s a still-ongoing process.  The only bills have been for the architects.  Construction will happen this winter-spring.  The architects curated most of the finishes and fixtures, but we did go pretty deep ourselves looking for pendant lights.  It’s unavoidable.

Would you believe it if I told you we’ve been negotiating even more deals for new Shiba Ramen locations?  Of course you would.  It’s the natural order of things.

  Robot Restaurant.   Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Robot Restaurant.  Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Now here’s the real problem: the monasticism that pulling all this off requires.  Recall I’m a practicing lawyer, so I need to bill my hours.  My firm (thanks, DWT!) lets me work at home, which is great as a time-saving measure.  The downside is that I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone at home in front of a computer, doing one or the other of my jobs, often too tired and stressed to be as efficient as I want to be.  When my kid comes home from school at 5:30, I usually just give up until he goes to bed.  Then the gravitational pull of the computer kicks in again, and more progress is made in fits and starts.  I drink too much sake and stay up way too late.  The next day invariably proceeds according to the template set by the last.  Things are better or worse depending on how many cooks have called off at Shiba Ramen on a given day—a staggeringly bad problem—and thus how much time Hiroko has to spend at the restaurant cutting onions or peeling eggs.

And let’s not forget the backdrop to this year’s stint in solitary: watching the Great American Trainwreck unfold in slow motion on the Internet, compulsively checking an ever-expanding roster of websites, distraction begetting distraction, escalating through September and October, and reaching critical mass on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  The nauseating palpability of our National catastrophe savaged my productivity in the days that followed.  At least in this, I’m certain I was not alone. 

But now I have been to Japan, and I feel good.  Today I was eating four different kinds of toro at 9:30 a.m., photographing red leaves and white herons in a gorgeous urban park after that.  I had amazing tours at three sake factories.  I saw a show at the Robot Restaurant.  I visited Hiroko’s parents, the original hipsters, in their artisanal/local/sustainable 19th Century world where they make their own charcoal and salt, and grow a substantial percentage of their own food.  Twice I ate fugu and survived the threat of tetrodotoxin, and twice I ate the seasonal delicacy—soft roe—a coiled membrane filled with cod sperm.  I am outfitted with sake bottles and sake glasses, and the enjoyment of Japan will continue when I land. 

For the moment at least, I'm excited to see my dogs and my tyrant 4-year-old.  This exceptionally long day started with sushi breakfast, and it's going to end with cheeseburgers and milkshakes.  Hello California.

  Pre-Flight Breakfast . Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Pre-Flight Breakfast. Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Postscript, 3 Days Later: In the three days between writing this post and its publication today, I've decided I'm pretty much ready to leave again.  

Postscript, 4 Days Later: Ben Carson appointed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  The Rapture really may be upon us.