It was almost 75 years before the American Revolution when Yamana Dungo’s ancestors started making sake near Kobe, Japan.
A few days ago, during our tour of Community Supported Agriculture near Kobe, Yamana held up a bottle of the sake that his family still makes at their establishment.
“This is made the same way, it tastes the same,” he said proudly.
All of the sake at the Yamana Sake House is brewed from locally grown rice. The place has an ancient feel to it. Most of Japan is scrupulously clean and tidy, but the sake house has a cluttered and unkempt feel. Contrast this with the breweries and wineries in the States, where barrels or sealed stainless steel tanks gleam.
But there is one approach to cleanliness here I have not seen before: as we walk in, we must line up and wash our shoes in a shallow tank of water.
In the sake house, the rice is fermenting in big open crocks. A few have plastic covering them. These, it turns out, are usually the empty ones.
“How do you keep airborne yeasts from getting into the brew-pot?” I ask through an interpreter. Of course, he knows exactly what I am asking about, and that it is also an issue in beer or fruit wine fermentation, something that’s popular back home, in the Grand Traverse region.
Sugar drives the process that converts the fruit (grape, cherry, or whatever) to wine or malt beer. And lots of yeasts in the environment can react to create off-flavors or even vinegar. That is why the process is carefully sealed from open air.
Rapid fermentation, kept very active with periodic additions of more rice, also prevents air from entering Mr. Dungo’s brew.
More importantly, the base material for sake is rice. As a starchy grain, neither the regular fermenting yeasts nor airborne yeasts will react in the brew-pot, our guide explains. Special yeasts have been developed to create alcohol from starch instead of from sugar.
Rice for brewing, however, is different from the rice we eat, however.
“It doesn’t taste good,” Yamana explains.
There are several varieties of sake, each brewed form the rice of a particular grower. Some are organic. All that we try, served in small ceramic cups, are as smooth as fine wine, mild, and tasty.
Jim Sluyter leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Get Farming! project. He is travelling in Japan to attend the URGENCI International Symposium on Community Supported Agriculture. Reach him at email@example.com.