Aikawa-san, master brewer at Gekkeikan Sake, made a quip about this brown ball of twigs hanging above the entrance of the brewery, and everyone laughed. Sebastien translated for me: the fresh ‘sugidama’ ball starts off green and turns brown over time to signify the readiness of the sake. While the balls were traditionally painstakingly crafted entirely out of thin branches from the Japanese cedar tree, the modern one here was just a bunch of cedar twigs shoved in a ball of foam.
I laughed too (about 10 seconds too late).
In the last week of February, I visited Kyoto to learn how to brew sake: a result of winning the Gekkeikan Masters Cooking Competition. Over the course of two days, I learned the ropes in the brewery at Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum with a wonderful group from Gekkeikan Sake and Le Cordon Bleu. The course was conducted in Japanese, but everyone, particularly sake expert and lecturer Sebastien Lemoine, always made sure I understood what was going on. They were all really kind and patient with me, especially during the times I tried out my limited Japanese skills. You’d be surprised how much of a language you pick up after a week’s immersion.
Early in the morning of ‘Day One’, we got dressed in our uniforms: grey and navy for the lads, grey and pink for the ladies, and dashing white wellies and hair nets for all. After paying our respects to the shrines and sanitising our hands and boots, we learned about how the rice is polished down until almost nothing but starch remains (this gets rid of the excess proteins and fats that would mess with the sake’s flavour). Once we’d learned about the rice and koji – the rice mould used for fermentation – we got stuck in hauling washed rice into the giant steamer. I loved that steamer: it was big enough to fit maybe eight people inside, and when it was at full heat the little flap on the top cover would pop open cheerily to let the steam out. Being half Chinese, the sight of it steaming away and the delicious smell of cooked rice reminded me of mealtimes with family. It was oddly comforting.
While the rice steamed away, we weighed and hand-washed the next batch of rice for the following day. The process was like an Olympic sport: Aikawa-san stood with a stopwatch, timing each team of two as they each made their way down three fresh tubs of clean water.
“San! Ni! Ichi! ZERO!” And we were off. The teams spent 60 seconds washing the rice in the first tub, 30 seconds in the second, and then soaked the rice in the third until the master brewer himself judged them ready for draining. After being drained on a large vacuum machine, we weighed the batches of rice again to see how much water had absorbed, then wrapped them up in cloth to let them absorb a little more overnight.
“Oyasuminasai,” I mumbled as we tucked our rice bundles in. One of the brewers caught my eye and grinned at my sudden use of Japanese.
Before leaving, we shovelled the now-steamed rice into a machine that loosened up the grains, before taking it to the fermentation tanks. It’s a four-day process, mixing everything up: on the first day, one portion of rice, koji and water is added to the tank. On the second day, it’s left to rest. On the third day more of three ingredients are added, and on the fourth day the final portions are added. Our ‘Day One’ happened to be on the third day of the brewing process.
For our ‘Day Two’, we re-weighed and steamed our washed rice, hand-cleaned the cloths and equipment and then added the steamed rice to the tank, along with the last portion of koji and water. The most important ingredient in making sake is the water, and this brewery only uses Fushimi water – even for washing. It struck me how meticulous the cleaning process was, and how most of the water used in the process was actually used for cleaning. In a way, this made the water even more important.
We were then taken to visit Gekkeikan’s main brewery in Fushimi, where most of Gekkeikan’s sake is made. Oh my goodness, it was huge. Walking amongst the giant tanks (far, far more enormous than the steamer at Okura), especially at the top on the railings where the steam rose, it was like being on a spaceship. Afterwards we had the opportunity to buy a few things back at the Okura museum shop. As well as sake (of course), I ended up buying a load of sake kasu: the solids left over from when the fermented sake mash is pressed and filtered. Sake kasu’s not readily available in the UK, and I’m really excited to experiment with it in my recipes. In fact, I’m marinating a few salmon fillets in the stuff as I write this.
I’ve come back with so many ideas for cooking with sake, I can’t wait to start testing and writing. Not only that, but I’ve been so inspired by the beautiful presentation of Japanese food (flower-shaped carrot slices? Adorable). Now that I’ve written about what else I got up to in Kyoto on my blog Tashcakes!, I’m back in cooking mode.
Of course, since I was in Kyoto on sake-making business, I got to try quite a bit of sake too: both in a tasting session and in sake-pairing dinners. It was a great opportunity to learn about the different flavour profiles of different sakes for my future recipes, but it was also a great time to bond with the people that became my team. During one of these dinners, Kang (a Cordon Bleu student from South Korea, now living in Japan) was talking about how she learned Japanese, and the similarities of Korean and Japanese languages. I remembered something one of my friends had told me.
“Oh I think I see what you mean: one of my friends said that the grammatical structure is quite similar.”
Everyone turned to stare at me. It turns out Kang and the others had been speaking in Japanese – and for the first time I’d understood the whole conversation.