Mas and I recently visited his family home in Dachi, a small town in Gifu prefecture. Mas’ older brother, Zenji Nakajima, runs the family business, a small sake brewery named Chigonoiwa. The new rice from the harvest was available and they were just beginning the year’s sake making.
The basic idea for making sake is simple. You take highly polished rice and cook it; mix in enzymes (in the form of a mold called kōji) that break the starch down to sugar, add water, yeast, and time and you end up with sake. But of course, this simplicity masks the complexity which is the sake brewer’s art.
When Mas was a child the toji (brew master) would come every fall from Niigata with a team of workers to make the sake. They were farmers who had no work at home once the snows came. They left their wives and families behind, and lived all winter at the brewery with the Nakajima family. Now of course this system is pretty much gone. The farmers have other means of year-round employment nearer to their homes and no longer need to spend months apart from their families.
The economics of the sake business have also changed since those post-war days. A few large breweries dominate the business, using efficient mass-production techniques to make good, inexpensive sake and distribute it around Japan (and indeed the world). The only way for a family brewery to compete is to stay small and make very high-quality sake.
So now the oldest son, Daizo, is toji-san. He, his father, and his brother Sunao make the sake. Chigonoiwa is distributed strictly locally, but through the internet it also reaches connoisseurs around the country (Daizo is also the company webmaster).
When the sake brewing starts in the fall the rhythm of each day is tied to the sake. During the night, I could hear the large rice steamer going as they cooked the rice. At about 5 a.m. they got up and scooped the rice onto a cooling table with a mesh bottom and an attachment that forces cold air through the rice. Using their hands they turned and mixed the rice to quickly cool it off, break it up and mix in the kōji. They use all their experience to determine when the rice is the proper temperature and consistency, and how much kōji to add.
The resulting malted rice was wrapped into cloth sacks and carried upstairs to a temperature-controlled warm room to rest for 2-3 days. During this time the mold develops and begins the process of breaking down the starches. When toji-san decides that the time is right, the malt rice is mixed with freshly steamed rice, water, and yeast and put into a stainless steel tank to ferment. The malt will convert the starch of the new rice into sugars and the yeast will convert the sugars into alcohol and flavors. This step also requires experience, knowledge and judgment to know if the tanks are too hot (and need to be packed in ice) and when the process is complete.
The first bottling is a small run of the new unfiltered orisake – Chigoniwa produces about 1000 bottles each year. Many people wait every year just for this (similar to the anticipation of the Beaujolais Nouveau). Orisake still has the much of the rice sediments and live yeast. Mas says the taste of orisake makes you feel like it is now autumn.
After the orisake is bottled, the rest of the wine is filtered and bottled in various grades. This year their prime sake (the ginjō-shu) won the prize at a professional government-sponsored tasting contest.