Friday, December 18, 2009

From water to wine

From water to wine, this is the story of the next steps in sake making.
Taking Kome-koji, where we left off last time, and steamed rice, mixing it with a little water and yeast, waiting for a month, then presto you have sake.
Well it's not exactly that easy, but those are the basic steps involved (I suspect magic).

Here is a little something I forgot to put in the last post.  When steaming the rice, what makes the steam? This huge boiler of corse.  This thing was impressive. Once started it emitted a earth rumbling growl, as it created enough pressure to blow up the entire brewery if it exploded. (^_^;

This story starts very similarly to the story of kome-koji, as both require rice milling, washing, and steaming.  I will skip the milling and washing steps this time, as they are the same as those for kome-koji. Daishinshu has two rice steaming pots, the one that was in the last post on the second floor, and the other on the first floor. The second floor steaming pot is used primarily for kome-koji rice and yeast starter (Shubo 酒母 in Japanese, literally written as sake mother), wile the first floor steaming pot is used exclusively for the Moromi (main mash) tanks. This is a picture of the first floor steaming pot taken from above, on the second floor.

As we are starting with the shubo, this rice was steamed on the second floor where the shubo tanks are located. The steaming hot rice was then hand carried and dumped out on the cooling table, where it was spread out and mixed until cooled to just the right temp.

The rice is then transfered into the shubo tank.

Then stirred like crazy by the Toji in order to equalize the temperature. The temp is checked frequently, and the temperature is adjusted by the temperature of the rice that is added in. If it is too cold then the rice is added in without cooling very much, and if too hot, it is thoroughly cooled before it is added.
The kome-koji is then added in in a proportion of about 30%.

The finished product is a super sweet mixture of steamed rice and kome-koji. This is then kept at a relatively high temperature (around 45˚C) for about a day. Keeping the temperature high increases the speed in which the koji enzymes break down the starch in the steamed rice, further sweetening the mixture. In short, this is yeast heaven in a 200 liter tank.

The story of the Shubo is a two part story that happens in parallel. At the same time that the sweet mixture above is being concocted, the yeast is being populated. This is done in a very scientific manner (or at least it looks really scientific). The yeast is populated in beakers filled with a sugary liquid in an oven at about 30˚C. The beaker's stopper is made out of a sponge like material which lets out the CO2 gas produced by the yeast. That being said, I still heard many stories of having the stopper pop off the top of the beaker like a champaign cork, while being stirred, and having half of the contents jet out of the bottle much to the holder's dismay.

After the Yeast army has assembled in large enough numbers, it is left to settle, and most of the liquid is poured off leaving a fine white sediment at the bottom of the beaker (which is the yeast). The yeast is then added in to the sweet rice mixture, and a small portion of lactic acid is added in to raise the over all acidity of the shubo. The lactic acid, which can be created naturally like in the Yamahai and Kimoto styles, but takes a lot more time, acts as a guard against unwanted bacteria and foreign yeasts. The mixture is then kept warm for about a day to give the yeast a good foothold.

The next steps? 1) Get ice.
(You may be thinking "hey didn't I see that ice maker in the Motel 6 I stayed in the other week?"
No this is an ice machine on steroids. Instead of using dingy motel water this baby runs on pure sake water! that's right folks ice that won't change the flavor of your favorite brew!)

2) dump ice in shubo tank.
It may be a little hard to see, but yes this is a pile of ice on top of the shubo they just made.
3) Stir!
It just so happens that the quickest way to cool a brew is in fact to add ice. This of course also adds water to the mix, so it has to be added into the calculations later on. A lot of other breweries use large metal jugs of ice water (or hot water if you wanted to heat things up), but cleanup is a pain, and the ice thing works pretty well.

For the fine tuning, a cooling belt (a rubber belt with hoses running through it that circulate cold water) is wrapped around the tank. The cooling belt helps to keep the heat produced by the yeast from building. Getting the belt on is not easy (and this is a small tank, think about wrapping one around a tank the size of an 18 wheeler!).

Making shubo takes about 10 days (using the method that Daishinshu uses, there are many ways to make shubo and all of them differ in the amount of time it takes) This is a picture of one of the tanks that was just about finished. The sugur, acid, alcohol, temperature, and yeast levels are checked frequently throughout the 10 days. Taste wise I like the shubo tank at about day 3, it was sweet and sour and selled really good.

When the shubo has reached the desired super yeast population, it is transfered to a larger tank. Daishinshu uses a series of increasingly larger tanks for their "san-dan-shikomi," the process of increasing the volume of the mash in three steps over four days. Using one large tank is also common, however it is much easier to fine tune in a smaller tank.

The shubo is moved by hand using a big ladle and a barrel shaped bucket.
At this point Katsumi-san (in the picture above) turned on the pressure with his nonchalant "This is a Daiginjo, so don't spill anything."

The last bit of shubo is extracted by pulling the plug out of the bottom of the tank, tilting it, and then pouring a little water around to wash all the rice out.

The next step is to add more water, rice, and kome-koji. I don't have any pictures of them dumping the rice into this tank, so you will just have to take my word for it. While the rice is being added the toji continually stirs the contents of the tank, while keeping a close eye on the temperature (the long thin probe that Komatsu-san is holding is a digital thermometer).

At this point, the brewing sake ceases to be called Shubo and becomes the first step in the san-dan-shikomi "Soe Jikomi." It is again cooled, although this time down to a chilly 8˚C! Above picture is the ice I was stirring in.

After a day the Soe jikomi is moved into a tank roughly twice the size of the last (a little over a 1000L). Rice, water, and kome-koji are again added doubling the volume of the mixture. At this stage the brewing sake is called "Naka Jikomi." This picture was snapped towards the end of the 2 days this part of the brew sits for.

After the naka jikomi has rested for two days, it is moved again to an even larger tank. This move is done with a special pump designed to limit the stress of pumping the sake around (although it looked like a pretty old pump).

The next step in the process is to add in a ton or two of rice. Daishinshu, like many breweries these days, uses a cooling and vacuum transport machine to move the rice from the steaming pot (the one way~ up at the top of the post) to the moromi tanks. This machine uses a series of mechanisms to mix and aerate the rice until it is considerably cooled, then shoots it through a tube...

And then finally down a canvas pipe into the moromi. It is a really interesting thing to see, although the cooling machine is very loud. the kome-koji is added by hand from the second floor by pouring the trays of koji rice down the canvas pipe.

The finished product. This stage is called "Tome (literally translated as stop)" and is the end of san-dan-shikomi, and the beginning of the moromi.

The next thing that happens in the moromi stage is that the rice sucks up most of the water in the tank, and the whole thing solidifies into a giant glob of mushy rice..

A close up of the saturated rice. This continues for several days. During this time the moromi is not stirred, as stirring it would make the rice break down more quickly (which is generally not a good thing, not to mention that it is really hard to move the pole around in the tank).

After a few days the water is released from the rice, and the moromi becomes much more fluid. The yeast are busy doing their job eating sugar and making alcohol (sounds like a pretty good job to me!).

This is a movie of the moromi in Action. I was hoping that you would be able to hear the bubbling of the moromi, but at least you can see it in action. the voices in the back ground are Katsumi-san, and another Hokkaido sake store owner who joined us for a couple of days.

When and how much you stir the sake during the moromi period is extremely important, as too much or too little stirring can have a pretty big impact on the final product. The above picture is the Toji stirring one of the 22 ton (22,000L the one I said was the size of a 18 wheeler) tanks, containing futsu-shu. Most of the tanks that Daishinshu uses are 2~4 ton tanks.

After about a month of bubbling and alcohol making, the moromi reaches it's peak, and it is time to press it! All of Daishinshu's sake is pressed in a Yabuta (accordion press), as seen above. From the picture above it would seem as though that giant hydraulic piston presses the sake by squeezing the plates, thus the accordion part. Oh contrair! In fact the pressure is applied gently and consistently by a series of airbags that are built in to the walls of each of the plates inside (more detailed photos below).

This is what a Yabuta press does for about 10 hours.... Exciting stuff.

The liquid sake then runs into a holding tank beside the press, where it is later pumped into a storage tank to either be aged for a period of time or bottled right away for that delicious shiboritatte (fresh pressed sake) taste.

After the sake has been pressed, the piston is released, and the plates are then shifted one by one, by hand, until the part that had the sake in it is reached.

Once there, the sake kasu, or pressings, is revealed! Cleanly stuck on to the walls of the press, the sake kasu must then be scraped off. You can see each individual panel in this picture; underneath the white fabric cover is the airbag that does the pressing.

The kasu is then neatly stacked, packed into 15 kg boxes and shipped off to sake stores, like mine, to be sold as sake kasu for Amazake (sweet drink make by mixing the sake kasu with water and sugar usually consumed warm; very tasty!). In my opinion, one can not truly understand the full taste of a sake until you have eaten that sake's sake kasu. Why? The sake kasu is half of the sake it'self. The sake you buy in bottles is only half of the taste, the rest of it is still trapped in the kasu.

After you have pressed the sake, the next thing you do (for a shiboritatte anyway) is to put the sake into bottles! Before that, however, one must ensure that nothing falls into the bottles, and that means cleaning the roof. What's the best way to reach the roof? A fork lift of coarse!

This is the bottling machine that they use at the brewing facilities. Like I mentioned in the first post, Daishinshu is broken up into two locations, one for brewing and one for offices and bottling, so I don't know if they have a fancier bottling/labeling/capping machine at the other location (as I didn't visit the other location).

As the bottles go around the machine they are filled with sake. The bottles are placed in and taken out of the machine by hand.

Then passed to a table where the tops of the bottles are checked for chips and cracks, and the amount of sake in the bottles is added to or subtracted from as needed. The bottles are then capped and boxed.

Here is a wider angle view of the bottling. The boxes to the right are full of empty bottles.

The finished product: Shiboritatte Nama sakes!
These are two of the sakes that they were making while I was there. the green bottle on the right is the sake they were bottling in the pictures above. Both sakes are big on the palate light on the nose and very fresh!

Someone asked me the other day "So now that you have been there, what makes Daishinshu sake so good?" My reply, well maybe it's the hard work, or the fun working environment that keeps everyone in high spirits. But if you really want to know, I think it's the classical music they play to the brewing sake.

That's the end of the sake making part of the Daishinshu posts, but not the end of the stories. I will be back to post more tidbits of the sake world in future posts!!

Well it's getting into the new Years rush here in Sapporo,
and with the crowds in the store comes the inability to post to my blog.
This will probably be my last post for the year (will start up again in January), although I will try to get some pictures of the end of the year madness if I can.

Wishing everyone happy holidays and a prosperous new year!
Just remember, Christmas may be ruled by wine, but New years, sake is king (here in Japan anyway)!

See you next time!

Meishu no Yutaka staff


  1. If I get the chance, I’d want to work with the bottling machine. I’d love to watch the bottles go around. It’s like they’re dancing. Hehe. Anyhow, is that an overflow bottling machine? It’s also called a “fill to level” bottling machine, which is relatively easy to operate. What it does is it fills a bottle to a target fill height.

    1. Rob,

      The bottling line is a fascinating place!
      This particular machine in not their regular bottling machine.
      It is a portable hand version that they really only use for special occasions like the really fresh sake (literally bottled the morning after pressing), like the one in this post. They have a larger semi-automated plant where they bottle most of their sakes.

      It looks like you are in the bottling business, so you probably know more about the system than I do, but from what I could tell it was in fact a "fill to level" system fed by either gravity, or syphon, with a larger piston pump pumping the to be bottled sake from the larger storage tank to the smaller fill tank (seen in the picture above) on the machine.

      As far as I can tell, the overflow system is what is used in most of the breweries in Japan (certainly all the one I have visited).

      Thank you for your comment!

      Staff Carlin