Sakes

By Paz Levinson (Sommelier AAS, Best Sommelier of the Americas 2015)

This year I had the opportunity to spend five weeks in Japan. I went specifically to learn more about sake, an alcoholic beverage I’m passionate about because it is complex, diverse and different from what a wine can be. The sake and wine universes are sometimes similar but there are so many other processes that are totally different.

Similar to a vineyard is one harvest of rice per year from the field. They sow the land in spring and after summer they harvest. Many workers can do both activities. During the period of work in the field, they are outside and during the production period they are indoors (from December to March-April).

Sake is made in the coldest months when workers are available. The cold climate and the snow soften the particles that could be in the air; so the air is clean and pure. During elaboration of sake fermentation temperatures are low around 8/9ºC and because of the cold weather no air conditioning is needed. Making sake is very hard, especially physically. People work from five in the morning to five or six in the evening. The rice is cooked early in the morning to have it ready for the fermentation tanks or to make the koji. The traditional sagakuras are almost entirely made of wood and many containers are made with cedar. The aroma is special and persistent.

Koji is essential to produce sake. Koji spores are added to the rice and the process takes two days for the kojimae to be ready. The rice is going to be added to the fermentation tanks and to the small tanks to ensure the production of alcohol in the process. The koji also provides aromas and flavours. It has a very particular chestnut aroma and kojimae is delicious. The rice’s texture changes completely and becomes soft and tender.

The smell inside the kojimuro and the heat are unforgettable. There are constant temperature contrasts. Outside in the fermentation tanks are 8/9ºC while in the koji room there are 30/35ºC. During sake tasting and visiting the production areas it is cold all the time. At the entrance, you have to take off your shoes and exchange them for rubber boots or for another type of footwear. During the visit you have to change your shoes every time you enter a different area. At the end of the day your feet are frozen!

It can be difficult to find producers who speak English. I was lucky enough to visit two kuras where French was spoken. It is rare to see kuras receiving foreigners for work but it seems that they are opening up.

Travelling through Japan in winter is the ideal time to visit producers at work. They are busy but it’s the best time to see the whole production process. Days are cold and flowers aren’t really out but there’s nothing that a glass of sake in an izakaya can’t sort out. 

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