Japan | Kanpai! A bit about Sake...

Our Japan trip has left me nostalgic for our daily sake indulgence. I never knew much about sake and I've come back with such an appreciation for it! 

While in Kyoto, we had the absolute pleasure of visiting with the team over at Gekkeikan sake. We toured the old and new production sites, and learned about the process of sake making.

 Sake brewing differs from wine and beer, created after a process of double fermentation. What does that mean? I'm still very far from an expert, but here's a layman's brief explanation of what I learned on our tour:

It all starts with rice - quality, specially milled "sake" rice. The rice is washed, steamed, and mixed with yeast and kojiKoji is made using rice with a special type of fungus that aids in the fermentation process. It all goes into a tank called a shikomi. The modern tanks are very reminiscent of the kind you would see at a brewery... but! Get a load of this beautiful straw wrapped barrel that would have been used in the early days.

As this mixture ferments, more and koji are added with water. It is then pressed to separate the liquids from the solid lees. Again, nowadays it is done with large machine that looks like an accordian - but here is a photo of the types of sake sacks that would have been pressed to release the liquid. They were repaired, washed and reused. I'm so drawn to these handstitched wax bags. They remind me a little of boro, a Japanese handicraft using stitches to mend and decorate textiles (but more on that in a later blog post).

Cool side note - the solid lees from the sake pressing is used as a snack called Sake Kasu. Neat, huh?
The liquid is then filtered and pasteurized. It is aged for about 6 months, then pasteurized again.
Back in the day, sake brewers would hang a new, green cedar ball, or sugidama, in front of the brewery to show that they had a new batch ready to sell. As the ball turned brown, it showed the age of the sake.

And here we come to the labeling and bottling. Here are some of my favorite vintage Gekkeikan labels that they had on display at their Okura Sake Museum

Yikes. That really didn't do this process any justice. I really recommend reading more about sake making if you're interested.

Now for my favorite part - the bonus eye candy. Get a load of these beautiful sake barrels!

During our visit we noticed a lot of stacked barrels at the entrance to several Shinto shrines. We learned that the brewers often donate them for ceremonies, and the displays are a sign of prosperity and connection between the Gods and people.

Here are a few more things I learned between sips:

  • Quality sake is primarily served chilled. When sake is served warm or room temperature, it is usually to disguise a lesser taste. I thought it was the other way around! Fake it 'till you make it kids!
  • Our local dinner companions introduced us to a Japanese custom of always filling your neighbors sake glass when you see that it is empty. In return they fill yours - never fill your own. I just love everything about that. 
  • Kanpai! The celebratory equivalent of "Cheers!" - directly translated means "dry the glass" but don't worry, not need to down it all in one sip. It's meant to be cherished :)

If you're planning an adventure of your own, here's the website for the tour.
Is it obvious how much I loved this trip? Kanpai everybody!