Saturday, December 20, 2008

11/5/08: Day 6 in Japan Part II - Water and Rice of Také No Tsuyu

This entry will focus on the water and rice of Také No Tsuyu Brewery.



What do carp in a pond has to do with the water? Actually, a lot. Také No Tsuyu has been using city water sourced from Mt. Gassan, which was ideal for brewing sakés.

Unfortunately, the city changed source of water to the detriment of the brewery about 7 years ago. Right around this time, an developer was digging a deep well in the adjoinig property to find onsen hot spring to open up a spa.

Tapping well water can be risky. Depending on the water pressure, the water could slowly reach the surface, or aggressively gush out like a geyser. In this case, the latter took place. Unfortunately for Aisawa-san, he quickly found out that carp were not as fond of the concept of hot spring as us.

Rather than seeking compensation for the now extinct fleet of carp, Aisawa-san asked for the soil data from excavation.




When the water runs through the ground, the different sediment layers behave like a filter. Therefore, understanding how these sediments are layered can help predict the quality of the water. Aisawa-san prefers to use soft water, and he eyed depth of 300m (984').

The photograph is of this water inside the holding tank. Aisawa-san estimates that the water has been resting inside Mt. Gassan for 5,000 years. The inner wall of the holding tank is white, and the aqua color of the water seems unreal. (Color of the photo has not been altered in any way.)

This refreshing yet soft and delicious water is the basis of Také No Tsuyu sakés since 2002.





Také No Tsuyu uses local rice for their sakés. They include, among others, Dewa No Yuki, Miyamanishiki, Kairyo Shinko, Kyo No Hana, Yamadanishiki harvested in Tsuruoka, Dewasansan, and Kamé No O. Aisawa-san studies the protein content of the rice every year, and determine appropriate polishing ratio for each rice. Lack of adequate milling means poor water absorption, making it difficult for koji mold to access protein. On the other hand, polishing too much results in extremely mushy conditions. If rice distintegrates to a point it coats other bits of rice, then koji mold will feast on the outer coat and not reach the protein.

Before polishing, there is a process to unify size. This process is handled by a machine called grader, which acts like a coarse mesh filter. Due to fine harvest, Aisawa-san is using Dewasansan rice that is at least 2.10mm instead of the usual 2.00 mm.

From this point on, I'll explain the late night work. The timing of my visit coincided with cultivation of koji for daiginjo. This is the daiginjo koji resting.

Every one hour and half, brewers mix the koji rice to balance out the temperature and moisture. The box is tapped twice on the left, right, top, then bottom before the rice is spread out evenly. According to Aisawa-san, the one-and-half hour shift coincides with the human sleep cycle. Each shift lasts 2 weeks.

I gave this a try, but it was more difficult than it seemed. Aisawa-san's advice was to imagine "Karesansui," which is a formation of the Zen rock garden.


Does this remind you of the rock garden?

At Také No Tsuyu, saké is brewed in a clean environment by brewers dedicated to their craft. In a way, I got to witness the old Japanese spirit in the form of their careful craftmanship and determination. As a Japanese, nothing makes me more proud than to see the old Japanese spirit and tradition kept alive by these craftsmen.

Anytime I enjoy Také No Tsuyu sakés, I can fully appreciate the water, rice, and people (Japanese spirit) of Yamagata. What more can I ask?



Sunday, December 14, 2008

11/5/08: Day 6 in Japan Part I - Visiting Také No Tsuyu Brewery

After a nice morning dip in the onsen hot spring, I was on my way to Akita Station to board Shinkansen. On my agenda today is visiting Také No Tsuyu Brewery, located in Haguro Village in the city of Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture. Welcoming me at Tsuruoka Station was Aisawa-san.


First thing we did after arriving at the brewery was to go out for lunch. Aisawa-san chose a local restaurant located amidst rice paddies, known for their hand-made soba. "Yama No Sobaya" specializes in thick and coarse "inaka-style" soba. We ordered the hot version, with its generous topping of roast pork and fried tofu. The combination of flavorful soup and firm texture of the soba was simply out of this world.

Mr. and Mrs. Aisawa in front of the entrance to the brewery.

My first impression about Také No Tsuyu is extremely clean. That is not to say that other breweries are filthy, but at Také No Tsuyu, nothing seemed out of place.

The first place Aisawa-san showed me was the tank where they keep well water. (The next entry will be dedicated to the water and rice of Také No Tsuyu.) Needless to say, Aisawa-san takes great pride in his water.

This machine steams then cools the rice.

Tank for the yeast starter. The aroma is quite something.

Nestled in the back of the brewery are fermentation tanks.

Right outside this room is a bamboo forest that inspired the name of the brewery (loosely translated as, "Bamboo Dew.") The shade offered by bamboo forest and cool draft descending Mt. Gassan provide ideal environment for aging and storing saké, even over the summer.

This machine manages cultivation of koji mold. Their data management is very meticulous.

Daiginjo-grade koji mold is manually managed by brewers in koji room in the 2nd floor.

After the tour, I went to onsen hot spring, then Aisawa-san took us for sushi dinner. Také No Tsuyu sakés went exceptionally well with the finely prepared sashimi by the sushi master of Happo Sushi. As we came straight from the hot springs, we don't have pictures for obvious reasons. After returning to brewery, we prepared for some evening work. Of course, preparation involved indulging in Hakuro Suishu sakés...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

11/4/08: Day 5 in Japan Part II - Akita Nagaya Sakaba

At the end of Ama No To event held in Akita City on Day 3, we went to a great saké bar. As I am spending the night in the same Akita City before traveling to Yamagata, it goes without saying that I'll enjoy my drinks at Akita Nagaya Sakaba.


Namahagé mask is used for a year-end festival to ward off evil spirits.

I wonder what saké I should drink... let me think long and hard...

As I was by myself, I sat at the counter seat. In the middle is a hibachi grill.

No, this is not a corn dog. It's acutally a miso-grilled Kiritanpo, a famous Akita cuisine made using Akita Komachi rice. It went very well with all three sakés I ordered (Kariho Rokushu, Ama No To Umashiné, Ama No To Junkara.) I ordered Kariho (SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.7, Rice: Miyamanishiki, Seimaibuai: 57%), as they were out of Ama No To "Kamé No O Shikomi" Junmai Ginjo. Kariho was excellent: refreshing, crisp, and clean.  
秋田名物のキリタンポ味噌田楽。この一品は今晩飲んだ三種類のお酒全部に合った(刈穂「六舟」吟醸、天の戸「美稲」、天の戸「純辛」。) 売り切れの天の戸「亀の尾仕込み」純米吟醸生の代わりに頼んだ刈穂「六舟」 (日本酒度 +5、酸度 1.7、原料米 美山錦、精米歩合 57%)はスッキリ感がする爽やかな辛口。

The onsen hotel I am staying includes dinner, so I ended my visit with butter- sauteed maitaké mushrooms cooked in aluminum foil.

Luckily for me, the staff remembered me from two nights ago, and were extremely friendly and kind with their services. With great food, saké selection and friendly staff, I would highly recommend this restaurant if you're in Akita.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

11/4/08: Day 5 in Japan Part I: Nanbu Bijin Experience

Today called for another early wake up, this time at 6:30 am. Today's agenda is to tour Nanbu Bijin Brewery. In addition, Kuji-san has arranged for me to participate in parts of the brewing process, something I've seen but never done before.

To see Nanbu Bijin's account of my visit, please click here.



The first thing Matumori Brewmaster did was to check the tanks and gather data.

The fermentation in this tank is very vibrant. To control the fermentation, they've added extra lip to the tank as well as machine that pops the bubbles to keep from overflowing.

Here, I find the tag for Tank #1 which we got to taste last night. It says, "October 8, Batch #1, Shiboritaté Nama."

Tank #7 is a Tokubetu Junmai Nama slated to be shipped to the US. Fermentation began 10 days after Batch #1.

My first assignment is to mix the mash.

Mixing the new batch is a very hard work, as it is mostly solid,.

After the rice is steamed...

it is shoveled into...

a machine where...

it is cooled then separated by the brewers.

The rice is then packed into sacks, and sent upstairs to the Koji Room.

Nanbu Bijin uses silk sack instead of can when sprinkling Koji mold. This task is tougher than it looks. To sprinkle the mold, you must maintain the right rhythm. I was so focused and tight during my first attempt that I was actually told, “you know, you really ought to breathe.” To appreciate the difficulty, put three quarters in a dress sock, and shake it so that the quarters bounce and make sharp clinking sound each time.

Working in the Koji Room made the biggest impression. After sprinkling the koji mold, the job was to mix the rice and manage the temperature. We used digital thermometer to track temperature, and brewers made small adjustments by opening and closing the door. They really live in a world where a mere half a degree makes difference. When the koji rice is down to about 32.5C, then it is neatly wrapped for resting.

Although I don’t have the photo, the next assignment was making boxes for shipping. This was low pressure job by comparison, but in the worst case, screwing up here can result in breakage and waste all the previous efforts. Thus, the importance of this job cannot be understated.

After boxing, we had lunch. Because last night’s ramen was a huge hit with the gang, Kuji-san asked the kitchen to make the Nanbu Bijin-style ramen. My first serving was the traditional soy ramen, while the second was miso. The soup was rich and balanced, and exactly what we needed.

After extended lunch break, I assisted in preparing rice for steaming the next day. As there are several layers in the steamer, my job was to make sure each layer was evenly distributed.

Posing ith Kuji-san. My work day ended around 5:00 pm, as I had to go catch a train to Akita City.

As I am traveling from Ninohé to Akita City, I kept thinking of how people throughout the trip has been very generous in welcoming me into their domain and letting me participat in these rare experiences. I will forever be grateful to everyone.



Sunday, November 23, 2008

11/3/08: Day 4 in Japan Part IV: Drinking with Nanbu Bijin Brewers

After lunch, I made 2:45 trip to the city of Ninohé in the neighboring Iwaté Prefecture to visit Kuji-san from Nanbu Bijin Brewery. While the brewery tour will take place the following day, the night was reserved for socializing with the brewers.

After checking in at the nearby hotel, Kuji-san picked me up for the festivities.



Coincidentally, they were just starting to press their saké today. As luck would have it, this is the very first lot of the year. I had the honor of tasting first saké as it was being pressed. I have not tasted a saké that is more livelier.

After freshly squeezed saké, we toasted to Junmai Ginjo Hiyaoroshi. I also opened the bottle of Mansaku No Hana Junmai Daiginjo "Kamé No O" Hiyaoroshi I received from Sato-san for comparison. Nanbu Bijin was cleaner and drier, while Mansaku No Hana was softer and fruitier.
「しぼりたて」の後には純米吟醸の「ひやおろし」で乾杯。私も今朝に佐藤さんから頂いた「純米大吟醸 亀の尾 ひやおろし」を開け、「ひやおろし」の飲み比べを行った。南部美人はスッキリ感の辛口で、まんさくの花はフルーティーで優しい味だった。

At Nanbu Bijin, there is one gentleman who is responsible for serving saké warm. Sugahara-san stretches the limit of the concept of "kan," coming up with creative ideas. To convince me, he served junmai nigori warm (pictured) and even 2003 Koshu. The common thread between two sakés were that warmth rounds out acidity to make it more approachable. I must say that I was definitely enlightened!

Later on, Kuji-san brought out Aiyama Junmai Ginjo. It had gentle and round flavors of rice and straight forward and clean flavor. In NY, this saké is available exclusively at Sushi of Gari.
後で登場したのが「純米吟醸 愛山」。米のまろやかな香りと癖が無いきれいな味。これはNYではSushi of Gariだけしか飲めない限定品。

Some brewers of Nanbu Bijin. The staff is relatively young compared with other breweries. To the left is Matsumori-san, the Brewmaster.

Running into the room shouting, "I want some saké!" is none other than Kuji-san's son, Taiyo.

The dinner consisted of various sashimi and skewers. The highlight is the hand-made ramen delivered from local restaurant, a taste Kuji-san grew up with. Mild yet complex soup complemented by chewy noodles... ramen does not get much better than this!

At this time, my travel fatigue began to kick in. With an early work day ahead, I was off to bed...