Sake: from the front line

I don’t know how I feel about Wednesdays.

Usually what happens by the third weekday is that one half of my brain gives up, whilst the other half starts to attempt forward time travel to Friday.

Wednesday sits pathetically between the bookends of a week's beginning and end, apologetically impeding one’s swift exit to Saturday. Once I cross this mysterious threshold however, my heart begins to feel immediately lighter. Friday practically is the weekend. And Thursday is the day before Friday.

Suffice it to say, I am unaccustomed to the practice of "looking forward to Wednesday".

However, following this Wednesday’s events, I am launching a wholesale review of this attitude. April 29th had been ring-fenced in my diaries - iCal, Gmail, outlook, hardcopy - for a while, for the British Sake Association had sent news of a very interesting talk on sake.


The Talk

Sake: from the front line

Oliver Hilton-Johnson, owner of sake importing company Tengu Sake, had brought back goodies from Japan. He was also going to give a talk on his experiences. There would be sake.

It is in my nature to be suspicious of group lecture/ study events, but also in my nature to never refuse a sake tasting. So on Wednesday, I made my way to The Royal Asiatic Society -  a hop, skip and a jump from Euston Square Station - curious and intellectually thirsty.

The evening began with a presentation from Ollie, accompanied by some sake to enhance our audio-visual processing capabilities, followed by lovingly made yakitori, sushi and more sake. In 1.5hrs we covered a lot of material, so I present some highlights to share with you.


Hayashi Honten Brewery

Ollie had just returned from a 2 week sake internship at Hayashi Honten brewery, one of the breweries from which he imports. Founded 1920, the brewery is based in Gifu prefecture in what appeared to be fairly urban surrounds from Google Satellite images. There's a great map on Tengu Sake's website which shows the locations of all the breweries from which Ollie imports. Here's a close up of Gifu Prefecture:


Gifu map


Hayashi Honten


The urbanisation of the brewery's location surprised me, as I always imagined that something as romantic as a sake brewery would be most suitably located at the top of a fat, fluffy cumulonimbus, surrounded by mountains and sage men practicing calligraphy. What urban areas do have that clouds don’t, however, is secure access to good water. Breweries need good water in vast quantities, hence the co-location.

My favourite thing about Hayashi Honten is that it is run by one very capable Hayashi-san, who happens to be a woman.

How rare - in this industry as in any other industry. You’ve heard a lot by now of how female presence at the top of the food chain has quantifiable benefits for a company’s success, but hear this word of corroboration: one of the first things that Hayashi-san did was to institute a more humane work/life balance at the brewery. Some breweries ask workers nothing less than to work, live, eat, sleep onsite.

Hayashi-san instead preferred to implement a 07:00 – 18:00 schedule, with an hour for lunch in the middle!! I’ll say no more.

Ollie and Hayashi Honten brewers

The brewers of Hayashi Honten. Hayashi-san, centre right. Ollie, centre.


Brewery Tour

We were shown a virtual tour of the brewery. Again, in my wildest imaginings of what a Japanese brewery would look like, I never imagined that it would be possible for everything to be conducted in only 2 to 3 main rooms.

Hayashi Honten seemed to contain its operations to one main colder room (7 C), one hotter room upstairs (35 C) and one ante room (where bottling and labelling was conducted). The staff travelled between these rooms like worker bees, diligently back and forth, their rhythms only punctuated by the frequent changing of slippers between rooms.

(When I first came to the UK, I was appalled at the way outdoor shoes would be worn straight into the house – and even the bedroom! I still cannot comprehend why people here don’t understand my angst. Where is the hygiene? Where is the respect?)

Upstairs, Downstairs at Hayashi Honten

Upstairs, Downstairs at Hayashi Honten


Sake Brewing – the (figurative) sweat that goes into the sake

The meat of the lecture was devoted to describing a day in the life of a sake brewer. A sake brewer's day is busy, involves a lot of washing, rice handling and temperature changes. But if there's one thing you need to know, it is that sake brewing is hard. 

The hypothetical schedule ran something like this:

07:00                   Arrive ready to work

10:00 - 10:30     Break

13:00 -14:00       Lunch hour

16:00 – 16:30     Break

18:00                    End of working day.

According to Ollie, mornings tended to be very structured, with all activities pre-planned and delegated using the "Master Plan" (an arcane grid filled with neat Kanji).

Then depending on whether it was peak brewing season, afternoons could be more flexible. Ollie had arrived quite late in the brewing season, when production was winding down and most of the sake was already in the maturation tanks; this allowed for more flexibility.  Afternoon activities involved tasks that had to be executed everyday (koji checking, refrigeration of koji, washing, pasteurising, bottle labelling, chemical analysis) and activities that only needed occasional tending to. At peak time on the other hand, everything would be highly regimented.

Ollie spreads out the rice to cool

Ollie spreads out the rice to cool




One last word on Koji.

Aspergillus oryzae. It is the little mold God that determines a sake's major qualities, its depth and amino acidity. A petulant little baby God, which needed to be sauna-ed, massaged, swaddled in muslin and carried around, several times a day. It also carries out the crucial role of breaking down the rice starch into sugars (saccharification), in order that the yeast can ferment it into alcohol.

From Ollie’s account, it is clear that the brewers devoted a large part of their day to tending to it. Looking back through my notes, about 70% of what I jotted down related to the tending of koji!

Koji wrapped in muslin

Koji wrapped in muslin



I’m sure this is what you really wanted to read about. Ever heard of the saying, "stay for a drink, stay for two"?

Or eleven, since eleven is the number of  different sakes that were on display. Here are two that deserve a special mention:

Sky Warrior

Otherwise known as "Seku Honjozo Karakuchi". A Honjozo sake from Hayashi Honten brewery. Official notes:

15% ABV. A fragrant, peppery and zesty sake, clean fresh and yeasty with a lively dry finish. A good match with strong-tasting foods that have one or two dominant flavours and are not too greasy or creamy. It also pairs well with salty, peppery or even spicy dishes. Examples could include grilled (peppered) steak, salted calamari, grilled chicken with a simple sauce, peppered crab or spicy squid.
Honjozo Karakuchi


The name “Akazake (red sake)” refers to its colour. This was a first for me, not knowing that sake could come in such a hue.

Akazake red is not the strong red that we apply to our beloved London buses, but a sister shade to brandy perhaps. (No decent images sadly, but a Google search gives you the right idea).

Where does the red come from?

Most sakes are pasteurised for sterilization, but Akazake uses wood ash. Wood ash is added to the sake before pressing, neutralising the acidity of the sake.  This particular Akazake speciment came from "kumamoto-ken Shuzo Kenkyujo" or "Kumamoto Research Centre".  Akazake is particular to Kumamoto and was the original style made there until 1909.


After a merry evening spent learning about sake and the process, I can only recommend the course. If you wish to learn a bit more about the subject, give it a try! The level is accessible and the speaker well-informed. Now that I know how much human labour goes into creating each drop of sake, I cannot help but be sympathetic to the price, and appreciate every sip more.




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