There is a great scene in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” when the best voice-over in Hollywood – Morgan Freeman – talks about Andy’s love of rocks for his chess set, and for the little rock hammer that eventually buys his freedom. Morgan speaks about rocks in the very base terms of “time and pressure.” That’s it. Time and Pressure. If you want to know about rocks – you must have a general understanding about time and pressure.
Taking the big leap to sake – from rocks – one must be acutely aware of “time” at the very least. (Pressure comes in the form of being “under pressure” to make award winning sake each and every brewing season, and this needs no explanation. But time is another beast altogether in the sake industry – one that can make or break a brewing season year in and year out.)
Time – or what I will call “sake time” – is a killer, and is perhaps the single most important ingredient in the sake make process – yet nobody will give it this much credit. When you ask a brewer or kurabito (brewery worker) what is the single most important facet of making sake and they all have a different take. Some will say the koji rice! Some will say the water. Some will say how well you steam the rice. While others will say the temperature of the fermentation. Nobody says “time.” For good reason, because it goes without saying.
Timing in the sake brewing schematics is paramount. It is absolutely the most vital component – or cog in the machine. And there are a myriad of ways to blow the timing and screw the pooch on so many levels. Herewith is a little clockwork or how timing comes into play on each and every aspect of the production of hand-crafted sake. To make “Sake time” more approachable I will ask “Sake time” in a question format for a better “Hollywood” effect.
When should we plant our rice? Too soon or too late could affect the quality. When should we harvest the rice? Too soon and it’s not mature enough and too late could result in rice that gets destroyed by a typhoon – this happened this very year and when I was just in Japan I heard nothing but brewers asking each other – did you get your rice in on time or was it crushed? How long should you wait before polishing the rice? If it is too wet, it won’t polish well, if it is too dry it could risk being more breakable in the milling process. How long should you rest the rice after milling? Too soon and it is still pissed off, angry and dry, but if you wait too long the ambient humidity moisture content may get too high. Then how long should you wash the rice? You have to remove the loose elements on each grain, but too much water will make the grains too plump and you risk cracking when steaming. Likewise for how long do you soak the rice? This incredibly time sensitive part of production at times comes down to the use of a stopwatch. Too much soaking and again the grain is too plump and it will steam in an un-uniform capacity. Too little time in the water and the grain stays hard, which is equally difficult to steam evenly.
Do you catch where I am going here? The timing is everything. Forget the quality of the rice if you kill it in the process! How about steaming? You bet – the duration is incredibly important. Too much time and the rice goes mushy and does not saccharify or ferment well, and too little time creates a harder less penetrable rice that will not accept the koji-kin or the kobo (yeast) well. How long do you cool the rice after steaming? How long do you wait to put the koji-kin (proprietary super brewing mold used to saccharify the rice)? If you wait too long the rice will not accept the mold evenly and this is deadly for consistency. How long do you let the koji-kin do its job? If the mold takes too long, again, you run into consistency issues. If the koji making process is too short in duration there will not be enough sugars created for the yeasts to do their job – not enough food – and the result would be a lot of un-fermented rice. How long will you grow the shubo (concentrated yeast starter)? Too short of a duration and you have very few candidates to convert the sugars into alcohol, and too long of time and the yeasts kill each other off and become totally ineffective.
Sake is living and when you speak of anything that lives “time” must come into play at some point. The problem is that in the sake making process each and every “time” moment can have devastating results on every batch of sake. You would be surprised at the number of clocks in various parts of the kura (brewery). It’s not Vegas! They need to know the time – and yes there are a lot of wrist watches and computerized timing devices that document each and every painful second. There are charts, graphs, print-outs, and devices that do nothing but track time. Time is king. Time is also the jester, as it will play jokes on the sake making process. Because time is also a human condition and many a mistakes were made due in large part to the exhaustion of a brewer. Thus time kills. It also creates; producing wonderful sake if managed well.
How long should you ferment for? Too long and the yeasts die off and inconsistencies live on, and too short the brew does not fulfill its potential. Again – timing has become a generational truism and consistency fulfiller – they know how long to do everything down to the second. Why? Because they have done it before – thousands and thousands of times. They have a path in time. They have a map in time. They have a walking stick for the blind in time. Because they have to! Time is the divining rod that leads them to a successful brewing season.
When the time of fermentation is completed, then how long should you pasteurize for? Or how long should you let the sake rest – mellow out before releasing. You need to get the timing right – or you are wrong! Pasteurize too long and you kill the brew! If you pasteurize for too short of duration and you risk the early demise of the brew once it leaves the brewery. How long? How long? These questions need to be answered correctly. And more often than not – they are!
In a word, time is the single most important ingredient in the sake making “art form.” In an industry of “ten thousand methods” it is the one consistent variable. Get it right or get it wrong depends on seconds, minutes, days and months. And like rocks, sake is the study of time and to a lesser degree pressure. And like “The Shawshank Redemption” sake is always in the process of “Get busy living or get busy dying” in each and every second.