My Life as a KurabitoWritten by Beau Timken
I have spent a lot of time in Japan, but I have never lived there. I think that there is a big difference in “living” and “visiting” a country. As a visitor one can never see the layers of “routine” or “repetition” that creates the true living experience. And that is why for years I have asked my sake brewery owners to allow me the opportunity to go and work for them for a stretch of time. My longest stretch was for four days at one kura in Yamagata. It was superb–but still I felt that I was missing out on the “process” that exists longer than four days. I also was afforded the luxury of sleeping at the owner’s house and not with the workers–leaving me with that “visitor” feeling as opposed to the “living the life” experience.
Fast forward to an email exchange in November 2008 that I had with Yasutaka Daimon–owner and head brewer at Daimon Shuzo in Osaka makers of the famous Mukune label that is available worldwide. In this exchange my buddy told me about a bartender in Hawaii who asked him if he could go to Osaka and work at his brewery. He asked for my advice. I–knowing my own passion and desire for learning sake–said “He’s not the only guy who would like to work at Mukune Village.” Daimon-san said “Really?” And I obviously said “Of course, and what would be better is if you allowed people to sleep in the brewery and work for a week or so–to live the experience.” He liked the word interns. “So you would come as interns?” he asked. “No we would come as workers–not tourists–not interns–we would come to do nothing but work and help out your other brewery workers.” Daimon was enthralled.
For the next two days we hashed out the framework for the “Mukune International Sake Brewing Program,” the first of its kind in the very long and glorious history of sake. What is ironic is that Daimon-san wanted to focus on entertaining the guests and I kept pounding on him that we don’t want entertainment–dinners–day-trips–we wanted to make sake because the best way to learn sake is to make sake. That became our program motto–The Best Way To Learn Sake Is To Make Sake. I reinforced our desire to go and “be” a kurabito (brewery worker) rather than go as an observer of brewery workers.
I laughed out loud on one phone call with Daimon as we planned in detail the program. He asked “Do you think people will want to come?” I said hell yes. People will not only want to go, but they will want to go for years to come. Our initial plan was to have three sessions in the 2009 spring brewing season. Each session would have three people and would last one week. Daimon asked me to be the Director of the program which I graciously accepted. As such I was charged with selecting who would attend. Basically I could have opened the old Rolodex and asked a bunch of sake friends, but thought that since this was such a historical effort that I needed far more openness.
How easy or hard could it be to make a questionnaire asking if somebody would like to go and make sake in Japan for a week? Well the answer quite frankly is hard! My goal from the get-go was to buffer Daimon-san and make things as easy on him and his operations as possible. My greatest fear was that a bunch of Yahoos would go and be very disruptive – needing of much babysitting and oversight–which would take away from his job of making sake – his livelihood. Don’t mess with a man’s livelihood! So the questionnaire was quite simple but it gleaned a lot of info for us to make our selections “Would you have a problem kneeling at a tatami table?” etc.
I will be honest; I wanted Daimon to charge a nominal amount to cover his expenses. Again, I always look out for the man. And of course with his huge heart he said no. “A free internship,” is what he wrote back to me. Okay! Free it will be. So we launched the questionnaire and subsequent information on his brewery’s webpage, and I used my newsletter from True Sake and John Gauntner used his newsletter, and viola we were in business. Again – let me state for the record Daimon thought that nobody would want to go to his brewery to make sake–free–for a week. And then the applications started tumbling in. We received so many applications in the first 48 hours that I told Daimon that we must close the process. He said keep it open for it will surely die down. Nope! After 72 hours we suspended the application process and kept open a link where you could leave your email address.
So many people and so few spaces! I was so excited that so many enthusiasts wanted to enjoy the feeling of making sake. Proud, so damn proud. And of course Daimon was crazed! He never dreamed that so many people “out there” appreciated sake enough to want to do a program. In his feverish state he said–okay we will make each session 6 people, and we will add a special session for people who live in Japan. Then the hard part began. Who would we select? So many people had so many special stories, and what hurt is that I knew a lot of them personally. But I told Daimon that we must select with a purpose, and that purpose is the betterment of sake. We cannot just invite people looking for a little adventure; we need to select people who will champion sake in the future. I then created a criteria format that we used to select the applicants.
Each session was made up of a person who made wine, beer, or sake–a sommelier or wine director–a person in the sake industry via importing, distributing, sales etc- a restauranteur/chef–a media person to promote sake–and of course we selected one person to be that soul just looking for a little adventure. This mix allowed for the best “use” of Daimon’s efforts. And with so many applications we filled slots for the next three brewing seasons.
In the next series of emails we plotted out how we could capitalize best on the overwhelming demand for the program. The obvious scenario was to create such an effective program that other breweries would feel safe allowing a group of foreigners to work and stay at their kura. It is our goal that many breweries will open their doors to the “hungry for knowledge” sake people out there–this would represent the ultimate success for our efforts. That is why Daimon and I worked so very hard to create an airtight program that rewarded the applicants, but was also as low-impact on the owner as possible. This combination of creating a perfect and respectable working environment was the greatest concern and the greatest pleasure.
Literally two months after we defined the program and sent out the acceptance letters the first session for the Mukune International Sake Brewing Program took place in Osaka in February 2009. Suffice it to say we did exactly what brewers do! For one week 6 people from around the world (7 including me) lived the sake making experience. We woke and brewed all day, and slept in small little rooms in the brewery at night. It is easy to speak about an “experience of a lifetime,” well this trumped all of the others. There was not a single aspect of sake making that we did not execute–from the incredibly dangerous aspects (steaming/cooling rice) to the not so dangerous tasks of placing labels on bottles. We did it all–the way it is supposed to be done!
In respect to Daimon and the Mukune International Sake Brewing Program I would like to steer you to the real-time blog that we, and subsequent sessions, did describing our efforts in detail. You may find and comment on these posts here: http://www.mukune.com/internship/ But please keep in mind the historical significance of this program, as foreigners have always been discouraged from visiting breweries during the brewing season. The dawning of a new generation of sake appreciation is here, and hopefully one day you will be able to mix the moto, massage the koji, and paddle steamed rice onto canvas sheets–just like the brewers do.
I just read your article, and am interested in going to Mukune to make sake as well. Is the program still possible?