The skill of the brewer

“Ichi: koji. Ni: moto. San: tsukuri.” Sake fans may have heard this simple adage about the steps for making fine sake: "First, the koji (rice cultivated with mold spores). Second, the shubo (yeast starter). Third, the moromi (main mash)."

There are experts, however, who say the key to delicious sake is how its ingredients are processed. Brewers have time-tested methods for washing, soaking and steaming their sake rice. But while it's true that washing and steaming are important steps, it's the soaking technique that's crucial to making ginjo sakes.

Why is that?

When rice is polished it loses some of its moisture content, and as a result it absorbs water more readily. To control water absorption, brewers must strictly monitor the soaking time. Drain the water too early, and you get half-steamed rice. Wait too long and the rice absorbs too much water, dissolves too fast in the fermenting mash and produces sake with rough flavors.

And that's not all: Optimal absorption times differ according to the kind of rice and the grade of sake being produced. The polishing ratio varies widely from futsu-shu, or table sake, all the way up to ultra-premium daiginjo, and is only one of several factors that affect the moisture content of the rice and the time needed for soaking. Finally, since rice is a product of nature, affected by weather, soil conditions and the farmers who grow it, it's virtually impossible to duplicate its qualities from one year to the next.

That leaves a lot on the shoulders of the toji, or master brewer. He analyzes the quality of the year's rice, and relying on his years of experience and the records he keeps, determines the precise soaking time down to the second.

If, when you sip good sake, your thoughts turn even briefly to the skill of those who made it, for a brewer there's no greater reward.