Fri | Dec 9, 2016

Sake - the Divine Brew

Published:Sunday | November 16, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Rice, water and brew - Sake from Nagai Sake sit with Kozuchi (wooden hammer) and Hishaku (cup). - Photo by Amitabh Sharma
Kozuchi (wooden hammer) and Hishaku (cup). - Photo by Amitabh Sharma
Noriyoshi Nagai, the sixth generation Sake Brewer, chairman and CEO of Nagai Sake Inc. - Photo by Amitabh Sharma
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Amitabh Sharma, Contributor

"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it," says Confucius, whose words of wisdom are embedded in the crystal-clear brew from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Sake, the potent confluence of spring-fed water and grains of rice, has been an integral part of Japanese society, and Noriyoshi
Nagai's family tradition for six generations.

"It
(Sake) is a historical beverage consisting of rice and water; it is not
just a business, everything I produce are like my children," Nagai
said.

Nestled in a valley among the snowcapped Mt
Hotaka range, Kawaba village is a postcard-perfect setting. Lush green
foliage, crisp cool air and the clear spring water flowing down the
streams, which Nagai recalls, became the source of inspiration for his
ancestor Shoji Nagai, who founded the Nagai Sake brewery in
1886.

The idea for the brewery came from the inherent
desire to preserve the sanctity of the nature and purity of water.

"The water is so pure that you can drink out of the
stream," remarked Hiromoto Oyama, first secretary, Embassy of Japan in
Jamaica.

According to Nagai, making Sake is both an
art and a science. Eighty per cent water and 20 per cent rice - like the
age-old tradition of Japanese minimalism - are the only
ingredients.

"There are three components used in
making Sake - water, rice and craftsmanship," he said, adding that
honouring the abundance of nature is the primary
objective.

The process is a labour of love,
handcrafted by skillful people who meticulously prepare rice and water
to be transformed into Sake.

For making this brew,
Yamadanishiki rice is used, which has a translucent grain, where the
core is visible. The rice is washed and steam-cooked, and then mixed
with yeast.

"The flavour comes from milling the outer
surface of the rice, and the core of the grain, after mixing with water,
becomes Sake," Nagai explained, adding, "The mixture is fermented, with
more rice, koji (fermenting agent), and water added in three batches
over four days."

The progression of fermentation and
the confluence of these two ingredients create a cloudy liquid that is
filtered, blended and bottled.

"Unlike other alcoholic
beverages, it is not the wood in which Sake is brewed that gives its
flavour, it is the rice and the water that give taste and aroma," said
Keisuke Irie, of Sake Samurai Secretariat, an initiative of Japan Sake
Brewers Association Junior Council to spread Sake
culture.

1,000-year tradition

The
fundamental process for brewing Sake has remained the same for the last
1,100 years - milled rice, water and cedar barrels, where it is
rested.

"The product is a process of patience and
love," Nagai said. "It takes two months for the fermentation process.
Some Sake is processed for six months to three years to give extra
flavour," he said.

Over the decades, though, the
popularity of Sake diminished in Japan, but the younger brewers like
Nagai are on a quest to revive, popularise and sustain this integral
slice of their history.

"We are popularising Sake by
introducing modern elements like bottling and packaging and taking the
drink around the world," said Irie.

For new-generation
brewers like Nagai, the international exposure is a vehicle of
reinforcing traditional values of his family and village to the
world.

"We thank the beauty of the nature that Kwaba
has been bestowed with. When my ancestors started the brewery, they saw
the wonderful gift of nature and the water. They bought the mountains
surrounding the village and vowed to protect and cherish nature," he
said. "This is the message they passed down from generation to
generation."

Sake is embedded in Japanese culture; it
is not any alcoholic drink. Sake is poured on the ground when
ground-breaking is done for a new house, this is to appease the gods,
take their blessings and satisfy their spirits and soul so they provide
firm foundation.

The bride and the groom drink Sake as
a symbol of togetherness and purifying their souls as they embark on a
new journey in life.

"It was a royal tradition among
ladies of royal families in Japan to wear layers of kimono as a symbol
of their opulence," said Oyama. "The layers of silkiness bring a feeling
that can be associated with Sake."

The simplicity of
Sake is like umami, the sixth taste - distinct, intriguing and evolving -
and like centuries past, it continues to journey like the pure waters
gushing down in Nagai's village to palate of millions across the
world.

amitabh.sharma@hotmail.com