I recently met Mr. Hiroshi Sakurai, President of Asahi Shuzo at sake tasting organized by Issé in Paris. During his career, Mr. Sakurai turned Asahi Shuzo from a small ailing organization into a world class company. It reached international fame when it was selected to be served in First Class cabins of Japan Air Lines. Today Dassai is synonymous with luxury. It’s reputation was enhanced by the creation of Dassai 23, a creation that results from extreme polisage – removal of 77% of rice before processing.
Your sakagura (brewery) is in Yamaguchi.
Yes, it is a place where there are more monkeys than humans. (lol)
Is there a special way to drink saké?
Saké should be drank exactly the same as wine.
Are there, for instance, vintage and reserve saké?
Saké and wine mature differently. If you take a piece of red meat, you need to age it for a few days. With fugu (blow fish), you need to leave it after you slice it for a few hours to have the best sashimi. But there is a difference between a few days and a few hours. It is like that with wine and saké. Saké matures much faster than wine.
Are there competitions and awards for saké?
Yes, there are a number of them. At the national level, there is one sponsored by the Japanese tax authorities.
The National Tax Agency of Japan? How interesting.
Historically taxes on saké played an important role. For instance, it financed 30% of Russo- Japanese War. Today, the domestic tax rate is about 10%. There is also an import duty in France of about 3 euros per 720ml.
This explains why you cannot find cheap saké in France.
There is another reason why you can’t find inexpensive saké besides the fixed duties. Unlike wine, saké requires saccharification in addition to fermentation. With wine, it is easy to cut corners on the production. On the contrary, sake production requires certain technology and manpower. So it is not possible to make saké at below certain cost.
How many people do you have working in your brewery? Does it require a lot of training to make saké?
We have about 50 employees. The average age is 31 and the top koji (Aspergillus oryzae – the fermentation ingredient) craftsman is 28 years old. What I want to say is that it is not only about training and experience. Of course experience is important, but you need to have a gift for the craft.
I heard that saké making requires so much precision that stopwatches are used to measure time.
The fermentation process, for example, requires precise temperature and humidity. The rice when it is steamed has 40% humidity. We must lower the humidity and temperature to below 30% and 32 degrees before starting the fermentation process. If there is too much humidity on the surface of the rice, the ferment bacteria will attack only the surface and will not reach the core of the grain. So you need people shuffling the rice to air the humidity once it has been cooked.
When we control the temperature, we are talking about the difference between 0.1 and 0.2 degrees, so no machine can do the job. In this picture, you can see a 100 watt light bulb over a large bowl of rice. We control the temperature with the heat that come from light bulb.
After you combine the rice with tanekoji (ferment) and water, you need to watch it over 48 hours. Large companies perform this step with a machine, but we engage people to perform this process.
How many days does it take from washing the rice to bottling?
It takes about 40 days, and the aroma changes at each step. In the beginning it smells like steamed rice. When koji is added, it smells very sweet. But in the later step after fermentation, the smell becomes stressful. It smells like a rotten egg.
Rice is harvested only once a year. Are saké made with new crop better?
We store the rice as complet. Of course the taste will change throughout the year, but you cannot say if it becomes better or worse for saké over the duration.
Of course, you need good koji, good water, and good rice. You cannot make sake where the water is not good. Also most sake is made with Yamada nishiki, the most expensive and the best rice. This is mostly produced in Hyogo prefacture, behind Kobe. We purchase all rice produced in a village of Kato. This village is very important for us, so we even participate in their local festivities.
This bottle from your company is named EU50.
Yes, we chose this name to distribute in France and the rest of Europe. Making a product for France was challenging. Again, this is a tax issue; because the tax increases considerably over 15% content, we wanted to make saké with 14% alcohol. But at 14% the saké becomes watery. This was very difficult.
The 50 in eu50 is the polisage rate. The process of polisage is what makes Japanese sake different from other sake. For instance, Shaoxing in China uses whole grains of rice. In Japan, we polish outside of rice that contain protein and fat, and use only the starch inside for saké.
We use computerized machines. Before the technology, they used to use mills, but you could not make good quality polisage like we do today. The technology developed after the war, and computerization was developed about 20 years ago. These machines cost about 3000.0000yen (approximately 300,000 euro).
You also have Dassai 23.
Yes, 23 means 77% of the rice is polished. We developed this product 18 years ago when we were trying to develop our brand. We wanted to make the most polished saké in Japan.
The brewery is passed down the generations within a family?
Is sake healthy?
When rice is fermented, for some strange reason, vitamin B is produced. As you may know, some beauty creams contain koji. So saké is good for skin. You can see this in Akita, Niigata, where women have good skin. Also sumo restlers drink sake, and you can see that they have very good skin.
During the straining step, a large quantity of saké kasu is produced. What do you do with it?
Well, of course we sell them as food product. We also make them into biscuits and soap. The soap is a very good as substitute for shaving cream. It’s good for the skin and you don’t get rashes.
(Interview and translation by Eri Ikezi, 2 February 2011, Paris)
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