Sunday, January 20, 2013

My New Life Working & Living At Japanese Sake Brewery

Ten Days In

A sake brewery can be a chilly place to work. If the weather is 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it's just as cold inside the kura (the warm koji room, as warm as Hawaii, notwithstanding). 

Yet working in this cold weather is a boon for sake lovers, so I curse it not. Sake yeast propagation soars in the winter, but in warm weather yeast suffers from jet lag and can't operate at normal capacity (art imitates life!) The yeast, much like this gaijin kurabito, needs to hustle in order to make delicious sake. When it's warm outside, sake yeast is not as active and sake is less flavorful as a result. Now, in the dead of winter, hundreds of sake breweries come to life with activity. 

Cleaning, as if I joined the US Navy

Friends and family ask me what it is like to be living my dream, for my great passion – my ikigai – is the sake industry. I don't wish to write like an otaku, or a sake geek, right now....and discuss the nuances of brewing sake. But I will tell you this: Kurabito (kura = sake brewery, bito = worker) life rotates around keeping the kura clean, as unintentional yeast propagation can spoil sake and corrupt entire batches. One is not yet a proper kurabito if you have yet taken a wet rag and wiped down walls, ceilings, and a phalanx of 2700-liters tanks *twice* (wet with water, then again with an astringent mix of persimmon juice and water. Take that, wild yeast.) Cleaning is the most regular activity in a kura..

A Portion of the Kyushu Sake Trade

This picture includes sake and shochu breweries in Fukuoka (in green), Saga (in red) and Nagasaki (in blue).

There is one brewery on this map that matters more to me than the others combined right now: Wakatakeya Shuzo. 

The man who owns Wakatakeya, Mr. Hironobu Hiyashida (pictured with me above), looks after his employees like they are member of his family. To think the brewery has been in operation in his family since 1699. I have been made to feel welcome and more than at home immediately. It is an authentic concern for his employees. Together, we have a mutual celebration and appreciation for the sake trade. 

As a consequence of Hironobu-shacho's leadership, my cohorts.themselves treat each other with kindness, care, and concern. Even the new guy who does not speak much Japanese. There is a sign in the kura that sums up the spirit best. The kanji read as “Harmony, Brewing, Good, Sake”  I like the sound of that! 

End of the Shift, But Not the Day

Just before finishing this blog post, I got upstairs to the roof for the first time...I am on top of the brewery in this picture, and in some ways, on top of my small, modest sake world. The day is done and it is now surprisingly warm outside. I bask in the sun for a minute before I clock out. I’ve got nothing to do tonight but smile…and enjoy a Wakatakeya sake with my co-workers.

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