Gekkeikan is a very popular sake brand in Japan, and near Kyoto in Fushimi, you can visit a very nice little museum they’ve put together to show visitors the process of making sake, a bit of sake history, and an exhibit dedicated to the history of the Gekkeikan brand.
How to Make Sake: The Oversimplified Overview
Now that you have some sake basics, we can expand further with a bit of how sake is made. This is just a cursory glance at the encyclopedic knowledge available at the museum, but I’ll do my best to distill it into something palatable.
The first step, after growing and harvesting the rice, is to wash it. This gets off the membrane and shell from each grain. It’s placed into some water is placed into a wooden barrel, called a fumi-oke, and mixed up by hand. The water is drained and barefoot workers walk across the rice to stamp it down before it is washed again and transferred to another barrel, the tsuke-oke, to be immersed in more water. A few hours later, the whole batch is drained.
Next, you steam the rice. It’s placed into a steamer (koshiki) and place upon a pot with boiling water, known as a kama, from which the steam rises up. After a set amount of time, the rice this then ready for fermenting. Here’s the fun part: sake makers slip on some special shoes, koshiki-gotsu, step into the steamer, and pull out the steamed rice with a long wooden scooper known as a bunji. They scoop the rice into containers (meshi-dame) and carried on their shoulders to the brewery (kura).
Next, they spread the rice out on a mat (mushiro) and aerated with a device called a kaiwari and left to cool off. Since sake brewing season is in the winter, the natural weather takes care of this step quite nicely. The ideal temperature is 32 degrees Celsius, giving the mixture time for koji mold to do its thing. This is for malting. If the rice isn’t used for malting, then it’s cooled down to 5-10 degrees Celsius.
There is a complex mating process after this, but I’ll spare you the gory details. Once all the ingredients are ready, they’ll purify the yest and mix it up with the malt, steamed rice, and water. It’s stirred every 2-3 hours by a team of sake makers, who traditionally sing while doing this. Once completed, it’s transferred back into a moto-oke container to be stored at a low temperature.
There’s also a lengthy process of creating the moromi, or main mash, but again, I’ll spare you the long, technical explanation that I’m not even sure I fully understand. After that process, the main mash is mixed with the previously made malting mixture over four days before being stored for at least 25 days for the sake to brew. There are a large number of factors that will change the flavor profile and composition of the sake that can be done during this process, but again, as a spectator, I can’t speak with great authority on what those may be or what they may look like.
Lastly, the mixture is compressed, filtered, and then placed into bags and allowed to drain, further filtering the mixture. Some sake brewers will actually press down on the mixture in the bags to get it filtering faster, but I was told by a sake maker in Nikko that this will alter the flavor of the sake for the worst, so good sake, I assume, will avoid doing this. With that, you have yourself some delicious sake!
At the end of the self-guided portion, there is a tasting table you can visit. The nice thing here is that there are a few staff members on hand that speak English and can help guide you through your tasting. They’ll start with the dry sake and gradually move down the spectrum to the sweet, all made by Gekkeikan and on sale in the museum gift shop, of course. I found that the drier the sake, the more it had that alcohol burn and a bit of a sting in the flavor. The sweeter sake wasn’t really sweet; it tasted a bit smoother and the sting of the burn from the alcohol was made far more mellow. We ended up buying a nice blue bottle of sake for our later enjoyment. There were other Gekkeikan goods as well, like towels, key chains, shirts, and other goods you’d come to expect from a museum gift shop.
If you’re into learning more about sake or want to try some interesting sake, the Gekkeikan Museum is hard to beat. At the very least, you’ll walk away with a small bottle of complementary sake, included in the price of admission. It’s a fascinating look at the craft of Japanese alcohol distillery and worth a visit if that sort of thing interests you.