How Is Saké Made?

By Elyssa Goldberg

Tedorigawa Brewery, Japan. From The Birth of Sake. Photo: Erik Shirai

Toji (“Toji-san”) Yamamoto has dedicated his life to brewing sake by hand. At 68 years young, he’s the brewmaster at Yoshida Brewery in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. It’s 144 years old and one of only a handful of sake breweries still making rice wine the old-fashioned way, an endangered and labor-intensive process that takes place round-the-clock from October through April. Sake-brewing ain’t easy either. For those six months, the team eats, sleeps, works, bathes, gets drunk, and sings karaoke together. They can’t see their families and they are their only friends. If it sounds intense bordering on brutal, it’s because it is.

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Filmmaker Erik Shirai, who previously worked as a cameraman on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, captured it all on camera in The Birth of Sake. It’s gorgeous and poignant, filled with gems like, “Sake making is a living thing. If you compare it to human beings, it would be like raising a child. You have to nurture it properly.” We sat down with 6th-generation heir to the brewery Yachan-san, director Erik Shirai, and brewmaster Toji-san, who are in town for the Tribeca Film Festival, to learn more about the film, life at Yoshida, and what we need to know about drinking sake.

What sparked the idea for this documentary?

Erik Shirai: It was very serendipitous. I was doing a fundraiser for another film and Yachan was at the event pouring sake. Very politely and casually, after a few drinks, he said, “Next time you’re in Japan, I want you to visit my brewery.” I didn’t think he was serious at all. I thought it was a throwaway kind of thing. I think he was a little surprised when I knocked on the door of the brewery and was like, “I’m here!” But once my producer and I went there and visited the brewery, it’s sort of like a cathedral. There was just a presence–a soul or spirit that’s inside. It’s so cinematic. I was there during the off season, but you could just tell that this was a story. And after they showed me the rooms that people sleep in and share for six months of the year, we were like, yeah, we have to film this.

Did you live with them too?

Shirai: Yes, we stayed at the brewery. I think that made a big difference. It’s very common for people to just go shoot for a few hours then go back to the hotel. We literally woke up with them at 4:30 am, ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them. We drank with them every night. We sang karaoke with them.

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Was there anything off-limits, that you were forbidden from shooting?

Shirai: You saw the bath scene [where Toji-san and three other brewers soak together naked] so, no, there was really nothing that was forbidden.

The film got initial funding from Kickstarter. What was that like?

Shirai: I would never do anything on Kickstarter again. I felt like I lost 10 years of my life. My producer was about to kill me and herself throughout the whole process. It’s a great platform, but I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

In the film Toji-san says, “Harmony Brews Good Sake” and it’s framed on the wall of the brewery. What does that mean?

Yasuyuki (“Yachan”) Yoshida: Toji-san said his ex-brewmaster had good skill but was mean. He just ordered people around. At that time, Toji-san was the second-in-command, and he didn’t want to work with that guy. When the other brewmaster quit, Toji-san became the brewmaster, and he concentrated first on making good harmony. Otherwise, we cannot make good sake. We are family and we stay together for six months in the same room. Everything the same. The sake-making life is so stressful for everybody. But, recently, nobody fights because of Toji-san.

Head Brewmaster Yamamato Toji assessing quality through smell at Yoshida Brewery. Photo: Erik Shirai

The film mentions that making sake is hard on your hands, because the outside temperatures are so cold and the rice is so hot.

Yachan: It’s tough to break the rice in very cold temperatures. I lost feeling in my hands but I have it back now. Hand-feeling is very important. We are always checking how soft the rice is.

Teruyuki (“Toji”) Yamamoto: It’s the most important thing.

Shirai: That’s what I find so fascinating about Toji-san. What people don’t understand is that you can’t just make sake with machines and program everything. There are all of these variables because it’s a living thing. Things are changing based on the type of rice, the type of grain, how it was steamed. You have to be able to adapt and work with it. Only someone who has that experience can do that.

After a hard day of work, sake-makers drink together at Tedorigawa. Photo: Erik Shirai

What are some tips for people just learning about sake?

Yachan: First, sake has categories: junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo. I’d say taste the three categories. Then one category, like daiginjo. Even within daiginjo there are so many kinds. I’d bring a map and show that this certain daiginjo is from this region. This other one’s very aromatic and smooth.

Shirai: It’s very easy for the thing that you drink to take over the meal. The sake he strives for supports the food he’s eating, because the region he comes from has a lot of seafood and everything’s light. He wants the sake to have that balance, to not aggressively take everything over. I think that’s really key. I would also say that the great thing about sake is that you can drink it at different temperatures: hot, cold, or warm. But, one tip, generally speaking, in America, is that the best types of sake—the highest grade sakes—are served cold. So, if you’re getting hot sake, you’re probably getting the worst.

Workers breaking up clumps of rice at Tedorigawa Brewery. Photo: Erik Shirai

What sake from Yoshida should I be drinking? What’s your favorite

Yachan: The name is Iki Na Onna [Lady Luck]. It’s a daiginjo. Iki Na Onna means sexy, frisky lady. This sake describes a very sexy, elegant lady. It’s aromatic and smooth, and it’s a little bit sweeter but it suddenly disappears. Kind of like a beautiful lady. It’s like, after you start conversation and start drinking, then you wake up and the lady disappears. The sake describes that.

When you’re on the road, what meal do you miss most from home? 

Toji: It’s breakfast: rice and miso soup.

Yachan: Today, I bought a bagel. And I thought, Oh my god.

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