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Sunday, April 15, 2001
Let's raise a glass to the final batch
The sake brewing season is drawing to a close. Except for the handful of large breweries that brew year-round in climate-controlled factories, most sakagura (breweries) will be finishing up their brewing sometime this month. Naturally, there will be ceremonies connected with significant activities within the breweries.
One such activity and ceremony is known as koshiki taoshi.
The large vat used to steam the rice in sake brewing is called a koshiki. In traditional breweries, the koshiki is made of wood (sugi) and sits on top of a large iron pot of water called a kama that tapers at the top. (If you have ever had kama-meshi, the kama for this is very similar in shape.) Beneath the floor, this kama is heated by wood or coal to produce the steam for steaming the rice.
When the final batch of rice for the season has been steamed -- usually sometime in March -- the koshiki is removed from on top of the kama and turned on to its side for a thorough cleaning. This is what koshiki taoshi refers to.
But more takes place than simply knocking over the vat. It symbolizes the beginning of the end of a long season of brewing, and therefore a party is in order. The kuramoto (brewery owner) and all of the kurabito (brewery workers) mark the occasion with a small celebratory meal. Also, newly made sake is offered to the gods in thanks for the blessings of the brewing season.
Note that just because the last batch of rice has been steamed does not mean there is no work left to be done. There are still several tanks fermenting away, and it can be as much as another month before these will be finished and pressed. Finishing the final batch of the year is referred to as kaizo. But for the workers the koshiki-taoshi is the light at the end of the tunnel.
Today, things have changed a bit. It's rare to see the wooden koshiki sitting on the coal-fired kama. More common is a stainless steel koshiki with steam pumped in by hoses from a gas-fired boiler. Often these are equipped in such a way that they can be turned sideways to make it easier to scoop out the rice. Kinda makes knocking them over a bit anticlimactic.
Large brewers have renzoku jomaiki , huge contraptions that steam rice and constantly pump it out onto a conveyor belt. Naturally, these monstrous machines are not tipped over. Some concessions to modern times must be made, even in this traditional industry. But nonetheless, a ceremony and small party are held to acknowledge the significance of the last steaming of the season.
Also, the breweries that brew year-round often shut down in July or so for yearly thorough equipment maintenance. This is the time when such breweries will celebrate their koshiki-taoshi.
After a cold winter of long days of grueling labor, a glimmer of the quiet half of the year to come must certainly be welcomed.
The Ginjo-shu Kyokai will hold its semiannual sake tasting on April 19 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. Here, you can taste more than 400 sake for only 4,000 yen. You can just show up on the day, but you can also call (03) 3378-1231 (in Japanese) for more information. Not to be missed.
Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter at www.sake-world.com. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.
Shichifukujin (Iwate Prefecture)
The name Shichifukujin means the "Seven Gods of Good Fortune." This daiginjo is quite reasonably priced at 3,400 yen for a 1.8-liter bottle, especially considering its quality. Mildly fragrant and clean, the flavor has great sturdiness, yet is dotted with a mildly sweet tone. There is also a namazake (unpasteurized) version that is even more charming.