The Brewing Process

Picture this: It’s early spring, and as the last few cherry blossom petals flutter down, sakagura (sake breweries) everywhere are seeing the light at the end of the brewing season’s tunnel. Soon enough, there will be nothing left to do but wait for the moromi (fermenting concoction) in the tanks to run its course.

At this stage, the sake is still a white, milky mash of sake, yeast, and unfermented rice solids. Before it is ready to drink, the clear sake must be pressed away, separated from the lees of the mash. This process is called shibori, or joso.

This pressing process has been taking place at each brewery since the late fall, as each batch is pressed immediately following its 18 to 35 day ferment. In fact, the timing of this step is of crucial importance in determining the quality of the final product. There are several methods by which this shibori is accomplished.

By far the most common is by machine. The moromi is pumped by hose to something resembling a five-meter accordion, which slowly compresses the solids between mesh screens, sending the fresh-squeezed nihonshu out a hose. Technically known as an assaku-ki, but more often referred as a Yabuta (in honor of the company monopolizing the market), the amount of labor it saves is immense as the process is almost completely automated.

Much sake, however, is still pressed the old way. It’s significantly more labor intensive, but it does arguably lead to better sake.  Some would say that the difference is all but negligible, but the market gets what the market demands.

The moromi is first poured into small cotton bags, which are laid in a large wooden box, on top of which a lid is placed. Known as a fune, the sake is pressed out by cranking the lid down into this box.

Whichever method is used, just-pressed sake, known as shibori-tate, has a charm all its own. The alcohol content is high, about 20 percent, as it has not been “cut” with water yet to bring it down to the usual 16% or so. The flavor is much what you’d expect: young and somewhat brash, and could do with a bit of mellowing.

At this stage in the brewing process, you’ll find it is a fine time to try shiboritate. Most sake shops carry it. Much of what is available at this point is also namazake, or unpasteurized sake. Although it may not present the finely-hewn profile that six months of aging will lend it, nama shiboritate will always impress and please with its liveliness and freshness.

I hope this gave you an inside-view of what the process of brewing sake is all about.  If you’d like to see some stunning visuals of the process, I offer you a 15-minute, gorgeously presented slide-show available for download here: Sake Production Slideshow.



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