The heart of sake
In Japanese, the letter ‘o’ is used to show respect to a person or object. When Masa Shiroki began making sake at his Granville Island facility, he wanted to show respect to all of the elements that go into making the traditional rice wine. It seemed only fitting, to name his business “Osake”.
“It’s all about showing respect to nature. Osake is a made up word – o is an honorific form of expression in Japan so everytime you put an o in front of the noun, it shows respect and there’s respect in everything we do here,” he said.
Mr Shiroki first began sake making in 2006, importing sake rice from Japan but in 2011, he planted his own crop here on our farm. It was BC’s first sake rice crop and the start of Mr Shiroki’s journey to create a premium sake made entirely from locally-sourced ingredients.
The results from that first crop were far from what he would call impressive. The ideal yield from a four-acre sake rice crop is about six tonnes. In 2011, they harvested 300kg. The summer of 2013 was kinder. Mr Shiroki and his team came away with three tonnes of rice – half way to their goal.
“Long, sustained sunshine is what we need so this year was good,” he said. “Actually, we haven’t really pushed the Fraser Valley Jun Mai yet because we only made 750 bottles so we didn’t want to run out too quickly. This year, we are going to make maybe as much as 5000 bottles out of this one batch.”
The process of making sake is slow and precise. The highest quality sakes take weeks of controlled fermentation. Technically, sake is more akin to beer than wine – similarly to malting barley, rice mould is cultivated to convert the starch in the rice to sugar – a process known as koji making.
“Malting barley needs heat and moisture in a chamber to start fermentation. The same thing happens here. That’s how we make beer and it’s how sake is made,” he said.
Before fermentation, Masa and his team mill the rice in order to get to it’s “white heart” – the starch at the centre of the grain.
“What we are hoping to do is to get to the purest starch possible and that’s where the higher concentration of starch lies. So this is why we are milling it. The further we mill, in theory, the purer the starch content gets,” he said.
The rice is milled until only about 20% of the grain remains. This is what goes into the vat to make rice wine. Meanwhile, Masa and his team are exploring uses for the milling process’ by-product, rice bran.
“Do you know how (rice bran) is? Vitamin B, riboflavin, iron, calcium, folate. In Japan, this will become a pickling paste. They also use it as a supplement and also for skin care products. This is very, very precious. We will definitely try to see what kind of recipes we can develop out of it,” he said.
But back to the rice wine.
The milled rice goes into a vat with water and yeast where it is kept at a very comfortable 25 degrees celcius. This allows the yeast cells “to party and grow.” Here it stays for 48 hours until around 1billion yeast cells have been propagated. The product is known as ‘mother of sake’. The mother of sake is then transferred to a larger vat where more steamed rice and water is added and the temperature is lowered quickly to 12 degrees celcius, slowing the yeast growth but not killing it.
Over the next 27 days, the process continues until the temperature is lowered to seven degrees celcius allowing the yeast to cultivate a much slower rate.
Cheaper sakes can be made in just days however according to Masa, the pursuit of a purer, non-bitter sake takes weeks.
It is hard to believe Masa’s sake is made, marketed and sold out of this small space on Granville Island. Masa and his small team host tastings on site as well as selling a product known as rice cream and a cosmetics line, both made from by-products of the sake making process.
“This is the fun part about being in a small business because you don’t want to lose sight of what you were set up to do. It’s important not to think too much about money but there are so many inputs in the process, it’s a precious thing and so why don’t we value add it to make it work better?”