Rice is central to Japanese history, culture, and food. To the everyday American consumer, rice seems like a basic cooking ingredient, however, there is great variety, experimentation, and technology around rice and its cultivation.
Centuries ago, as Japan moved from a feudal to a modern society, the newly formed federal government passed laws to reduce the power of regional samurai. To limit the money and power that could come from owning land and making sake, the government prohibited sake makers from growing rice and rice farmers from making sake. Over time, one benefit has been rice farmers and sake makers focusing on their separate jobs and honing their expertise.
Today, most craft sake makers buy most, if not all, of their rice directly from local farmers with whom they have contracts. They might buy some of their bulk rice for futsushu from wholesalers. Lately, laws have been easing and some sake makers are growing rice themselves, like the Marumoto Brewery, makers of Chikurin. This is a rare example of an “estate bottled” sake like you might find at the highest level in wine. At the Saiya Brewery, makers of Yuki No Bosha, for several years, the brewery has been buying more than fifty percent of their rice from their employees, who grow rice on their farms during the summer.
If you were to superimpose a map of Japan on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., it would run from Maine to Georgia. This wide range of climates results in a range of timing for planting and harvesting rice. This range is most clearly seen during cherry blossom seasons when news stations report on the blooming of these magical trees. Thus, the steps we explain constitute a general timetable.
In early May, farmers begin preparing seeds they collected and stored during the previous growing season. They inspect the seeds and discard the smaller, less productive ones. They then pasteurize the seeds before cultivation.
Seeds are mixed with soil in small pods to sprout into buds, “nae” (nay-eh).
Buds then grow into small shoots called “ine” (ee-neh). Before they become baby plants, the small shoots are planted in the fields.
Taue (ta-oo-eh) is a major step in growing rice. Farmers plant the sprouts in fields that have been filled with water. The fields are called “tanbo.” Japan is mostly mountainous so the flat plains are limited and cherished. The Japanese have developed a unique landscape of tanbo and the practice of filling fields with water. In other countries, rice is usually grown in dry soil or on terraces.
Once the rice grows and sprouts grains, the fields are not soaked. Although the summers are hot, there is abundant rainfall. Most recently, floods have become a major hazard. Farmers pay attention to color, size, grain production, insects, moisture, and other indicators of healthy growth.
By early August, rice grains have sprouted and started to develop on the fully grown rice stalks or “inaho.” The heavy grains begin to weigh down the stalks and create a beautiful array of colors in the fields—green, straw, light brown. Farmers are judging the rice most closely now to determine when it is ready to be harvested. Fall typhoons are an imminent threat and often push the timetable up to be safe.
Inekari (ee-neh-kary) is the harvesting of rice. Although harvest time varies from north to south and year to year, with evolution of rice varietals, growing technique, and global demand for sake, the majority of rice farmers are harvesting in September. This used to be done by hand and the corners of the fields often still are. Some breweries also hold harvest festivals with their farmer-partners.
To get really technical, there are two families of rice in the world—Japonica and Indica. Japonica, which is short-grain rice, is grown in Japan. Within Japonica, there is glutinous (sticky) and non-glutinous rice. Non-glutinous rice is used to make sake. Within non-glutinous rice, there is sake-specific rice, called “shuzou kotekimai.” There are more than 150 varietals of shuzou kotekimai. Most of these are regional.
The most important feature of shuzou kotekimai is the “shinpaku,” or white heart (of starch) at the center of the grain. Sake is judged by its shinpaku—how much of the grain is shinpaku and how clearly defined it is as the center of the grain. Shuzou kotekimai is also 25% larger than cooking rice and has 25% more starch than cooking rice.
There are five grades of premium rice. To qualify as shuzou kotekimai, the rice must be graded by a government agency and ranked in the top two grades. Rice qualifies as shuzou kotekimai if it has a well-defined shinpaku, or starch center.
Despite the importance of shuzou kotekimai, sake rice, sake does not have to be made from it. Sake can be made from cooking rice. However, to qualify as tokutei meishoshu, premium sake (Junmai, honjozo, ginjo, daiginjo), the sake must be made from graded rice. There are five grading levels and most shuzou kotekimai falls into the top three.
Just as grapes have enemies like rot, hail, and wet or dry weather, to name a few, rice for sake has its own threats—floods, insects, and windy storms, especially when the rice is fully grown. Rice farmers continue to battle the elements and sake makers adjust their technique to the new year’s rice.
However, sake is, generally, “non-vintage,” and sake makers are aiming to replicate and improve upon current brews. Naturally, they are constantly innovating and launching new sakes, too.