The clear water of Uonuma continues to flow in summer and enrich people’s lives. July 1 marks the start of a new year for Shirataki Sake Brewery. On this day we gather at the family altar to express our gratitude for the past year and pray for a fine batch of sake in the year ahead. The kurabito then inspect and repair the equipment used the previous winter and start preparing for the new brewing process.
Having grown under plenty of sunlight during summer, the ears of rice start to droop and tint the town of Echigo Yuzawa golden brown. The quality of the year’s harvest is of great concern to both the rice farmers and the kurabito.
But even with a poor harvest, it’s the calling of the kurabito and the mission of the brewery to produce sake of higher quality than the year before. The chimney at Shirataki releases vapor from steaming the new rice, marking the start of the brewing process.
In January, the area around Shirataki is covered in 2 to 3 meters (6 to 10 feet) of snow. By spring, the total reaches an average of 15 meters (49 feet).
Low temperatures are ideal for promoting effective activation of the yeast. Historically, sake was produced year round. The practice that survives today, where the brewing process peaks in winter with the drop in outdoor temperature, is called cold brewing (kanzukuri).
Originally, farmers who had no agricultural work in winter each brought a share of their rice crop, slept and ate together, and spent six months making sake until the snow melted in spring. Since then, a group of brewers was called kurabito (literally “brewery people”), and the head brewer the Toji.
In May, the long winter passes at last. The paddy fields are filled with plenty of meltwater, and farmers welcome the start of a new rice-planting season.
For the sake brewery, it’s time to clear away the rice steamer. Called koshiki-daoshi, this task marks the end of the brewing process. Although much work remains—maturing, shipping, preparing an entry for the national contest—spring brings a welcome pause and a moment to breathe for the Toji and kurabito.