Sake Brewing Season
Of the three beverages (sake, beer, and wine), sake and wine share more similarities to each other when compared to wine. After all, the process for producing beer and sake each use a brewing process. Wine on the other hand, is producesd by simply fermenting the crushed fruit. Beer and sake are created from a grain. Sake is uses only rice as the main fermentable ingredient. Beer will use barley and grains for fermentable ingredients. Wine is produced from fruit.
There is an attribute that sake shares with wine, which beer does not. Both wine and sake have a production season. The production of wine and sake is centered on the harvest. For wine, the harvest season is September – October, depending on the grape variety. For wine in the southern hemisphere the harvest season for wine grapes is February – April.
The sake brewing season is in the winter. Like wine, the production occurs after the harvest. Sake rice (sakamai) is different than table rice that we eat. It is taller and more difficult to grow. Sake rice is not limited to just a few regions of Japan. Sake rice is in almost all prefectures in Japan. However, certain prefectures have climates where sake rice is produced at greater and higher qualities due to conditions based on climate and geography.
Sake rice is planted in the spring. The rice is usually harvested in the fall, typically during the month of October. Rice in Japan is regulated and assessed by the Japan government. This is done for tax purposes primarily. After the rice is milled, then the brewing season can get under way.
The winter months of January and February are the busiest times for sake breweries. The cold winters of Japan also naturally assist with the brewing process. The cool dry air and temperatures help the milled rice to gradually absorb moisture. This gradual process takes about two weeks and is helpful the surprising important step of washing and precisely soaking the rice to obtain a water content of about 30%.
Also the cold winter temperatures help with the production of the premium sake. The higher grade sake requires a longer and slower fermentation process. The cold winter air will help control the temperatures of the fermentation tanks.
By the end of March some of the breweries will begin to end their brewing season. Some breweries will continue as late as May, and even some of the larger breweries have started brewing sake year round. For the smaller craftsman style sake, the breweries will finish in the spring.
Also, it should be noted that the winter brewing season is hard work. The season is limited, and the batch production of sake is a 24 hour process. Many of the brewery workers are seasonal. They are farmers, and will work at the sake brewery during the winter months sacrificing sleep and often away from their families.
When the brewing season ends, the brewery owner (kuramoto) then begins the grueling travel process to promote the product. The travel all over Japan participating in sake events and fairs is important. Many small breweries in the local countryside must now practice more sales and marketing. As the rural population of Japan declines, the marketing efforts and increasingly crucial for success. The sake brewing season is in the winter, but the sake business is year-round.