The Mothers of Invention

Three sake bottles, a Fujita Shuzo, a Moriki Shuzo and a Mukai Shuzo, set up with Sake Mistress tasting glasses and two sets of Japanese ceramic guinomi sake cups. One set is metallic black and the other is matte black.

“Our need will be the real creator” Plato

Monday night is sake night at our house. (Well, some other nights may be sake nights, too…) However, Monday night is Taste with the Toji night. Some of you may remember me writing about Taste with the Toji sessions last year, when our gorgeous friend the Sake Mistress, Simone, began hosting sake events during our very long COVID lockdown. These events proved so popular they have continued to run, out of lockdown, into another lockdown, and out again. Last month we enjoyed a very enjoyable and enlightening session. Session number 47. Every session is different and we sometimes have brewery tours, town tours, slide shows, movies and always with tastings. Sometimes the sake is not available in Australia, but these sessions have a global audience and it is always interesting to hear the brewers’ stories.

This particular session was very special. Firstly, it was a panel session. The second in the series. The guests had all appeared in previous TWTT sessions about their own breweries. Secondly, the guests were all female brewers. This is still reasonably uncommon in Japan. Thirdly, two of the guests were women we had the privilege to meet in Melbourne a few years ago and intend to visit in Japan (when we can). The other is a woman I would very much like to meet. She makes some of our favourite sake and has such a brilliant backstory.

Rumiko Moriki is the president and previous toji (head brewer) of her family’s brewery, Moriki Shuzo, in Mie Prefecture. Kuniko Mukai is the current toji of her family’s brewery is Ine, Kyoto Prefecture. Miho Fujita is the president and a kurabito (brewery worker) in her family’s brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. Akemi Wegmüller translated the session. She did this with admirable ease and grace. There was also a lot of humour. It was definitely not lost in translation.

Simone began the conversation by asking how COVID had affected the sake market, both in Japan and for export. What problems had been encountered, if they had been overcome and if there were any positives.

Rumiko-san had stepped down as toji in her brewery and said that the past year had been very difficult in Japan. Sake was hard to sell and even harder to export and this had lead to a reduction in production at the brewery. Her lovely little puppet frog friend Kobo-kun was sitting on a shelf in the background. She said that one of the positive things that had resulted from COVID (always called Corona in Japan) were the Zoom meetings she had participated in. She has sat in nearly every session of the Taste with the Toji series. She said she had made lots of friends and the weekly meeting group had become like a family. The TWTT family. Rumiko-san also had the time to experiment. After visiting a liquor store and trying a Kahlua knock-off made with shochu she made “Black Rumiko” a liqueur made from junmai sake and cold-brew coffee. Only available in Japan at this time, this is on my list to try when we visit. It sounds delicious and the illustrated label has Rumiko-san as a witch. I love listening to Rumiko-san. She speaks a hybrid language of Japanese and English, and actually switches between the two, seamlessly, mid-sentence. She is always entertaining and so sweet. I did feel I could sense a shadow of stress in her eyes. Kobo-kun, usually an active and inquisitive participant, didn’t come down from the shelf to join the conversation. Hopefully the market will recover this coming year, with immunisations increasing and conceivably, the return of international travel.

Miho-san’s brewery is quite small. There are four brewers including Miho herself and her toji. The biggest challenge for them was cooking. Sake brewing is hard and time consuming work. There is no time for cooking during the brewing season. Due to reduced production Miho-san employed less staff. This meant not having a cook employed. The staff had to cook for themselves. She said deciding what to cook each day became very difficult. Having a family of six I can totally relate to this. The positives that came from lockdown were that she was able to stay at home and not travel. She quite likes being at home. Additionally, as Miho-san was doing a lot of extra jobs in the brewery, she noticed where improvements could be made. Usually she would not have the luxury of having the time do these tasks. She enjoyed meeting lots of new people on-line in Zoom sessions. Miho-san also had the time to experiment with a new rice. Hyakumangoku-shiro is a local rice variety in Ishikawa prefecture. The Yuho Kimoto Junmai Hyakumangoku-shiro made with 50% Koji looked very enticing. Certainly we will try it when we are able to travel to Ishikawa, as this sake is only available in Mioya Shuzo’s home prefecture. Miho-san did suggest a bit of a friendly contest as no-one had discovered the perfect food pairing for this sake. I look forward to seeing if anyone in our group can get to Ishikawa to buy this sake and then unearth the gastronomical match made in heaven.

Kuniko-san is always captivating and very expressive. She began by apologising as she been drinking sake during the first two presentations. Kuniko is very engaging and the sake just adds to her personality. She has been the toji at Mukai Shuzo for 22 years. She told a story about her accountant who had told her not to get married and have kids. She ignored the advice. She has two young boys. She noted that she is shocked that COVID is still dragging on. The last two brewing seasons have seen a large drop in production at the brewery. A 50% drop the first year, then a further 50% drop the second year. The annual rice reservations that have been placed with the Japanese Agricultural Society are not able to be cancelled. She has had to use all of the savings she had put aside to renovate the brewery.

Some positives Kuniko-san had experienced included hanging out at home with her kids. She did mention she was somewhat concerned for the state of her liver. She also had several opportunities to experiment. A large brewery in Kyoto city cancelled an order with organic rice growers and Kuniko banded together to buy the rice with three other breweries. She had not known about the growers and was happy to accidentally make their acquaintance. She was also happy to trial the rice for making sake. Further experimental ideas Kuniko-san explored using her Ine Mankai sake kasu. Kasu is the lees, or residual rice matter left over after the brewing process. Ine Mankai is made using red rice. She experimented with recipes but also collaborated with a local shoyu (soy sauce) maker. Many people in Japan believe that consuming fermented foods can strengthen the immune system.

Following each of the brewers’ conversations, there was a Q and A. Many more interesting topics were explored including the effects of climate change. Miho-san said “let the rice be a reflection of the year”. I found this quite profound, given the year or two we have just had. The subject of gender was reflected upon. Rumiko-san was one of the first women to work in a brewery in Japan. She said “hopefully, kura (breweries) will become a gender free zone”. The evening concluded with a very moving performance of min’yo, a form of Japanese folk singing, by Kuniko-san. Her teacher is a geiko (a geisha from Kyoto) and Kuniko performs her singing in retirement homes. The song was melancholic and eerily beautiful. It felt somehow reflective of the sadness and isolation of COVID.

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