Friday, March 6, 2015

Terada Honke

After a week humping on planes, trains, taxis, and buses through much of Japan's main island of Honshu visiting sake breweries, I arrived on a crisp, sunny morning in Kozaki in Chiba Prefecture, a rural town near Narita. I'm here to visit Terada Honke, a unique sake producer that calls itself "The Natural Organic Japanese Sake Brewery."

Owner and toji, Masaru Terada, welcomed me and my friend at the company office and offered us black tea. Masaru-san is a smiling, friendly chap. He has a curious mind, and he asked me questions about how long I've been selling wine, my interest in sake, what kinds of wines I sell, and the intricacies of buying and selling alcohol in the US.

Masaru-san is the 24th generation head of Terada Honke, which was founded 330 years ago. He worked as a kurabito in the brewery for some years, married the boss's daughter, and succeeded his father-in-law when he passed away three years ago. It was his father-in-law who established the brewery's unique, natural approach to sake during the 1980s. Masaru-san has continued making sake this way with much success, even exporting to Europe and becoming the preferred sake at Noma.

In sake making, nothing is more important than rice. How rice is used for its sake production is what makes Terada Honke unique among breweries. Only local organically farmed rice is used. Its own hectare and a half of rice fields supply about ten percent of its needs. The rest of the rice it uses is sourced from fifteen contract rice growers in the local area.

While modern sake has emphasized rice polishing ratio (seimaibuai) Terada Honke treats this with the least importance. Masaru-san says that before modern technology sake was made with more modestly polished rice. He believes that the character has changed from traditional sake and that key flavors are stripped out by over-polishing. He pointed to a pallet of rice sacks with a polishing ratio of just 90% (only 10% was removed). This seems almost a joke because sake brewers today, like Dassai, crank out sake with rice polished down to such astonishingly small levels as 35% or less. Terada Honke uses rice with a seimaibuai ranging from from 70% to 90%.

The impressive wooden rice steamer dominates the space of this small kura. After being hand-washed, the rice is steamed then allowed to cool off naturally. Every work in the kura is done manually.

In the koji room, the cooled, steamed rice is sprinkled with koji spores, then tumbled by hand periodically by the kurabito team to ensure the koji develops evenly over the rice. It's noticeable how large the grains are because of the minimal polishing. Koji-making takes a bit longer at Terada Honke. I tasted some grains that were almost ready, they taste sweet, of course (akin to grapes ripening in winemaking), as the starches have converted into sugar. They also look and feel more like table rice, softer to the touch than the usual koji rice I've handled.

The main magic at Terada Honke happens during the development of the main mash that starts fermentation. In nearly all sake making today this process takes a couple of weeks using added bacteria and cultured yeasts. But back in the old days before these additives were invented, the process took longer because sake makers have to induce and wait for native bacteria and yeasts to develop in the mash and do their trick. It's a slow and labor-intensive. But at Terada Honke they love doing things the ancient way. The Kimoto way.

Although not the same thing, the closest parallel of the Kimoto method in winemaking is pigeage. In fact some Kimoto practitioners stomp the rice mash with their feet. But the more typical practice and the way it's done at Terada Honke is by using poles with a flat head to mash the koji rice in the wood tub until lactic acid bacteria develops allowing native yeasts to grow. Two or three workers stand around each wood tub with poles mashing the koji rice for about 30 minutes three times a day over several weeks. It's monotonous and tiring work. So they sing work songs to lift their spirits and help them coordinate their efforts. When I inquired about it, Masaru-san called a worker for a brief enactment of their Kimoto practice. This is how all sake is made at Terada Honke.

Singing The Blues At The Kura from Vineyard Gate on Vimeo.

As I watched them perform the singing eventually rose and gathered power. I felt the energy generated by their singing and imagined how this transferred to the rice being mashed to start fermentation. Nature and workers creating magic, I thought. At the end of the performance we clapped and the worker laughed and shouted to us, "Japanese Blues!" I can't think of a better way to call it.

Once the fermenting mash is developed it is brought to a vat, usually enamel coated steel tanks, but at Terada Honke I noticed they also use wood fermenters. More koji mash and rice are added to the vessel while the fermentation goes on. After a month the fermented mash is pressed and the juice is allowed to settle and aged for a year before bottling.

 The Gonin Musume is immediately appealing, with polished rice of about 60%-65%. Vibrant and only slightly sweet. It's a friendly introduction to Terada Honke.

Above is the most funky tasting sake from Terada Honke. It is pungent and quite dry. It is the first sake I tasted from them on a previous night at a restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo. I can't say that I liked it immediately but it grew on me and I started to enjoy it with the food.

I like the old labels of Terada Honke such as the two ones above. I can't recall if Masaru-san said that they were drawn by a relative. The top one called "Fifth Daughter" is made from their own rice polished at 70%. It has a lovely fruity taste, soft textured, with a long finish.

The Katori above is polished to just 90%, unfiltered. Floral with delicious fresh, fruity flavors.

The above bottle of Hanahiraku is a koshu made from rice polished to 80%. I believe the sake was aged in bottle for 12 years. It reminds me of a sweet oloroso with its dark amber color and earthy, caramel flavors. I mentioned to Masaru-san that it would be delicious with a Parmigiano-Reggiano. On second thought it might be best as a meditative sake. I believe there should be sake that you don't have to fuss about with anything else. It's complete and it would be just for contemplation.

Masaru-san offered us a ride back to the train station in his old mini-van. As he was pulling out, I asked him to stop so I can take a quick shot of a statue of Guanyin (Kannon), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which stands serenely in the middle of the kura grounds. It is said that the merciful deity listens to all the cries of the world. I'm sure it hears the kurabito singing the blues as they pound the rice. wy

Drink sake and check out our excellent sake selection at Vineyard Gate here.

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