Sake breweries are usually fairly quiet in the summer. Except for the few large breweries where brewing continues all year, most places are dark and quiet and empty, as the brewers themselves have gone home for the summer.
Traditionally, the kurabito (brewers) traveled great distances from their rural farmland homes to work at the kura (brewery), although today many places employ local people. There is one yearly event, however, that livens the whole place up: the hatsu-nomikiri tasting. Held sometime between June and September, this is an event in which the condition of each tank of sake brewed the previous season is sampled and checked.
Until about 100 years ago, sake was brewed in cedar tanks with bamboo bindings.
Gorgeous though they may be, such tanks are significantly less airtight than the solid stainless steel tanks used today, there was a greater possibility that the sake had “gone south.”
This might mean one of several types of contamination, with the most common being “hi-ochi,” a condition that can arise in unpasteurized sake. Sake suffering the dreaded hi-ochi becomes cloudy and yeasty, with the various flavors going haywire to the extreme.
And, so, each summer, most commonly just after the rainy season, the toji would trek back to the brewery. In front of a small gathering of insiders, the valve at the bottom of a tank would be opened, and a small stream of sake would be guided into a special tasting glass that allowed the fragrance to spread. This would first be offered to the owner of the brewery. After he gave the nod, the toji himself would sniff and assess. They would then proceed to the other tanks one by one, checking the condition of each in the kura.
This is precisely the situation, by the way, in which a traditional tasting cup, a 180 cc white porcelain tumbler with two blue concentric circles on the bottom, would be used. The blue circles on the white background allow one to easily assess the clarity of the sake.
Each tank brewed throughout the season will take on a short life of its own, and the way each matures in the tank over the several-month aging period will be slightly different. Some will seem more well-rounded and balanced, others more brash and immature. The flavor and fragrance will of course be slightly different for each as well. So one other reason for tasting from each tank is to determine in which order the tanks will be bottled and shipped, with the more mature-tasting tanks going first.
These days, ceramic or glass-lined stainless steel tanks are the norm, so that the worries of the past are not as much of a concern today. Still, the event takes place, with the toji and owner being joined by perhaps a few important sake dealers, and several “kanteikan”(professional tasters) from the prefecture’s sake research center, or similar such organization. These sensei will record their opinions in detail, to be used by the brewery for internal reference only.
Things proceed much in the same way as the old days, with sake being drawn off from a valve at the bottom of the tank. The temperature is recorded, sometimes written in chalk on the ground or tank. The number of the tank is recorded, and the sake brought to another room for a formal tasting in a more official setting.
The results of this exercise will also help determine how the blending of the various tanks will proceed. For example, blending tank #4 with tank #21 may create precisely the type of sake aimed for, based on the tasting notes. Other information, such as whether or not a sake will benefit from pasteurization or extended aging, can also be inferred.
Naturally, things are vastly different from kura to kura. For example, most places have already completed their hatsu-nomikiri tasting by the end of July. Many kura in Akita Prefecture, however, gear up for the event in September. Also, as this is the hatsu・(first) nomikiri, traditionally kura would then check the condition of the sake several times after that.
However, this is not something to be done haphazardly. When the tank is opened and sake drawn off like that, there is the risk that this act in itself will allow contaminating bacteria into the tank. It must be performed carefully, with clean implements.
Today, however, there is great diversity in the methods of each brewery. Many places age their sake in bottles, not in tanks. Also, some breweries age their sake a full year or two (usually at low temperatures) before even considering shipping it. Although the condition of such sake will also be assessed from occasionally, the actual hatsu-nomikiri tasting might not take place for a while.
Although the timing and logistics of the hatsu-nomikiri have evolved and are adapted to each brewery’s needs, the event takes place everywhere, with at least a bit of fanfare.