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Video Brewing Saké in Texas for Fun and Profit (Video) 134

Let's say you are an IT stud named Yoed Anis, you spent a year in Japan and decided you really like Saké, and you're back home in Austin, Texas. Since Texas, like Japan, grows lots of rice, you obviously need to start the Texas Saké Company to produce Rising Star and Whooping Crane Sakés, which you sell online and through a number of Texas restaurants and retailers. But whatever we can say in print pales beside a two-part brewery tour conducted by Toji Yoed himself, accompanied by Timothy Lord and his trusty camcorder. Yes, there's a transcription. But the video tour itself is better, even though it regretfully does not include the delightful aroma of Saké being made. (Someday, perhaps, Slashdot Studios will be equipped for Smell-O-Vision, but that's at least a few years off.)

Yoed Anis: I will walk you through how saké is made here at the Texas Saké Company, which is pretty much how traditional saké is and has been made. And so it all starts with rice. We have our rice here in our cellar. And so we get the rice crop at the beginning of the season. The rice harvest usually comes in in the beginning of October. We put it in these. It is already polished and milled to our specification. We source only local rice at the Texas Saké Company. Our rice is grown about 100 miles downriver in Texas and it came from Japanese colonists who came from Japan to Texas about 100 years ago. That’s why we make saké in Texas. We grow a lot of rice, thanks to them, and it is a very good strain to make delicious saké.

Timothy Lord How much rice is in this tub here?

Yoed Anis: One tub should have about 3000 pounds of rice I believe, so we have several tons right here, and the idea is to get rid of the boxes and turn them into bottles and we do a pretty good job of it. And then as soon as we do, it is next season, and we have a room full of rice again.

Timothy Lord Can we pop a lid?

Yoed Anis: Yeah, sure. These are rice bags. They will usually come in – we get them at 25 pounds since we deal with them at hands, so after this we take them into the next step which is hand washing. We hand wash all the saké. This is how old saké used to be made and how old prized saké is made. Washing with hand is going to be your first interaction with the rice and will give the brewer a lot of understanding of how to make saké with it. So it is a step that we haven’t replaced even though technology can do it faster and more efficiently, it can’t do it better yet, and so we wash all the rice by hand. Then you soak the rice.

Timothy Lord Before we go to the next stage, you mentioned the rice is a Japanese rice?

Yoed Anis: Uh-huh.

Timothy Lord But it is also grown 100 miles downstream Boston, so how has that come to be?

Yoed Anis: Yeah. So the Japanese came to Texas about in 1904. They came through Texas to the St. Louis World Expo and they discovered the rice fields that were being grown here. They were so enamored with the opportunity to grow rice in Texas because the soil was very well suited for it, as well as the climate, that they established two colonies soon after that around the Houston area. As soon as the colonists came and introduced the Japanese rice seed, they taught other Texan farmers how to grow the rice. It was adopted and more than 50% of all the rice was of the Japanese seed and Texas became the number one rice producer in the US.

Timothy Lord The rice you are using, is this organic rice?

Yoed Anis: Yeah. So we very much believe in sustainability, sourcing locally sort of forces you to care about your ecosystem because it is in your backyard and the consequences of organic farming, where you don’t use intense chemicals and pesticides versus what is now known as conventional or traditional farming where you were using a lot of those chemicals affect the rest of the environment. And it also produces a better quality rice, the care, it is harder to grow organic rice than it is conventional and you taste the difference in the saké.

Timothy Lord A lot of people are concerned about arsenic in rice lately.

Yoed Anis: Yeah, the Texas fields are interesting and sort of an exception, the Texas rice industry is horrible at marketing completely so they have done nothing about it. Most of the rice is grown in Arkansas and that is a new rice state. It is the largest producer. And what you have there is they are growing a different strain, usually a long grained rice that is not a Japanese strain, but the source of arsenic is believed to come from the fact that these fields were being used to grow other type of crops like cotton, primarily cotton, which is very very difficult, almost impossible to grow organic and very chemically inductive.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s they were using all types of fertilizers and chemicals. Rice is very good at absorbing those nutrients and resources and so it absorbs a lot of that in concentrated arsenic. The Texas fields and the stuff that we source from, they have always been growing rice; before it was rice it was a natural swamp, so you still get a lot of nutrients, but you shouldn’t have any of those heavier metals and chemicals in there, which are probably not very good for us.

Timothy Lord Shall we go to the next step?

Yoed Anis: Yeah, sure. Okay, so this is how we wash rice. We will fill this up with a bag of rice from the next room, and then we will wash it with our hands till it runs clear. Once the rice is washed, we will drain it. After it drains for a certain amount of time to absorb moisture in the center of the rice kernel we will drain it, and then it will be ready to start steaming.

So at the Texas Saké Company, we are the first basically independent and micro saké maker in the United States that bottles our stuff and ships it around... there is no supply network for saké makers, so you have to get a little creative. In Japan, they will usually traditionally steam with a koshiki, which is a big giant pot under basically a steam pot or a steam generator.

So the advantages of doing it that way, is it has always been done, it is very easy to sort of mimic that. The disadvantages of that style are many. Usually even the smaller kuras once they do a lot, they have to use a crane to pick up the rice, and then they will separate it. Before they had a crane, you had to take in buckets and just scoop it out or use shovels, and you just burn your hands in it, because of the weight it will clump the rice.

So I invented the vertical steaming process which is patent pending, and involves basically placing the saké on these steam trays so you have an even distribution of the rice in there. It provides a consistent and even steam and allows that to happen, and then allows the rice to prevent from clumping and also allows for cooling very quickly due to the spacing. So all we have to do is blow a fan on it later, and it cools, it is easy to touch. And then I will show you the steamer that we just cart it into. So in here is the steamer.

Timothy Lord That is a big steamer.

Yoed Anis: Yeah. We can fit about 1000 pounds of rice into there, maybe even a little more. So, yeah.

Timothy Lord How much saké does that much rice translate into it?

Yoed Anis: It depends on the style of saké you make and how efficient you are with all of it, but usually you will get anywhere from 1 pound to 3 pounds of saké in a bottle, sorry, 3 pounds of rice in 1 bottle of saké.

Timothy Lord Could we see the way that is heated? Your electric steamer?

Yoed Anis: Sure. Yeah. We are building some stuff here, so you will have to excuse the work – we’re going to get over you, but no, you are fine. So behind the mess is the power, this is just your typical steam generator that powers this, and then this is actually the water line that connects into that, and you have an electric run.

Timothy Lord So you would rather be that than gas?

Yoed Anis: Yeah, it is more efficient actually. So the electricity prices are a little expensive and it is hard to heat with electricity but we went with electric because we were cautious of the smell that gas will produce. Saké is very, very delicate to aromas, and when you are steaming it, we wanted it to be a very clean environment for it, but the reality is gas steamers have come a long way since the gas steamers in my house which were built in the ‘30s that stink; and so I didn’t really realize that. So the next one will be a gas most likely.

And then once you have the steamed rice, the majority of the rice will go into the tanks. The saké process starts with a starter called the moto, which we do in a traditional process that takes about a month-and-a-half to two months. Most saké is made in a chemically induced process that takes about 10 days to get to that. So that is where most of the steamed rice goes. And then after that process, you have the main additions.

A quarter of the rice gets diverted into this room where it is made into koji. Koji is basically molded rice. It is a certain spore of mold that is propagated onto it, that allows the conversion of the starches inside the rice kernel into sugar. So saké is one of the few alcohols that is not malted, yet it is still made from a grain. The way that that sugar is extracted is through a microbial fermentation through the mold.

It will produce different byproducts according to the temperature and humidity range that it’s grown into and how the rice is steamed and the moisture content within the rice. So all those things will affect the flavor of the saké.

This room is kept basically like the outside of Texas in summer. So it is very hot and humid. That is the temperature and humidity that it propagates in and does very well. And then we take it from this room, and we bring it into the tank. All our stuff is by hand. There are automatic – most saké is made in large quantities and they use automatic koji makers, but the koji is probably the most decisive factor in the flavor of the saké. So in my opinion, it is very very important to interact with it on a close level.

The koji that we use is a spore that originally came from Japan, but I have been home brewing for quite a while and I have learned how to propagate my own koji. And so the koji that we are using today is from subsequent batches that have been well adapted for the Japanese rice that has been growing in Texas for a long time. It works very well with our rice, not so well with other people’s rice.

Timothy Lord What are the stones and talk a bit

Yoed Anis: The stones are just for us to relax and enjoy this place as a sauna whenever the koji is not here. No. But, actually, the stones are just here, stones preserve heat for longer and it’s just a protection. It gives more surface area for when we throw water on this. Our humidity source usually does a good job, but we sometimes have to put water on a hot surface, and so the stones do a good job of allowing us to get humidity here very quickly. So that is why you see them in saunas too.

So after this we start our moto. So in here this is our starter mash, which we will be using in a couple of weeks. Then we have our brewing tanks which you can see right here. And I’ll let you climb on this real quick. So this is a batch that has been fermenting in this tank for about two months; before that it was fermenting for another two months in the moto, in the starting process; and next week we will be probably pressing it and it will then be conditioned for another three to six months.

Timothy Lord You have saké in various states in each of these tanks?

Yoed Anis: Right, so this one you can see is going to be more milky; this one is just at the beginning of the process and it is about a month into it. If you could smell through a camera, you will be able to smell also, it has different aromas, and of course we taste it along the process to make sure that it is hitting the flavors and doing what we expect it to be doing at the different stages.

When it tastes ready, and then when our labs confirm the integrity of the saké that it is usually at the right levels that we look for, it is usually when we decide to press it. When you press the saké, you remove the solids from the liquids and you are basically closer to the final state, then you will usually condition it, and bottle it and release it.

Timothy Lord A lot of people are familiar either because they home brew or just folklore with how beer is made, and everyone knows about distilled alcohol but saké doesn’t really fit neatly into those categories?

Yoed Anis: No, so the problem – we say that we brew saké here and all that, the reality is brewing is not the correct word; brewing is something you do where you either steep or boil and we do neither of that. Saké is made actually from multiple parallel fermentation, but saying “I am a multiple parallel fermenter” just doesn’t have that sexy ring like “I am a brewer.” So we say brewer, we adopt the Japanese terms in our titles, but it is still hard to say “I am a multiple parallel fermenter.”

And what multiple parallel fermentation means which it’s really unique. It is the only mainstream alcohol that is made in this way. You have single fermentation which is how most fruit wine is made, like grapes, you have sugars. With sugar you are able to have yeast convert those sugars into alcohol. That is a single stage fermentation.

Then you have the typical fermentation in either beer making or whisky or so forth. You have a malting process where you have grains, and you malt them. You boil them to start their enzymatic process which will convert those starches into sugars. The grains are then very very sweet; you stop that, so you have one process. And then you start another process from taking that malt and fermenting it with the yeast to convert those sugars to alcohol.

Saké is unique because you have those two processes happening in parallel at the same time, in the same tank. So within here, you have the quarter of the rice that was the koji, so the mold that’s been grown on that will start metabolizing the starches into sugars and slowly trickle them to the yeast. The yeast then eats those sugars and converts them to alcohol.

And this happens in a symbiotic process, very slowly, as the yeast is able to build up the saké to alcohols of 12%, 14%, to 16%. As pretty much all the other microorganisms, they are still going at it together. You can brew saké up to 24%. Most is brewed about to 18% and watered down to 16%. We brew to 16% and stop, yet we still have a dry style.

Timothy Lord Can you separately track those types of fermentation? Can you test what kind is going on at the same time?

Yoed Anis: The best way to test that is through tasting. You can know the balance much better. You can look at the byproducts chemically that each fermentation is producing to know how they are doing. I dabbled in that a little but the science, it is not confusing but the data will confuse your judgment and so it is better to rely on experience, although some brewers I am sure will track it.

For me this is an interactive process. You are dealing with biology which is not an absolute science, and taste and judgment are going to be your best call. We use the lab reports for an assistance, but not as a prediction or an accurate state of measurement.

Timothy Lord It is interesting. Your background is you know in alcohol, is purely in saké?

Yoed Anis: Yes, I was interested in saké from traveling to Japan and really got captivated into that. It makes a lot of sense when I was home brewing it here since we grow rice in Texas, and that was my purpose to try and find if we could make saké from the rice grown here in Texas.

And I started dabbling with both beer making techniques and wine making techniques because there are so few resources about saké making, especially five years ago, versus today. That as soon as I dabbled in other alcohol making techniques, my saké quality just – I adopted things that would not work. Its own thing, you have to understand it and approach it as its own. It is very complicated if you have sort of other notions that confuse.

There is definitely some overlap, I mean a stainless steel tank is a stainless steel tank, you can use it for beer, you can use it for wine, you can use it for milk or tea or saké. And so there is definite things that you can do, but in terms of the chemicals and the ingredients and sanitization and things like that, whether you use air or not; for example, these are open tank fermenters where in the wine world, that is quite common, in the beer world you would never do this, so it is all different approaches.

Most Japanese saké is not made in the traditional sense. The sad reality is the number of traditional saké makers has been declining in Japan. Most saké in the world is consumed in Japan by the local demographic there, and it has both been decreasing and they’ve been consuming American products.

It is very, very similar to the traditional regional styles of saké that you will find in Japan. It is unique because we use our Texas rice and our Texas water, and we do it for the Texas palate, so it is a little older and fuller, but it will be very reminiscent of sort of southern style Japan, the island of Kysh, which is known for a more robust style saké and that will be equivalent to that.

Most modern Japanese saké is going to be a lot more technologically driven. For example, the koji, you will have an automated koji maker, you will have automated steamers, a lot of it will be sort of an automatic process. But the traditional stuff is only by hand and it is a longer colder fermentation process.

The virtual steamer, I think, is probably gets us closer to the more traditional process, even though it is a new adaptation. The fun thing about being an American brewer is that you are not bounded necessarily by the tradition. We voluntarily adhere to that philosophy and that is what I fell in love with and what I want to do, but the reality is that sometimes there are better ways to do things. And most of the times, there aren’t, but every now and then you can figure out how to do something better. And it is the quest of I think every saké maker to get better and better and better and so we question and try and improve every process every day that we do to just get better and better at what we do.

This is our unfiltered style. So after we press it, you basically get the saké and it will start settling. Once we press it though, I am going to mix it, so it comes basically out of the press like this. So what happens is this is the style of the unfiltered. This is what is in these bottles. It comes like that. We basically will let it age, so what happens is after it comes in like this from pressing, it will come into our tank.

After about a week or so, it definitely starts separating. The longer you wait the thicker or more stable this becomes, and it allows you to take saké from the top. So the top is how we create our traditional style saké. Whereas we take the bottom half, mix it back together, put it in a bottle, and that is how we get our unfiltered.

This is a traditional way of making the unfiltered style. It is not necessarily the way most unfiltered saké is made. A lot of it is just run through a filter really quick and then has things added back to it, which may or may not have been in there originally, but it is not really the traditional for us but it’s very fun. We have a matching label. In a way the only difference is, it’s the colors and this is the Nigori. It’s our green Whooping Crane and then we have our Orange. And the reason the label is sort of the same is because they typically will come from the same batch. We name every batch we make after the Texas governors starting with the Spanish governors who came to Texas.

Timothy Lord Where are you now in that sequence?

Yoed Anis: We are number four. So this one which we just released, this one is Mathias de Aguirre and he is the fourth. He is part of a chain of sort of do nothing Spaniards. So, initially, Teran de los Rios, which is the first Spanish governor of Texas, came to the area because they heard the French were interested and then they came and they found nobody but some really mean Indians and so they had some expeditions but usually for about five more governors or so they didn’t do too much.

Timothy Lord Now how much saké can you produce from the space we are in? We are in a not a huge industrial room here?

Yoed Anis: Yeah, I mean the space sort of works out. We can’t produce a lot of saké. It is pretty much right now just as much as Austin can drink. But we are trying to make enough so that the rest of Texas can enjoy it and some of the rest of the country as well. So right now we are doing pretty well but we will bring a few more tanks and hopefully be able to increase. For us the philosophy is always: The quantity is secondary to the quality. For us, the quality should never be compromised and so that is always our focus and unless we are comfortable with expansion, we won’t do that.

Timothy Lord How many people does it take to make the saké you have now?

Yoed Anis: So right now, it is primarily me and an additional karabito, assistant brewer, that do most of the brewing in the facility today.

Timothy Lord Now people make beer at home, they make wine at home, is saké something that somebody could do as an amateur?

Yoed Anis: Yeah. It is definitely more involved but if you like to do extreme things, like if you are the guy that instead of just wants to steam rice, you make paella or something like that, that has constant attention, probably making saké will be suited for you. It is like anything in life, it is not a gigantic mystery. You can find out how to do it. It is pretty easy to make, it is very hard to perfect like a lot of different professions, but that’s a lot of the fun of it. And it takes a long time, but I find it very gratifying. I would highly recommend people play with it.

There are good sources of rice that come usually from California right now that are a lot more easily available. The Texas rice is a little hard to find still, but that is very fun also once you get to a pretty good process to see the effect of just the rice on the taste and flavor of saké.

Timothy Lord How about information, you said that five years ago, it was very hard to come by information?

Yoed Anis: Yeah, there are some more websites today that do it. There has even been a book in English published about saké brewing. The last one I think was published in the ‘60s or ‘70s and all of the text that I was found was from university professors in Tokyo in the 1890s writing about saké which was great, because they write about how they made it about 120 or 130 years ago. Our rice came just 15 years after that into Texas and so we use a much older rice and so we treat it in a much older traditional style. Newer methods are using a lot of different processes, but it has been a lot of fun to figure out the different sources, and that’s sort of been part of the adventure.

Timothy Lord Have you gotten a lot of attention to your saké from actual Japanese makers or Japanese drinkers?

Yoed Anis: Yeah. Both. So, Japanese saké makers are really impressed. They love – I mean the Japanese saké makers sort of come in two schools. There is the older school of saké maker, which was the regional saké maker that created saké in the way he was taught, just how the region does it for basically the local environment. And all those people are pretty much gone or going away, that is sort of the old guard.

And then you have the new guard that has adopted more technology and more mainstream and they market to a national Japanese market there. And so what you get with that is a more consistent flavor profile. It is not as unique or not as diverse, and the old timers are definitely interested because I am creating very much regional style sake, like they used to and they think it is pretty cool that a young American is making you know old timer saké in Texas. And then the young people are pretty excited because a young American is making old timer saké in Texas instead of the new technologically motivated saké. So it has been pretty fun.

And the drinkers love it as well. I think the Japanese palate traditionally has been very balanced and very delicate, but it is expanding as well and you are getting into bigger and bolder flavors as they are exposed into more cultural foods from around the world. And the style of saké we make is a bolder, fuller style that goes both well with our American-Japanese food here in Texas and also with Texas foods from tamales and enchiladas, to barbecue.

Timothy Lord What background of yours, you know you are you are drawing a funny distinction I think between the technological, which is you are shying away from in saké, but how did you come – what did you come from before that?

Yoed Anis: No, I came from a technological background and we do a lot of science in here, it is just the reliance of science to a certain degree when you are dealing with things such as cooking and all that. If you have ever baked from a recipe, versus baked from feeling, if you practice you can do by feeling more accurately and get a more consistent cake or bread than you could by measuring and timing everything because things don’t always work exactly like they are supposed to, and it is that fluidity.

Just being connected into that traditional process, we’ve found that less and less reliance has created larger quality. The drive to technology typically creates better economies and better efficiency, but in my experience it seems to sacrifice the quality. And so we started with a very technological approach and sort of came and figured out that if we revert back to more traditional doing things more like they used to be made, we could simply get a better quality saké.

Timothy Lord You have an IT programming background but you don’t really apply those directly?

Yoed Anis: No, even our website was horrible for a person coming from an IT programming background. We got a recent facelift, so it’s at least tolerable now, but the saké doesn’t sell necessarily – well we do sell saké over the internet and you are welcome to try and look for it there, but the reality is it mostly sells in restaurants, in the markets, and people want to interact with it, and it is real good. And yeah, that is really fun.

And so our emphasis is really not even the label, not even that, it is for the experience. We want to make sure that you like it on the first sip, you like it on the second, that you can drink the whole bottle, enjoy it. It enhances your whole dining experience, and that you come again and you want a second bottle, the next time and so forth.

Timothy Lord One more question. Because I know a lot of people, you know a lot of Americans probably don’t drink saké often or don’t drink the original style. Hot, warm, cold, what should they be doing?

Yoed Anis: So whatever they like is usually the general rule of thumb. Most premium sakés that comes into the US is designed to be chilled or cold. Our stuff is a little more robust. The regional styles sakés that you see in Japan, there has sort of been a new movement there to create really good quality warm sakes, which were a lot more common about a 100 years ago than they are today.

We have both the robust style that can do well warm as well as chilled. My preference is chilled. In Texas that is sort of nice and makes sense that we create a chilled saké. But in the cold months, it is always nice to warm a little saké and with the right type of saké, it will open up different flavors and give it a whole another life. So it is not necessarily wrong. There are special ways to warm it. You never want to boil it or heat it to high heavens, but if you get it to around 100 or 120 Fahrenheit at most, it is very enjoyable.

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Brewing Saké in Texas for Fun and Profit (Video)

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