Imagine standing in an enormous sauna. It’s long and slender like a pool room. The walls are cedar, the air is thick and clammy and in the room’s centre is an enormous bath, but instead of hot rocks, there’s a cake of rice that’s being jabbed and loosened by a bare-footed man holding a shovel. Everything smells unmistakably and teasingly like freshly cooked rice and, bizarrely, sounds half like the workings of a robot and half like the Australian bush. It’s the central room of Sun Masamune, Australia’s only sake brewery. Standing nearby, like two wrinkle-eyed overseers, are two men: Noriya Ueki and Allan Noble, Sun Masamune’s sake maker and its managing director, tour guide and occasional gift-store clerk.
“I like to think our product is quite unique,” Noble says. He’s right, too; simply speaking, the flavour of sake comes from four interacting elements: rice, water, yeast and koji. Any change in proportion or characteristic of these base ingredients is what produces the variety of flavour in different sakes. Sun Masamune is the only sake distillery in the world brewing with Australian rice and water. “Our water is a little softer. That gives it a more rounded finish. Most sake coming from Japan is from a little harder water, giving a more crisp, sharp finish,” Noble says. The soft-hard scale comes from the ph level of the water. Japan’s is higher, or slightly more acidic, than the pristine ph-neutral water Sun Masamune gathers from the Penrith bush.
The other key element, Noble says, is Australian rice. Just as different regions produce different wines from the same grape, different yields of rice will produce sakes with different flavours. Sun Masamune uses Amaroo, a medium-grain rice grown in Leeton, NSW. “[These] rice grains are approved by the Japanese government for making sake. We can't just grab anything, ship it out and brand it as Japanese sake,” says Noble. He says although the rice grain is the same variety used by some brewers in Japan, Australia’s climate and soil produce different flavours.
The company has been making sake for 27 years. It started as an experiment; Noble and his team wanted to know whether Australian rice and water could produce good-quality sake. They teamed up with the Rice Growers Co-operative and began testing. “It turned out wow.” Noble says his team and their investors were amazed by the results. Eight years later, with help from 400-year-old sake producer, Konishi Brewing, Sun Masamune began commercial production of Go-Shu, Australia’s only homegrown sake.
Although the factory is set up to produce large quantities, it’s a relatively small operation, with just one permanent sake brewer. Traditionally, a sake brewery would have one specialist for each section of the production cycle, but at Sun Masamune every responsibility falls to Ueki, a Hiroshima native who trained as a sake maker for more than 10 years before moving to Sydney.
The first and arguably most important step Ueki handles is the polishing. When rice is harvested, each grain is covered in a fibrous layer called bran, what we call brown rice. Bran has less starch and more fatty acids than the centre of a rice grain. It’s the starch that’s processed by the koji into sugar and that sugar becomes alcohol through yeast-led fermentation. “By polishing with a grinding stone over time, we expose the starchy bit in the middle of the grain,” Noble says. Simply, the finer the rice is polished (the higher the proportion of starch), the more refined and delicate the sake will be. There are different names for different levels of rice polishing. The highest grades are Ginjo (at least 40 per cent of the rice grain polished away) and Daiginjo (at least 50 per cent). “We polish down to 60 per cent. In other words, 40 per cent of grains aren't used for sake making. That's premium-range Ginjo,” Noble says. It sounds like a lot of waste, but Ueki and his team use the left-over millings to produce soap and skincare products.
From the polishing, the rice is then steamed in enormous 400-kilogram batches. Once cooked through it dances across a conveyor belt where Ueki splashes over fine-powdered koji mould. Now we’re back to where we started, in the aromatic sauna room.
Like a bread roll in a sun-lit pantry, the rice waits in the humid bath until the mould has spread across the entire batch. It’s then placed in a giant fermentation tank with up to 1500 litres of liquid kobo, a live yeast culture. This is the last and most influential period in determining the sake’s flavour.
While we’re standing in the centre of Sun Masamune’s brewery, immersed in rice aromatics and the sounds of Penrith’s bush birds, Noble murmurs in our ear. Sake production isn’t about flair or fiddling, you need passion he says. “You have to have a pedantic approach. Sake making is not for everyone.” In front of us, Ueki is starring into the rice bath, running his hands through each square inch as if the flavour of his product depends not on every intricate process he’s managed, but on the actions of his very fingers.
Sun Masamune offers brewery tours by appointment. Go-Shu sake can be bought online by the bottle at most major liquor stores and by the glass at Sydney’s best Japanese restaurants.
29 Cassola Place, Penrith
(02) 4732 2833