Pursuing Perfection: The Tireless Effort Behind SAKE HUNDRED’s Byakko
Byakko is coveted for its unparalleled clarity, its delicate aroma and sweetness recalling lily blossoms. It’s prized for its profound and lingering finish, and its flavors uncomplicated by imperfections. It is as close to sake perfection as current technology and human experience can achieve.
But, of course, Byakko’s near-perfection comes at a cost. Untold hours of hard labor go into every bottle. This is the story of Byakko, and the tireless brewers who create it in the pursuit of the pinnacle of the sake experience.
18% Polish Brings Unmatched Flavor and Clarity
The Shonai Plain in northeastern Yamagata Prefecture is ringed by mountains, with Mt. Chokai to its north, and the Dewa mountains to the east.
The brewer that creates Byakko, Tatenokawa, calls this region home. Its brewery rests at the foot of this region’s mighty mountain ranges where the winter snows accumulate in particularly deep drifts.
Since the fall of 2010, Tatenokawa has concentrated exclusively on producing junmai daiginjo sake with polish ratios of at least 50%. This singular dedication is rarely seen in the sake industry, but the decision has paid off in spades for Tatenokawa. They have since gained critical renown for their highly refined sake that only gets better year over year as their technology and brewing experience improve.
Tatenokawa has brought this technology and hard-earned knowledge and experience fully to bear in producing Byakko.
Byakko’s flavors are characteristically fresh, robust and exceedingly clear, thanks to its 18% polish ratio and the organic Dewasansan sake rice used in its production.
Keisuke Kawana, brewing manager at Tatenokawa has this to say about Byakko’s polishing ratio: “The 18% ratio is the ideal ratio for obtaining clarity from the high polish while still allowing the natural flavors of the ingredients to come through.”
Eighteen isn’t just a number. It represents the perfect “Goldilocks zone” for sake excellence. Without this exact polish ratio, Byakko simply would not be.
The road to 18%, however, is certainly not an easy one.
To get 600 kg of rice, the amount used for a batch of Byakko, up to a polish ratio of 40% would require approximately 60 hours of labor.
To get to 18%? That takes upwards of 200 hours, in a delicate process fraught with failure points and pitfalls. The higher the polish, the more susceptible the rice becomes to cracking, and polishing to such extremes as 18% requires skill, technique and uncompromising attention to detail.
Tatenokawa singularly excels at these extreme polish ratios, with their own proprietary machinery and techniques.
The Uncompromising Pursuit of Quality, Every Step of the Way
But making great sake like Byakko isn’t a matter of focusing on any one particular step in the brewing process. It’s a grueling procedure that requires skill in maintaining a constant, optimal environment for the sake to thrive.
There are two other matters of particular importance: Managing a pristine and sanitary brewing environment, and controlling temperature.
Tatenokawa takes great pains in maintaining a pristine brewing environment.
Many competing breweries use wooden boxes for propagating the koji mold strains necessary for brewing sake. Tatenokawa, however, opts for aluminum “koji boxes.” Wooden boxes can deteriorate over time, developing an uneven surface that eventually becomes impossible to thoroughly clean; an issue Tatenokawa avoids with their aluminum boxes.
This tidy approach is necessary not only from a hygiene perspective, but also in terms of flavor control. Koji propagation is a delicate process and the introduction of bacteria from, say, an improperly cleaned work surface can have major effects on the finished flavors of the sake being brewed.
Sometimes, this wild bacteria can introduce interesting new flavors and isn’t always a bad thing in sake brewing. But, the results achieved in these more free-wheeling brewing environments can be inconsistent, unpredictable and sometimes just plain bad. To maintain the pinnacle of sake quality and flavor, it’s essential that Byakko be brewed in carefully controlled and obsessively, thoroughly cleaned surroundings.
Temperature control is also a crucial element in producing the best possible sake. Temperature is used to either inhibit or encourage the growth and activity of the koji and yeast, thereby fine-tuneing the quality and flavors of the finished sake.
The yeast used to make Byakko is responsible for its gorgeous ginjo aroma, but is also extremely delicate and sensitive to temperature fluctuations. If the temperature is off even by a little, the yeast may die altogether, resulting in a foul-tasting, failed batch.
The final fermentation temperature of the unrefined sake in the brewing tanks is 7-8℃. By maintaining this temperature and allowing Byakko to ferment slowly over approximately one month, the flavors and aromas are gradually enhanced while maintaining the highest sake quality.
The Finishing Touches on the Pinnacle of Sake Flavor
It’s under these rigorously optimized conditions that Byakko thrives and approaches its finished, perfect state.
It will reach its peak in the moromi mash tanks, where the fermentation process stabilizes and flavors and aroma solidify.
After the Byakko has rested in the mash tanks, the final challenge is in maintaining its peak state through to bottling and shipping. Any exposure to air or temperature changes can introduce unintended imperfections.
To prevent this, Tatenokawa takes the extraordinary step of using special packing to move the nearly finished Byakko to the transfer hose without fluctuations in temperature. This is an extra step Tatenokawa invests in that might surprise less discerning brewers.
And yet, no matter how rigorously controlled the brewing process, it’s all meaningless if the end user doesn’t enjoy the product.
“No matter how systematic the production process becomes, the need for the sake brewer to use all five senses will never change. There are many uncertainties involved in sake brewing, such as the natural environment and microorganisms. Although invisible to the human eye, something is definitely happening, which is why the values and ingredients change. It’s precisely because we don't know what is happening that it’s so interesting, and precisely because we don't know what’s happening that we must always face brewing with sincerity,” Kawana muses.
Once the pressing is complete, the sake brewing process is in its final stage. To prevent oxidation after shipping, the air in the bottle is replaced with nitrogen while bottling.
In essence, Tatenokawa turns each bottle of Byakko into a time capsule, where the perfect conditions will endure so long as the bottle remains sealed.
On opening, the lucky drinker of a bottle of Byakko will first be greeted by its pristine ginjo aroma. A pour, a swirl, and a sip later, and the drinker may revel in Byakko’s perfect balance of sweet, umami and tartness.
From raw material to finished product, every step of the brewing process is focused on one simple matter: To satisfy the drinker.
Each bottle of Byakko is only truly complete when a drinker has poured a glass, felt the pleasing, luxuriant and lingering finish, and experienced the contentedness that only the perfect sake can deliver.