We negotiated the ramp again and came back through the first room and saw what we had woken up early to see - a small group of people was gathered near the huge kama steamer. Two were using small buckets to unload the freshly steamed rice from the top section onto a small belt that brought it up to a cooling machine, and the rest were waiting at the outlet of the cooler to catch large pillow-sized mounds of rice on pieces of cloth, wrap it up, and literally run with it to another room where it was spread out and left to cool completely. 

Steamed rice being loaded onto a cooler conveyor belt at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura

A bit hard to see with the steam, but one of the Dewazakura Yamagata team has a cloth bundle of rice on his back, ready to run out and lay it out to cool completely

Nakano offered us some of the rice to look at and taste - I couldn’t see the white shinpaku starch core as well as I could at Benten, but the rice was much more chewy than rice cooked to eat. Nakano explained that table rice is usually boiled, not steamed, so the end result is different.

Freshly steamed sake-specific rice at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura

Nakano and I stay out of the way while watching the rice steaming at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura

A few feet away, bags of milled rice were being opened and fed through a washing machine to prepare for steaming the next day. One brewery worker sat beside a large plastic tub with a stopwatch, measuring how quickly water was being absorbed. Passing through to another room, we came across a Yabuta press that had finished pressing a batch of sake, and a crew of older ladies who were pulling the compressed sakekasu (sake lees) out of the pockets and stacking it up in boxes. Nakano said that the lees were sold to a shop that pickles vegetables, so nothing is wasted. He also opened the door to a storeroom where an old milling machine sat unused - he laughed and said that it was tiny in comparison to the ones they now have at their main location in Tendō.

Older ladies prise sheets of pressed lees out of a Yabuta sake press at the Dewazakura Yamagata city kura, taking them away to be used to pickle vegetables

An old rice milling milling machine tucked away at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura - the new ones at their main site in Tendo are much larger

Nakano then took us into the heart of the operation - the kōji-muro where rice is inoculated with spores of the kōji mold that breaks the starch in the rice down into sugar to feed the yeast. He explained that Dewazakura produces a range of styles and uses different kōji and yeast as required. The kōji room had a stainless steel outer door leading to an entryway and a second door, forming an air lock. The process of growing the kōji on the rice takes two days, with the rice being moved from one room to another on the second day. The day one kōji was piled up in large mounds, wrapped up in duvets with nothing visible except temperature measurement leads - it was oddly charming, like there was some kind of precious child or pet being kept warm. (Which might not be far off the mark.)

The day two kōji was spread out on a large table, secured under a blue tarp. It had developed the white, powdery coating we saw at Benten, and was no longer clumping together. Nakano gave us a pinch to look at, smell and taste - the sweetness was just incredible, especially from such a neutral raw material. Once again I wished that someone would make a perfume or air freshener or something that smells like a kōji-muro, I would be very happy if I could smell it all day, every day. (There is a sake perfume, but don’t know about a kōji-muro one.)

The koji-muro, the hot and humid room used to encourage the koji mold to grow on rice, at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura

A pinch of rice with koji growing on it at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura - see the chalky white coating of koji all over the surface of the grains

David noticed that there were numbers on each tank, and Nakano explained that because they were all made by hand back in the day, the tanks were made and then measured to see how much they held. He led us into another room full of tanks and measured out some maturing muroka genshu (unfiltered, undiluted sake) from one of them. It was delicious, with a wonderful mellow flavour with every element blended together beautifully - that also keeps you from noticing the alcohol, which makes it interesting to drink!

Chatting with Nakano at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura as we sample some of their sake

Chatting with Nakano at the Dewazakura Yamagata kura as we sample some of their sake

Nakano joked that Japanese sake yeast was “stupid” as it keeps producing alcohol until it dies from it, unlike wine yeast which stops at a certain level. The yeast they use produces around 18% alcohol but they normally dilute the sake to 15% or so. We chatted by the tanks, talking about the IWC, the possible disadvantages of describing sake only with wine tasting terms (which of necessity leave out the umami element of the flavour profile), how much of their production is exported (just 6% by revenue, but that's compared to 2% for the total sake market) and to where (their German distributor supplies Switzerland so we’ll have to look out for it nearby) until Nakano had to get back to work.

A huge thank-you to Nakano for inviting us and showing us around!