The present article has been written by my good friend Melinda Joe on behalf of a common friend, namely John Gauntner, the foreign (as to the Japanese) authority on Japanese sake!
I like secrets as much as, if not slightly more than, the next guy, so it didn’t take much convincing to get me to read John Gauntner’s new e-book, Sake’s Hidden Stories. Although it wasn’t the juicy, tell-all memoir I hope he’ll pen one day, this collection of essays offers a glimpse of a world that is closed to most of us, particularly non-speakers of Japanese. It tells stories of strong wills, iconoclasts, and errant sons who return home to carry on the work of generations. In our fast-paced modern society, where individualism reigns supreme, the words honor, duty, and tradition seem like anachronistic concepts; yet, these are the very forces that have kept the sake industry alive.
Part of what attracted me, and my fellow nihon-shu bloggers Tim, Etsuko, and Robert-Gilles; to sake was the spirit and enthusiasm of the folks who make it. However, much of the sake literature out there – at least in English – focuses mainly on the products themselves. It’s refreshing to finally find a book that introduces the people behind the brand. A sake insider for more than a decade, Mr. Gauntner is the perfect man for the job. He takes us with him up the gravelly roads and through the cool, dark rooms of centuries-old buildings. Some of the anecdotes describe his first meetings with the brewery owners and staff, and readers feel his surprise and, in many cases, awe.
After meeting the former president of Tairin Brewery in Gifu, Gauntner asks how he was able to control the milling of the rice, which was done at that time on a primitive machine.
The older gentleman answered very simply and humbly, “Well, I listen to it.” You listen to it? Huh?
He walked over to one end of the small machine and lifted up – of all things – a stethoscope that hung neatly over a pipe. “Well, Yeah. I use this, and I listen to it. I have been doing this in this way for so many years that I can easily tell by the sound of the rice spinning inside how much has been milled away.”
Amazing. Most modern seimaiki are automated so the operator has to do nothing, just put in the rice, set the controls, and wait. But for decades this gentleman has been listening to the sound of the rice as it rolled around inside the cylindrical drum, and by using only his senses, polished with years of experience, he can be so accurate that they could make the fine sake Tairin is known for. By using a stethoscope. Simply wild.
The book contains a fair amount of technical information, and, although the first section is devoted to sake basics, true novices may find it difficult to take everything in. The author was a former engineer and his fascination with machinery is evident. For those with a firm foundation of sake knowledge, however, the book is a terrific resource providing in-depth details of production.
Still, everyone can relate to he characters themselves (and, in the sake world, there are plenty of them). When he meets the purple-track-suit-wearing Nakao-san, president and toji of Tsuyu Masamune in Osaka, Gauntner wonders how he learned to make sake.
“Ah, but that’s another long story,” he begins, raising his teacup as if toasting the idea for emphasis. He sets it down on the low table between us before continuing. “You see, I never wanted to be in this business. Originally I was not going to take over the brewery here. I wanted to be a phys ed instructor.”
That’s not the only surprise the kuramoto has in store for him.
In another departure from precedent, Nakao-san has begun to hold the occasional rap concert inside his brewery for the local community rap fans. “It’s kind of tight, but we have barely enough space. The band is down there, people dance up there, on that platform, just in front of the tanks. It’s kinda cool, actually.
These kinds of delightful details make Sake’s Hidden Stories a lot of fun to read, and you’ll definitely feel like an insider by the end of the book. In fact, you may end up itching to take to the sake road yourself. I certainly did!