Good Vibrations at Houmei
Every brewery has it’s own superstitions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, their own way of doing things. On a trip to Japan I came across an interesting one from Houmei Shuzo. Surrounded by mountains in the cosy town of Sasayama, well-known for black soybeans and boar meat in Hyogo prefecture, Houmei are a small brewery selling most of their sake in the immediate surrounding areas. Although they have a history of making sake and shochu going back as far as 1797 under the name Nishioo they have only been known as Houmei since 1997. The original brewery is now set up as a museum/gift shop with very friendly staff happy to take guests on informative mini-tours. The main brewery is located a couple of kilometres away and it was here Houmei’s Toji (head brewer) Nakagawa-san took time out of his busy brewing day to show me what he was up to.
As we entered the main brewery one thing was obviously different from any other brewery I’d been to. Unlike Australian craft beer breweries or wineries where the workers often have music pumping away, the sake breweries I’ve been to tend to be almost morbidly quiet. However, as we approached the door of the brewery the sound of traditional Japanese Enka music blared from inside. Upon opening the door it was so loud you could barely have a conversation. “Wow, you guys really get into it don’t you?”, I remarked to Nakagawa-san. “Yeah, not quite, it’s all part of the process you see,” he replied. Apparently the President of Houmei Shuzo had the idea of adapting the concept of playing music to wine-grape vineyards to encourage growth to the fermentation process of brewing sake. Strap some speakers to the fermentation tank, crank up the volume and the vibrations stir and soothe the mash into a rhythmic ferment. Interesting, I thought. But does it work?
“Nah, it’s just a gimmick if you ask me,” replied Nakagawa-san turning down the volume, mumbling as he did. I couldn’t help but laugh as Nakagawa-san then backtracked saying “well, I’m sure it does something but that mash would ferment music or not. Good selling point though”. True, true.
The musical atmosphere of the brewery continued as Nakagawa-san insisted on singing me a couple of a capella Tanba toji songs. Back in the day the brewery workers would sing songs to pass time, keep rhythm to and also measure length of time to continue a task (let’s stir the mash for three verses etc.). Different brewing guilds would have different songs. These days the tradition is all but dead. Nakagawa-san however, has a group of old-school friends who get together and practice the songs of the Tanba Guild of brewers from the Hyogo region and even perform at the local community centre where toji assured me they are quite a hit with the ladies. Rock on! I even found a video of them on Youtube. That’s Nakagawa-san to the right of the lady busting out lead vocals. Keep watching for Nakagawa-san’s solo.
As for the sake, it’s very good indeed. Each of the sake from the Music Vibration Ferment Series is actually brewed using different songs from Mozart, Beethoven and the bottle I’ve got right now – Yume no Tobira (Door to Dreams) brewed to an old Sasayama folk song called “Dekansho Bushi”. A seimaibuai (rice milling rate) of 71% keeps this brew from the Special Designation Level of Honjozo but provides a great argument for the quality of sake that falls outside that designation. Drunk best at room temperature, light aromas of pear and apple lead into a tight crisp sake with a umami rich mouthfeel ripe for anytime drinking. Good vibes indeed.