The Wandering Poet of Shimane
Updated: Sep 12, 2019
Isn't it interesting how certain images stick in our subconscience. Back when I first started taking an interest in sake, the inevitable first point of call was the extensive body of work written by John Gauntner. It was all those years ago reading one of his books or articles that I first laid eyes on a bottle called Wandering Poet. At that time, I knew nothing about the brewery (kura) where it was made, and had never even heard of the part of Japan it came from. However, that beautiful label with its eye-catching simplicity and timeless elegance took a hold in my subconscience and has been calling out to me ever since. I have gone on to see it in numerous other publications since then, and as well as being the image I see in my mind's eye when I think of a bottle of sake, it has become almost iconic to me. Therefore, it was always just a matter of time before the day came that I would set off to find a bottle directly from its origin in Shimane Prefecture. The following is what I learned about this fabulous brewery during my journey to finally satisfy my urge of meeting the wandering poet of Shimane.
Just a short walk from the imposing black walls of the castle in Matsue City, the prefectural capital of Shimane, lies Rihaku Shuzo, a brewery with history dating back to 1882. The name Rihaku was adopted back in 1928 and is the Japanese name of the famous Chinese poet, known as Li Po in English, who was said to have a habit of drinking heavily before sitting down to write his work. Rather fittingly then, his name and some of his inebriated word-play now adorn the labels of what has become one of Shimane's most well known and loved brands of local sake. However, in what has become an all too familiar story for brewers that have enjoyed success despite a somewhat tough market, through a proactive and modern business strategy, Rihaku has transcended the label of "local sake" and can boast to being one of the pioneers from amongst the smaller breweries who first took their sake overseas. As a result, their brand is now enjoyed in several counties throughout the world and can be found in such markets as America, France and Singapore to name just a few.
As for their brand portfolio, although Rihaku produce a wide range of different styles, in general, their sake can be described as being soft and mellow with gentle umami. As a resident and loyal supporter of Okayama prefecture, the romantic in me likes to think that perhaps this is the result of its historic ties with its neighbouring prefecture, whose Bitchu Toji guild (Brewers Association) provided them with their first two master brewers in the form of a father and son succession. As Haruo Matsuzaki recently pointed out in an article of Sake Today, Bitchu Toji typically produce sake with a soft texture to the flavour, whereas the local Izumo Toji, named after the historical name for the region, often have more dense or robust flavours. Just maybe this early style has been passed down from one generation to the next and is still reflected today in the beautifully soft and mellow style that is the signature of Rihaku...
Regardless, if that is indeed the case, a look at the company's current infrastructure reveals that although they may have preserved some important traditional aspects from the past, they are certainly not slaves to their history. Looking back at the brewery's more recent history reveals that they have continually kept one eye on the future, making improvements as and when necessary. One of the most noticeable of these is the very large three storey building that now sits in a juxtaposition with the original frontage of the kura. Constructed in 1968, this now serves as the beating heart of the brewery and allows all the of the essential work required in making sake to be carried out under one roof. The process begins on the top floor with the koji making room (muro) and the yeast starter tanks (shubo, moto), then makes its way down to the fermentation room on the 2nd floor, before finally reaching the ground floor for pressing. However, on closer inspection of the inside of this building we can really see the extent of their upgrades in infrastructure, and a result, the fantastic balance that Rihaku has struck between tradition and modernity.
In 2008, a decision was made to update much of the older wooden machinery, some of which had become rundown, and replace them with more modern metal equipment. As a brewing geek, nowhere is this more impressive than the newly constructed koji muro, which is a perfect example of old time-honoured traditional techniques working in synergy with more modern advancements in brewing technology. Firstly, the room was constructed using the same material used for making refrigerators which allows for better insulation and temperature control. It was also substantially widened to create room for better equipment inside. For example, when you first enter you face an enormous stainless-steel table which is used for spreading out freshly steamed rice. More than just a material upgrade, this clever new piece of technology can tell the brewers an accurate weight of the steamed rice, and therefore an accurate moisture content. This means that they have a much better understanding of the condition of the rice before sprinkling that wonderful mould aspergillus oryzae (koji kin). This special mould will go on to perform the magic of producing enzymes and thus enabling the possibility of brewing alcohol using rice.
The above is just one example of several impressive uses of modern technology that I saw during my visit. However, it's important to point out that at Rihaku this use of technology does not replace the traditional methods of brewing, rather plays a supporting role to more traditional tried and tested methods. For example, despite all the new technology, koji is still made by using wooden boxes that allow the brewers to easily control the temperature as it grows. Nowadays there are fully automated machines that can make koji. However, from what I have heard, they are no substitute for doing it by hand. Therefore, the human interaction with the koji as it is carefully nurtured to maturity is still the crucial factor in its creation. In other words, although nature ultimately has the final say on the outcome of any brewing process, in Rihaku's case, the technology is still just merely playing a supporting role to the more important human intervention at work.
Indeed, perhaps one of the things that impressed me the most about Rihaku is that they have genuinely made these improvements specifically because they recognise just how important this human element is in sake making. The previous company president, who sadly passed away in 2010, instilled the philosophy that by spreading Sake Culture throughout the world they are at the same time protecting the industry for the next generation. He had a dying wish to introduce new equipment, new methods, and for his company to always face forward when making decisions for the future.
When his son took the reins in 2011, one of the tasks he set out to achieve was to increase the brewing output. However, he did so by trying to create a better working environment and therefore increase the longevity of service from the brewery staff. Only by doing this first could he respect the forward thinking philosophy of Rihaku. As sake brewing is, and hopefully always will be, a people business it is always reassuring for the future of the industry when you come across a brewery such as this. Now that I have finally met the wandering poet of Shimane, and know of this wonderful working philosophy, the brand remains to me as iconic as ever, and its place as my quintessential sake label is definitely safe.