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issue: 02/01/2001

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past columns by Cate Gable:





Sake To Me:
Measuring the Impact of Technology
by Cate Gable

Pow! Hundreds of thousand of fertile U.S. acres paved over for interstate highways and parking. Bam!! Pacific Northwest salmon systems destroyed. Kaboom!!! Killer bacteria running rampant in hospitals. Kapow!!!! What’s next?

If we had really understood the long-term effects of personal automobiles, hydroelectric power, and over-use of antibiotics, could we have followed another path? I’d like to think that at least some of the devastating results of these ‘improvements’ could have been avoided if we had evaluated these new technologies and made some decisions about their use in society. But who is this ‘we’ and how would we make this evaluation?

As we get bolder in our technological hubris, other nightmares may be on the horizon. We’ve created a genetically-altered primate by inserting DNA from a green glowing jellyfish. Suppose this strain of monkey grows up to dislike its Dr. Strangelove creators and begins to harbor some new viruses lethal to humans? Already pollen from a Monsanto strain of genetically-modified corn has been proven to kill monarch butterflies, one of many pollinators critical to crops across the Midwest. So who’s minding the shop? What else is being created behind closed doors that we don’t need, that no one has asked for, and that will cost us billions of dollars to repair the effects of in years to come?

In the 1950s the US Corps of Engineers decided to ‘drain’ the Florida everglades — an expensive project which damaged that environmental wonder called the ‘River of Grass.’ Now, fifty years later, we have realized that an entire ecosystem is more valuable than a few more malls on dry ground, and we’re trying to repair the environment at ten-fold the original ‘fix-up’ cost.

The other day I was part of the audience for Maxine Heppner and John Sharpley’s dance and piano performance at the Takara Sake factory in Berkeley, California. The performance was an inspiring, unsettling, beautiful, and haunting series of improvisations and set-pieces, punctuated with sake breaks during which we tasted warm Junmai-shu extra dry sake and cold Nigori-sake, unfiltered and almost thick.

During one of these breaks I wandered with my sake cup into the Takara Sake Museum, the only one of its kind in the nation. The room was full of beautiful wooden and bamboo implements, all handmade — tools for sake-making in the old style. There were various sizes of barrels and tubs with wooden slats, hand-fitted, and obviously well used. There were paddles and poles and scrubbers and sifters — each one with a different name and purpose.

In the corner, like a spectacular sculpture, was a huge Sakafune — literally a ‘sake boat’ or sake press — probably 25 feet long by four feet tall by four feet wide. This rectangular wooden press had a huge arm-lever attached by thick ropes to six, maybe half-ton, rocks lying on a pallet on the floor. These roughly-rounded stones would be hoisted up, providing the counter weight to the big sake boat arm that would press the sake from rice mash. The text accompanying this Sakafune said that the worker in charge was called the Funagashira or the ‘boat captain.’ The first press of the season is called Hatsufune, the ‘first boat’ or the ‘first sailing.’ The poet in me was transformed.

On the other side of the museum were pictures of how modern sake is made — steel machines and storage tanks, lots of dials and lights and read-outs. Workers in hard hats.

Perhaps sensitized by the dance and music, I paused to wonder, "Is modern technology an improvement? What is the ultimate impact of this metallic, calibrated sake-making?" The wooden hand tools were exquisite. The photos of engineered sake-making paled in comparison.

I decided to explore a bit further and began some research into the matter. So, follow, if you will, for a short sake-making history.

Sake, or saki, is a high-octane alcoholic beverage—undiluted it has a 20% alcohol content — made from fermented rice. It was invented in Japan probably sometime around 300 A.D. which is when it first shows up in written records. Because of the complexity of its brewing, in the early days it was generally reserved for royalty or ceremonial occasions.

Five elements are involved in brewing sake: water, rice, yeast, land/weather, and technical skill. There are seven sake brewing plants in the Western United States — so located because California is the source of most US rice, the climate is right, and there is plenty of good water. Water, in fact, is 80% of the final sake product. 1

Here’s a general description of the brewing process2:

After proper sake rice has been secured, it is milled, or polished . . .this must be done gently so as not to generate too much heat (which adversely affects water absorption) or to crack the rice kernels (which is not good for the fermentation process).

Rice is washed and steam-cooked . . . mixed with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with a mold known technically as aspergillus oryzae). The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches over four days. This fermentation, which occurs in a large tank, is called shikomi. The quality of the rice, the degree to which the koji mold has propagated, temperature variations, and other factors are different for each shikomi.

This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.

This is only the beginning of the story, believe me. On my second visit to the museum, I noticed that the handmade tools which had looked so rustic and romantically beautiful were each slightly different; each had a different task and was made especially for that task.

There was the Bokai paddle which was round. The Heragi paddle which was flat. The Motokai stick for grinding the moto mix (or rice mash). There is even a Moto Song used to pass the time since "grinding Moto takes stamina3."

I also discovered that simply steaming the rice was a process so critical and mysterious that only the Sake Master could supervise this. In the bottom of the rice steamer, between the iron bowl of boiling water and the koshiki (steamer), is a small wooden block called a Saru or steam guide. This wooden block is shaped a certain way and has grooves cut through it to release steam to the koshiki in a special manner. Each Sake Master had his own Saru and, at the end of sake season, this would be taken home and kept under lock and key because its design was so critical to the outcome of the sake.

In the old style, when the sake was pressed and set to age, a huge ball of green freshly-cut cedar was hung outside the brewery. As the days went by, the cedar ball became browner and dry and indicated to the local residents the ‘readiness’ of the sake for drinking.

Now, of course, when you look through the viewing window at Takara down into the sake factory, you see conveyor belts, stainless steel tanks, gears and pulleys. Polishing the rice to take the husk off is measured in microns4. The old Sakagura — or ‘sake making house’ which had thick walls of stone, sand, and mortar, built to be completely fireproof and to keep a cool stable interior temperature — has been replaced by temperature gauges and climate control equipment.

I began to see that our designations of "low tech" and "high tech" may not be so accurate. The highest technology, in fact, is always the human technology — nothing can happen without a Sake Master, even today. And the specificity of the tools and the thoughtful way that each part of the old style sake-making process worked reflects a sophisticated understanding of what was needed to make good sake.

So, how would we evaluate whether modern technology has improved sake? And what is the impact of this new technology on humans and on the earth?

As I wandered through the museum I realized that this kind of evaluation could not be conducted without having a point of view. As a musician, I like the idea of having moto songs, and losing them means losing an entire human art form. A modern sake drinker might be happier to know that stainless steel means better sake sanitation. On the other hand, some feel that replacing the Sakafune with modern machines produces an inferior sake. Many breweries still use the sake boat to press their finest products. A business owner might say that automating the process of cultivating the koji (mold) is critical to keeping sake affordable and labor costs down.

But taken in total, does the impact on the earth of making steel tanks and electronic monitors balance the cost savings or improvements to sake sanitation? Look at what we’ve lost — the poetry of ‘first sailings,’ the utility and grace of handmade tools, the vigor and satisfaction of physical labor, the beauty of the dehusking dance.

Shouldn’t we be making choices about the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of world we want our children’s children to live in?

I had an Asian-Pacific friend once tell me in Hawaii that when you sleep on your tatami mat you can tell if the mat maker was arguing with his wife when he made it.

When you sip your sake, can you hear the singing?

1 For stats on rice acreage estimates see http://agronomy.ucdavis/ricestation/usacreage.htm
2 This info taken from a great site, in English, with lots of information on Sake types and the brewing process:
3 A description of sake making and drawings of the old-fashioned process are available on the Takara Sake website.
4 See the esake website for a discussion of the pros and cons of modernization, under the subtitle "Changes Over the Years."

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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