In a world where most mass produced goods are heavily automated, a small group of artisans must endure six grueling winter months away from family and friends to preserve a 2000-year-old tradition that we have come to know as saké.
I was able to follow this long painstaking process at Yoshida Brewery, a 144-year-old family-owned small brewery in northern Japan, for my feature documentary The Birth of Saké. There are so many things in this world I simply could not do and this is one of them…
Sharing small bedrooms with groups of other worker, away from family and friends for 6-7 months, waking up every morning at 4am/7days a week in the dead of winter… My producer and I was able to witness this journey on 3 separate productions seasons. We lived at the brewery full time and became very close to all of the workers. After a few drunken nights of karaoke, we became a part of their close knit family.
As American born Japanese, I have never seen this type of dedication in handcrafting a mass produced product. I even sometimes wondered if it was worth it, with so many breweries either going under because of rising costs or forced to change to a machine-fed automated process to keep up with the fast paced industry. But then I was reminded by the Toji or ‘head brewmaster’ that saké is a living thing; “You have to nurture it like a child, without proper nurturing, it cannot become saké’, he would say. These are words from someone who has been crafting sake for over 50 years…. He tells me that the key to making consistent high quality sake is intuition. Each year there are so many changing variables (rice quality, water quality, different yeast strains) that it would be impossible to come up with a automated formula. You have to adapt, trust your intuition, and depend on your workers.
On top of the heavy responsibility of creating and defining the taste of sake, the Toji is also responsible for his workers. Like a surrogate father he needs harmony between his workers, this can sometimes be challenging in a high stress environment of living and working in close quarter for half a year.. This is what I thought where his true leadership and years of experience really shined. He was not only nurturing the sake but his own worker and how it all depended upon each other to make this one beautiful thing.