Q&A: The Birth of Saké

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A film still from the documentary, The Birth of Saké // Photo courtesy of POV

From October to April, a group of men live an almost monastic existence in a brewery in rural northern Japan. Awake at 4am, they steam 2,600 pounds of rice every morning. They tend to yeast starters, polish the rice, and watch it slowly bubble and ferment. They’re sticking to the traditional hands-on ways of making saké. But as many breweries have shifted to more automated processes, and with saké falling out of favor with consumers, is their diligence still relevant?

The Birth of Saké, from Japanese-American filmmaker Erik Shirai, documents life inside the Yoshida Brewery, a 144-year-old family-owned operation. The film is available to view on Netflix right now, and will have its national television broadcast premiere on the POV (Point of View) documentary series on PBS on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016 at 9pm.

We chatted with Shirai about the value of craft, the parallels between making saké and making a film, and how saké is finding a new foothold among millennial drinkers.

The Growler: How did you come across the Yoshida Brewery?

Erik Shirai: It was very serendipitous. I met Yachan, the young, sixth-generation heir, in New York City at a fundraiser. We started talking, and Japanese people do this thing, saying, “Oh, next time you come to Japan I’ll take care of you, we’ll have dinner” and no one really takes that seriously. So he was pleasantly surprised when I knocked on his door and said I want to make a film about the brewery.

G: One of the themes we’re always talking about is the value of craft, and this film hits on that perfectly. This brewery is sticking to the old ways in the age of automation. Did you get a sense the workers took pride in that? Or is this just an occupation they didn’t read that kind of value into?

ES: It depends on who you talk to. The younger generation, some of them just do it for work. But others are a little more passionate about sustaining the tradition. There’s this new generation of younger people who are going back and owning up to their own traditions and kind of wanting to keep that alive. That’s starting to grow—so a lot of guys are choosing to work at breweries to learn a specific craft. There’s two different types.

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Erik Shirai is the filmmaker behind The Birth of Saké // Photo courtesy of POV

G: Did you meet those younger workers concerned with keeping the tradition alive?

ES: I met a few of them. One guy in particular, who loves saké, he literally came to the brewery one time and asked the brewmaster if it was possible, and worked for free, as an intern, for many months just to learn.

G: The schedule of saké-making is intense. Six months away from family and friends. The heartbreaking scene, for me, was when you realize the only guy that’s excited to get back to the brewery is the one with no family to go back to. Tell us about the theme of sacrifice in the film, and how you experienced it while you were there.

ES: One thing to know is that this brewery, and many breweries all over the country, are usually in rural areas, where opportunities to find employment are scarce. Most of them are farmers so during harvest season it’s fine, but during the winter they have no choice, so they have to make these sacrifices to make ends meet. So for the younger workers, there’s a huge sacrifice. I wouldn’t be able to leave behind my loved ones for six months out of the year.

But again, there’s not many opportunities for what they can do, work-wise. It’s the older generation that tends to work in saké breweries—they’ve laid down that foundation within their families, that they can be away for long periods of time. But there were two guys that just got married and had kids, and they can’t do it, it’s too much of a sacrifice. There’s a lot of circumstances they have to overcome to work there.

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A film still from the documentary, The Birth of Saké // Photo courtesy of POV

G: Apart from the length of the work, the process—I got tired just watching the film. It seems physically taxing—hauling endless bags of rice up stairs, and rubbing the grains against the screens. But you never showed anyone complaining about aches and pains. Did they? Or do they just take that as part of the job?

ES: That’s very Japanese. They just don’t complain. They’re known to be workaholics. [Complaining] is just not something we do.

G: Trusting your intuition—being guided by your hands and your experiences—is all over the film. Did their processes make you examine your own processes as a filmmaker?

ES: It’s funny­, a lot of the correlations between filmmaking and saké-making are very similar. The brewmaster isn’t a dictator, he’s more telling people what to do, and showing them how to do it. But he knows that the most important thing is to keep his workers happy. He knows that once you lose the trust of your workers, you can’t make great saké. If you give them a hard time during the workday, you make sure that at the end of the day, you look out for them, have a drink with them, tell them you’re sorry you yelled at them, then do some karaoke and blow off steam.

I think in some ways that’s very foreign in Japanese culture. It’s usually one leader, one boss, and everyone has to follow. He has that, but in a way that he’s compassionate for his workers. I’m the same way as a filmmaker. I don’t dictate. I like to collaborate with as many workers as possible, to have the opportunity for many people to give their input.

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A film still from the documentary, The Birth of Saké // Photo courtesy of POV

G: The cinematography in the film is gorgeous. I found that remarkable, because fermentation is such a long, slow, not-flashy thing. What were the challenges of filming this subject?

ES: There were many different challenges with filming this subject. You’re just watching something bubble, or whatever. So you try to look at it in a way that’s not a process—something like a texture, something moving, like a painting. I try to approach many things that way. With saké-making, there are so many changes that happen. Even though it can be very subtle, there’s many changes where rice is turned into—like with the koji mold—into a bubbly fermentation, a thick consistency, then into a liquid. The actual shape of it changes very much. So I used that as a way to tell the story visually.

G: What surprised you most about your time at Yoshida?

ES: The surprise was how much dedication it takes—to wake up every morning at 4am, for six months out of the year, work all day, and not kill each other, really. For me, as a Westerner, it’s something that’s unheard of. I could never imagine doing that. The dedication and passion.

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A film still from the documentary, The Birth of Saké // Photo courtesy of POV

G: A telling scene was when Yachan was talking about the identity of his saké. He detailed this painstaking process, and in the end, he’s one bottle on the shelf with a thousand others, in a beverage category that’s declining in popularity. Did their work ever strike you as futile? Is there hope in this film?

ES: The great thing about Yachan, which I think is truly something admirable, is that he’s a younger generation guy and he approaches things differently. He’s willing to look at things more progressively, and he’s willing to adapt to modern times. That’s the difference between his brewery and many other breweries. He’s willing to change and accommodate the changes to modern times. There’s a great combination of him being accommodating to the younger drinkers, and the head brewmaster, who accommodates the traditional, older generation. So the brewery puts out two different types of saké for two different drinkers. And that makes a big difference.

This brewery will always be successful because it has such a good reputation. Other breweries need to adapt in some ways if they want to succeed. Whatever the case is, all brewers and saké-makers know they need to reach out to the international community. The more the international community appreciates it, the more popular it gets, and it will become more appreciated within Japan.

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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