Watari Bune Rice Fields: a pilgrimage

DSC01206Watari Bune Rice Fields in Ishioka, Ibaraki

Watari Bune is an heirloom sake rice and father strain to the ‘King of Sake Rice’, Yamada Nishiki (the mother strain is Yamada Ho). The photo above was taken a few days before harvesting in early October. I was fortunate to be invited to view the rice at its peak in Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, about an hour by train from Tokyo. It was my first time to see an actual sake rice field at its heightened glory and it was everything I imagined it to be: absolutely glorious and stunning.

To hear the shimmying of the stalks, the wind rustling through the spaces in between the tall grasses, to know by the following spring, the fields’ contents would transform into one of my all-time favourite sake, standing amidst the rice fields was me (the sake geek that I am), akin to a religious experience.

Sake rice is very different than the table rice you eat. Physically it is much larger in size and has a visible centre starchy core and contains less proteins, compared to table rice (hanmai). Brewers want to get to the grain’s centre for that’s where highly concentrated starches reside, which will, with the help of koji enzymes, turn to glucose for sake yeasts to then convert to alcohol. Because sake rice grains have that characteristic centre starch core, it enables a more precise ability to harvest the starch (via rice milling/polishing), leaving behind more of the fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals residing around the outer regions of each grain.

Why do we want to limit the fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals?  Well for sake making, these extra elements will be additional food for the yeast, apart from the much-needed starch, potentially pushing fermentation to run its course too fast. As well, the extra elements may alter flavour and texture.This might be fine in some cases, but if the intention is to make a higher grade sake which requires a longer, slower fermentation, then controlling the raw material content by using sake rice is one of a myriad of options. Since brewers know well that sake rices’ starches are predictably at the centre of the grain, they can polish the rice to a percentage that eliminates most of the undesired outer elements. And by the way, this is not to say great sake can’t be made with rice not designated ‘sake rice’ (Shuzo kotekimai). No siree, not at all.

Getting back to the methodic yellow and green sway of the Ishioka rice fields, one of Watari Bune’s distinctive characteristics is the long tail that hangs from the string of grains from each stalk (see pic below).

Unused for many decades due to its temperamental cultivation: prone to breakage due to its top-heavy nature and much longer growing season. It wasn’t until 1989 when Takaaki Yamauchi of Huchu Homare Sake Brewery sought to revive the rice strain that once flourished in his hometown area of Ibaraki, after hearing from a local farmer how good the sake made with legendary Watari Bune was. He obtained a handful of Watari Bune seeds from the governmental research office at the ministry of agriculture.  By 1991, he was able to grow and harvest enough rice to produce a tank of sake made from Watari Bune rice.

Due to his efforts in reviving the near-extinct sake rice, many breweries are now rediscovering native rice in their own regions, so that these may once again, be showcased and celebrated as truly local sake.