I believe many of you already know that Dassai is made exclusively from Yamada Nishiki rice, which has been thoroughly polished.
In recent years our average rice polishing ratio has been in the 31% range. This means that even last year when production was down due to the coronavirus, we used just over 8,000 tons of Yamada Nishiki, which means that just under 2,500 tons of the central part of the rice grain goes into the sake crafting process, and we are left with nearly 6,000 tons of rice bran.
At first glance, it may seem like a waste, but there is a great demand for Yamada Nishiki rice bran. For example, one of Japan's major food manufacturers started to purchase rice bran from us to use it as "just any other rice bran", but after using it, they quickly realized its qualitative superiority.
So much that they are now developing products with Yamada Nishiki rice flour as a base. (In this case, the name "rice bran" is no longer appropriate, it is then called "rice flour").
Thanks to this, its price has been gradually increasing and has recently reached a level where it is almost on par with the lowest commercial rice prices.
Yamada Nishiki's excellence as a rice when processed allows it to express a really beautiful and elegant taste, as it was recently demonstrated to the surprise of MOS Burger when they used Dassai Amazake (made with "non-standard" Yamada-Nishiki rice, see note below) as an ingredient in their shakes. That's how good Yamada Nishiki rice is.
Yamada-Nishiki is excellent sake rice, but it is also an excellent ingredient for other foods. I heard a rice cracker shop in Hyogo uses cracked rice from the Dassai rice polishing process for most of its ingredients.
And there's another secret: Dassai is brewed throughout the four seasons. This means that we have an average supply of rice flour 365 days a year, not just in winter. This makes it by far the most practical raw material for companies to use. Any company needs to have a level playing field.
So, for the past year, we have been in a situation where we have not been able to sell enough, which has made "Mr. T", the man in charge, extremely happy.
But it's been a long road to get to this point. Rice bran has always been treated as a kind of industrial waste. We tried to break through that, making rice crackers, cookies… A few years ago we even developed a rice milk product. We were very excited about the rice milk in particular. However, the bottleneck was that we did not produce this product ourselves: we asked a company specialized in subcontracting production. We ended up getting too much difference between the quality at the prototype stage and at full production.
The fact is that we strongly believe in one basic rule: if it doesn't taste good, it won't sell. And eventually, there was a gap between what Dassai required for the rice milk and what the company making it thought was the right level of quality.
Anyway, I think the product was just reflecting the difference between what an old man from a small sake brewery was feeling, with a brand attached to his forehead, and what was thinking a big company businessman. (I am well aware that there are many conscientious people in big companies, but some businessmen are not quite so. What I'm talking about here is the bad kind of businessman thinking).
After many painful (and lame) experiences, we have finally reached this point I was talking about.
What about sake lees?
Some of you might ask: "Sure, you don't waste your rice flour, but what about sake lees?"
The reality is that in Junmai Daiginjo sake crafting, to make a good sake you get a lot of sake lees as a byproduct. At Asahi Shuzo, we get over 1,200 tons of sake lees a year.
About 20 years ago, in proportion to our rapidly increasing sake production, we had the frustrating experience of having to dispose of our sake lees as industrial waste because we just couldn't find any companies that would buy them.
In those days (and still today), the price of sake lees went up and down according to the wishes of the sake lees wholesalers, so we were left to their mercy. Moreover, if there was a surplus on our side, they were not interested in buying it: so it had to be disposed of as industrial waste.
That was shameful. So we have been adapting and developing ways to use sake lees to make "something good and meaningful" out of it.
That is the current Dassai Shochu. Thanks to you, we actually experience a shortage of it.
The fact is, if we made it based on the ordinary "Sake lees shochu" making process, we could make more, but that would not bring forth that beautiful, distinctive aroma.
Shochu-making is not our main business, so no matter how much money we make, it is meaningless if our shochu goes against the core idea of Dassai. We make our shochu in a special way, against the grain, which won't allow us to further increase production. So, please forgive us if it is sometimes difficult to get your hands on it.
And what about the shochu lees?
That's right. After making shochu, we get shochu lees as a byproduct. The disposal of the shochu lees is a big problem in the shochu industry. At the moment, the shochu lees are getting purchased as animal feed. However, and that is a shame but, they don't particularly buy it for its qualitative excellence as feed. (And of course, the price is infinitely cheaper).
Our solution to this problem at Asahi Shuzo is to re-ferment the shochu lees into ethanol, which can then be used to generate electricity. We are currently working with Yamaguchi University to develop this technology, and once it is up and running, it will be able to provide a fifth of our annual electricity needs. We have already secured a site for the plant, and we just need to find the best conditions for ethanol fermentation. We are almost there. Stay tuned.
What about waste from rice farming?
No matter what kind of farmer grows the rice, unfortunately, it is impossible for all of the rice to be a "first grade, outstanding rice".
At Asahi Shuzo, we try to buy and use as much of the "non-standard" rice as we can. Initially, we used the rice to craft a specific sake: "Dassai Togai", and supply it to companies such as Watami (an izakaya chain company).
Now we can't keep up with it all on its own (Dassai can't bear the burden of all Japan's Yamada Nishiki growing areas), so we now also use it to make Dassai Amazake. I think the excellence of Yamada Nishiki, even as a "non-standard, off-grade" rice, is so great that it was proven by the great feedback we got from the "Dassai Shake" at MOS Burger, which ended last month.
But still, we'd like you to drink a little more of the "Dassai Togai". Even if I'm singing our own praises, believe us: It's a very good sake.
We still have some work to do
The biggest challenge we are currently facing is the wastewater from washing the rice. When the rice is washed, a large amount of groundwater is used.
This groundwater is good, it first enters the rice grain and remains in it until the end of the fermentation process. But most of this good water is just wasted when we wash the rice. So we are thinking about what we could do about this.
In terms of nutrients, the water is full of "rice bran", the very ingredient that is said to be good for the skin, but it is just thrown away.
Moreover, as you know, Dassai is located in the mountains of the Chugoku region. This means that we don't have a sewage system like in the cities. We have to purify all this water on our own and discharge it into the river. This is very important because if we are not careful, we could end up polluting our natural environment through our sake crafting.
In fact, it costs a lot of money. We could build a small sake brewery with the same amount. This also, we don't want to treat this problem as a nuisance, but we want to do something meaningful for society.
If any of you have any ideas on how to separate the nutrients from the rice bran in this wastewater at a low cost, please let us know.