Painter-turned-director/cinematographer Erik Shirai went behind the glass in his new documentary, The Birth of Saké, which chronicles the labor, skill and intuition required to make the finest Japanese saké. A former cameraman on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Shirai has won numerous festival prizes with his film, including the John Schlesinger Award for best debut documentary at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival. The jurors lauded Shirai’s commitment to aesthetics, which mirrored the care the master brewer and his crew take in making Japan’s national beverage via old-school methods.
Shirai embedded himself into the family-owned Tedorigawa Yoshida saké brewery (founded in 1870) in Northwest Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture over the course of three wintertime saké-making sessions. Like the brewery’s workers, he lived communally in a dormitory while chronicling the process, which lasts six months. Although saké is often referred to as rice wine, it’s brewed like beer. The cooked rice mash undergoes fermentation and is eventually pressed; the alcoholic liquid extract is saké. Most modern breweries rely primarily on heavy machinery, but the Yoshida brewery adheres to labor-intensive traditional methods such as sprinkling yeast (koji, used to jump-start fermentation) and kneading it into the rice, all by hand.
“With anything in the farm-to-table movement, it’s good to know about the people who make the product,” Shirai says. “This film will help people see a face in this beverage.” Until now, The Birth of Saké’s subjects have been invisible to the public. The documentary dotes on the brewery’s seasoned toji (master brewer) who has made saké for more than 50 years, and Yoshida’s sixth-generation, 27-year old owner, Yasuyuki Yoshida, who is immersed in sales calls in the off-season. Shirai effectively captures these artisans and their daily routine, giving audiences (and saké drinkers) an exquisitely filmed insight into the many steps required to produce the beverage. From the snowy exterior to the steaming rice in massive room-sized vats, Shirai details the steps as interstitial title cards fill in the background on saké making.
One insight: The brewery team drinks a lot of fine saké and beer. Also, Shirai came away with a newfound knowledge. “There are two basic things every drinker should know: It’s pronounced saké [like café], not sak-i, and generally speaking drinking it cold is the way to taste the saké (and usually the high premium saké), whereas the warm stuff is usually bottom of barrel,” he discovered.
His introduction to artisan saké making was serendipitous: As a Japanese-American, he had long wanted to make a film about Japanese culture and crafts from an insider’s perspective. He met Yoshida at a fundraiser and was invited to the brewery. Once Shirai visited and saw the almost 150-year-old brewery steeped in tradition, he knew he’d found his subject. A Kickstarter campaign and more than two years later, the film is making the festival circuit and is available on iTunes.
As with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, viewers will have an urge after seeing the film to head to the nearest izakaya or sushi bar. In Los Angeles, Sushi Go-55, Mori Sushi and n/naka often carry the Tedorigawa daiginjo made by the Yoshida brewery. Timothy Sullivan of Urbansake.com describes it as so light on the palate that it tastes like ”drinking clouds made of saké.” Insight into the traditional beverage-making process will add a new layer to any future saké drinking.