Inbound Ambassador

Sustainable Sake Connections

Melissa Mills was a dentist, who traveled to Japan and fell in love with the art of Sake making which changed her career path. Melissa has so many great stories and insights from her visits to Sake brewers and interactions with experts in Japan and across the world.

Here is the transcript of our talk on October 28th, 2020 in the Seeking Sustainability LIVE talkshow series. Watch the video of the talk, or listen to the audio podcast version of the talk Episode 131.

JJ Walsh 0:44
Hi, good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining today. Today we have Melissa Mills, based in Melbourne, Australia, big Sake enthusiast, how did that come about? Thanks so much for joining today.

Melissa Mills 1:00
Well, yeah, thank you for having me joy. It’s like, you know, thanks for the invitation. I’m, you know, totally thrilled to be here. This is my first live kind of YouTube interview. So yeah, thank you.

JJ Walsh 1:14
Exciting. And we have to give a shout out to Tina McCarthy, also in Melbourne, who I’ve interviewed in the series a few times, and she introduced me to you. And actually yesterday, I also talked with a guy who is doing a YouTube video series with his brother, and he’s based in Australia, in Melbourne. So you guys have like a thriving Japan connected community there in Melbourne. It’s amazing.

Melissa Mills 1:42
Yeah, I think you know, during COVID times, we’ve all reached out to each other. And so we’ve established these really strong connections, we may not have been able to see each other, but we have connected online, which has been amazing. And like today is a very special day for us here in Melbourne, because it’s the first day that hospitality and retail has reopened. And for this after 111 days and locked down. It feels like our world is changing. Oh, wow. Amazing.

JJ Walsh 2:10
Yeah, you guys were on lockdown for such a long time! And limited to how long you were allowed outside? Right?

Melissa Mills 2:18
Yes, we weren’t allowed out, you know, for a couple of hours a day. And at one stage only an hour a day. And we were only limited, we’re being limited most of the time to within five K’s of a house, which is, you know, pretty restricting. So we are currently at 25 Ks. So that’s great. And apparently if all things go well, and a couple of weeks, we’ll have no limitation and we’ll be able to move around our state. It’s going to be quite some time ..

JJ Walsh 2:52
But in the meantime, online is a whole new world for us. So it’s become so much more important. connecting with people online. Let’s talk a little bit about your journey. You were a dentist before is that right?

Melissa Mills 3:07
Yeah. So yeah, my profession and my training is a dentist. So more than 30 years ago started in dentistry. And probably in the last 10 years, that kind of dentistry became less and less important and the soccer became more and more important. So yeah, I’ve come to Sake very late in my life, I sort of kind of kick myself and oh, you know, I regret not having found it earlier but and then on the other hand, I’m so happy that I did finally find Sake and that I can do something that I am totally passionate about. And, hey, dentistry was great. But Sake is so much more fun.

That’s great. How did you get interested in it? Could you tell us a little bit about how you became so passionate?

Yeah, I think, you know, dentistry was a way that I could afford to travel to Japan initially. And the first time I ever came to Japan was 2009, which was, you know, 12 years ago. And at that time, we all thought in our heads that it was so expensive to travel in Japan, but actually it turned out in reality to be, you know, quite affordable. But I came, I started falling in love with the food and the food culture. And along the way, after annual trips to Japan, I sort of got introduced by guys working in restaurants and bars and Izakaya, to Sake.

And I was like, I have no idea what this is. I know I like it, but I have no idea what this is. And I think you know, for me personally, I’m one of those people that just needs to be educated on these things to really understand it. So when I came back to Australia, one of my friends sent me a message and said, Hey, you know, have you heard this a Sake course in Melbourne for the first time? And I thought I’m going to have a go at that. So that was, you know, when I went and did four more qualifications and Sake in 2016. And that was like the door opening for me. And that was with the wine spirits Education Trust, which runs a Sake program throughout the world. It was a fantastic opportunity for me. But before that, I went and started learning Japanese. And that was another thing because I thought I needed to understand how to read the labels, which was, as you know, it still is a great mystery to many people, including myself, but I’m still working at it. I went back to university for a year and did full time Japanese. And you know, now I’m seven years down the track and still learning. So all of that helps, but that is how I really came to Sake. And it was a long route. But yeah, very happy to be here.

So I think when I really became invested was a wine, the wine spirit Education Trust, I was lucky enough to win an award, which was sponsored by a company called the International wine challenge. And that allowed me to become a judge for a year as a trial in a in the, in the Sake division, competition. And that meeting, everybody from around the world who was involved in the Sake industry was just blew my mind and really, really got me in foods. So that was a major kind of motivator for me to come back to Australia and think about doing more specialized work in Sake. And then, my teacher who taught me all about Sake, Yukino Ochiai, she ran a Kurubito tour experience.

Kurubito is somebody who works in a brewery. And so we decided to go on that tour. It was super, super focused a week working at three different breweries around Japan. And that really got me into grassroots understanding the fermentation of sake and how it all came together. kind of really unique experience, but I would really, really recommend it to anybody. Get some time in a brewery!

Yeah, that I think that looks amazing. So the pictures I’m showing right now, you’re washing rice in the factory. You’re sorting the the hot rice. Tell us about the the process you experienced.

Yeah, so the washing rice is that this is actually in Aichi prefecture with Sekio Shuzo and they have a like a smaller training Sake facility where you can go and make your own brew and all that learn how to make brew. And washing the rice is all timed and we actually only have five kilos of rice in those baskets, but it’s incredibly heavy. They’ve got water pouring in and you’re washing it. And so, I mean, this is the physical side of Sake brewing that we don’t think about. I think I could manage five kilos, but they do 10 kilos every time when they’re washing and they’re strong and used to it.

So yes, that was us and we’ve got a stopwatch on us. And we’re learning how to wash like a true professional. And then the other big table thing is actually in the Koji mirror, which is the room for making Koji. So we are breaking up clumps of hot rice and turning that. Yeah, so that’s like the integral key part of making Sake is all about Koji.

JJ Walsh 9:02
And KOJI for people who might not know is basically mold is that right?

Melissa Mills 9:09
Yeah. So it’s, it’s steamed rice that has had mold called Aspergillus, or RCA sprinkled all over it, and the mold is allowed to grow. The mold sends out little shoots what we call hyphae, which bury themselves in the rice grain, searching for the carbohydrate core, out of the water core as well. And what they do is releases enzymes to helps to break up the rice as it ferments. So, the enzymes from the Koji are really what the Brewers are after the action of the enzyme. So Koji is fascinating. It’s in so many of your foods, right? So you’re based in Japan. So miso, soya sauce, you know, sake, shochu. Koji is part of all of those processes.

it’s it It’s so interesting. It’s so a basic part of Japanese cuisine, but it’s also it’s so good for your body and your immune system. So like I talked to Paprika-Girl the other day, and she’s talking about she’s trying to incorporate fermented foods into her diet every day in Japan because you can there’s so many different kinds, right?

Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, yeah, koji enzymes is like, everywhere. Now, you know, for facials, you can go into all of the shops and buy Koji, or you know, like sake, Lees sake kasu has Koji in it as well. KASU is the leftover product from Saki brewing, where the enzymes are still active, and then you can put them all over your face. And that’s why I’m sure so many Japanese people look young.

Kyoko Nagano who I talked to in the series, she runs a business called Sake Lovers. And she says, I love Koji- Thanks for joining Kyoko.

Koji and Saki and like rabbit holes, you move into one and you just lose yourself down the Sake rabbit hole. And then the next one that happens is Koji. And you know, I am guilty of being completely diving down both of them. Yeah, I become more and more to the point that I think that koji is really vital for us to understand. Such a great thing.

I’m now making my own Koji at home so that I can make some of those beautiful fermented foods.

JJ Walsh 11:32
That’s great. And the first time I met you, online, we were talking about Sake you said what really sparked your passion was tasting Koji for the first time that they gave you something to eat at the brewery?

Melissa Mills 11:47
Yeah, that was 2014 it was the first time I had ever been to a sake brewery. And that was in a tiny little village called Misa, Nami and Gifu Prefecture. And we went to a Sake brewery called Nakashima, Shuzo- which had been going for like 300 years. And we were in this Koji Muro (room where Koji is made), which in that brewery was right up high in the eaves or in the attic kind of space was really, really hot, moist and damp. And I have vivid memories of the brewer, just handing me this handful of koji. I’m like, “What, you want me to eat this?” and he’s like, Eat it, eat it. Okay. And it was just this beautifully sweet, nutty, almost chestnutty sort of flavor. And that really just did-my-head-in because I couldn’t work out how it was sweet because it was rice?! And how that became Sake, the final product. And that’s really what started my whole interest in exploring further. Yeah, so that was on a food tour. And my very first Sake brewery will be etched in the brain forever, I think!

JJ Walsh 12:53
Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, we’ll talk a little bit more about you actually have a brewing collective online and in Australia, but we’ll dive into that a little bit later. I’ve got a picture here of you walking along towards a tunnel is that NOTO brewery?

Melissa Mills 13:10
Yeah, so that was actually that was just at Christmas last year. So I when I’m in Japan, I always try if I can to visit local Sake breweries, and I was over in Ishikawa prefecture for the first time. And you know, what an amazing place and in December, it’s incredible, you know, that time of the year, it’s cold, it’s beautiful. So we went to NOTO. And we were really fortunate to be able to visit this incredible brewery. It had a railway line running behind it, which the government decided to abandon and no longer use it. So the brewery actually applied for ownership of the railway line that was directly behind them. And that ran into a hill. So they had almost a kilometer of railway tunnel, sealed off, and they were storing all of their Sake inside there.

And I thought, Wow, this is amazing that you’ve got this kind of, it’s because of the thermal control is great. It’s an amazing space, and you know, in breweries, space is always at a premium right? Storage is a key problem. So this was a great way of solving it.

They also had a little train that you could hop on to grab some some Sake and go on a picnic.

I love that. And the fact that there you know you’re not driving so you can drink a little bit and relax. We have a question from the combini boys. They say what’s the best way you can pick up at the combini? I think we might have to get convenience store experts in but they also said we lived in the NOTO SUZU and UKAWA.

I think combini Sake every time I come to Japan, it’s changing. You know, the range is getting better. It’s getting more extensive. We are seeing some more premium Sake inside conbinis now. Rather than put SUSHU or table Sake, that use to dominate the market, so yeah, can be nice. Okay, well, we should do a convenience-store (conbini) Sake tour.

I think, yeah, definitely for a follow up livestream, we’ll go to different convenience stores and show what they have. It’s probably region by region is different as well. Like I find in our local Lawson or local 711. They have a lot of local Sake, local Shochu, So it’s probably region based?! Which is great! That’s the way it should be.

Yeah, and I think there’s a lot of regionality in Sake. So I think you know, your food and the style of food that you eat and your daily life is probably different from somebody in Akita. So the sake is also different and there’s definitely originality in sake. So, you know, we that’s definitely recognized. So yeah, it makes total sense that the convenience will be stopping different stuff. Yeah. to appeal to the local market, which is what can conbinis are all about, right?

Yeah. And we just had a comment from LittleForeigner saying Fukucho “Seafood” is now in 711. In the Hiroshima area. Yay. So let’s let’s talk about Fukucho then.

My god. Yeah. So okay, it’s one of my most favorite sakes! One of the things I’ve done during COVID time has been to create a sake store, an online sake store in Australia, which is something I had always wanted to do but never got around to but one of my best sellers and probably one of my most favorite sakes is this one which is the Imada Fukucho “seaside sparkling” as it’s known here in Australia.

So yeah, I mean, this is from Hiroshima, your area joy, Imada Sake, a brewery which is in Akitsu which is a small kind of coastal town just maybe what is it an hour and a half from Central Hiroshima.

Yeah, it’s really near KURE. It’s a beautiful area to go and visit and the KURA is really great to see itself really cool. All the sake breweries are so beautiful with the red brick. chimneys, right?!

At one time, and you know, MUKASHI, A long time ago, there were many, many sake breweries in Akitsu, but now I think there’s, you know, fewer than six. Imada Sake brewery is now run and the President is Miho Imada, who is a female third or fourth generation. And you know, a woman who’s had 25 years of sake brewing under her belt. It’s kind of unique in that she, well there are very few people who are KURAMOTO or president plus the master Brewer, and she fulfills both roles in her brewery, which is, I think, an incredible thing. It’s a lot of work. And she’s been making some amazing sake, which I do love it, everything she makes, it’s amazing.

And she was she was I went to a event tasting event years ago, and she was running the tasting event, she was pairing all the different kinds of sake with different kinds of food as small dishes. She also had the water that she uses to brew the sake and she gave us advice to drink the water with the sake and you can appreciate it more. And she taught me so much from that event. And of course, the first time I had sparkling sake was there.

Yeah, I think I really loved her because she does everything to match the food from her area. And I think when I was in Akitsu, you drive down the coast and there’s just oyster farms everywhere. And I think the seafood and the oysters that go amazingly well with this, okay. And then I think also around the hills around Akitsu, there’s a lot of citrus growing, so lemons and limes.

And this sake she’s made with a very unique form of Koji, which is called White Koji, rather than the normal yellow Koji. And the white Koji gives us a little bit more citric acid when it’s fermented. So this sparkling ske has sort of like a feel of citrus in it as well. So we’ve kind of got the saline feel from the sea, which goes incredibly fine with the oysters. And then we’ve got that beautiful sparkling creamy texture because it’s a little bit cloudy as well. And then we’ve got this little citric acid finish. So it is a great thing to drink. And Australians love it.

I use this, like, pretty much routinely for most of my events to lead off with. And people are like, AHHH, they instantly relax when they have a glass of this and they go, okay, she’s not going to punish us. The sake is going to be beautiful, right? That’s great. Yeah, I love using it. And it is one of it’s probably one or first or second on my bestseller list.

Yeah, Imada-san doing a great job. And I love how in your description in your design. Of course, you should eat it with seafood based on the label and everything. But in your description, you say try it with pizza. I love that.

Yeah, totally. It’s, I think this is an all rounder actually the sake because it’s got it’s got all bases covered, right? It’s got the fruitiness on the front, it’s got the body, it’s got the depth, and then it’s got the lovely little touch a basket on the finish. So in my book, you can have this with anything. And I think you know, we really want to move Saki into the land of Western food. I mean, my big driver with the events that I do, and the talking to people about sake is about how it suits so well with Western food as well as you know, Japanese food. And if we if we don’t move Sunday into the western food and talking about it with other cuisines, then saki in Australia will die, right? Because time cannot be sustained only with Asian food. If you need to talk. We think that’s true.

And I’ve heard that in France. sake has a real popular stream with French restaurants, that they like pairing it with French foods. And you know, there’s no reason you can’t drink sake with different kinds of foods. And it pairs really well.

Yeah, I have done an amazing dinner with Felipe restaurant, which is a French restaurant here. And we did full sake pairing. And you know, it was beautiful. You know sake has this component called umami. And here we are, here’s another rabbit hole, what is UMAMI? Umami is very much, the the fifth taste, and to do with amino acids and glutamate. Amino acids, umami and sake matches really well with food. So sake just, you know, sits alongside food so beautifully. And any style of food really. And we have only 20% of us have the acidity of wine. So you’re not having to deal with those high acidity levels that you often find and wine which can make pairing or matching. quite difficult.

But I think most sake, actually, you know, there’s a lot to be said for what we call sake shushu, which is you know, Sake that is just designed to be head with food. It just not doesn’t fight with it. It’s just beautiful. So that’s my kind of emphasis. I love that style of sake.

That’s great. And let’s talk next about great brewery called NIDA-HONKE, which you introduce me to and I’m really excited because they’re so sustainability focused. It’s amazing.

Well, I think, you know, sake and sustainability are literally hand in hand these days. I think not. It’s not, it’s becoming more and more prominent, and I think we are beginning to talk the language of sustainability more and more. But so many sake breweries are ordered already much further down the track than we would think. Right. And this is one in particular that I wanted to talk to you about because I knew you’d be fascinated with NIDA-HONKE which is my second best or, you know, best and most favorites, okay.

So, NIDA Honke, right- 1711 so 300 years it’s been going more than 300 years now because obviously 2011 was was their anniversary, but you know, very, very significant time for them because obviously the great earthquake and tsunami and then the associated problems that Fukushima were a problem for them because they were only 72 K’s from the Fukushima plant. But as luck would have it, the wind was blowing the other other way on that particular day.

But why I love Nida-Honke is because they were the first brewery to transfer to 100% organic rice in their sake. And that was around 2010 that they started doing that. And they’re the the current brewery president’s father really was instrumental in starting that. And he started growing rice in 1967. So that’s a long time ago, right. So they had their own rice paddies. But the whole thing about them is that they wanted no pesticides, no chemicals, and using kind of what was there. So on this label, we’ve got the very fat frog. And so I call the sake fat frog. But they use the frogs, they put the tadpoles into the rice paddies. And as the frogs grow, they consume all the weeds, and they leave the rice plants to grow. So they are basically using these working in conjunction with the local environment to you know, produce great organic rice, which they’ve been brewing with. So yeah, I mean, that’s a great thing, right?

JJ Walsh 26:09
Yeah. I was so happy to read so much about them from their website. And one of the things that I’m so excited about, and the reason I started my own business, is because you sometimes come across these great brands, these great companies that are so sustainability focused, but you’ve never heard of them. And so I was really happy to see on their website, they’re very clear about being certified with Japan, organic society, or a certification and exactly what they’re doing. They’re very transparent. They’re trying to change their whole town to be self-sufficient, all organic, for all the farming, they created an agriculture cooperative or something. I mean, it’s amazing, they’ve done some great work,

Melissa Mills 26:59
I think the thing is, is that they are very much focused on the next generation. So their 18th generation now on their land on online on their site, and they desperately want something better for the 19th generation. And it’s all about you know, they’ve even got it on the bottle here, you know, this is a preserving Japanese rice fields, you know, that is their motto, that is what they’re all about minimal impact philosophy, and putting back using what they have. So they’ve got water well on their property as well as a nearby river. But they’re all about preserving the water preserving the rice fields, and making sake which embodies all of that. So yeah, incredible philosophy. And it really resonates here in Australia, because people really love that story. And they identify with it. We’ve got a huge emphasis on you know, health here so we can talk about the sake no preservatives, no tenants, no soul fights, which actually is the same as a lot of sake About Yeah, great organic rice, and, maybe less hangover..

Well, I mean, the thing, the thing that I love as well is they’re not only focused on the environment, the organic part is so important. But they’re also focused on building their community, working together with other farmers, and being self sufficient. training their staff! One of their key points of their aim by 2025 is they want all their staff to deeply understand about fermentation, and about sales so that all their staff can transition to different roles and stuff. I mean, that is very rare in Japan to have that kind of really top down sustainability mindset that includes training and education for consumers as well as staff!

Yeah, I think that they want everybody in their brewery to be like an every roll comfortable and upskilling and educating. I know, it is an incredible community thing that they’ve got going there. And I wish them every success. It is a brewery that I haven’t been to yet but it’s like high on my list. I really, really want to do it. We’ve had such amazing stories. We have an incredible series being run here by another woman’s Simone Maynard called “Taste with the Toji”. And she’s interviewed all of these breweries, which has kept the Australian sake people. So in touch and so focused on these incredible breweries and their stories. So that was an amazing, amazing session with Niida-san. And talking with him about what he was doing there is incredible, right?

But one brewery that I wanted to talk to you about that I did visit which is similar sustainability focus is ARAMASA in Akita prefecture. And I was there in October last year. Can I tell you a little bit about it?

JJ Walsh 30:14
Of course!

Melissa Mills 30:14
Urashinai is a, you know, 300 year old mountain village, probably about an hour and a half two hours from Akita. And it is, it was what they call a disappearing village. Now, joy I think you probably know a lot about disappearing villages and abandoned houses and things like that, where the original culture of the area was just slipping away, you know!

The young people were leaving and the elderly people who were living in the village when they died, nothing happened and the houses just got left. Nobody wanted to go and work in those areas or maintain the village culture. So, Yusuke Sato who is the Kuramoto president and toji at Aramasa, sake brewery very, very famous, quite famous sake and Brewer in Japan. He discovered Urashi-nai and their rice fields because they’re predominantly rice growing village, and he decided he would ask them to be his area for growing organic rice, ie no pesticides, no chemicals.

Initially, he acquired half the rice paddies in the village and set about doing this, which was a very difficult project because it had never been done in an organic way before. And he got his head Brewer at the time, Kosaki-san, and sent him to Urashinai to grow rice. And the man had never grown rice before. So there was a lot of learning a very, very steep learning curve. So within the first year, the project was a complete washout, it didn’t work. And over the years, it’s got more and more, the harvest has increased. And as the other rice farmers in the area have seen this happening, they have been influenced by someone who’s been asked them to change. So he almost will hopefully have most of the village under organic Rice Farming conditions shortly. And what’s happening is that the young people are coming back, and just trickling back one or two here and there but living in the village again, revitalizing the village. So it’s an incredible story of how somebody psyche brewing passion has led to rice farming and the whole saving of this village. So yeah, I think my understanding is that somebody’s doing a documentary on this too, which will be amazing when it comes out.

JJ Walsh 32:45
So lovely. Absolutely stunning. Yeah, gorgeous. Yeah. And that’s, that’s something that I hope people don’t forget about the need to support the second industry, because sake supports the rice industry and the landscape of Japan would be completely different. Without Japanese rice, the festivals that are focused on rice harvesting, or rice planting would be lost as well. So and then there’s so many side industries, as well connected to a sake brewery. So it’s really important.

Melissa Mills 33:32
It is really important. And for you know, after the war, the government actually forbade Japanese breweries to own rice paddies. And it’s only in relatively recent times that there’s been this shift and legislation that has allowed brewers to rent patties and then acquire rice paddies and grow their own rice. And, you know, like, many people don’t realize that, you know, psyche breweries growing their own rice is a relatively recent phenomenon, because, you know, we can we compare this to wine, you know, wine makers, grow their own grapes, you know, we just take that for granted. So how much the Brewers have felt to be prevented or stopped from growing their own rice. So this is a relatively new thing that we’re now seeing sake breweries being involved at grassroots level with rice, which is kind of an a new thing.

So yeah, so hopefully, we’ll see more growth in that area. But there’s already an organization that has been formed for breweries that are also growing their own rice so that they can compare notes and keep research going in that area. So let’s watch the next decade and see what’s going to happen there. But you’re right, you know, they desperately want to be able to control that. That side of things as well. And so you brew sake in the winter. And then the brewery staff go and grow rice in the summer, autumn and spring.

Well, it’s such a great collaborative aspect to community building, right. Like, when we talk about shochu, with Stephen Lyman, and he’s talking about the sack this show to being made from sweet potato in Kagoshima, it’s the growing of the plants and the using of the plants for alcohol or other purposes. It’s such a great, naturally, organic relationship. Right?

Honkei talked about that as well, that, you know, the staff that are working in the brewery actually stay all year and live locally, because they’re also involved in the rice growing. Whereas, you know, typically, Sake brewing was transient, you’d only have the winter, and then people would disappear, and then come back next year. So this whole thing about community, which is the focus we were talking about earlier, I think we’re seeing that more and more around some of the breweries is that they are now looking at total lifestyle for the people that work within the brewery. And yeah, I think that’s a great thing. And it’s about sustainability and growth of the local community as well.

Yeah, it’s wonderful. And I think sake from what I’ve heard, from people like Kyoko Nagano and other people in the sake industry. Sake has a real hold abroad, it is exported a lot compared to Shochu or Amazake or different drinks mostly just drunk in Japan. So it’s great that it has that international feel or understanding I that’s really interesting about the industry.

By and large domestic production and domestic consumption of Sake is still going to be the most vital thing. So you guys in Japan, you need to drink more sake- there’s an overwhelm upsurge in sake interest abroad and internationally. And yet, you know, still probably only 3% or 4% of total production is exported. But having said that, those numbers are going to be vitally important after COVID because there’s been a huge impact, right, throughout the industry. You know, we really need to encourage people to embrace sake, so that we can re-stimulate the sake industry in Japan and people’s interest here. But yeah, I think Australian people really, really love it, when we’re trying to increase exposure. And you know, that’s really what my little business is all about, it’s just trying to talk sake more, and bring it into situations so that Australian people can see it and perhaps understand it a little bit more.

Because we have a huge gin thing going on here in Australia, we’ve got a vibrant cocktail scene. And I’d dearly love to be part of that. And yeah, we I’m fascinated to see what happens over the next year. Today, retail and hospitality opened, so maybe we can start the sake importers will start bringing in here. Because let’s face it, the last kind of six months has been bleak. It’s been hard work for everybody involved. But let’s have a look at the sales figures going forward. But yeah, I think reviving interest keeping interested and you know, my focus with all of that is really about education.

Education is kind of key for the international market particularly. And so I think we’re seeing lots of sommeliers totally interested, but also just, you know, people shifting, like people who do wine courses are suddenly really keen to do sake courses. So you know, slowly we are increasing exposure for Sake and hopefully, you know, just demystifying it so people can understand the labels and enjoy the drink.

I think I think that’s so important. And that’s why having it embedded in an international industry is is really key because it opens sake up for people like you – experts in the field – who are acting as bridges, to tell us about the flavor profiles, or tell us about the backstories or help us read the labels. Even for people living in Japan, this is so hard.

And I think you know, that’s one of the things that kind of spurred me to form the sake brewing collective. And so I just want to you know, tell you a little bit about that, because that was really about trying to get people interested in sake fermentation from like, grassroots level.

So, during COVID people were making lots of sourdough and doing crazy things in the kitchen. And I thought, why can’t people make sakei as a kitchen bench project, which is, you know, basically a three layer jar. I can teach people how to make alcohol at home. I started the sake brewing collective as like, “hey, who wants to brew sake with me?”. And I was thinking that I might get, you know, 10 people or so who might be interested, but it kind of just had a life of its own. And that took off. So before I knew it, they were like, yes, hands up. Me too. Me too. Me too. And we ended up starting starting a Facebook group called the sake brewing collective. I started just feeding people things to do to start making sake because I wanted to use a recipe that had been around from the 14th century in Japan. It makes DOBOROKU.

For people who don’t know what that is, it’s more like a more rustic style of cloudy sake that’s made all in one. We add everything in one lot, and we don’t filter it at the end. So the rice is retained inside the brew. So it’s kind of a really cloudy, very homely style of sachet that used to be made very frequently in Japan and particularly in farming communities. So I wanted to do that recipe because it’s a 14th century recipe, what can go wrong, right?

It’s had 600 years to perfect and it was very safe, but hundred percent natural fermentation. So spontaneous yeast coming from the air to start the brewing off and using lactobacillus to create an acidic water first, or what is called Soyashi-mizu. So I started this and I think maybe now there’s over 250 people who’ve joined the group. But at the time, we ran a brew called the August New Moon sake project, which was tied up with the moon so that when the new moon started, we would have a brew of sake finished and be able to sit down and drink it together, and we would be out of lockdown.

Unfortunately, the lockdown didn’t disappear. It stayed. But people made sake and they had to enjoy it by themselves. But it was amazing to see we had people jumping on from all around the world and brewing with us. And that everybody was different because the climate was different in their areas. And so the brews progressed at different speeds. And it was a fascinating example of what you can do on your kitchen bench. So that’s that taught people a lot about the components of sake. Taught them about Koji, taught them about water, about yeast. And it really was a great way of people who had never had any contact with sake.

I just loved the idea of fermenting something like this. Yeah. So it’s so fun. Yeah. And then was making it making it yourself. Yeah, already. Making it yourself gives so much more appreciation for when you buy the finished product, right. It’s like Caitlin and Linda, were talking about taking pottery classes, and then going pottery shopping. Right? So you like wow, I really Wow, that’s so hard. Or I tried to make it oh my gosh, this tastes so good. So it’s a great connection project right is just just exactly right. You know, you go into a shopping your taste and think, “Ah, I love to be able to make sake like that”.

I live in hope we keep doing these small projects. But yeah, sake at produced at commercial scale is, is still essentially the same. And that’s why a lot of people were able to connect with it, I think. So yeah, that was a fun project. And if anybody’s out there wants to get involved, please join us at the Sake Brewing collective.

Because it’s a free resource, we’ve also got a lot of recipes for sake kasu. Kasu is you know, the waste or the leftover part of the sake brewing process. And the collective went on to make bread from the kasu, so we had Shokupan (Japanese style white bread).

We were pickling with it, making marine sake kasu for salmon. So, you know, lots of different recipes and ideas were floated on forum and that you know, I’m still astounded.

JJ Walsh 44:59
I’ve seen Beautiful soap that comes from the byproduct of sake at Tokyu Hands the chain around Japan. We have a comment from Kyoko. She said, “that’s awesome, but in Japan were prohibited to brew sake at home, you need a license, but really nice to hear people overseas keeping our tradition and making it by yourself. I love Doboroku”.

Isn’t that interesting? Because we see in the supermarket people can buy the set to make UMESHU every year when UME plums come on the trees. But Sake is forbidden or DOBOROKU is forbidden? It’s an interesting comparison.

Melissa Mills 45:42
It’s an incredibly interesting thing. And I mean, I think we found on the group, you know, we were devastated that the people from Japan, many of them wanted to be involved and couldn’t because of legislation, and I completely understand that they shouldn’t but you know, DOBOROKU was made illegal in Japan, probably around the time of the Meiji Restoration, because, you know, part of it is tied up with the taxation of Japanese sake. So at the time, the government was, you know, getting a lot of resources from this taxation of sake. And people making sake in their own home was preventing them from buying it. And this is, you know, part of the basis of prohibition in Japan with respect to DOBOROKU. And it persists, but there are several people who are fighting. It’s not the only reason, but that was one of the key points. And I think there are people who are fighting that in Japan, they still are trying to get DOBOROKU legalized. But some of the prefectures have been able to change that. So you know, up in IWATE they are allowed to make DOBOROKU up there, and have DOBOROKU festivals. And there’s a company that is making DOBOROKU and selling it commercially.

JJ Walsh 47:10
Yeah. And I think if you encourage people to try to make it you kind of encourage more enthusiasm about the industry. Right? If you you have local contests for the best DOBOROKU, then you would have more interest because it’s like craft beer, right? People are interested in the individual stories behind who’s making what and then there’s more buzz about the industry, which which I think would be better. So I hope to see it become possible in more areas.

Winnie Tan, thanks for joining from YouTube. She says, “I love the DOBOROKU Sake project, a really good step by step guide is provided my second batch is tasting better than the first.” Good job Winnie, Wow. Yeah, and, and Tina of wheel woman writes, it was such a great learning process in more ways than one. And Melissa was a brilliant teacher, especially in rescue methods.

Melissa Mills 48:17
Yeah, you know, I learned so much they learned so much. And I think there’s more to go with, but it’s been simmering along quietly. But the main thing was for people to go back and keep brewing. I’ve been brewing for maybe three years now by myself, and just playing around with different recipes. And there’s a lot of different recipes out there. So this is part of the fun is you know, every batch is slightly different. You tweak something you change, you know, the water, you might use, you know, a mineral water instead of tap water one time, you might try a different rice. And, you know, I brewed one batch with arborio rice, which is completely different from Japanese rice, but it just looked like the carbohydrate core of it look beautiful. And then I found out that in Spain, they brew with arborio rice for Sake there anyway, so I’m like, Oh, that was great. But it behaved differently.

So these were the fun things that we learn. So I think, you know, from my point of view, joy, you can never stop learning. And I think the key to sake in my part of the world is education, and exposure and learning, you know, and I think the Sake Brewing collective was a great way for us to get across some grassroots stuff about how different Sake brewing is to wine. And we did a completely organic, natural ferment. We didn’t add in any chemicals. We didn’t add in any yeast. So it was a pretty cool project. I think I look back on it with a great deal of fondness.

JJ Walsh 49:56
Really interesting. Yeah. And I sometimes come across Small cafes or key city in Japanese style coffee shops or small restaurants and they’re making their own amazake so the the sweet non alcoholic version is maybe easier to make on your own or more allowed. So I love that and lots of health benefits of amazake. Kyoko has a comment on Facebook. Thanks, Kyoko she said, “one sad thing is some sake breweries can’t make sake this year, they said they couldn’t purchase sake rice”. So that’s that’s another argument for having your own rice fields. Right. And having self sufficiency for the right kind of rice that you want to make sake from.

Melissa Mills 50:49
I mean, I think this is going to be a topic going forward. Right. Yeah.

JJ Walsh 50:54
David, on Facebook also is adding some information about the documentary you mentioned. He said it was on it was on NHK a while back, “disappearing village.”. You can find it. I have to check it out. David, thank you.

Melissa Mills 51:13
Yeah, no, I think it’s just it just was so impactful. Going to Urashi no Ie and hearing Sato-san speak so powerfully about what he was trying to achieve there. We were a group of educators and that kind of blew us away about his level of commitment to that area and how it was working. So yeah, please I think that would be an amazing thing to watch. follow up on that.

JJ Walsh 51:39
Absolutely. Um, you also may or send me a photo of you meeting Noguchi-san, do you want to introduce him?

Melissa Mills 51:47
Yeah, so Noguchi is on when I was in Ishikawa in December, probably another highlight for me in my lifetime was meeting. Naohiko Noguchi-san. Noguchi is very, very famous. Right throughout Japan. He is now I actually met him that picture was taken on his birthday, his 87th birthday. So he has been brewing sake for more than 70 years because he started when he was 16. So he has retired three times and come back after a short period, because he just believes that he is better. His health is better when he’s brewing sake. Every time he retires, he gets sick when it comes back. He is better than ever. An incredible man who has really influenced particularly Ishikawa Sake. I love Noguchi institute sake.

They have a amazingly modern purpose built sake brewery in the middle of the countryside outside of Komatsu and I really recommend people visit it. It’s got an incredible tasting setup there. It’s an incredible facility making amazing sake, but Noguchi-san is somebody that, you know, we talk about the sushi, Jiro, and I think the ethos is the same. He should be a national living treasure, even if he’s not, because his impact and what he’s done for sake has been incredible. So yeah, a highlight for me was meeting him, what a beautiful man.

JJ Walsh 53:23
That’s awesome. You also introduced a woman making sake in Sydney.

Melissa Mills 53:32
Oh, yeah. Okay, this is my beautiful friend. Chiho Ue-san and she is a Japanese, a woman who’s been living in in Australia for a little period of time, but she’s been working for a craft Saki brewery called Yulli’s brews, which is in Sydney, and they are a vegan beer brewery. She was making kombucha for them for a long time and every staff function that they would have, she would rock up with some other homemade sake. And so eventually they said to her, Hey, do you want to make Sake on a commercial scale for us? So she started making her own sake for Yulli’s and released the product last year. She has two, she has a Nobori-sake, and she has a Junmai-Sake and both of them are nama. And amazing because she is using Australian rice, Australian water and Koji that is made in New South Wales. And she is using beer yeast for her sake. So, not traditional in every sense of the word, but a uniquely Australian product from her- it’s her own craftsmanship and supported by the brewery.

So I kind of met chiho and I fell in love with her and she’s so relatable and she’s the most beautiful person and so yeah, I have done some work promoting some of her sake at an event up in Sydney. We are She’s come down and visited me in Melbourne and presented to gallery gatherings here. And she’s somebody to watch for the future and I’m really excited about everything that she does. So yeah, we’re not many breweries in Australia. We have a long time sake brewery in New South Wales called Sun Masamune that has been there for 15 years. We have Yulli’s who are making some sake, but the future is looking bright. I hear we’ve got a couple of new craft sake breweries that might be happening in the next year. Fingers crossed.

JJ Walsh 55:35
Yeah, that’s exciting. We have a comment from Maki Tanaka. Thanks for joining from Facebook. And Maki says that Noguchi-san is a gecko, he cannot drink.

Melissa Mills 55:49
Right. Yeah, he does not drink. I’m not sure Maki-san if that was always the case. But it’s definitely now the case. He definitely doesn’t drink. Yeah. So the onus falls on us to do the drinking for him, I think.

JJ Walsh 56:06
Well, I love that when the sake breweries will also make amazake the non alcoholic version or a brewery making Umeshu might make UME juice instead of the alcoholic version only right? So to have that dual purpose. So you can provide for drinkers and non drinkers or drivers and non drivers. That would be great.

Melissa Mills 56:32
And I think we’re seeing that we’re seeing a trend coming through and sake brewing where lower alcohol level sake- there’s been a lot of exploration in that area because I think also Western people generally prefer to have a beverage which is slightly lower in ABV. Certainly amongst the young people that the trend is definitely towards non alcoholic options. So we are seeing more and more non alcoholic thing at the moment our markets being dominated by seltzers, which is you know, water sparkling waters which are alcoholic but only like sitting at about 4% ABV. So I’m kind of interested if we can get into that market space as well. I think that would be really interesting. And I’ve been exploring, I’ve been looking for lower ABV drinks. So yeah, that’s an area where we could have some growth, I think in the next year or so.

JJ Walsh 57:25
Yeah, because the low alcohol version of beer certainly has a strong following in Japan and even non alcoholic beer as well. So an amazake is popular, why not make a lower if you can, with the same flavor profile, a lower alcohol.

Melissa Mills 57:44
And I think that’s why the sparkling sakes are always so much fun as well as the generally speaking, they are lower ABV. I mean, this one is 13%. So probably at the higher end of the of the scale, the Imada seaside sparkling, but you know, most of them are kind of around 7,8,9 percent. And I think that’s a really nice point. Particularly for us in Australia, because we are, believe it or not going into summer now. So we can be sitting on hopefully outside on the beach. That’s a dream. We’re all holding on to it in the moment. Right, that’s gonna be my Christmas. It will be the first time in 10 years that I haven’t been in Japan. So I am like Devo’d (devastated) to that I can’t be there. But I’m really hoping that I can have a lovely time drinking sparkling sake.

JJ Walsh 58:42
That’s great. Oh, we got a comment from Chiho Ue, “Thanks, Melissa sang. I’m learning a lot from you, too. Thanks to you”. Oh, wow thanks for joining.

Melissa Mills 58:54
Yeah, that’s so lovely. And you know, she was great. She would have joined on our project brew for Saturday brewing collective as well. So it was kind of cool for me to have support from brewers like Chiho-san, and then I’ve got my friend Dave, who’s the owner of ZenKuro, sake brewery, which is the sake that I import into Australia, he’s based in New Zealand because you know, I am a Kiwi. So even though I live in Australia now for the last 25 years, my heart is always in New Zealand. So I have great support from Dave and Chiho. So it was great for the sake brewing collective.

I’ve also got a really cool friend, Suka-san who is a Japanese female winemaker who’s based in Australia, but she worked in Urukasumi Sake Brewery for 18 months. So she’s my mentor. And she was also helping us with the Sake brewing collective. So we had some amazing levels of expertise helping us with the brewing. So, yeah, it was a fun project. And I hope we can just keep it simmering along and people are doing it more and more.

JJ Walsh 1:00:01
Yeah, that’s great. And Chiho-san I would love to learn how to make kombucha as well. You’re a kombucha expert. Maybe you could add a lesson about kombucha to your sake collective.

Melissa Mills 1:00:17
Yeah, that’s a good we can do a side tangent. Yeah, no, for sure. Yeah. I’d like kombucha is extremely popular in Australia. Right. And I think that that has been a huge push in terms of fermented beverages and you know, water, kefir and kombucha a huge and and what it does for our guts, and you know, our gut health and our body health. Of course, I’d love to add cycling in there as well. No, it’s just, it’s all those naturally fermented organisms running around, you know, that’s what we need. Right? Yeah.

Well, it was a great talk today. That is our hour Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody, for joining, for your great questions and comments, and go find a new kind of sake to try to make your own. Get in touch with Melissa via the And you’re also on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and Instagram. Thanks, Melissa. Bye


Sake Connect