Australia’s Only Sake Brewery Is Tucked Into An Unlikely Suburb
With a cultural significance dating back centuries, sake (better referred to as Nihonshu in Japan) is as strongly attached to the complexities of Japanese culture as traditional tea ceremonies and Shinto shrines.
It is then surprising to learn that a lone sake brewery has been operating in Australia for over two decades, even more so to discover that the purpose-built facility is located in Sydney’s western suburb of Penrith, tucked away at the back of an industrial area.
That is until you actually go out and visit Sun Masamune, which backs onto the plentiful Nepean River and is surrounded by lush greenery, as well as a few plum trees and the gentle choir of a dozen or so bellbirds.
Why Sydney works for sake-brewing
The choice in location makes perfect sense once brewery director Allan Noble explains why his product, Go-Shu Australian Sake, is as immaculate as any you would find in Japan.
“We use Australian rice, that’s the whole reason why we’re here,”’ says Noble, who works alongside a team of ten to produce sake precisely according to tradition.
Only ten countries outside of Japan currently produce their own sake, yet as Noble says, some import their milled rice while Sun Masamune maintains everything from the ground-up.
Sake generally results from the four interacting ingredients of water, rice, yeast and a distinct mold called koji-kin. Tweak the quality of any of these and they will produce vastly different flavour profiles, which is why there are so many distinctive types of sake on the market.
Sun Masamune have the advantage of direct access to a medium grain Japonica rice from the NSW riverina town of Leeton, along the Murrumbidgee and Murray River basins. Not only that, but the incredibly soft and pure pH-neutral water from the Blue Mountains gives the brewery’s Go-Shu sake a silky smooth profile and rounded finish.
This is compared to the generally harder water used over in Japan, which often gives sake produced there a crispier, sharper finish.
As for those aforementioned plum trees. They’re used to produce equally distinctive plum wine, which rounds out Sun Masamune’s simple but strong line-up of Japanese alcohol.
The brewery’s sustainability efforts
An admirable commitment to zero waste has also come to define the brewery’s sake output, which Noble says amounts to around 1 million litres of sake per year as well as leftover materials used either in local farms, or as skincare products directly available for retail at the brewery.
“We have no wastage here – everything is fully utilised from day one,” says Noble, referring to nuka powder, which is white grain rice flour. The powder, a by-product of the brewery’s on-site rice milling, is often collected and re-sold by sake breweries around the world, but at Sun Masamune it is repurposed into soaps and body creams said to be incredibly effective in protecting skin from loss of moisture.
The sustainable aspect is a big reason why for the past eight years Sun Masamune has been officially sanctioned as a training ground for students studying food science at the University of Western Sydney.
So how complex is the sake-making process?
A highly detailed step-by-step guide on the wall of Sun Masamune’s visitor centre and cellar door stands as a great introduction to the meticulous art, illustrated further by hour-long bookable brewery tours given by Noble at the asking price of just $3 per person.
Polishing is the first and most important step. Milling the rice down strips away the protein, fat and other impurities that can be found in rice grains. And the percentage of the rice that is ground away, typically between 40 to 70 per cent, determines what of the four grades – Honjozo, Junmai, Ginjo, and Daiginjo – the sake fits in to.
For Go-Shu, the typical milling rate, known technically as ‘seimaibuai’ to represent the percentage of the rice grain remaining, is 60 per cent, which would indicate the upper ranges of premium Ginjo sake.
The remainder of the process involves washing, soaking and steaming the milled rice before it is then sprinkled with the koji mold and sake yeast in a special temperature-controlled room, following which it is carefully monitored as the mold spreads across the batch. It is during this co-fermentation process that the individual flavour and fragrance of the sake is truly expressed, as the enzymes convert the rice into glucose, and the yeast converts the glucose into alcohol.
Filtration, pasteurisation, storage and bottling follow after 20 to 25 days of the co-fermentation process, with the resulting sake stored in tanks for three months to mature and mellow.
Slight nuances in this otherwise meticulous and rigid process have given Sun Masamune its variety, which includes the rare Nama Genshu (undiluted fresh sake), an expression that is more than enough reason for a quick visit to the brewery. It’s here that the clean and fruity expression, highly sought by Sydney’s top Japanese restaurants, is exclusively available at the very comfortable retail price of $24 per 740ml bottle.
(Lead image: Sun Masamune / Chris Singh)
Published 03 May, 2019