It looks like a hurricane has hit my apartment, just as my guest and friend Chiho Uei buzzes the intercom. There are jackets hung over chair backs. A dirty pan on the hob. Dust in dark corners.
“Sorry Chiho,” I pre-emptively apologise. “It’s a bit of a mess when you come up!”
“Don’t worry!” she says, “We’re making farmhouse sake. Mess is okay!”
Uei is a self-taught home brewer: she’s produced fermented food and not-so-traditional Japanese sake under the name Shibu-ki Witchcraft Sydney for the past five years. She was also Yulli’s Brews’ resident sake brewer from 2019 to 2021.
Cheersing with Chiho!
On this day, Uei is showing me how to make a bodaimoto, the oldest and most foundational type of sake – a ‘farm-style’ home-brewing method developed more than 600 years ago that relies on wild fermentation, and forms the basis of most modern sakes.
There’s a knock at the door. Uei’s warmth and soul is immediate as she enters. “I’m so excited to teach you, Margaret!” she says.
We start unpacking what Uei has brought: a collapsible Esky with different jarred and bottled samples, a pot, bamboo steamer, some cheesecloth, rice koji starter and a jar of soyashi water (a mix of raw and steamed or ‘otai’ rice wrapped in cheesecloth, soaked in lactic acid water).
“Water is a very important element for sake,” she explains. “It’s the big backbone.”
In Japan, many sake brewers famously use water from natural springs, and the unique characteristics of their water influences the final product, almost like wine has a terroir.
Sterilisation is important too. After washing our hands, we take the cheesecloth-wrapped rice and soaked raw rice out of the soyashi water, add some koji and let it sit for an hour. During that time, Uei talks about how she got into home brewing and fermenting. Like many immigrants to Australia, her interest stemmed from a lack of homeland comforts.
“I was so curious how to make home-brew sake and had no idea of any process at all,” she says. “And not much search results came up as home-brewing is illegal in Japan.”
At first, she was super experimental. She researched via a Facebook fermentation group and used her intuition and cooking knowledge to bridge the gaps in her understanding.
“My first brew was sparkling cloudy sake,” she says. “That recipe used bread yeast and yoghurt. It was very interesting for me to see how [the] taste transformed. That sake is very different from authentic sake, but that alcoholic rice-y taste reminded me of sake somehow. My husband loved it too, so I kept brewing often.” That first sake took one week to brew, but the satisfaction of making it continues today.
With our current experiment, the koji-steeping time is now up.
We steam the soaked raw rice from the soyashi water in a bamboo steamer. Once cooled, we carefully add it to the soyashi water. A little bit of the precious cultured water splashes onto the counter. I jump.
“There are no mistakes for home-brew sake!” Uei says, reassuring me.
She grew up in Gifu, in the countryside of Japan. Her hometown was a basin, so summers were hot and humid, and winters very cold from the shade.
Her father, a chef with a hyper-local restaurant, had a huge influence on her approach to food. “I’ve learnt a lot from him since I was a little child,” Uei says. “I often stayed in my dad’s kitchen and watched his preparation for his restaurant. I have been seeing not only ordinary ingredients as well as unusual, rare ingredients – such as gibier (game meats), local bee, bee larvae and local mushrooms.”
Her dad always offered her samples that contained a back story.
“He often said cooking is kind of art,” she adds. “Use [your] imagination and be creative.”
I feel that energy come through in Uei’s carefree experimentation.
“Last year, I brewed an interesting bodaimoto which used Australian native botanicals for sake,” she says. “I combined Japan’s oldest brewing method and Aboriginal old wisdom. I foraged banksia and bottlebrush and cultivated wild yeast from them. It was super unique sake!”
ack to our bodaimoto: we layer the cooked otai rice on top of it all, like a sort of microbial seal. We top it with a rubber-banded cheesecloth and set it aside.
I ask Uei about the biggest mistake she’s ever made while brewing sake. She tells me there’s no such thing as a failure, since she’s not aiming for perfection. The wild nature of the fermentation means there’ll be differences and nuances from brew to brew. She does however mention “a sake explosion”, as the unpasteurised active sake can get quite volcanic.
The day is coming to an end, and as we share some afternoon tea under the watchful eye of our bubbling bodaimoto, I become less inclined to overthink everything (despite worrying about the jackets on the chair backs and dirty pot on the hob).
We say our goodbyes. But a few moments later, Uei sends me a text, advising me to open the cap of the bodaimoto jars every now and then, to avoid a huge pressure build-up.
She sends a winky emoji with her message.
“Don’t worry, even spills are part of the fun,” she writes.
This article was originally written by myself for SBS Food, and has been reproduced here to reach a wider audience. Please read the original here.