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For tradition's sake: Canadian brewer mastering Edo period techniques in Shikoku

Brock Bennett is seen at work at the Keigetsu Tosa Sake Brewery on Jan. 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Norihisa Ueda)

KOCHI -- Intoxicated by the secrets of traditional sake brewing techniques harnessing the power of natural lactic acid bacteria, Brock Bennett threw himself into the role of kurabito, a sake maker, at Tosa Brewing Co., brewer of the "Keigetsu" brand of sake, in autumn 2018.

Bennett had experience brewing sake in Norway, but it was his dream to do it in Japan. Having recently turned 60, he resolved to take on a new challenge. "I wanted to be a part of Japan's sake brewing culture. I love the good brewing land here in Kochi, too."

He has always been interested in the delicate flavor of sake, which is unlike beer and wine. His journey in brewing began when left his position at a pharmaceuticals company to join his friend's craft brewery, Nogne-O, in Norway. While there Bennett brewed Europe's first sake, Hadakajima, and became their head sake brewer in 2015.

Bennett also brewed and exported sake made using the traditional "yamahaimoto" method to Japan. Part of his decision to come here was spurred by a desire to study the essence of the method in its birthplace. It entails creating a yeast starter from rice and koji, a fungus employed in the fermentation of many Japanese foods.

Yamahaimoto is time consuming. It forgoes the most laborious element of the Edo Period brewing variant "kimoto," where the yeast starter is churned with a stick from night until morning.

In both methods, it is essential to prepare the starter in an environment where a bacterium that interferes with yeast cultivation cannot grow, using lactic acid bacteria. The yamahaimoto method takes longer and is more labor intensive than current industry favorite sokujomoto, but it reaps much greater variations in depth of flavor and acidity.

In July 2018 the Tosa Brewing's CEO got in touch with Bennett after his work caught the eye of their overseas business manager. They quickly found they shared the same passion for traditional sake brewing, and Bennett agreed to join the company.

From the intricacies of traditional sake brewing's teamwork to the ways the ratios of polished rice change the sake flavor, there's been a lot for him to discover since he started. His challenge in this mountainous region near the Sameura Dam has just begun. Bennett says he wants to turn his hand to the slower kimoto style next. "From hereon I want to learn as much about sake brewing as I possibly can," he said.

(Japanese original by Norihisa Ueda, Kochi Bureau)

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