Takara Sake USA does not give in-person tours of its facility, so I request the video tour. The tasting-room attendant ushers my friend and I to a row of chairs in front of a large-screen television, and presses the play button on the VCR. Three tourists join us.
"Water. A gift from the heavens, the base of life itself ... " intones the announcer. I suddenly wish I had finished the sake tasting first.
Takara Shuzo Company, Japan's largest sake producer, has brewed America's best-selling sake brand, Sho Chiku Bai, in its Berkeley plant since 1982. The woman who runs Takara USA's tasting room tells me that the factory's many ladders and stairs make it unsuitable for public tours.
Instead, we wander through the sake museum. A large diagram over the doorway illustrates the complex brewing process, which changed little from the sixteenth until the early twentieth century. Polished rice is steamed in large vats, then mixed with koji spores. After several days, yeast is added to the cultured rice mash, along with several successive batches of more steamed rice and water. As the koji converts the starch in the rice to sugar, the yeast turns the sugar into alcohol. Eventually the sake is pressed from the mash, pasteurized to stop fermentation, filtered, and aged.
Early sake brewers used little more than wood, rope, and cloth in the process. The massive wooden buckets, paddles, trays, and presses in the museum are testament to the ingenuity of early brewers -- and the amount of manual labor required.
While the sake museum explains the entire process, the video tour teaches us little more than that the Takara tasting room is available for large parties. Our tasting guide provides the best information: a quick run-through of the types of sakes Takara makes. We start with the most delicate, complex ginjo sakes, at once dry and floral, and progress through the richer "classic" sakes, best warmed; the clear, bright nara sakes, unpasteurized but microfiltered; and the headache-sweet, fruity nigori sakes, chalky and unfiltered. Sips of sugary plum wine end the tasting.
Suspiciously few pictures of the current Takara plant ornament the walls of its museum. The only look we get into its workings is from a window outside the entrance to the tasting room: On the floor below, a stream of bottles flows through the automated bottling process, spinning and clanking as they are carried along. There's no wood in sight, and only a single factory worker pacing back and forth in front of the machinery, waiting for the call to action.