Friday, 5 March 2010

visiting Japanese Sake breweries

Sake brewing is one of the oldest industries in Japan. Some brewers have given up the business over the years, but some claim to be 400 or 500 years old. Nada in Kobe has the biggest number of breweries and the largest production of sake in Japan. Fushimi in Kyoto ranks second.

The photo is of the Gekkei-kan Brewery, one I haven’t visited.

I had read about the process of making sake a couple of times before but could never really imagine it. Looking round and hearing the explanation it became much clearer. Different kinds of sake were served after the tour and it was the first time I thought sake was nice. I also felt the smell of koji was kind of nice when I left the brewery.

Shotoku Brewery’s “Junmai Gensh Kimoto” got a trophy at International Sake Challenge. It was so nice and the one I’ve liked most so far.

I heard that this is the only time of year we can visit breweries to see sake making, many of them offering tours.
I heard from a friend who was born in Fushimi that the whole smelt of koji mold during the sake brewing season. As I got closer to the brewery I understood what she meant. It wasn’t unpleasant, but definitely distinctive.

The brewery I visited was Shotoku Brewery which was founded by the Kimura family in the central Kyoto 360 years ago.
The brewery staff worked at a hectic pace. I thought visitors like us might be nuisance for them -most probably we were- but they weren’t blunt and surprisingly they had friendly smiles. I was also surprised most of them were very young, I expected they would have been much older. This company has a female brewmaster,; a traditionally male profession until very recent years.

steaming rice at Shotoku Brewery

The chairman guided the tour and explained the process of making sake step by step while showing us around the brewery. It was a normal working day and all the machines made so much noise I could hardly hear what he said at the beginning of the tour which was frustrating but when we moved to quieter part of premises it got much better. The idea is to show the active brewery and we saw pretty much everywhere. If the premises were designed for visitors they might be comfortable but not authentic.

left: storage tanks at Shotoku Brewery/ right: storage tanks at Seibei Imanishi Brewery; all were set under mesh floor

Japanese sake is made from rice, water and koji mould. That’s the reason many brewing areas have an abundant supply of good underground water and Fushimi is no exception.
Especially at smaller breweries, at which many of the processes are done hand rather than machinery, sake is usually produced in the winter time because there’s less bacteria which means the brewer can control production more easily than at other seasons. The rice harvest is usually in the autumn which might be another reason. Sake is usually sold after being pasteurized, stored and matured, but we can have unpasteurized sake at this time of year. It tastes very different from regular sake, it is slightly fizzy with a fruity flavour. On the brewery tour we were served a small amount from storage to try and it was very, very good.

Samples rice in different stages of polishing: the bran and outer part of the kernel are removed from rice for making sake./ photo at Seibei Imanishi Brewery, Nara

While I visiting Nara I had the chance to join another brewery tour at Seibei Imanishi Brewery. They offer tours on the weekends during February (prior booking required). This brewery is also a small one and the chairman was the guide here too. I heard the Imanishi family used to be the priests of Kasuga Grand Shrine and made sake to offer to the gods. They started commercial brewing in 1884. Their main brand called “Harushika” (literally meaning spring deer) was derived from the deer that was the messenger of Kasuga god. Their tour is held on the brewery’s day off, and he even used a megaphone, so the explanation was very easily heard. It was very easy to understand this time because I already had the general idea from the previous tour. Tasting was the last part of the tour again! I of course, enjoyed it and have a little chat with sake lovers.

right: mash in a wooden barrel at Seibei Imanishi Brewery.

I rarely drink sake, and then usually only hot, but after this experience I’d very much like to try and find my favourite one. The chairman would be happy to hear that, I hope.

Shotoku Brewery Co. Ltd (English)
Seibei Imanishi Co. Ltd (English)

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