Girl About World: The sake saga take two
Our jet-setting blogger Laura Foster continues her education in sake at the hands of those who know it best – the people who make it.
After arming myself with expert Nihonshu knowledge it was time to take the plunge and visit some actual breweries.
And so it was that I hopped on a train out of Hiroshima down to Saijo, a small town half an hour away with eight breweries in one neighbourhood. Their tall chimneys tower over the low-rise buildings in which they stand, announcing the position of the different companies.
These breweries are all located in this one small strip of land near to the train station due to one major factor – water. The ingredients to produce Nihonshu are simple – rice, water, and a yeast called Koji, and other alcohol if the liquid being produced isn’t premium.
Water therefore plays a very important role in the quality and flavour of the product, and apparently it is particularly excellent here. Saijo also offers a number of other ideal conditions for the production of premium Nihonshu – high quality rice grown in the area, and an ideal natural temperature during the fermentation process of 4-5 °C.
While Nihonshu has played a central role in the culture of the Japanese people for roughly 2,000 years, the drink has only been brewed in the Saijo region since 1650, with real development taking place about 100 years ago.
Saijo has embarked on a marketing campaign over the last year to increase awareness of the area and its Nihonshu – the ten breweries in the area (there are another two beyond walking distance) have united under the ‘Saijo Sake’ label, and won support from the Japan Brand Development Assistance Program. Their website is in English and is very informative. It even includes a downloadable map for visitors suggesting a particular route to follow should they wish to go.
Despite the helpful website and the breweries’ obvious aim to get more tourists to visit, the streets of the town were deserted when I arrived, as it was the middle of the brewing season.
Whilst trying to locate the entrance of the first brewery, Kamotsuru, I met a lady who actually worked there. She was kind enough to lead me to it, with a group of half a dozen Japanese men all in tow. None of them spoke any English, and the whole scenario was very Lost in Translation.
I was led to a room that served almost as a cellar door, with products lining the tables, and some displays to help explain the production of Nihonshu. These included some rice samples, showing the grains at various different sizes after being milled, or polished.
Premium Nihonshu actually uses smaller rice – the more the rice has been milled, the higher the quality of the liquid it produces. This is because the starch that helps fermentation is contained in the centre of the grains, and this is surrounded by fats that adversely affect the fermentation process.
Each particular type of Nihonshu has a maximum size of grain after milling in order to keep consistency and quality within the varieties, but rice can very often be much more polished than the rules require.
Once on the path to enlightenment, I zipped around the brewery route, sometimes tasting in silence, other times lucking out and finding someone who spoke a little English. One brewery owner was kind enough to take me on a mini tour behind the scenes. It felt very much like a boutique operation, with a mini bottling line and only a handful of people walking around.
While talking to one of the kind souls who kept me lubricated, I learnt about the brown balls of leaves I had noticed hanging above the entrance of all the breweries. It transpires that these are Japanese Cedar balls, and are the symbol of a Nihonshu factory.
When new Nihonshu has been produced for the year, a new Cedar ball is hung over the entrance – a lush, green one that has just been cut. As the year progresses, the ball gradually turns browner, and all the ones that I had seen were due to be replaced fairly soon.
Another successful year of Nihonshu production was drawing to a close, as was my journey of discovery into this under-appreciated drink. On to the whisky…
Laura Foster, 19.01.2010