Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Sake Brewery Status Update

Monday, March 21st, 2011

If you share our concern for the sake brewers located in the earthquake/tsunami zone in the prefectures comprising the Tohoku region, you’ll be interested in John Gauntner’s  recent compilation of information on their status.

We continue to urge you to show your support for them and all of the people affected by this tragedy by donating to the Japan Society’s Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.

Visiting Brewers in Tohoku Region

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

For our first vacation since opening SAKAYA in December 2007, we closed the store to visit sake brewers in Miyagi, Yamagata, and Akita prefectures. which are located in the Tohoku region well-known for growing rice.

Urakasumi Brewery

We first visited 287 year-old Urakasumi Brewery located outside of Sendai City, Miyagi.

Straining Rice at Urakasumi Brewery

Old fashioned way of straining water using bamboo basket after washing and soaking rice.

Take no Tsuyu Brewery

At Take no Tsuyu Brewery in Tsuruoka, Yamagata.  CEO, Aisawa-san (left) with workers in the koji muro

Take no Tsuyu Brewery

Newspaper journalists taking photo of Rick working.

Imai Brewery

Kamenoi Brewery known for making Kudoki Jozu sake brand.

Sake Tank

Temperature controlled sake tank for storage.

Tasting Moromi at Imai Brewery

Rick tasting moromi at Kamenoi Brewery.

Sankyo Storehouse in Sakata

The historic Sankyo Storehouses in Sakata built in 1893 for rice.

with Kodama san

Dinner with Kodama-san, CEO of  Kodama Brewery in Akita.

Saito san

View of Japan Ocean/East Sea with Sait0- san,  CEO of  Saiya Brewery.

Saiya Brewery

Saiya Brewery in Yuri Honjo, Akita, known for Yuki no Bosha brand.

Sake Yeast and Takahashi Toji

Takahashi Toji talks about sake yeast at Saiya Brewery.

Asamai Brewery

At Asamai Brewery in Akita, known for Ama no To “Heaven’s Door” brand sake.

Sample of sake and food at Asamai Brewery

Moriya Toji, brewmaster of Asamai Brewery, famous for his love of cooking, served us some of his otsumami (sake kasu marinated food) with the freshly pressed Ama no To sake.

Moromi at Hinomaru Sake

Moromi at Hinomaru Sake Brewery.  Rice used in this moromi is Sake Komachi rice.

Takahashi Toji at Hinomaru Brewery

With Hinomaru Sake Brewery’s  Takahashi toji (seems to be a popular name for toji in Akita!)

Mr. Konno with Koji Mold

Microbiologist, Dr. Konno with koji mold produced by his company.

Ito san's Home

Visiting Mr. Ito, the president of Akita Seishu Brewery, maker of Dewatsuru brand sake at his historic home.

Old Fune

Very old-school fune (sake pressing machine).

Akita Seishu Sake Tasting

Tasting the newest sake brand at Akita Seishu Brewery.

Yokote Station

Trying to find Yokote Station on snow covered street in Yokote, Akita.

Japanese Artisanal Beer

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are well-known Japanese beers familiar to drinkers in the U.S.  Lately, however, we’ve begun to see more artisanal beers such as Hitachino Nest, Echigo, and Coedo. In 1994, the Japanese government eased the regulation on the production minimum to legally produce and sell beer from 2,000 kl (about 17,000 US barrels or 528,000 US gallons) to 60 kl (about 500 US barrels or 16,000 US gallons).  Since then, there have been a number of small brewers popping up which produce high quality artisanal beer.  Many are small companies dedicated to producing good quality beer but some are sake brewers who have begun to also brew beer such as Kiuchi Shuzo (founded in 1823) which produces Hitachino Nest.  The first such sake brewery to make beer following deregulation was Uehara Shuzo, the producer of Echigo beer (and Echigo Tsurukame sake).

umenishiki beerOn  Hiroko’s recent visit to Japan, she discovered beer made by Umenishiki, the sake brewery in Ehime prefecture.  Umenishiki brewery was established in 1872. Their Junmai, Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are available in NYC through the importer, Japanese Prestige Sake Import.  Since 1995, they have also been making artisanal beer which have won medals in Japan’s International Beer Competition. Among the five types that they make, their Bock, Weizen, and Blanse have won Gold, Silver, and Silver medals respectively.

Hiroko picked up one bottle each of the Pilsner and Aromatic Ale to bring home to Brooklyn. Shaken and tossed by luggage handlers, the preservation and condition of the beer might not have been the best, but nonetheless we decided to open and taste them.

umenishiki beer in cupWe usually drink pilsners from Pennsylvania and ales from California where the style is very hoppy and aromatic. Umenishiki Pilsner was golden in color, very light and tasty with a light fruit flavor and peppery finish. Yet, there was something missing in the flavor. It’s better than Sapporo or Kirin that we drink at Japanese restaurants, but we tend to prefer a more hoppy flavor.

We opened the Aromatic Ale next.  With an alcohol level of 8.5%, it was deep and rich, with a hint of caramel flavor on the back end.

Perhaps had we drunk them in Japan, they would have tasted better. On our next trip, we hope to try their other beers.  Still we enjoyed tasting something that is not available in the U.S.and, hopefully, more artisanal beer will be available in the US.

Mr. Kuji — Nanbu Bijin Brewery

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

IMG_3237_1kuji

Hiroko had never been north of Tokyo. When she mentioned to Kosuke Kuji (久慈浩介), the 5th generation of Nanbu Bijin Brewery (南部美人酒造)in Iwate, Kuji-san invited her to his brewery.

Nanbu Bijin Brewery is located in Ninohe (二戸), Iwate prefecture in the Tohoku region about 3 hours from Tokyo by rail, and the second to last stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen before Hachinohe, Aomori prefecture. With a population of about 31,400 (in 2006) it is rather small city which still has the remains of the historic Kunohe Castle (九戸城) and the famous Kindaichi Onsen (金田一温泉). Among its restaurants is the legendary soba restaurant Maita Koubou Sobae-An (米田工房そばえ庵), the hard-to-get-in yoshoku Restaurant Bonheur, (レストラン・ボヌール), and an extremely famous ramen shop, and several late night drinking spots.

Anyone who is familiar with Japanese language may get confused about the name Nanbu Bijin (南部美人). Translated as Southern Beauty, one may wonder why the “Nanbu” (南部) or Southern when the brewer is located in the northern part of Japan?

“Nanbu” comes from the name of the Nanbu samurai clan which originated in Northern Japan, mainly in what was once known as Mutsu province (which now encompasses present-day Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori plus some parts of Akita). Descended from Emperor Seiwa (reign 858-876), Minamoto no Mitsuyuki (1165?-1236?) of Kai province (Yamanashi prefecture), took the name “Nanbu” from the town where he lived changing his name to Nanbu Mitsuyuki. He is said to have moved to Mutsu province around the time of the Oshu War (奥州合戦) in 1189. Over time, the Nanbu became the dominant samurai clan in the Mutsu area and built their castles as they established themselves in the area which is how the Nanbu name came to be associated with this part of a Iwate.

IMG_3230_1Nanbu Bijin Brewery is rather small, family-run operation. It has seven kurabito (people involved in the brewing process), all young men in their 20′s and 30′s. They also employ twenty staff members to run the operation. The brewery produces 2,500 koku of sake.  (1 koku = 180 liters or 100 – 1.8 litter isshobin). It is considered a small to mid-sized brewery (those with production of less than 1000 koku are very small.)

Kuji-san is an energetic young man in his 30′s whose ebullient personality casts sunshine on the sake world and beyond. He has been to New York City to promote his sake many times, and has enthusiastically encouraged many sake fans to become Nanbu Bijin lovers.

He is also a risk taker and revolutionary in terms of developing new products with a spirit akin to the samurai Nanbu Mitsukuni who made the bold move to very far north from where he was born. Seeing the popularity and trend of umeshu or plum sake/liquor, Kuji-san has created a non-sugar added umeshu.

Kuji san, Nakano san, and Rika sanThe journey started when his wife Rika suggested mixing his “All-Koji Sake” with kiwi or strawberry to make a fruit cocktail. This all-koji sake was a early brainchild that he created in 1998, and it is now a staple of the Nanbu Bijin lineup. It is made from just three ingredients: koji (koji-mold affected rice), water, and yeast starter instead of the four ingredients usually used for making sake: rice, water, yeast, and koji. Koji-mold’s job is to break down the rice starch into the simple sugar, glucose. Therefore, koji (rice inoculated with koji mold) has a high glucose level. This “All-Koji Sake” has a little sweetness that makes it a good mixer for a fruit cocktail.

After his wife’s inspiration, Kuji-san had his “ah ha!” moment. He theorized that the all-koji sake could be infused with ume (Japanese plum) to make an umeshu that is naturally sweet. He tweaked his all-koji sake, and using the koji’s natural glucose level, he successfully create the umeshu that needs no additional sweetener.

His search for the perfect ume for his product led him to a local farmer in Iwate prefecture. He also found a young local artist to design the label for the product. He patented the process in 2009, and his umeshu now sells briskly…his February released umeshu is almost sold out.

Look for it in the U.S. by October of this year. Kuji-san’s samurai spirit inspired umeshu is sure to cast its spell on umeshu fans here too!

Savoring Scenic Sawai

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Sawanoi

Water and cupsThe following day’s brewery visit took me in a completely different direction, to Ozawa Shuzo in scenic Sawai, nestled among verdant mountains about two hours west of the city, but still in Tokyo prefecture. This time, a pleasant five minute walk through the picturesque village led me to my destination, the kura that brews one koshuof my favorite sake, Sawanoi Kiokejikomi Iroha Kimoto Junmai.  My guides Kubo-san and his assistant were gracious and informative, making sure that I saw the cedar tank (kioke) used in making the aforementioned brew, the underground springs that are their two water sources, and a wall of koshu (aged sake) vintages dating back 20 years.

Tama RiverAnother highlight of the visit was a perfect lunch at their fabled tofu restaurant perched serenely just above the rapids of the Tama River. As my server presented each in a series of delectable tofu dishes, I Sake Tastingsipped from the flight of four Sawanoi sake that I had pre-selected while gazing at the natural beauty of the tableau spread out before my windowside table.  Even as rain began to fall, it only enhanced what couldn’t have been a more peaceful and relaxing experience!

The Wonder of Wataribune

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Wataribune Field

Accompanied by our friend Melinda, I set out early the morning following the SSI awards event for Huchuhomare Shuzo in Ishioka, a small town in Sonoma-like Ibaraki-ken, about an hour and a half north by train from Shinjuku station in Tokyo.  On our arrival at Ishioka station, we were greeted warmly by the smiling shacho-san (brewery President) Takaaki Yamauchi san and RickYamauchi.  As he drove us to his family-owned brewery, we discussed the local effects of the typhoon which had made landfall in eastern Japan the day before, destroying several older buildings nearby.  Fortunately, no harm had come to any of the inhabitants!  (Aside from high winds which temporarily shut down rail service, the much-anticipated typhoon had been a non-event in Tokyo).

IMG_2921_1Following a welcome of tea and sweets in the ancient reception room, Yamauchi-san led us on an intriguing tour of the kura.  We then tasted the full line of Wataribune nihonshu as he described the history of the brewery and how he had come to use the unique Wataribune strain of  sakamai (sake rice varietal) to make his sake.  It seems that a former high-ranking Ministry of Agriculture official who had retired to the locale, about twenty years ago suggested that Huchuhomare consider resurrecting the long-ago used pure strain.  Only problem was that all they could find was about 15 grams of seeds in the seed bank.  Not a lot to start a rice field with!  Nevertheless, they planted it, collected the Wataribune Riceseeds each year and eventually cultivated a sufficient supply for sake brewing.  The story came to life quickly as our next stop was that very rice field itself which surrounds our lunch destination, the homemade tofu and soba restaurant owned and operated by, you guessed it, the gentleman who brought Wataribune to Yamauchi-san!

To learn more about the wonder of Wataribune, read this.

Rick’s Tokyo Visit

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Honorary Master Sake Sommelier Award

Earlier this month, I traveled to Tokyo to receive The Sake Service Institute’s (SSI) Honorary Master Sake Sommelier Award (Kikizake-shi) on behalf of SAKAYA. Since it was the 10th Anniversary of these awards, there were a number of luminaries from the worlds of sake, journalism, and Japanese hospitality in attendance at the three-hour event which featured a Shinto ceremony, awards presentation, and dinner.

Rick with Yagi san & Beau san

As one of three America-based honorees along with True Sake‘s Beau Timken and T.I.C Restaurant Group‘s Bon Yagi (owner of Sakagura, Decibel, Robataya, and a number of other Japanese restaurants in NYC), I was thrilled that our efforts to promote enthusiasm for sake and its linkage to Japanese culture were recognized, and honored to have been included among such distinguished (and far more accomplished) company.

Accompanied by Hiroko’s dear friend Hitomi, who met me at my hotel dressed in a beautiful pink kimono, I found Hitomi chan & Rickthe event to be a curious mix of glitz and traditional ritual. At one moment we’d be bathed in swirling lights from a mirror ball with blasting disco music, then a few minutes later, silence would be broken by mournful chant from a Shinto priest. It was truly East meets West. We shuttled back and forth between a reception room where we met and conversed with the other honorees, SSI dignitaries, and their friends and family to photo sessions, and the ballroom where the Shinto ceremony and awards dinner took place.  During the dinner, we were called to the stage to accept our awards, traditional scrolls bearing our official kikizakeshi plus a medal of honor which would put a military commendation to shame, while those in attendance ate or watched (or both).

Receiving Kikizakeshi AwardWhat I found interesting was that although it was a sake event, the beverage was but a bit player in the grand scheme of things. It was available in the reception room during our down time between shuttling and a small glass was at each of our seats during the ceremony. I purposely didn’t drink it as I anticipated a “kanpai” at the conclusion of the proceedings which never came. For dinner, there were four sake servings of about 2 oz. but no refills offered. Odd, I thought for an event dedicated to promoting service of the brew!

Honorary Kikizakeshi Scroll

What there was in abundance were appeals for money. Each of the honorees had been responsible for a “donation” to the Shinto shrine from which the priest had come to perform the ceremony. There were also envelopes and forms given to each person soliciting donations for the SSI foundation.  Finally, after the awards were given and as dinner segued into dessert, there was an auction of sake, shochu, and other donated items to raise money for the same(?) foundation. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that fund-raising, may in fact, have been the point of the event.

The balance of the trip was devoted to: visiting sake breweries Huchuhomare Shuzo and Ozawa Shuzo, the makers of Wataribune and Sawanoi respectively, a sake yeast focused tutorial tasting at Japan Prestige Sake‘s Okanaga Club with sake master Dr. Koichiro Mori, exploring the Tokyo food and drink scene with friends Hitomi and Hanayo Kishi, Melinda Joe, J.P. Mudry, Ted O’Neill, Etsuko Nakamura, and a day of tasting sake from Shimane prefecture, sake shopping, and izakaya drinking with friend and mentor John Gauntner.

Sake Brewery Tours

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Interested in visiting sake breweries?  If you are, we have exciting news….

Our friends Etsuko Nakamura and John Gauntner (author of The Sake Handbook) have put together the sake-lover’s dream vacation!

Now, anyone can access the inner workings of the sake world. Visit Japan, start off with a bit of formal sake education by sake guru John Gauntner, then you’re off to visit  several sake breweries to see how sake is made while under the care of an experienced sake-savvy interpreter.  Some stays in ryokans (Japanese inn) and sake-focused dinners at izakaya (sake pubs) round out the experience.

This brewing season, there are two tours planned:

Tour I: February 23 to 27 in the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe) area

Visit sake breweries including those in the historic sake town of Fushimi (in Kyoto), one of the major brewing towns in Japan as well as Japanese gardens and historic Nijo Castle, built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Edo period shogun.

Tour II: March 15 to 19 in the San-in (Shimane/Tottori/Hiroshima) area

In addition to visiting breweries, this tour also includes a visit to the  Izumo Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s most ancient and important shrines, plus parks and art museums.

For more information, pricing and reservations please visit Sake Brewery Tour.  Participation is extremely limited this season for the two tours that are scheduled.

saketours_banner_200