Tohoku Sake – A Recent Trip Summary and Happy Blessings
I just returned from a nice little visit through northern Japan, and I’m so very glad that we carry some great sake from several killer Tohoku breweries. They make great sake up north, and this is a wake up call to not forget that many of these powerhouse breweries have been exporting to the US for over two decades (for good reason). I am so proud to say that they love us, and by gosh we love them too.
The trip was the brainchild of David Sakamoto from Jizake Quest, who launched his first volley into the alcohol tourism trade, also known as bringing Westerners to sake breweries in Japan. This will now be an annual endeavor, so please reach out to David as per his next trip in 2024. You too can have an awesome time visiting exceptional sake breweries, as well as many cultural and culinary add-ons, which really rounds out the experience.
When I read about the breweries that David had arranged, I knew that I would be a part of this trip! In the past, I have been to two of the breweries, and have written about them in the Newsletter. But three of the other breweries have always been on my sake bucket list, and the last brewery should be on everybody’s bucket list from now on. Herewith is a very brief review of my visit to each brewery. Please note that we sell sake made by five of the kuras.
Katsuyama made by Katsuyama Supreme Sake Co. in Miyagi PrefectureSome sake breweries are classy, or at least I perceive them to be, and Katsuyama is one of those brands that just radiates “a cut above.” This was our first stop, and we were greeted by Isawa-san, the president of this recently relocated and redesigned brewery that was founded in 1688.
The first thing that I noticed about Shacho is that he is very Sendai proud, he loves Miyagi and he loves making sake in this prefecture. Secondly, he is VERY proud of his brewery’s individuality! Huh? What’s individuality in sake making? In a word they make sake differently at Katsuyama and they are proud that their sake is called unusual. “Too much taste!” That’s what he said most people say about their brews. “People think our sake is too sweet,” Isawa said, “But this is our secret strength, because we make umami-style sake that is full and flavorful.” And it’s true, their brews tend to be on the higher glucose side, which gives off that plump feeling and of course loads of umami!
It’s a small brewery with only 4 kurabito that brews 3 seasons of the year – no summer, and has a small production floor space that was laid-out by the current toji. Interestingly they have a dedicated washing and soaking room that I have never seen in another brewery. It is a clean and sterile room that they keep cool, and it holds the freshly washed and soaked rice for 24 hours. This is pretty unique, and he was sort of speaking hush hush about it, so maybe a secret of sorts – don’t tell anybody.
My big take-away was that when you think of Dassai you should first think of Katsuyama. Oh really? Yup! Shacho told the story of how his first product that he turned into the flagship brew for Katsuyama was a Junmai Daiginjo called Akatsuki that is made using a centrifuge pressing machine and they priced it at ¥30,000. This was an entirely new price range for sake that wasn’t aged and the market was taken aback. For a time, they cornered the market at this price point, and a certain Yamaguchi brewery took note and made their own centrifuge sake called Beyond and released it at the same price point. (I was told that there are 13 sake breweries that have centrifuge pressing machines, but “not all of them work.”)
Lastly, you will notice the awesome bottles that Katsuyama uses when you buy your next bottle. They are embossed with their logo on the bottle. I’ve always loved that look, but always thought how expensive it must be to make them. And yes, since I have no shame I asked Shacho how much they cost per unit before being filled? He said roughly about $2. Well worth it in my book.
We carry 3 different Katsuyama brews and they are each exceptional. If you want that Xmas gift of note then try the Akatsuki, or try the very layered, lush, and sweet Lei, or their IWC Grand Champion Junmai Ginjo called Ken! Katsuyama sakes used to come with a very interesting key chain samurai helmet that looks remarkably like Darth Vader – wait what? Yes, come in and ask that question sometime.
Urakasumi made by Urakasumi Sake Brewery Saura Co. in Miyagi Prefecture
We’ve written a lot about Urakasumi in the Newsletter over the years, and this was my second trip to this spectacular brewery this year. Each visit, I learn more and more about what an amazing brewery this really is, and how much they do for Miyagi Prefecture. I snuck in this time. I didn’t want David to tell them that I was coming. I sort of surprised them. But lo and behold, Shacho Koichi Saura was there and greeted our group with enthusiasm and lots of sake.
One of the first things that you learn about Urakasumi is that they have a very long line of Tojis (master brewers) who are all promoted in-house. This succession of sorts is a very cool example of how the brewery continues in their pursuit of making prototypical Miyagi sake. The current “Taisho” or General is the lead Toji who holds court over two other tojis who operate the two brewing facilities. He is sort of the overlord, and when I asked him who his sake hero was he said his former Toji. See the trend here!
Miyagi Prefecture is known for making sake using table or consumption rice, and Urakasumi is no different. From Manamasume to Datemasume these rice lovers enjoy producing richer and more full-bodied sakes that comes with consumption rice varietals. After our tour, Shacho and his export team treated us to a tasting of 6 brews including collaboration with Ichinokura, where both breweries made a tank and they blended it (very user friendly, gentle and soft Junmai sake). My favorite was a Junmai Ginjo (Yellow Label) that used 100% Ginnoiroha, which is very new (6 years old) rice varietal that drank full and even.
My take-away from this visit was making a mistake in front of my sensei of sorts. Koichi has helped me a great deal since day one of my sake adventures and I respect him greatly. I actually made two mistakes in front of him and it killed me. The low hanging fruit mistake was I mislabeled the character on the Zen box as Daruma, and he shot a laser-like glance at me and said "No, it’s actually a happy Buddha." Crap! The second mistake was claiming that only up to recently (the last 20 years) the tax department taxed all sake produced at the time of production and not the sale of the sake. He looked again at me sideways and cocked his head. Crap! But he didn’t know the answer and ran out of the room. He came back smiling at me and said the tax department stopped taxing made sake in 1944. Well, at least he didn’t know either! Ha! But I still didn’t like making mistakes in front of him.
Housen Nami no Oto made by Sasaki Shuzoten in Miyagi Prefecture
Holy moly, I have heard some stories over the past few decades. But nothing compared to the story Hiroshi Sasaki told us when we visited his “born again brewery” in Yuriage, which is a coastal town south of Sendai, but directly in the path of the Tsunami after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. When a brewery owner shows you a before and after slide on the wall that basically shows the entire area around the brewery, and then says “I spent 36 hours on the broken roof of our destroyed brewery”, you sit up and take notice.140 years of brewing history were wiped out in 2011, and what we visited was a god-send in my mind. It’s hard to get past the terrible events that occurred that day, but Sasaki Shuzoten is brewing again (in a newly built brewery on the same spot starting in 2018). Actually they started brewing immediately after the quake at a temporary facility, which was more like a warehouse than a brewery, but eventually made a small brewery that is modern and well-laid out. And today they brew 8 months out of the year with a small team that produces a tank per week. (Several pieces of equipment were donated by breweries in other prefectures like Sakura Masamune in Kobe, who told them to never give up!) And it’s this fighting spirit that was born in adversity is now behind them as they just want to be known as brewers of good sake. (They have won a series of Gold Medals at the Japan National Tasting)
My take-away is the story itself that they don’t want to use in marketing or as a slogan. They don’t want to tell or dwell on the story of the “Miracle Tank.” They just want to be known as sake brewers making good sake. And I admire the hell out of that, especially after hearing about the Miracle Tank. When the tsunami wiped out their town and brewery one of the tanks of sake was lifted up and displaced ½ a mile away, but ended up still standing and filled with sake. It had a plastic sheet over the top with a large rubber band holding the sheet tight against the sides. A neighbor came to the destroyed brewery and said you won’t believe this, but one of your tanks is in my yard. So they went and found the filled tank that flowed ½ a mile away bobbing in the deadly water but maintaining itself because it was full. Hiroshi and his brother, who is the Toji of Sasaki Shuzoten lifted the tarp and tested the sake. It was literally intact and no salt water blended in. They immediately labeled it the “Miracle Tank,” and used buckets to remove the sake and put it in another sake brewery several miles away. They bottled the sake and called it “Yuri” Junmai in honor of Yuriage Town that was decimated. They sold “Yuri” and all proceeds went to rebuilding the town. They still use the name Yuri for their Junmai and Tokubetsu Junmai sake (which is Hiroshi’s favorite), but they don’t ever talk about the Miracle Tank when selling their sake. You see they are sake makers and sake makers only.
Tenko and Taiheizan made by Kodama Brewing Co. in Akita Prefecture
This was my second trip to the home brewery of Eiko and Shin Kodama, who are the sweetest couple in all of the sake world, and have one of the best breweries that also ferments miso and soy sauce. They are fermenting geniuses, who have an admirable goal of exporting 30% of all their sakes overseas. The US is their largest international destination and Shin said, in front of our group, that True Sake has made California the number one state and their number one destination. Yay! We love Kodama Jozo.
There are 34 sake breweries in Akita, and I get the feeling that the Kodamas are the King and Queen of that prefecture’s sake, even though there are other breweries that have more demand and attention. They get it!
We were very lucky to get the grand tour. I was there over 12 years ago, and to be honest I forgot several really important things about their brewery. First of all, it
is immense, and Shin likes to point out that his grandfather liked building buildings, lots of buildings. They have an immense koji making machine, one of the largest that I have ever seen, that is used to make premium Daiginjo-grade sake. That’s pretty cool. They also use the Akita brewing technique of using a circular ring inside their koji trays to keep a more uniform drying effort as the corners of a rectangular tray get too cold and stay wet longer than in a circle.
My takeaway is that as the Co-Chair of the International Wine Challenge sake side I have personally witnessed as Kodama Shuzo continuously winning Gold Medals and that is so hard to do! They just make great sake, and we've just added their Tenko 35 to the store soon.
Nanbu Bijin made by Nanbubijin Co. in Iwate Prefecture
We sell a ton of Nanbu Bijin sake. It’s almost ironic that this was my first visit to the brewery. The owner of the kura, Mr. Kosuke Kuji-san, was overseas selling his brew. Nevertheless, it was cool to be in Iwate and to connect the dots at the very cool and low key brewery that is known the world over. And let it be known their sake drinks the way the brewery looks, and lives with balance and passion.Ha ha so in all honesty I forgot to take my notebook on our tour! I usually scribble down facts and comments that would serve our customers well, but had to rely on my camera/phone to do just that. With that in mind the brewery actually has two breweries that both make the same products, but the other newer brewery can function year-round with more modern temperature controls.
The older brewery had a pretty cool push cart and elevator system for their koji rice, and they also used the ring within the tray technique for koji rice drying found in Akita.
Nanbu Bijin has an awesome well on their property within the building walls, and that was pretty cool. Their water is soft and fantastic for brewing, and when I asked what water source they use, our guide (head of international sales) asked me, “Why did you ask about our water? Nobody asks about our water.” Of course I ask these things, and the well picture is one of my favorite photos of the trip.
When the tour was over we went to their “clubhouse” that was like the coolest bar you’ve ever been to with cool Nanbu Bijin neon signs and cool promotional posters. They do a lot of marketing and brand awareness and I like that. We poured their IWC Champion Trophy Tokubetsu Junmai and a nama bottle that was bottled the day before and not yet pasteurized – it was fresh and awesome.
My favorite take-away other than the well was the overt family and team aspect of the brewery. You can tell they are a popular brewery and they had an air of being cool sake people about them. I liked that.
Mutsu Hassen made by Hachinohe Shuzo Co. in Aomori PrefectureThis was the second "why-I-went-on-this-trip" brewery that made my decision to go to Japan for the third time this year. I have always wanted to learn more about this brand, and I am glad that we visited this cool sake place. People always ask me why I like Mutsu Hassen, and now I know – now I really know!
Damn this brewery has a style and feeling that looks very much like their distinctive labels. It’s old and newish, it’s clean and solid, and it’s hand made and machine made, and it’s all under one roof.
First and foremost, it is a small brewery with only 6 kurabito. It’s run by brothers – the oldest is the Shacho and the younger is the Toji. They both think in modern terms. The toji is friends with a certain brewery owner/toji in Akita (Aramasa) so he is all about exploration and innovation. As a result, they don’t have a shubo room! Huh? 99% of the breweries that I have visited have shubo or yeast starter rooms or specific areas within a clean cool room. Not Mutsu Hassen. What I was shown was two electronic small vats that had enclosed lids. What the heck are these? “Our shubo tanks.” No way! So Toji-san has invented “Speedy Shubo” or quick shubo actions. They make shubo in two days, and not the normal two weeks. WTH? Yup they go to 55-60 degrees day one and 30 degrees day two and done! Now way.
They are also white koji pimps as they like making new style sake with lots of brightness and jumping acidity. They brew 110 shikomi or tanks per season so that’s a good portion of new style sake. Most of their products go to Tokyo with only 8-9% going overseas! We need to improve that, and my host David Sakamoto is an importer of Mutsu-Hassen (the red label which we sell a lot of and you should taste at some point). We identified several products that we are going to try to bring to California and hopefully Mutsu Hassen will partake with SAKE DAY 2024.
My biggest take-away is the fact that this brewery has recently changed styles in the last few years and now it has become more popular. That means new techniques and new styles are paying off for them, and that’s pretty cool. One of the employees said that Mutsu Hassen tasted totally different seven years ago, and that is awesome in my book.