Sake Breweries – Urakasumi is Old School but New Cool!
As we celebrate our move into the New True Sake, we want to make a serious effort to highlight and promote the sake brands that were at the beginning of the True Sake adventure. These brews and sake breweries were the real pioneers in exporting their sake to foreign markets, and they should be applauded.
I personally would like to applaud one special brewery from Miyagi Prefecture by the name of Urakasumi. This brewery is owned by the Saura family and is actually two breweries. They are one of (I think) three breweries that have two brewing licenses. That in and of itself is pretty cool, because they get to submit two sakes to the national sake competition. It’s also a pretty awesome brewery that has not one, but three Tojis, which I think is very rare. Each production brewery has a Toji, and then the former Toji has been bumped up into an oversight category that they call “Commander Toji.” He is basically in charge of education efforts.
The first brewery was established in 1724, which means next year will be their 300th anniversary. How cool is that? Both breweries have a combined work force of 84 people, mostly kurabito (brewery workers), but they have a pretty large business department. In fact, this is considered a large business even though the main “old” brewery only makes 150 tanks (shikomi) per season. The old brewery “HQ” is run by Toji Isao Akama, and I must say that he is one of the funniest and good-humored Tojis that I have ever met. And I think that reflects in his sake, as happy brewers make happy sake.
I just visited the brewery at the end of January, which means they were making their higher grades of sake. I missed seeing the Daiginjo production by a month, but we saw Daiginjo work at their other brewery. I did however get to see most of the products that we sell being made including Zen, Honjozo Genshu, and the Junmai.
First of all, the brewery is beautiful and it’s very clean. You can see the pride, and you can also feel the unique push-pull of being a “jizake” small brewery, but a big business. There are always a lot of people walking around. I’m used to single digit kurabito numbers. They are big, but then again they are small (the other brewery is the larger and more automated producer).
Urakasumi is all about Miyagi! They live, breathe, and are filled with Miyagi pride. They have created their own house cultivated kobos (yeast), and are credited with Association #12 yeast, which is not really used that much. They also have an in-house kobo called 101 and Honofuku with Miyagi written all over them. This “HQ” brewery uses 100% city water to clean and ferment, which means you taste it in the product. It’s soft water, very delicious, and of course they filter the water that they use to brew.
90% of their rice is locally grown, and the majority of that is consumption rice or food rice. That’s pretty awesome, and it shows how good they are at brewing. I asked Toji-san what his favorite rice to work with is and he didn’t hesitate – Sasanishiki. Of course I had to ask what the most difficult rice was, where again, he did not hesitate and said Hitomebore! I added, “Hitomebore is a bitch!” He laughed and said, “That’s why I phased it out.”
We walked through the entire brewery including into the koji room, which had a window in the door that had a cover over the window. I asked why the cover, and you never see windows on the doors to koji rooms? He laughed and said, “We don’t let anybody in, and the tours only look through the window.” I felt honored.
Next came a little presentation and a tasting of four brews. And then came the gut punch. My new buddies Sachiko Ogata and Yosuke Uotani looked at me and declared we made a special video for you. They represent the International Sales team and produced a video to show me how lucky True Sake and our customers are to have the Urakasumi Honjozo Genshu in our inventory. What? First, let’s go back maybe 15 years ago when I was in a restaurant in Shinjuku and they had this gold foiled sake bottle that I just had to have! It tasted awesome, and I already loved Urakasumi, so I asked my importers if they could get it for me, for us. And they did.
What I learned in the presentation is that NOBODY outside of Miyagi Prefecture has this amazing sake. Nobody! (Except that one restaurant 180 miles away). It’s so exclusive, the kurabito asked why does it go to San Francisco? They were interested, because the gold foil wrapping is a labor of love, and only True Sake and that restaurant get the gold foil wrapping! And only three people at the brewery know how to meticulously wrap it. And so to drive their point home, they made a video of how the bottles are wrapped. Damn! I felt like a knucklehead. Here we are sitting on sake history and it’s not being appreciated.
If you want to taste the soul of Miyagi in a sake, then try the Urakasumi Honjozo Genshu. It is fantastic, and darn good looking. Made with Manamusume rice, their very own “rafter” 101 Kobo, and a touch of sugarcane brewing alcohol. This true Miyagi brew ferments for only 24 days. It has an SMV of -1.5 and an acidity of 1.3, the same numbers for the past 20 years. And you literally cannot taste the 18% ABV on the rich flow. I’m not big on the word “exclusive” but this special brew is as exclusive as exclusive gets.
We then traveled to the Urakasumi Yamoto Brewery that was founded in 1994, which will celebrate its 30th Anniversary next year as well. This place pays the bills. It’s the meat and potatoes brewery that is automated and makes large quantities of their lower priced sakes. That is important in today’s economy, and is why Urakasumi is both a small brewery and a big brewery at the same time. 30 people work in this brewery that is 45 minutes away from “HQ,” and 12 are the kurabito.
Yamoto Brewery is very large and very vertical. The brewery is three stories tall and super clean. And yes, there are huge machines and robots everywhere. The bottling machine is a work of wonder and art, and I found out the most expensive piece of machinery in the place was the labeling machine. Ironically, when we arrived they were working by hand very laboriously to soak high grade Yamadanishiki from Hyogo Prefecture to make premium Junmai Daiginjo sake.
In front of a massive machine, 8 of the 12 kurabito where doing a conga-line for soaking milled rice to the exact second. It was very cool to watch as they meticulously watched a clock and made rapid movements every thirty seconds. It wasn't a show, or was it? The Toji of this brewery said that he heard we were coming, and he waited for us to see this awesome part of brewing. And then it only got better, as he explained we were about to see a “dance.” Come on man! Were they playing a trick on me? Nope!
Urakasumi takes pride in the way they soak their rice. They use very hard to obtain bamboo baskets that hold the rice but let the water leak out. They submerge these baskets for 30 seconds then remove them and literally shake the water out by swinging the baskets left to right like an elephant swings his trunk. It was pretty cool, and Toji-san said not a lot of people get to see this. Was it a show? I dunno, but I was thinking they could do something similar to Chippendales and have hunky kurabito doing the shake dance. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)
The visit was brilliant and I am very proud of our relationship with Urakasumi. They are the OG's when it comes to exporting to the US, and they should be rewarded for wanting to expand our sake market. If you love Urakasumi, then please continue to drink their sake, and if you have yet to try Uraksumi, then please give it a try. My final question to Akama-Toji was could he please describe Miyagi sake? He said, "It’s clear, dry, light and crisp, and I would add delicious.”