We read in the Lonely Planet that there’s a small independent family-run Sake brewery in Kawaguchiko that do tours in English, with tasting afterwards. Brilliant. We are in Japan and hadn’t yet had any of their national drink… This was an absolute must. Plus, as a designer I love to see the production process and the finished packed product at the end, especially something so traditional that is put into beautiful bottles! Sake is rice wine and can be drunk hot or cold, depending on the variety.
The brewery is quite hard to find, tucked away down some back streets with all the signs in Japanese, but we saw piles of crates and figured we couldn’t be far away! The lovely Japanese couple who now run it welcomed us into the small shop area. The guy seemed to hope that we would speak Japanese – sorry dude – and was incredibly apologetic and nervous about his English but honestly, it was amazing. He had one of those awesome soft, slow and low voices that send you into a bit of a trance and because our group had Japanese people in it too he had to repeat everything twice.
He told us that he was the 21st generation of his family to own the brewery. Until the 11th generation they had made soy sauce and miso and since then it had been sake. Imagine owning something that had been in your family for 300 years.
He explained that the rice is polished before any brewing can begin. The amount of polishing effects the quality of the drink produced; a rice grain polished to 40% of it’s original size will make a more premium product than one at 60%. More refined I guess. They get rice from all over Japan, and again where it’s grown will affect the taste, though not necessarily the price. They pre-order this rice two years in advance to ensure they have the stock they need should something effect the crop that year. The other incredibly important ingredient is water, and being based right next to Mount Fuji they have a very pure water source. There are no rivers around Fuji which seems strange. They’re all underground, a huge network of them, and rain or snow that falls on the top of the mountain will seep in and slowly slowly filter it’s way through rocks and earth and into the rivers. Apparently this takes 80 years which is just mind-boggling.
He took us into the brewing room where there are vast tanks that hold over 5000 litres of liquid. In these tanks, the pure water and the rice are mixed with yeast and mould and the fermentation process is allowed to begin. This is different to beer where these two catalysts are added separately rather than everything being put in together. You can smell that strong yeasty active smell? However the tanks are pretty dormant at this time of year as they can only brew over the winter. Cold keeps the saké from being contaminated by germs.
Throughout the fermentation process, liquid is drained out of the tanks and more water added. The siphoned liquid is a by-product of sake and is also sold. It is used in Japanese cooking to soften meat – the enzymes attack any chewy gristly bits – and forms the base of a lot of stocks and soups. Resourceful!
The ageing room is temperature controlled to be below 12 degrees all year round. This felt very cold and Pete put his wooly hat on. True to the name, here the liquid is left either in tanks or bottles to age for between 6 and 18 months. This changes the flavour but strangely doesn’t make it any more premium or expensive. Tanks make sake that is drunk hot because it encourages a wider flavour which is enjoyed more when hot. If you think about this it makes logical sense, when a liquid is heated it’s particles move more and expand away from each other. Therefore becoming a wider taste sensation. The saké in the bottles are drunk cold.
Then finally it is bottled, which unfortunately they didn’t show us but apparently it is all done on site. They design some of the labels themselves but also work with a local designer too. I think there is a lot of tradition with sake bottle design. The structures of the traditional pure ones are all very similar with beautiful typographic labels often printed on tactile uncoated paper. The more ‘modern’ flavoured sake seemed to be in more of a variety of bottle with slightly more different label design. The plum flavour was like drinking fruit juice, it was really delicate. The brewery has a bottle made from 40% polished rice that won second place in all of Japan for that discipline so well done to them.
Everywhere in Fuji has at least one mountain-shaped bottle on their shelves.