No, not sake, sake! You know, the stuff that you drink and, in Fukushima, frequently wins worldwide acclaim.
Recently, we had the rare and exciting chance to visit one of Fukushima’s renowned sake breweries, to not only indulge in a drop or two (or three…!) but actually become part of the sake-making process (well, we washed the rice).
In any case, it was truly something else to experience first-hand how sake is made, and to gain an appreciation of the skill and technique involved.
Koori town & Kokken Brewery
Kokken Brewery, located in Minami-Aizu in the south of Fukushima prefecture, has been brewing sake since 1877. Surrounded by lush beech tree forests and with some of the heaviest snow-fall in the prefecture, Minami-Aizu is the perfect environment for producing top-grade sake. Many of Kokken Brewery’s products have won wide acclaim, including their label ‘Ichikichi’ which was given the Govenor’s Award in the ‘Pure Rice’ category of the Fukushima Prefecture Sake Contest.
Fukushima prefecture itself has proudly held the title of prefecture with the most gold-awarded sake for five years running at the Annual Japan Sake Awards! Fukushima’s sake is steadily becoming a crowd favourite overseas, picking up a number of awards at international wine festivals and more than doubling exports since 2012. In light of the devastating impact of negative media and stigma on Fukushima’s local industries, the booming popularity of Fukushima’s sake is a sign of hope for the prefecture and a much-needed boost along the road to recovery.
In the spirit of recovery, Kokken Brewery have recently teamed up with a small town on the other side of the prefecture called Koori to create a brand-new variety of sake!
Koori is already famous throughout Japan for its delicious peaches, but peaches are not all the town has to offer! Along with other fruits like apples, pears and tasty semi-dried persimmon, Koori is also blessed with high-quality spring water and delicious rice. The trouble is, there is not yet an established sake brewery in Koori with the skills, knowledge and man-power to take advantage of these natural blessings. As such, Kokken have agreed to take on the challenge and (as we write) is brewing a new kind of ‘cloudy’ sake (Nigorizake) using their expertise with spring water and rice produced in Koori.
Some of Koori’s delicious local produce: Akatsuki peaches, Anpogaki (semi-dried persimmon), spring water and rice. (Photo credit: Koori town homepage)
Intrigued, one very snowy December morning we jumped on Koori’s subtly fabulous ‘Hottapi’ bus (Hottapi being the town’s mascot; half-peach, half-firefly) and headed into the deep mountains of southern Fukushima to see what all the fuss was about.
Records of sake drinking and sake making stretch back some 2000 years ago to when rice was first cultivated in Japan. Some claim the earliest and crudest form of sake was made using chewed rice, with enzymes in the saliva and natural yeast working to create an alcohol of sorts…! Luckily, the brewing process has been developed and refined over centuries to become the incredibly delicate and complex process it is today; involving polishing, rinsing and steaming of rice, the creation of a ‘koji’ rice mold to produce ‘moromi’ mash which is then fermented, filtered and (in most cases) pasteurised. What we were unaware of before visiting the Kokken brewery was the incredible precision and control involved at each one of these steps!
Before we even stepped onto the bus we were warned that anyone who had consumed fermented foods like natto, pickles or any live bacteria in yoghurts etc. in the past 24 hours was NOT to enter the brewery, as our bacteria-filled breath was at risk of upsetting the highly sensitive balance required for the yeast to grow/the fermentation process to be successful.
We were also given boots, jackets, gloves, face-masks and fashionable hairnets for hygiene protection.
We rocked them.
Once inside, the sake masters gave us a quick demonstration of our task for the day! The rice had previously been polished and separated into barrels that each weighed around 10 kgs. We were each to be responsible for rinsing one of these barrels.
‘Timing is everything!’
Whilst rinsing the rice might sound like a simple task, the amount of water absorbed by each grain impacts significantly on the taste of the sake – the rice cannot absorb too much, or too little – so each step of the way was carefully timed. One eye on the rice, one eye on the clock!
Without a moment’s waste, it was straight to work!
Step 1: First rinse
In unison, our team of three lifted our barrels into a huge sink of cold water and immediately began rinsing.
Using both hands to thoroughly rinse the rice, we counted aloud to keep track of time.
With snow bucketing-down outside and temp inside a tad fresh, we needed no encouragement to keep moving quickly!
Step 2: Second rinse
Pulling the (now significantly heavier!) barrels out of the water, it was into yet another sink to repeat the same process as step 1!
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9・・・・
Step 3: Hosing
With our second rinse completed, all barrels were taken out of the water and treated to a thorough hosing to remove unwanted starch. Our strict supervisors watched closely, stop-watches in hand, to make sure water absorption remained on track.
Pressure was higher than the water gushing out of the massive hoses.
We nailed it.
Step 4: Resting
Finally, the barrels of rice were left to sit for another minute before being whisked away to be steamed!
Time restrictions meant it wasn’t possible for us to contribute to the rest of the sake-making process, so we left the rice in the safe hands of experts before tackling one last incredibly important job…
Step 5: DRINKING!
Whilst we will have to wait a few more months before we can try the new Koori & Kokken nigorizake, we did have the opportunity to sit with both the CEO of Kokken Brewery and the Mayor of Koori town to enjoy a taste of six top-quality drops!
They were all very different and all incredibly good.
Our sake-tasting proficiency seemed to improve with each sample.
It was a very hard task to pick a favourite.
Feeling warm and satisfied, we rolled ourselves back onto the bus to head home.
It was very sad to leave the mountains of Fukushima behind us, but exciting to think that in just a few months time a brand new sake will be on the shelves – and we helped to make it!
No doubt a trip to Koori for a drink with the locals will soon be on the cards.
You know, for Fukushima’s sake!
Further details about the new Koori & Kokken Brewery Nigorizake will be posted as soon as they are available!
Nigorizake is said to have many health benefits, including improvement of skin quality! So, basically you can’t afford not to try some…stay tuned!
Koori Town is very convenient to access! It is serviced by JR Koori Station on the Tohoku line, which connects to the Tohoku Shinkansen from either Fukushima City or Sendai City.
A useful site for looking up relevant train routes and times can be found here: hyperdia