Monday, April 8, 2013

Our First Sake Tour - Shirataki Sake Brewery

One of the many interesting parts of the recent Japan trip is a visit to the Shirataki Sake Brewery (白瀧酒造) in Echigo-Yuzawa in the southern part of Niigata prefecture. We were drawn to the area of Niigata mainly for it being a major rice growing and sake brewing region. I always wanted to go up close to learn more about how to make sake, but turned out it's much harder to find a brewery open to public, and even harder to find one that have someone fluent in English to explain everything to us than say finding a vineyard that can do the same for wine elsewhere. But a few email exchanges later, I am glad that Shirataki Sake Brewery agreed to show us around their facilities, and guide us through sake tasting at the end of the tour.

Jozen Mizunogotoshi - Spring Edition (released in February)

Shirataki Sake Brewery is no stranger to us - their flagship product, Jozen Mizunogotoshi (上善如水), is readily available in local stores as one of the more popular mainstream sake labels. Today we were shown around by the friendly Ms Kiyoko Miyauchi from their research department.

Shirataki Sake Brewery - Office Building/Warehouse Entrance
The brewery was much bigger than I thought - it's almost like a factory with multiple buildings and big tanks for storage. Later I was told that the daily production could go up to 10000 bottles - no wonder. The brewery was located in the foot of the hill surrounding the town of Yuzawa and accessible on foot from the train station (it's a small town anyway). It's such a picturesque scene with the facility set against the white, snowy mountain in the background with small cottage houses around it.

Rice Mills
We started the tour with a brief introduction of the brewery, its history, philosophy and an illustration of the basic sake making process on DVD in English. That gave us an overview of what we were about to see. We then suited up in anti-dust jacket, hair cover and water boots and were led down to the brewery by Miyauchi-san.

Rice Washing and Soaking
Then we basically went through the facility in the order of how sake was made, with Miyauchi-san patiently explained every step along the way - starting from the rice mills where rice grains were polished to remove the husk, leaving the pure core remains (in the process known as senmai 精米). The rice was then washed and soaked in a special tank, and later, steamed and cooled - these are the processes either made by hand or by machine or more often in modern days, a combination of both.

Shubo Room - where they make the starter yeast
A portion of the steamed rice was then used to make kome-koji (米麴) or simply koji- cultured rice with koji mold to supply the enzyme necessary for fermentation (the enzyme breaks down the carbohydrate in rice to sugar which was then converted into alcohol). It's the most delicate process considered to be the heart of sake making which was carefully monitored and controlled. That's why Koji-kura - the room in which koji was made - is often the most "sacred" place of the facility and out of bound from visitors. Same with the process of making shubo (酒母) - the starter yeast - by the combination of koji, rice, water and yeast. This is another time-consuming process with many variations which gave each sake its unique aroma. The remaining rice - known as kake-mai (掛米) was used as a key part of the ingredients.

Tank for Sandan Shikomi. (The character on the sign says Naka, meaning the middle stage)
After this, the primary components of sake (rice, koji and water) were mixed into shubo over multiple stages (typically three) in a process known as Sandan Shikomi (三段仕込), each time in different proportion and temperature over 4 days. It's done inside large tanks and after sandan shikomi and further fermentation, shubo was converted into the viscous moromi (醪) - we were even given a taste of the moromi after 22 days of fermentation (still very high in alcohol, with a rather bitter taste but rich in rice flavor).

Sake Pressing - the liquid (raw and unfiltered sake) was run off leaving the lees behind hanging on the machine
Moromi was then pressed through to produce raw sake, leaving the lees (sake kasu 酒粕) behind. Further filtering, pasteurization and addition of water to regulate alcohol content yield the sake which we saw on store shelves. There were so many new processes and names to absorb in one afternoon but at least we got a rough idea how sake was produced. It's also fascinating to learn there are so many variations in the process that gave sake its unique characters - I am sure now as we read through the label on sake bottle we would have a much better understanding.

After the tour we were back to the tasting room for some sake tasting. We started with the most popular Jozen Mizunogotoshi Junmai Daiginjo (上善如水純米大吟釀) to the more classic Tosuke Minatoya line (湊屋藤助) - which we only saw and tried for the first time. We also tasted their seasonal brew - they introduce special edition bottles almost every month to match the different occasions in the season - and their signature Shingo no Ippon (真吾の一本) - the Junmai Daiginjo carrying the name of the brewery's toji (the head brewer) Mr Shingo Yamaguchi and handcrafted with top quality Yamada-nishiki (山田錦) rice with seimai-buai (精米步合), or polishing ratio of 35%. We love it so much that we bought a couple bottles back home.

Tasting Room at Shirataki Sake Brewery
Of all we have tasted, the most interesting is perhaps their new product using shirokoji (white koji) which was normally used to make shochu. It's a bit lower in alcohol (13% instead of the usual 15-16%) and with a smooth and distinct taste and a hint of sweetness. It's very easy to drink and I reckon it would go well with western cuisine, or even strong flavored Chinese dishes - sort of as an alternative to a traditional off-dry white wine such as gewürztraminer, especially when you look for something with more body. It's said in sake making, while yeast influences the aroma, koji influences the texture and taste - this is perhaps one clear example how that is so. Miyauchi-san seems to be happy and satisfied that we love this newest product.

Jozen Cosmetic Line
The brewery even came up with a line of cosmetic products using the leftover sake kasu. They were also happy to let us try and the products were on sale at the tasting room too. It's supposedly good as an anti-oxidant and for skin hydration from the enzyme obtained from natural source - well what do I know about cosmetics and skincare.

Bottling Facility - they are done for the day by the time we arrived
We thoroughly enjoyed the visit of the sake brewery and were privileged to have their kind arrangement for a private tour for just two of us. If you are a sake lover, we highly recommend you go to a sake region and learn more - it's a memorable experience for us. (Just a hint - in their English website they did mention they were not able to escort customers into the brewery itself, but I guess if you ask them nicely they do draw exception from time to time)

For more information about Shirataki Sake Brewery, you can check out their website:

Let me also share with you the "Cliff Notes" we got at the brewery. A flow chart for sake making!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and informative read! Great to meet you last night :)

Rachel Matteson said...

I've always wondered what sake tastes like. It is a popular drink in Japan but has not been distributed around the world. So this is how they make them. Thanks a lot for sharing the blog. :)


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