NOTE: As John Gauntner has pointed out (Sakagura tourism? Not so fast!) breweries are food producers observing stringent hygiene requirements. Don’t assume you can drop in unless they have a shop, bar, museum or other public space. Always ask in advance if you can visit, and don’t be surprised if they say no because they’re in a crunch period for competition brewing, don’t have a public space, or no-one speaks your language.
We set our alarm for early on Tuesday morning as Shotaro Nakano of Dewazakura had invited us to come to their Yamagata location at 8:00 am to see that day’s batch of rice being prepared. It was a great chance to see the brewing process in action, so more than worth an early morning. The main Dewazakura brewery in Tendō, north of Yamagata city, was undergoing renovation so they were using the smaller Yamagata site until the work finished in mid-November. (Brewing at the main location was due to start a few days after we visited.) Nakano mentioned that the smaller Yamagata site had once been another brewery, closed down when the family had no successor to carry it on.
Sign outside the Dewazakura brewery's Yamagata city kura
The Dewazakura brewery's Yamagata city kura
Nakano came to meet us at the door of the brewery and we changed into slippers and put on hair nets before following him into a large open space where the rice - Dewa-sansan - was washed, soaked and steamed. Although milling is often outsourced as it requires expensive and bulky machinery, Dewazakura mill their own rice and also do their own bottling in Tendō, so they control all aspects of production.
There are normally eight people at the Yamagata site. The Gotō family at Benten had wondered what time Dewazakura started up in the morning, but it turned out to be reasonably early - 6:00 am. They normally finished at 5:00 pm (which still makes for a very long day) but every now and again they would actually stay over at the brewery to keep an eye on things. (I also noticed that the sons of brewery owners seemed to be up late at night judging from the timing of emails - it seems to be anything but a 9-to-5 job.)
Rice being steamed in huge collapsible vats at Dewazakura's Yamagata city kura
The main area of the Dewazakura Yamagata city kura, where rice is washed and steamed
Rice being washed at the Dewazakura Yamagata city kura
We went up steep wooden stairs and emerged in a wooden-floored room under the eaves, home to a group of small tanks covered with wooden lids. Each one held a fermentation starter, called shubo or moto. Nakano pulled half of the wooden cover to one side and invited us to look inside and smell the fantastic aroma. Some of them had metal containers with handles inside - these were filled with ice to slow the fermentation. The contents of the tank were still lumpy with whole or partial grains of rice, with some bubbling.
Tanks of moto/shubo starters upstairs in the Dewazakura Yamagata brewery
Chunks of rice being broken down in the shubo/moto starter at the Dewazakura Yamagata city kura
Shotaro Nakano of Dewazakura lifts the lid on their shubo/moto starters
After going back down the stairs we moved on to the next room, passing racks of beakers topped with paper filters where sake was being sampled for analysis of alcohol content and acidity. I was painfully reminded of how long it’s been since I spent more than a few weeks in Japan - I used to be able to walk up slopes in Japanese slippers, but not any more! Nakano led us up a wooden ramp with a few thin bars hammered on for grip (no railings or anything, just a narrow ramp going nearly a storey up) until we were at the level of the top of the large brewing tanks with about half a dozen on each side. They stagger the start dates of the four-day process to create the main ferment, or moromi, and we saw one at day one and another at day three with two empty tanks beside them. A translucent plastic pipe ran up the side of the wooden platform and hung over one of the two tanks where the main ferment was being started - this was used to transfer steamed rice up to the top of the tanks.
A tank at day one of the three-step, four day build for the main fermentation. This character is read "soe" and represents the first step (properly called hatsu-zoe).
A tank day at day three of the three-step, four day build for the main fermentation. The soe step is day one, then the new mixture rests on day two before more water, steamed rice and koji rice are added on day three. The character is read "naka", short for "naka-zoe", the middle stage.
Samples of sake being filtered before testing at the Dewazakura Yamagata city kura
One of the main tanks with a crown of foam at the top in the Dewazakura Yamagata city kura
A makeshift Shinto altar on one of the walls
On the other side there were tanks with the main ferment in progress, from just one day old all the way down to one on the far side of the empty tanks that had been fermenting for 20 days. The difference was striking - there was visible rice and fine foam in the early ones (Nakano said the foam is not removed from the tanks), smooth liquid and vigorous bubbling in the mid-stage ones, and a silky white liquid with the occasional large bubble in the later ones. It looked like there was something large living in there, like a sizeable carp. There were more of the metal drums hanging inside the ferment, some filled with ice and some hooked up to hoses.