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 walked past a long room full of huge brewing tanks, used in the major production season starting in December, before passing back through the entrance hall and stopping to look at an old-style funa-shibori press, a shallow trough made of wood with a mechanical press mounted above. Cloth sacks full of fermented sake are loaded into the trough and then gently pressed from above, extracting the liquid from the solids without the application of enough force to draw out any undesirable flavours. There was also a modern Yabuta accordion-style press. (Technically called an assakuki, or air compressor, but one company dominates the market to the extent that it has become synonymous with the product. Think Hoover or Google.)
Old-style funa-shibori press at the Gotō brewery
Having come full circle, we headed back to the front room for more tea and biscuits and talk about Yamagata’s new Geographical Indication and how high sake should aim (to be an everyday drink all over the world? Or just more accessible than it is now?) - and speak of the devil, Daisuke Gotō disappeared and reappeared with three bottles. One was Tsuya Hime, made with 100% Tsuya Hime table rice, and the other two were from the Benten range - a refined Gokujo daiginjō genshu made with 100% sake-specific Yamada Nishiki rice from the legendary rice-growing prefecture of Hyogo milled to 35%, and a junmai daiginjō genshu made with 100% local Dewa Sansan sake-specific rice milled to 48%.
Tasting Benten and Tsuya Hime sake at the Gotō brewery
The Tsuya Hime had a sweet aroma and equally sweet taste, which is often not the case - I find the aroma of a sake can be sweet but the flavour not as much. The flavour was relatively strong, thanks to the table rice used. The junmai daiginjō genshu was more delicate but still sweet, with notes of pineapple and melon. The Yamada Nishiki daiginjō was amazing, almost like a liquid marshmallow, sweet and delicately fruity. Once again we went through the cycle of “it can’t get better than this” only to be proved wrong twice in quick succession. The recommendation from the house was to have the daijginjō as an aperitif and the other two with food, and we definitely agreed that the daiginjō’s delicate flavours would be better off alone.
We kept tasting the sake as it warmed, and it definitely improved. Daisuke Gotō mentioned that the Japanese sake appraisals keep it at 18°C as it’s the best temperature for both delicate and more substantial umami flavours to come through. If the sake is too cold, nothing really registers as the volatile substances aren’t coming out of the liquid (and conversely, this is why you shouldn’t heat delicate sake like daiginjō or ginjō - all the low boiling point volatiles will escape and leave you with half the flavour profile). We talked about tasting in Japan (focused on penalising negative qualities whereas Western tasting is more about accentuating the positive) and how things like packaging (glass versus PET bottles, cork versus screw cap, other packaging like pouches) and drinking vessels (porcelain or pottery cups versus wine glasses) affect perception.
I asked what the Gotō brewery was hoping for in the future. They concentrate on producing small quantities of very high quality sake and although in Mr Gotō’s time it was mostly sold within the prefecture it’s now supplied to restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka and exported to a few nearby countries. Their entire production, about 150,000 litres, is taken up straight away - the Tsuya Hime we had was bottled just last week. To increase exports, they would have to double production. Mr Gotō commented that along with the decline in domestic consumption of sake, there were also fewer people coming into the industry - he was fortunate to have a core team of six who were relatively young, in their 30s, who work with him in the brewery over the winter and then go back to other work such as growing rice for the rest of the year. (The decline in this pattern of seasonal work is another reason why there are fewer young people coming in.) They weren’t desperate to export, as most of their sake is consumed in Japan, but clearly were keeping an eye on the possibility of new markets.
Their IWC medal in 2017 was their first, and when I met Daisuke Gotō he was on his first trip to London. They joked that other breweries I was planning to visit were many times the size of theirs, but as a one-person company I assured them that small was beautiful! And concentrating on a small number of styles meant their focus wasn’t split and they could continue to produce high quality sake which is clearly appreciated.
They asked me where else we were visiting, and I mentioned Dewazakura, Tonoike (Sanran) and Aizu Homare. After some oohing and aahing, they said that both Dewazakura and Aizu Homare were far larger, so the experience would probably be quite different. While discussing the size of various breweries, they said Ichi no Kura is probably the largest (possibly in the area). And I gave them a good laugh by saying we were going to the Fox Village.
Takahata Castle in Yamagata Prefecture
Mr Gotō went back to work and Daisuke Gotō took us out for some local soba - it was actually made purely with buckwheat which is hard to find, normally it’s mixed with 20-30% wheat. The noodles were chewier and really delicious. He brought us back to the station, where they were practicing evacuation drills with the fire brigade, and we stood outside talking about translation (basically how to even start), identifying fruit on trees (karin) and being landed on by dragonflies.
Sake with the Yamagata Geographical Indication (GI) on display at Yamagata Station
I enjoyed talking to the Gotō family so much that I actually forgot to give them the gifts I had brought until David reminded me as we left the soba restaurant. (I brought individually-wrapped squares of different single origin chocolates for tasting for the brewery, plus some fun flavoured chocolate squares for Daisuke Gotō). He gladly accepted them to take back to the brewery for their 3:00 pm tea break and invited us to visit again, and I promised to help him find a good hotel in London for his next IWC win.