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. 

(I speak Japanese, had met someone from each of the breweries I visited on this trip in person at events in London, and arranged the visits at least a month in advance including date, time, and precautions to be observed.)

If you look at Japan on a map, you’ll see the slightly banana-shaped main island of Honshu with the capital Tokyo sitting at the bottom right of the bend. Head almost straight north, a little north-north west following the western of the two shinkansen bullet train lines after they split at Fukushima. Duck around the mountain range, keep going until you're nearly on a par with Sendai, and you’ve arrived in the northern town of Yamagata, capital of the prefecture of the same name. Famous for fruit and also rice, it has abundant water supplies topped up by meltwater from the mountains - two of the vital ingredients for sake.

It’s also home to the Gotō brewery in the nearby town of Takahata. We jumped onto a local train with ferocious heaters under the seats that grilled the backs of your legs, gradually emerging from the concrete and pylons of the city into postcard-ready scenery of mountains covered in a mantle of green, yellow, red and brown late autumn leaves. We passed fields of rice harvested down to stumps and mostly bare fruit trees inside frames hung with plastic sheeting or nets, although some were still weighed down with bitter persimmons. About half the houses - and even some of the stations - we passed had long lines of them threaded up and hanging from the eaves to dry. It was a beautiful day with clear skies and brilliant sunshine, surprisingly warm in the sunlight for Tohoku in mid-November.

Harvested rice fields in Yamagata Prefecture on the way to Takahata

I met Daisuke Gotō at an event in the Japanese Embassy in London in July 2017. He was there with their Gokujō daiginjō genshu Yamadanishiki 2016, which won the International Wine Challenge (IWC) Daiginjō Trophy and a gold medal in the 2017 sake category, and Benten 21 junmai daiginjo genshu 2014, which also won a gold medal. This was my first brewery visit ever, and although we had been in contact repeatedly since meeting I was still nervous. We arrived at the station and took a few photos, ready to move on just as the lone taxi driver finished his cigarette. He didn’t recognise the name of the company, Gotō Shuzōten, but when I gave him the address he laughed and said “Ah, Benten-san!” “Benten” is the brewery’s most famous line of sake, so that’s what they’re known as locally. (And love how a respectful -san gets tagged onto the end.) The taxi driver dropped us outside a beautiful traditional house and garden, then headed off with a cheerful “Goodbye!” in English.

The Gotō Shuzoten brewery in Takahata, Yamagata Prefecture

As we walked up to the front door and peered past the noren curtain, a woman inside noticed us and rushed to let us in - it was Mrs Gotō. She ushered us in to a table in the front room and plied us with green tea and biscuits while she went to fetch her son, and also her husband who still heads the company. The five of us sat around table for a while, talking about the IWC (still very much unknown outside of the industry, although that will hopefully change when the preliminary rounds are held in Yamagata next year), the current state of exports at the brewery (Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and China, and in talks with one London restaurant) and the advantages and disadvantages of treating sake as a type of wine.

Then Daisuke Gotō invited us to don plastic slippers and follow him into the brewery! Which was essentially built into the back of the house - this was a family business in more ways than one.

We mostly followed the brewing process, starting with the large kama cauldrons with heavy wooden lids used to steam the rice. Benten normally start heating the water at 8:00 am, getting ready to steam a batch of rice at 9:00 am for about an hour. They were still warming up as it was the beginning of the brewing season, making a few batches with the table rice Tsuya Hime milled to 60% and famed local sake-specific rice Dewa-sansan milled to 40%. They really get going in December, when they produce the majority of their sake over one intense period ending the following March. (Daisuke Gotō joked later that he's never skied or snowboarded because he’s just too busy when there’s snow on the ground.)

Tsuya Hime table rice cooling inside the Gotō brewery

We saw steamed Tsuya Hime rice laid out to dry between rows of tanks, then moved on to the kōji-muro. This is a closely guarded area where some of the essential sake magic happens. We changed into dedicated rubber slippers and rubbed our hands with alcohol sanitiser before entering, as bacterial contamination is a real threat. The kōji-muro is the room where freshly steamed rice is laid out on large, shallow trays to have spores of the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, better known as kōji, sprinkled over it. The kōji breaks the carbohydrate in the rice down into sugar that the yeast then use to produce alcohol. The room had been rebuilt a few years ago, with stainless steel sheets placed inside the existing wooden structure to make it easier to control heat and humidity. Even when it’s -10°C outside, the kōji is kept at a cosy +30°C to encourage growth.

Daisuke Gotō in the kōji-muro at the Gotō brewery

The smell. The aroma. It was very close to the amazake we had bought in Okinawa, sweet, close to vanilla but somehow chalky at the same time. I would happily live in that room so I could smell that all the time. (Hold that thought, as the visit had more than one occasion where we thought things couldn’t get better, and then they did.) We went through the clear plastic curtain where Daisuke Gotō lifted the cloth covering the rice with the kōji growing on it, and the aroma was just amazing. Each grain of rice was covered in opaque white, the kōji growing over the surface and, unseen, sending hyphae into the rice grain to break the starch core down into sugar.

Carrying on, we went into a small brewing room where a moto or shubo, the fermentation starter, was bubbling quietly away. And even though the smell of the kōji was amazing, this was even better - almost pure pineapple, fresh and intoxicating. This, we agreed, must be it. And then Daisuke Gotō lifted the lid from a moromi, or main fermentation, that smelled more like pina colada than pina colada and was bubbling voraciously as it was about halfway through its 20-day fermentation. If anyone has bottled these scents, sign me up. We could have stood there all day leaning over the tanks and taking deep breaths.

A bubbling moromi main ferment at the Gotō brewery

We had a look at the brewing water, admiring its clarity in a smaller tank and its blue tint in a larger one. Next was the rice, comparing Tsuya Hime table rice milled to 60% with the sake-specific rice Dewa-sansan milled to 40%. The Tsuya Hime was almost completely translucent, but the Dewa-sansan had blocks of opaque white, the shinpaku starch core that makes it particularly suited to feeding the kōji and yeast when making sake.

Tsuya Hime table rice and Dewa Sansan sake-specific rice at the Gotō brewery