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.
David went back to Switzerland, but not before we managed to find a craft beer place near our hotel for a final night out.
Another brewery visit, another early start. It was just me this time stumbling on to the 7:15 am Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station heading north to Koriyama. I changed to the Ban-Etsu line towards Aizu-Wakamatsu, changing again to get to the small town of Kitakata. The area is part of the Aizu Bonchi, a plain nestled in a ring of mountains, with geography that provides plentiful clear water (important not just for sake but also the buckwheat used to make soba noodles) and the large difference between summer and winter temperatures which is also supposed to be good for rice growing.
Karahashi Miyuki, wife of the current owner and the person I had met at the International Wine Challenge event at the Japanese Embassy in London in July 2017, met me at the station in an Aizu Homare happi jacket! We drove a short way to a local soba place that she recommended, which served salt-based soup rather than the more common soy-based one. After a delicious meal and chatting about Paris, we carried on to see a local woodwork shop selling lacquered items like chopsticks and boxes, glassware like wind chimes and chopstick rests, and a traditional doll made from shavings of pawlonia. Our chopsticks, bought many years ago in Obuse in Nagano, were a bit the worse for wear so I picked up some red lacquered ones.
The next stop was the Aizu Homare brewery, home of the largest sake tanks in Japan and therefore in the world. I was startled to find a few people lying down on a tatami floor as we came in – there had just been a shift change and the night shift staff were resting after coming off duty. I was worried we might wake them up, but they didn’t so much as twitch. The company employs 70 people in total, 20 or so in the brewery itself.
I followed Karahashi Miyuki up to another level where we changed into white wellies and started to tour the brewery. The rice is brought in to a neighbouring building and carried over to this one by tubes similar to the ones we saw at Dewazakura. They used to to do their own milling but as they’re in the centre of the town their neighbours complained about the noise, especially as the rice was being milled overnight, so now they order it milled from their supplier. The rice goes through massive multi-storey size washers and steamers, followed by dryers which also break up the rice to stop it clumping.
To keep prices down, Aizu Homare buy up sake rice at good prices and blend different varieties together (which doesn’t affect the tokutei meishoshu classification, which only says that the rice used must be sake-specific varieties). One of their aims is to produce a daiginjō that retails for around JPY 1,000, which breaks a significant price barrier and could put it on more tables, more often, as a more accessible option. So as you can see, Aizu Homare is all about the benefits of scale. Even their koji production is automated, with everything but the koji used for their premium, IWC award-winning sake produced automatically. Compared to the smaller, family-run breweries like Goto/Benten and Tonoike/Sanran, or even the smaller location for Dewazakura, this looked like a cross between a factory and a NASA control station.