If you missed Part 1, here’s the beginning of my visit to the Aizu Homare brewery.
As we walked through the brewery, we talked about the challenges facing the sake industry. Miyuki pointed out that consumption of sake was dropping overall because of changes in habit – both personal preference for lower-alcohol drinks e.g. beer (which gets a lot of coverage in the news, along with young people avoiding alcohol entirely) and also businesses not going out for regular drinking sessions. I don’t have much of a view into corporate culture so I hadn’t realised this was a factor as well.
She also confirmed that the general trend of less demand for non-premium sake held true for Aizu Homare as well, with their production now 40% tokutei meishoshu. They use smaller tanks and more manual processes for higher grades, including their IWC award-winning sake.
There were more signs of extensive automation as we kept on through the brewery – following the brewing process just as the others had. The end of the line was a huge room full of bottling machines, and a packing robot that picked up, boxed and wrapped packs of products to be loaded onto pallets. Aizu Homare store their products in a huge warehouse, with delivery company trucks arriving, being loaded by forklift and pulling off again, and recently put in a refrigerated warehouse for premium styles. Monday is a busy day for them as lots of orders come in over the weekend and they try to get them out as soon as possible. It’s also the busiest time of the year for orders of barrels to be broken open in kagami-biraki ceremonies common in the new year.
Nothing goes to waste. Milled-off rice is used to make rice crackers, the brewery sells its own sakekasu (sake lees, very popular for cooking with) and also uses it to make a sakekasu skin care range, promoted by Miyuki’s sister in law, the owner’s sister, who is a TV presenter.
After viewing the whole production cycle, from milling to kōji production to brewing, bottling and release, we went over to Aizu Homare’s tasting room and cafe, Unreian. Miyuki told me about some their attempts to develop products, like the first strawberry nigori, designed to appeal to people who don’t drink to drink, and also to women and people who want drinks with a lower alcohol content.
Although most people like something new, the Japanese are obsessed with novelty which adds another layer of difficulty developing new products and coming up with ideas. The owner is constantly looking for something new, or pushing the envelope of what they currently do, creating tension with the more traditional tōji who is focused on maintaining quality. Aizu Homare are keenly aware that of the 4,000 breweries active in Japan at the height of production, there are now only about 1,000. And some of those are just labels – buying sake produced by others and putting their own name on it. Miyuki glanced at me and mentioned that Aizu Homare produces sake for other breweries. They export through distributors who can put their sake in the shops they supply, using established relationships rather than trying to break new ground.
The owner also stays involved in the business as much as possible, for example constantly tasting their yuzushu until he was happy with it, which ended up with it having more juice than any other. He’s only the 4th head of the company, which will soon be 100 years old – another reason to create something new and celebrate.
We tasted several of their sake and liqueurs in Unreian, my favourite was the nama genshu named after the old family house, delicious and complex. Unfortunately it needs to be refrigerated so it wasn’t something I could take back with me. They also had an amazing 100% kōji matured sake – which can’t be called “sake” by law as it doesn’t have any plain steamed rice. It had a rich golden colour and delicious dried fruit flavour, and Miyuki very generously gave me some as we were leaving.
We rounded off the day with a drive over the scenic Aijin-zaka (Lovers’ Hill), a visit to Aizu Castle, and then a mad rush by me to the train station – although the Japanese train system is fantastic as always the service out in Aizu isn’t that frequent. Miyuki emailed me again to make sure I got back to Tokyo safely, and I replied saying I looked forward to seeing her next year again as an IWC winner.