The Tonoike brewery – known for its Sanran sake and Mashiko no Honō shōchū – isn’t a tiny brewery, but they deliberately keep things small-scale. Our first stop was the rice washing station, where 600 kg of rice was being washed in a miniature washing machine that could take 15 kg batches. This, Shusuke explained, was part of their philosophy – minimal use of machines or automation in order to stay in close contact with the brewing process and ensure quality.
He could list the machinery they had on one hand (rice washer, steamed rice cooler, Yabuta press – there may have been one more but I don’t remember).
We passed medium-sized cloth-lined trays full of kōji rice ready for use, slightly heaped into furrows, powdery white and stunningly sweet and chewy. More steamed rice inoculated with kōji was bundled up inside cloths in the hot, humid kōji-muro, this one with wooden walls and ceiling instead of stainless steel.
We went through the usual looking-it-up-online conversion of the traditional Japanese measurement koku to litres, and their production is about 180,000 litres annually with just 5% exported, currently mainly to Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand). However, they cannot export to China because they still have restrictions in place against products from the Fukushima area, despite it being declared safe and even accepted by some of the toughest critics – their fellow Japanese. The area has long been famous for clear water, good rice, and therefore good sake so they enjoy strong domestic demand.
We carried on into the main brewing area which had medium-sized tanks in neat rows – this was the only time we were asked not to take photos as there was brewing data on the side of the tanks.
After the tour we went back to the shop and cafe and were treated to an extensive tasting by one of the staff, Miyano. The sake was served in tiny plastic reusable cups, like ones I’ve seen for liquid medicine in hospitals. David preferred their daiginjō, which had just won the New Sake Appraisal, and as usual I preferred the ginjō. It’s hard to explain, but I think ginjō benefits from slightly more body and complexity. We also tasted their well-regarded rice shōchu, which was pleasantly rounded despite the high alcohol content.
The cafe area was full of local pottery and other gifts, and we roamed around and enjoyed some amazake ice cream, coffee made with brewing water, and sake lees castella (pound cake) while chatting to Miyano, then Shushuke returned with his mother, Tonoike Mairyo. We had a fantastic time talking to both of them, about the WSET and perceptions of sake abroad, including the misconception that sake is high in alcohol because it’s served in tiny cups, and how other companies are trying to overcome problems breaking into the European market.
After treating us to a sweet red bean and mochi soup, Mariyo very kindly brought us to the station – we wished each other well and she offered to put us up the next time we visited.
- Tonoike/Sanran brewery (English) The Tonoike brewery has a cafe/shop and a short tour, so you can visit without making special arrangements, but make sure to reserve if you’re coming as a group.