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The Hankyu Railways site has a two-part report by Akko-san, one of its “virtual station masters”, on an educational visit to the Nihonsakari brewery.

I was wondering where I’d come across their name before – they’re the brewery who put hot canned sake in convenience stores. It wasn’t bad! Now that I’ve seen some of the labels on their products, I think they’re stocked here by one of the Asian supermarkets.

“Akko-san” visited the Nihonsakari brewery on 16 December 2017, as the third and last Nishinomiya Sake School event of 2017. Each event is held at a different place, but she had seen the huge Nihonsakari plant on the way to a previous event and so knew where she was going. After getting off at  Hankyu Imazu station (and promoting the railway stamp rally) she then notes points of interest along the route from the station to the brewery, including Japan’s oldest beacon light tower. 

Imazu is in the Nada Go-go (five villages of Nada) area renowned for its sake and breweries, where the famous Miyamizu water rises. (“Famous” because it’s relatively hard water by Japanese standards, which has a distinctive effect on the brewing. If you’re from Ireland or southeast of the UK it’s not hard water, but water in Kyoto and other areas is even softer.) The article has a photo of a hand-drawn map of the area with sites of sake-related interest, and the obligatory town mascot character Hiyatan. Akko-san notes that she came here before to visit the Hakutaka and Hakushika breweries, and adds photos of Nishinomiya’s decorative manhole covers which feature old breweries and sake casks. They even have their own cards explaining the designs.

At the end of the first article she arrives at the Nihonsakari brewery, entering its Rengakan (red brick hall) restaurant on Shuzō-dōri (Brewery Street). The hall provides information on how to enjoy sake, serves matching dishes from all over Japan, and showcases the company’s line of rice bran-based cosmetics. (It’s a waste product from milling, so breweries produce a lot of it. Good that it’s not going to waste.) There’s also a glass-blowing studio. 

The Nishinomiya Sake School students were split up into groups of 10 and shown the process by which sake is made, starting from the very beginning. They were given the phrase 一麹、二酛、三造り (ichi-kōji, ni-moto, san-tsukuri, first kōji, second starter, third brewing) to remember the sequence. This reflects the three key points according to Nihonsakari: first the growing of kōji, then making the moto starter with the yeast, and finally creating the moromi main ferment. Everyone entering the brewery was required to wear protective clothing to avoid bringing in any unwanted bacteria.

Akko-san also saw fermenting sake at various stages, and remarked that the amount of bubbles and the smell changes accordingly (something we noticed too on brewery visits) and that she caught the fragrant apple-like aroma characteristic of Nihonsakari. The students were then taught that although yeast transforms sugar into alcohol, the carbohydrates in rice must first be turned into sugar before fermentation can begin, introducing them to the key role of kōji in the process. They also reviewed the differences between table rice and sake-specific rice (酒造好適米, shuzō kōteki mai, literally “rice preferable for brewing”) such as Gohyakumangoku, Miyama-Nishiki and the “king” Yamada-Nishiki, including large grains and the presence of the white shinpaku starch core.

The three qualities said to be desirable in sake rice are:

  1. Size/weight (measured per 1,000 grains)
  2. Core (mostly white, rather than translucent)
  3. Low in protein

Yamada-Nishiki ticks all the boxes, but has to be carefully managed at every stage from preparing the soil, growing and transplanting seedlings, protection from pests and giving the right amount of water and fertiliser. Yamada-Nishiki is also very tall and therefore susceptible to wind damage and attack by disease and insects. Akko-san notes that Hakutaka and Hakushika had also told students about Yamada-Nishiki during the second event.

The day ended with brewery staff joking that the students should try their best to take photos that started trending on Instagram, and a short tasting session.