“Do you know who brewed the first beer in Japan and when? Do you know what yeast he used? A hint: I can tell you it was close to our Tokyo wharehouse in Minami Kayabacho…” Mr. Tsuji is looking at us across the diner table, while pouring for us the craft beer he created few years earlier.
Despite my many years studying sake and its culture, I must confess I had never taken the time to make a stop in Itami. Mind you, the city, located just west of Osaka, is not on modern tourist maps, and has no particular landmark. Only one of the 72 sake breweries which made sake at some point in Itami still is in business, and it is operating a relatively modern factory, therefore one might think it is not worth the detour.
March 16th with Konishi Shuzou turned out to be a very rich experience though. The company has accumulated and maintained, since the beginning of the Edo period, an incredible volume of precious written information and drawings about its region, sake and its culture, the Tokyo market. Moreover, and as importantly, its people have a desire to share it.
As a matter of fact, the Konishi family started brewing sake in Itami in 1550, at a strategic location near Igawa, a large river connected to waterways leading to Kyoto the imperial capital, Nara the ancient capital (and still a place where many new sake brewing techniques were under development at temples), Osaka and its rice trading community, and last but not least, at a short distance, the sea, the quickest way to carry large quantities of sake to the soon-to-emerge city of Edo, the Tokugawa capital. Itami became the place where large scale sake production developed in Japan (together with nearby Ikeda and Konoike), until Nada took over in the second half of the XIXth century. In a country at peace and made relatively safe after centuries of civil war, where common people were circulating relatively easily, Itami and its sake breweries actually became a tourist destination, represented in illustrated books. And that is how I spent a full and dense day at Konishi Shuzou, visiting the kura, sampling its sake branded Shirayuki (which includes handcrafted Genroku sake prepared in accordance with an old recipe), and exploring new cultural fields, under the good care of Konishi representatives, telling stories, showing documents and taking me through some of the historic buildings and sake artifacts that remain in the city. The day finished at their old kura turned into a craft beer brewery, a few years after Konishi Shuzou became a large importer of Belgian beer (who says that city twinning does not create business opportunities?), for an ale tasting session. I can only thank them all for their generosity … and visit again at the next opportunity!
By the way, the answer is: Komin Kawamoto (1810~1871), a scholar and doctor who studied Dutch and English very early on, becoming the interpret of Commodore Perry’s delegation. In 1854, he made his first brew on a trial basis, using sake yeast. He was from Hyogo originally (like Konishi Shuzou), and operating near the company’s warehouse. Could that yeast have been Shirayuki’s? There is no record for once …