Why did Yamauchi Shuzou settle there in the first place, at an altitude of 540 meters, in a narrow valley, quite a distance away from Nakasendo (the old commercial route between Edo and Kyoto through the mountains) or the towns developing at the bottom of feudal castles?
Water is the answer, abundant clean clear water springing behind the Kura.
While the Kura survived over 21 generations, it is now producing a tiny fraction of its capacity: about 20 Koku, i.e. 3,600 liters of sake only, during the coldest months of the year (temperature was 2 degrees Celsius inside the Kura while we were there, on a sunny day outside). It makes them one of the smallest commercial producers in the country, if not the smallest.
The current heir and owner has been operating it with barely any mechanical or electrical equipment, with fellow farmers, for a number of years, when the fields do not require them to work there. As we found out when we arrived, they still use a beautiful Fune press (Fune means vessel (boat)), made of seasoned massive wooden planks. A Fune press is a sort of tub with a hole at the bottom and a lid that can be screwed with a crank over bags filled with Moromi (fermenting mash). It seems the team at Yamauchi Shuzou fills such bags entirely manually.
A few years ago the Kura received the help of Oga san, sake retailer (no website) in the town of Nakatsugawa (Gifu Prefecture), who heartedly took on the challenge of learning sake brewing, spending time at the sake brewing research center in Hiroshima Prefecture. Because of the fragile health of Mr. Yamauchi, he is now the man in charge. This year he brewed the fist sake tank he was fully responsible for and wanted to hear our judgment, since almost no one had had the privilege of tasting it. While Mr. Yamauchi brews sake from local Hidahomare (a sake rice from Gifu Prefecture), Oga san chose Gohyakumangoku (another sake rice variety, highly popular, where rice grains had been polished to 55% of their initial mass), and produced a clean, very dry Junmai. Faithful to the water used to brew such sake, I would qualify it as easy-to drink, quite masculine, designed to support local flavourful food during a whole meal. The rest of the production is brewed from rice cultivated by the Kuramoto and his aides.
Oga san suggested we climb the steep ladder to the attic. It was full of ancient tools used at the brewery, a sort of sake history museum without a curator.
I enjoyed the visit very much. Yamuchi shuzou (no website!) is a place where one feels the craftsmanship that sake brewing requires, in the many operations and decisions that the Toji or Kuramoto need to make. As Oga san puts it, there is no cheating. “We produce a single tank of each of our sake each year, we cannot adjust the taste by blending one with another, it is what it is”. And it means sake is different every year as well!
In the short selection of sake from the Higashi Mino region (Nakatsugawa and Ena cities) I had received from my host before making my way to Nakatsugawa, the Tokubetsujunmai from Yamauchi Shuzou had the strongest acidity and fullest body. All were Junmai sake brewed from Hidahomare in Gifu. It had sort of mature flavors as well, which had prompted me to try a pairing with a French blue cheese … then raclette cheese (the bottle standing in the middle). It was a success, and it turned out to be a very good companion for the roast deer fillet we paired it with in Ena (Gifu Prefecture) as well.