Foreign converts

I recently took part in a sake tasting event for 9 independent craft breweries across the globe, organized by Iida Group of Companies.

I have quite a bit of admiration for those who challenge themselves to start brewing good sake in their hometown, and put it on the market. They definitely play a role in the spreading of sake culture across the world, educating customers.

That is probably why most receive support from Japan, Iida Group, breweries, independent consultants etc. Because sake is part of an “ecosystem”, they need to engage with farmers in their country (or region), so that they grow local rice cultivars for them, or Japanese cultivars using Japanese seeds. The import of rice harvested in Japan is not a long term solution.

I had seldom experienced such a diversity in flavors at a sake tasting event focused on so few references. This made the exercise quite interesting. I cannot say that I loved them all, however I did identify my favorites, brewed by Sequoia, YK3 and Seda Liquida.

Gambare! Don’t give up!

Part of Iida Group of companies, Shinnakano KK is one of the leaders in rice polishing technology. Outside Japan’s frontiers, they set up a mill in the US and have been supplying good polished rice to US sake breweries for about 20 years. Naturally they are following the development of new sake brewery projects across the globe with interest, and supporting such projects with their sister companies when relevant. Here follows their selection this time.


flag-for-canada_1f1e8-1f1e6 YK3 (b. 2013) is a Canadian brewery owned and managed by a Japanese team (Kuramoto [owner] Yuki Kobayashi & Yoshihiro Kawamura, Toji [master brewer] Yoshiaki Kasugai, 3xY.K.). They are located near Vancouver, which I associate with Nature and pristine water. Yoshiake Kasugai has a long experience brewing sake in Japan.  Three products brewed from Californian Calrose rice were presented, including a 2010 vintage (all Seimaibuai 70%).

flag-for-canada_1f1e8-1f1e6 On the other side of the country, Ontario Spring Water Sake (b. 2010) is owned by former financier Ken Valvur. Greg Newton is the Toji. Their three sake branded Izumi (“Water spring”) were brewed from the same Calrose rice (Seimaibuai 70%). They initially received support from Miyasaka san and his brewery (Masumi brand in Nagano), which I regularly visit.

flag-for-united-states_1f1fa-1f1f8 “The oldest sake brewery in Tenessee” is Proper Sake Co. (b. 2016, are there others?). Kuramoto Toji is Byron Stithe. Bryson Aust is co-owner. They use Yamada Nishiki (60% Seimaibuai), presented three Muroka Nama Genshu (unfiltered, unpasteurized, undiluted sake).

flag-for-united-states_1f1fa-1f1f8 From Massachusetts in the US as well, Dovetail Sake (b. 2011, Kuramoto Daniel Krupp, Toji Todd Bellomy) were presenting 2 sake brewed from Yamada Nishiki (Seimaibuai 60%).

flag-for-united-states_1f1fa-1f1f8 Born in California (2014), Sequoia Sake Company is owned by a trio, former IT specialist Jake Murick (who is Toji as well), Noriko Kamei, and Warren Pfahl. They introduced a broad selection of 9 sake, sharing one common “platform”: organic Calrose rice as Kakemai (rice added to the fermentation tank, Seimaibuai 60%) and Yamada Nishiki  as Kojimai (for Koji, Seimaibuai 50%). They seem to like proposing experiences. In particular, there was a Ginjo sake (a bit of alcohol added at the end of fermentation) presented in three parts: one aged in a bourbon barrel, another one in a red wine barrel, a last one in a white wine barrel. It was interesting to compare the flavors unique to each bottle. Vanilla aromas (oak) were present in all. I liked the bourbon one, which tasted like a mature sake (chocolate and somewhat smoky flavors), and the white wine one (flavor of coconut and citrus), much less the red wine one (tanins?).

flag-for-new-zealand_1f1f3-1f1ff New Zealand Sake Brewers (b. 2015) is owned by Kuramoto Toji and former Japan resident David Joll, as well as Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall. They use a diversity of rice (Gohyaku Mangoku, Yamada Nishiki, Calrose, Sasanishiki). “Zenkuro” is their brand. It means … “All Black”.

flag-for-spain_1f1ea-1f1f8 In Spain, Antoni Campins started to brew sake in 2015 (Seda Liquida, brand name Kinu no Shizuku). He is currently using Yamada Nishiki (Seimaibuai 50%). I found his sake easy to drink, on the sweet side. I was thus surprised to read about its relatively high Nihonshudo for a “sweet” sake : +7, despite a “standard” alcohol content (15%).

flag-for-united-kingdom_1f1ec-1f1e7 From the UK, Kanpai – London Craft Sake (b. 2016) is managed by Kuramoto Toji Tom Wilson, with his wife Lucy. Tom Wilson experienced sake brewing at a few places in Japan, including Masuda Tokubee Shoten, topic of my last blog entry. He is using Gohyaku Mangoku or Calrose rice (both Seimaibuai 70%).

flag-for-mexico_1f1f2-1f1fd Ultramarino was born in Mexico in 2016, introduced 3 sake branded “Nami” (the wave) brewed from Yamada Nishiki, graded Junmai (Seimaibuai 55%), Junmai Ginjo (Seimaibuai 50%!) and Junmai Daiginjo (Seimaibuai 40%!!).

flag-for-france_1f1eb-1f1f7 As my readers will know, there are other active craft breweries. On this blog I posted about Brasserie Chevalier in France last year.  I am looking forward to their first sake (next winter hopefully?).



Nihonshu heart and soul

Do you know where to worship the deity of Apergillus? For those who know Japan well, it should not be a surprise that there is such a Kami in the Shinto pantheon. Indeed the fungus produces miracles, namely enzymes called “amylase” and “protease”, responsible for breaking down starch and protein molecules of cereals into sugars and amino acids. Koji-kin, as it is known in Japan, made good miso, good soy sauce and good sake possible. Potential worshipers are now legions all over the world.

The conditions of the arrival of Koji-kin into Japan are not very well known: imported by Chinese merchants or craftsmen, brought back by traveling Japanese monks? However, these travelers were necessarily going at some point through the Setonaikai (the Seto Inland Sea), between Honshu and Shikoku Islands, on their way to Nara. Kotaishi Jinja (皇太子神社) is a place dedicated to the deity of Koji-kin, and its shrine located near costal waters in Kagawa Prefecture seems to be the main one.


About 7 kilometers inland from Kotaishi Shrine, industrious former indigo dyer Seizou Kawahito founded a sake brewery 127 years ago (1891), attracted by beautiful underground water near the River Saita. The patriarch had a dream about Japanese cranes landing on the river … a new sake brand was born: Kawatsuru (川鶴, river crane).


Truly friendly Yuichiro Kawahito, Kuramoto Toji (6thgeneration owner and master brewer), was our host for the July edition of Sake Salon. Looking at old photographs, we could guess that the brewery was a quite large producer from inception to the peak years of sake production in Japan, but now operates on a much smaller scale, with 7 people, allowing Mr. Kawahito and his crew to truly put their “Heart and Soul” (the name of one of their sake) in their products.

They source their rice from the prefectures facing the Seto Inland sea, and are part of this movement of Kuramoto getting “back” into rice cultivation. They take good care of 3 paddies near the brewery, producing Yamada Nishiki. They buy the rest of their Kagawa rice from 12 farmers under contract, located closer to the mountain.


Mr. Kawahito came with a selection of 6 sake. I loved the consistency of them all, across rice varietals and grades, the medium acidity and the low bitterness. As intended, they surely are a great match for local gastronomy, tasty white fish swimming the heavy currents of Setonaikai in particular, such as Hamachi (Yellowtail) or Tai (Seabream).


As a local delicacy, Yuichiro Kawahito had brought some Otaru (firefly squids) dried in the sun.

From right to left, rich “Heart and Soul” was brewed from their own Yamada Nishiki, polished down to 80% Seimaibuai only, to reveal all the flavors of their terroir. Fruity Yellow label is an almost scientific approach to bottling a Genshu (undiluted sake, so as to not dilute aromas) but keep alcohol level below 15%. Junmai Ginjo grade, the sake was born from the same sake rice. Their sake favored by locals bears a blue label. Smooth, it must be highly enjoyable warm as well. This Tokubetsu Junmai sake was produced from a blend of Yamada Nishiki and local Oseto sakamai.

Then came their special products: an Omachi sake (rice from Okayama) with a high seimaibuai of 80% (little aromas, but what a rich taste), and a summer sake (light and refreshing, with a great Kire (ending like water through the throat), bearing the “Taste the Power” name. It was born from Hattan Nishiki, a Hiroshima Sakamai.

Last but not least, we ended the tasting with a Junmai Daiginjo from Omachi rice polished down to 45% Seimaibuai, aromatic and fruity, with a complex flavor profile. This fuller body sake attracted attention at the Kura Master competition in 2017 in Paris.


Tradition and Innovation in Fushimi

At last I made it to Mr. Masuda’s Sakagura in Fushimi (Southern part of Kyoto city), and re-united with Guillaume Ozanne, the French Kurabito who came from my homeland in Normandy.


(picture taken at the Gion Matsuri in July 2017, Mr. Masuda is on the left)

The two large buildings containing the sake production and storage rooms, the offices and the owner’s living quarters, sit on both sides of the narrow road running alongside the Katsura river.

Nature generated quite a bit of stress in recent months: the Osaka earthquake damaged the roof’s structure (perceived intensity of 6 on Richter’s scale in Kyoto), and a few weeks ago heavy rains swelled the Katsura river to threatening levels.


That road (Toba Tsukurimichi) has a very long history. In Heian times (starting 794 AD), it connected the new Imperial Capital, Kyoto, to the Kii Peninsula and the former capital of Nara already. On the economic front, it then became a vital artery between Kyoto and strategically located Osaka, a city of merchants, the rice storage and trading centre of feudal Japan.

Masuda san’s ancestors used to run an inn for noblemen on the road. In Edo times, it became easier to start new businesses, and a sake brewery was opened next to the inn, in 1675. While sake production in Kyoto became a started and bloomed soon after the city became Imperial, Masuda Tokubee Shoten actually is one of the oldest if not the oldest surviving sake brewery in Fushimi.

One night, a noble man resting at the inn enjoyed the sake brewed from the waters of nearby Kastura River and gave it its poetic name, “Tsuki to Katsura” (Tsuki designates the moon, and Katsura the Japanese Judas tree).

Unlike some of its Fushimi peers, Masuda Tokubee Shoten remained quite small and still very much illustrates what traditional craft sake is about. They mean it!


Fast-forward to our times, the Kura proved to be a major innovator in the sixties. Keiichi Masuda (Tokubee Masuda’s father) pushed the tax administration hard to be allowed to re-introduce nigori sake (or nigorizake, ie cloudy sake) in the marketplace. He was successful in 1964 and his efforts eventually resulted in an amendment of sake brewing regulations. Today, a metal mesh formed into a long parallelepipedic structure is introduced into the fermentation tank and sake is pumped directly from the space in the middle. In other words while coarse filtering of the Moromi (fermenting mash) is definitely taking place, such Moromi does not go through the standard “filtration” process that involves pressing the mash through a filter.


Another trademark product of Masuda san is aged sake. Each of the last 52 years, the kura set aside a selection of sake in sealed ceramic jars. I understand that Mr. Masuda, 14thgeneration owner, is currently pondering about the best way to put such a treasure on the market, allowing sake fans to experience more of his old vintages. We are looking forward to it (if we can afford them !).


After my visit to the Kura, I ran to an event I was hosting that day in a nearby Ryotei (traditional restaurant). For the sake tasting part, I introduced both the nigorizake (Junmai grade, sparkling, delicate nose of yoghurt and fruity aromas (banana)) and “Yanagi” (Willow Tree), a soft, subtle and flavorful Junmai Ginjo (pear, vegetable aromas) brewed from a blend of Yamada Nishiki and Yume Nishiki Sakamai.

Blessings in Sado

To the traditional trio required to brew good sake, rice, water and people, Rumiko Obata adds a fourth player: Sado Island. They form the four diamonds (or four treasures) represented on her family crest (“Kamon”, on the green label on the picture below).


Invited to the last edition of Sake Salon by NPO Sake2020, Rumiko san spent as much time tantalizing us with the beauty of Sado island as explaining her sake.

As a matter of fact Sado Island’s ecosystem plays a key role in her sake’s personality. The large island is located 35 km away from the shores of Niigata Prefecture on Honshu Island, in the Sea of Japan. It produces high quality rice and has been in the forefront of nature conservation. Today it is known for sheltering crested ibises (Toki), reintroduced in Japan a few years ago.

Obata Shuzou is using local quasi-organic rice when possible, and relatively soft underground water originating from the 2 mountain ranges of the island, filtered through oyster shells: it reveals traces of minerals from the sea as well as from the mountain. Farmers under contract deliver locally grown Yamada Nishiki, Gohyaku Mangoku as well as Niigata’s own premium Sakamai (sake rice): Koshitanrei, a crossbreed between Yamada Nishiki and Gohyaku Mangoku.

The brewery was created in 1892. Their main brand is Manotsuru. While there are 5 breweries left on Sado Island today, there were up to a 100 in Edo times. While I have not checked the accuracy of my assumptions, I am not surprised. Sado Island used to be very well known and coveted for its gold mines in the Middle Ages then Edo times, and contributed to the reputation of “Zippangu”, which attracted Portuguese and Spaniards to the Japanese shores in the 15thcentury. The extraction of the precious metal from famous “Kinzan” was highly labor intensive (and working conditions harsh to say the least). Large quantities of sake probably were consumed on the island. Obata Shuzou keeps a connection with that part of local history. It uses some of the mining tunnels to age nihonshu.


(photo credit: Sado city)

Fifth generation President, Rumiko Obata is a truly dynamic lady.  Before introducing her lineup, she explained about the great project they started in 2014. A local school was transformed into a state of the art brewery to teach sake brewing to visitors and spread the culture. There are some possible 7-day internships during the summer period, when the main brewery is idle …. and Sado Island a beautiful destination to visit.

Here follows the lineup for the evening:

  • A delicious seasonal sparkling Nigori (bottle was emptied before I could take the piture :))
  • “Maho”, brewed from Yamada Nishiki (35% Seimaibuai, Daiginjo grade), an expression of exotic fruits. The name evokes a golden rice field.
  • “Miku”, brewed from Koshitanrei (35% Seimaibuai as well, Junmai Daiginjo garde) has a rich taste and attracted attention at the 2017 Kura Master sake “concours” in Paris. Its name evokes the proximity of harvest time.
  • A very dry Junmai brewed from Gohyakumangoku, light and smooth
  • A fuller body sake named “Midoriyama” (green mountain), brewed from Yamada Nishiki grown in Sado.


Rumiko san had brought a local delicacy as well, marinated ginger, a Narazuke cousin.

the Brewery with a mooring

Bathed by the waters of the Sea of Japan, Ine is a beautiful fishing village located in the Tango peninsula, Kyoto Prefecture, 100 km North of the former Imperial Capital.


There, mountain directly falls into the sea. In ancient times however, a community settled on the shore, in a deep, well protected cove. Today, Ine is known for its 230 “Funaya”, houses built on water: boats are moored on the first “floor” under a roof. The second floor is used as storage space or living quarters. In our times, the owner’s main house is usually located across the street running behind the Funaya.

Local sake brewer Mukai Shuzou uses a large building on the waterfront for part of its brewing, maturation and bottling processes. It even has a small floating mooring. In a place where the water was the main – and sometimes only – mean of transportation, it allows customers to conveniently come to buy their sake, and take delivery straight from the source.

As a matter of fact, the region is known for its heavy snowfall. It is not unusual to have more that 1 meter of white powder on the roadway in winter time, at sea level. On such days, Mukai Shuzou’s Kurabito can still be seen bustling across the street, carrying their loads between the 2 sides. The Mukai family house and main brewing facility are leaning directly against the mountain covered by a deep jungle.


The brewery was founded in 1754. 20 years ago, the owner Mr. Mukai broke with tradition. Running for local elections, he commanded Kuniko, his daughter freshly graduated from Tokyo Agricultural University, to become Toji and take over the responsibility for sake production.

According to Kuniko san, there were tough times, but she has built a bit of a reputation for herself and her sake since. She is developing a number of products expressing her terroir: a water rich in minerals (allowing a strong fermentation) and rice grown in nearby valleys.

The picture features “Kyo no Haru”, an unpasteurized undiluted sake on the dry side which will be a perfect match for local delicacies, Saba-heshiko for example (bottom picture). “Heshiko” is a traditional fish preservation method (mackerel here), using Miso. Another baby of Kuniko san is the “Ine Mankai” sake, brewed from Aka-mai (red rice, an ancient rice cultivar).


Inemankai is more on the sweet side and will pair well with meat. Actually I have used red sake Kasu from Ine Mankai (bottom picture) mixed with Miso to marinate “fillet mignon”. I will pair them soon!


I struggle to imagine a more pleasant experience than sipping her delicious sake drawn from nearby tanks, facing the blue sea, and am looking forward to my next visit.


Built over 420 years


Last April Sake Salon was receiving Kojima san, current head of the Kojima Sohonten sake brewery. Dressed with a white shirt and impeccable blue business suit, Mr. Kojima was blending well with the businessmen leaving their offices in Toranomon. While he actually worked for a large company producing hygiene products at some point, soon he revealed what makes him a special person: as 14thgeneration heir, he is defending a heritage and pursuing a mission that started in 1597. This makes Kojima Sohonten the 11th oldest sake brewery in Japan still in activity (1% percentile, since there are about 1,200 active breweries left).

Their brand, Toko (or Toukou, 東光) means Eastern Light. The kura is located East of the castle formally occupied by the very powerful Uesugi family of Daimyos, in Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture. Toko was actually a supplier to the castle.

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As illustrated by the picture, Yonezawa is located on a large alluvial fan of the Mogami river, and underground water is abundant. Using the American scale, its hardness/softness is measured at 60, on par with Volvic mineral water, or the water used by most brewers in Fushimi (Kyoto).

Yamagata is producing a lot of rice, and is well known for certain sake rice varietals such as Dewasansan. Toko often contracts with Yamagata farmers directly, and uses some rice produced by kurabito (company employees) as well, when these cultivate rice during the summer period.

My recent post “Snow Goddess” was a short story about the latest addition to the various rice options available to the sake brewer in Yamagata, and we actually started our tasting with a Junmai Daiginjo brewed from that same Yuki Megami sake rice (35% seimaibuai), before discovering another Junmai Daiginjo brewed from Yamada Nishiki polished down to 35% seimaibuai. About that last one, I keep the memory of a very fine, fruity but restrained sake at the same time, especially when considering that such sake was extracted from the Moromi mash using the Shizuku “drip” method, without pressure. It presented a slight bitterness.

It was followed by a Junmai Ginjo Genshu (undiluted after pressing: 16% alcohol).

Mr. Kojima is not only re-visiting the Toko tradition, he is innovating, and produces new styles for new consumers. He had brought one of the very first few bottles of an “experience”: a lower alcohol (13% without dilution), light sake, with hints of caramel, named “Kojimaya, Untitled 01” (Dewasansan rice, Junmai Daiginjo grade). Please refer to the bottle on the right of the picture.

We finished the tasting with Retsu (on the left), last of a line-up showing strong consistency, brewed from Yamagata iconic Dewasansan as well, a relatively dry sake matured for a full year.

Would you like to discover the beautiful kura building? You can watch the promotional video for SK-II, a (famous) skincare product, whose creators claimed they were inspired by the beautiful hands of sake brewers.



Snow Goddess


Japanese scientists are champions at crossbreeding. This applies to many fruits and vegetable available from the shelves of Japanese grocery stores… as well as cereals such as rice.

There are about 260 rice varietals in Japan, out of which a hundred are specifically cultivated for sake brewing. No need to learn the exact number, it will have changed the next time you need it. The three varietals most widely used in sake brewing today (Yamada Nishiki, Gohyaku Mangoku and Miyama Nishiki) have less than a hundred years of history. The “oldest” one, Yamada Nishiki, was cross-bred in the 1920’s, the “youngest” one, Miyama Nishiki was “labeled” in the 1980’s.

Yamagata Prefecture has a history of developing new Sakamai (i.e. sake rice) strains locally. Famous for its tenderness, and the “ricy” flavours it gives to sake during the fermenation, Dewa Sansan sake rice has become an Ambassador of Yamagata Sakamai. It was cross-bred in the late 19th century by the local agricultural research institute (1885, according to the Tatenokawa brewery).

Recently Yamagata has communicated on the development of sales of brewed from “Yuki Megami” sake rice (雪女神, i.e. “snow goddess”). Yuki Megami can be “safely” polished down to low levels of Semaibuai (a delicate and expensive process) and is therefore aimed at being used for the production of Daiginjo sake. A sake graded “ Daiginjo” or “Junmai Daiginjo” is the produce of rice whose Seimaibuai (residual mass of the rice after polishing) was measured at 50% or less (of initial mass). It should be no surprise that Yamada Nishiki was a happy parent of Yuki Megami. As a matter of fact, most sake bottles competing in the annual national new sake appraisal competition are Daiginjo (or Junmai Daiginjo) brewed from Yamada Nishiki, which has therefore been collecting most trophies over the years.

A high proportion of large Shinpaku in a standard lot characterizes Yuki Megami, like its parent. The Shinpaku is this zone that looks white under the light, at the heart of the grain. The white colour is caused by the diffraction of light, and reveals a complex structure of heavy starch molecules imprisoning void.

Sake brewed from Yuki Megami is not easy to find in Tokyo yet, but I put my hand on a bottle of Kurouzaemon. This very pale yellow daiginjo brewed by Shindo Sake Brewery, located in the plain of Yonezawa, was very pleasant to drink indeed, very well balanced, and offered interesting aromas of ripe banana or quince. Its finish was clean and short.

Will Yuki Megami become the next banner of Yamagata sake? To be followed.