Food & Drink Restaurants

A peek into the world of artisanal sake

David Celdran gets inside an artisanal brewery and learns how sake is made using traditional methods from a family that rebuilt a 139-year-old brewery ravaged by last year’s earthquake.
David Celdran | Sep 04 2018

As consumption of sake gains popularity outside Japan, big producers with an eye on the overseas market have started opening up their breweries to foreign visitors. But the world of the artisanal sake producer remains closed off to most gaijin. Apart from the obvious risk of introducing impurities into the sterile environment of the brewery, these family-owned and managed operations simply don’t have the time or personnel to bother with guided tours and nosy outsiders. Artisanal sake producers are typically small in size with less than 50 workers. And since much of the sake is still made by hand, production is limited to under 20,000 bottles per month—a miniscule amount in Japan.

Freshly steamed rice carried off for cooling. The rice used in premium sake is milled and polished to reach the core of the grain where the purest starch is found.
The rice kernels are milled and washed before steaming.

The Niizawa Jouzouten brewery, established in 1873 in the Northern city of Sendai, is one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Very little of their sake is sold overseas and, at least for most, the only way to taste their premium Daiginjo is on board a Japan Airlines flight. But when the Great East Japan earthquake struck the region on March 11, 2011, the brewery collapsed and its owner died shortly after. Now in the hands of the next generation of Niizawas, the brewery was moved farther away from the city, near the foothills of Mount Zao. Apart from the change in location, the family tradition of sake-making remains, as have their loyal staff of craftsmen and workers.

Miyagi Prefecture, where the brewery is currently located, is a rich source for the type of rice and water ideal for making sake. The other key to the family’s award-winning Daiginjo is the meticulous way they manually produce their sake. “Every step is critical; it’s like raising a child,” says the 36-year-old Iwao Niizawa, the brewery’s current owner and head brew master.

“I want to take the taste out of the rice,” says Iwao Niizawa. For him, the perfect Daiginjo should not be too fragrant or have too much bouquet, and neither should it be too strong or tannic.

Despite purchasing new equipment to replace the machinery damaged in the quake, Niizawa still prefers to do much of the work by hand. In the critical stages after washing and steaming, the owner himself likes to hold the rice in his hands, smelling and tasting it to determine the quality. For smaller batches of limited edition sake, hands are also used to cool down the rice, a laborious process that keeps the grains from being damaged in the larger cooling machines. According to Niizawa, “Good sake is only 20 percent rice, but 80 percent care.”

Owner and brew master Iwao Niizawa personally handles and smells the newly-steamed rice before each batch is cooled down in preparation for the critical fermentation process. Niizawa can predict the quality of the sake from the feel and smell of the rice alone.

Manual labor is also applied in the critical stages from when the fermentation begins up to when the sake is pressed and pasteurized before it’s bottled. The manual process and limited output of the brewery have meant higher prices on shelves—over three times the price of mass-produced sake. But the difference in taste is evident—Niizawa’s Daiginjo have won numerous awards in Japan and the country’s flag carrier, Japan Airlines, has chosen to serve it to first-class passengers. Niizawa sakes are sought after for their delicious subtlety in flavor and bouquet. The limited-edition Daiginjo (such as the Unite 311) can fetch up to JYP 200,000 (USD 2,500). It might seem like an exorbitant price to pay for a beverage made primarily from rice and water, but for handcrafted sake with a century-old tradition, it’s worth every drop.

During fermentation, the rice turns into mash—a liquid mixture kept in vats and mixed by hand up to twice a day for about a month before it’s pressed and bottled.
The Unite 311 Daiginjo, the brewery’s purest sake to date, uses rice polished to the highest level possible. A limited batch of 500 bottles was produced in memory of the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

 

Photography: David Celdran

First appeared on Vault Issue No. 6, 2012