Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto – Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery

Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto – Part 1

Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery

This morning I awoke at 5:00, opened the window and looked out at Kitayama, the North Mountains of Kyoto to see everything covered in heavy snow.

At 7am, amid heavy snowflakes, I was met by Yukihiro Kitagawa, outside his sake brewery, Kitagawa Honke, the maker of the premium sake brand, Tomio. Mr Kitagawa is the 14th president of Kitagawa Honke.

Kitagawa Honke is about 300 years old, and I was kindly allowed to see what few outsiders get to see firsthand, the production of sake, this year’s production lot no.18 Daiginjo Yamada-nishiki (No.18 大吟醸 山田錦).

I spent nearly two full days learning, watching, studying about how to make fine Japanese sake. I even did a little hard labor, all for the love of sake! I love sake and sake seems to love me, so we decided that I will continue to visit Kitagawa Honke throughout the year and document and report the goings on of this premium sake brewery here on KyotoFoodie.

Whiteboard Notes
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
I was given a lecture by Mr. Kitagawa regarding Kitagawa Honke’s production process, the ‘multiple parallel fermentation’ process, and the particulars of production lot no.18 Daiginjo Yamada-nishiki 39% .

Classical Sake Production Process
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
This painting is of Kitagawa Honke before industrialization. On lunch break I looked at the painting again in utter astonishment. The sake production process is cold, cold, cold and there is ice cold water everywhere. Look closely, these men are not only barelegged but also barefoot!

Here’s a quick summary of what you need to know about Japanese sake:

What makes sake, what makes great sake?

Kokkin: Meet Japan’s ‘national micro-organism’; koji.
It’s all about koji. What the heck is koji? Aspergillus oryzae. Diastic Enzyme. Kokkin (National Micro-organism). This enzyme is essential to such things as shoyu (soy sauce) and miso as well as most of the alcoholic beverages of Asia.

Without koji you can’t make sake, without great koji, you can’t make great sake. Koji is cultivated in the brewery by the most expensive machine in the premises, a gigantic incubator. Great, great care is invested in the production of the brewery’s koji.

Next you have to have great water. Kyoto has great water for tea, dashi and sake. Fushimi, has really great water. The water of Fushimi is well balanced, right in the middle between soft and hard. This makes for a balanced sake.

Rice is also important, but not as important as you might expect. There is a special rice just for sake. The grain is larger than usual, containing more starch than normal rice. Several regions of Japan grow the best sake rice.

To make the more premium, ‘fruity’ sakes, rice is milled down to leaving anywhere from 70% to 39%. The more it is milled, the better and more expensive the resulting sake.

The sake that was being made when I visited was made with Yamada-nishiki rice from Hyogo Prefecture, milled to 39% — super premium!

Brewing Sake
Premium sake is a ‘fresh’ beverage, usually consumed within months, not years of bottling. One production lot of sake, the fermentation process is usually complete in about one month.

Storage is critical, it must be kept chilled to prevent the flavor from being spoiled. (That means export of real sake is difficult and expensive.)

In the production of alcoholic beverages made from fruit, such as wine, sugars contained in the fruit facilitates the fermentation process.

Rice is starch, not sugar, yet the end result, alcohol, can only be produced with glucose. Where does it come from? The all important koji converts the starch to sugar, this process is called saccrification. Yeast then converts this to alcohol.

This process is called a ‘multiple parallel fermentation’ process and is very complex and difficult to control.


  1. Milling: brown rice is milled
  2. Washing and Soaking: white rice is washed and soaked
  3. Steaming: rice is steamed
  4. Mash: mash is made with steamed rice, koji, yeast
  5. Fermentation
  6. Pressing
  7. Filtering
  8. Pasteurization: low temperature pasteurization is common, but not all sake is pasteurized
  9. Bottling: some sake is aged before bottling

There are many different kinds of sake.

I. Types of Sake
There are several different types of sake, and the following special denominations are specified by the Japanese government.

Ginjoshu (吟醸酒)
Sake made using white rice which has been milled so that 60% or less of the grain remains. It also contains rice koji and water, and may contain all of these ingredients plus brewing alcohol. It is characterized by a fruity, somewhat floral bouquet and a clear, crisp flavor. If the rice is polished down to 50% or less, the sake is called Dai-ginjoshu (大吟醸酒)

Junmaishu (純米酒)
Sake made only from white rice, rice koji, and water. It tends to have a mellow bouquet and a rich, smooth flavor.

Honjozoshu (本醸造酒)
Sake made using white rice which has been milled so that 70% or less of the grain remains, along with rice koji, brewing alcohol, and water. It is known for its mild, unobtrusive bouquet, and a crisp flavor.

All other types of sake fall under the category of Futsushu, which is consumed widely throughout Japan. This category offers various tastes, with each brand of sake featuring a unique flavor that is characteristic of the brewery.

II. Sake Varieties
Sake varieties are also distinguished by brewing method.

Namazake (生酒)
Sake that is not heated for pasteurization after the final mash is pressed. It is characterized by a light, fresh flavor.

Genshu (原酒)
Sake with a higher alcohol content because it has been pressed but not diluted with added water. It has a deep, rich flavor and an alcohol content of from 17% to 20%.

Koshu (Aged sake) (古酒)
Sake that has been aged for a couple of years, or for upwards of five years or longer. It has a bouquet like sherry, with a flavor profile that includes spices and nuts.

Taruzake (Cask sake) (樽酒)
Sake that is aged in casks and thus takes on the fragrance of the wood from which the cask is made.

Nigorizake (にごり酒)
Sake that is milky white, since the mash is only lightly filtered using a coarse-textured cloth.

Happoshu (Sparkling sake) (発砲酒)
Carbonated sake, with a mouth feel reminiscent of champagne.

source: Japan Sake Brewers Association

Here are some photos I took of various stages of the production of ‘no.18’.

1.) Koji Production

Seikikushitsu (製麹室), Koji Production Room
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
Koji is the heart and soul of sake, above the door is a small shrine dedicated to the God of Sake.

2.) Washing and Soaking the Rice

Timing is Everything
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
Notice the stop watch. This is the toji, or brew master. The amount of water absorbed in the washing process must be carefully controlled and can be affected by the air/water temperature, humidity and amount of residual moisture in the rice (before washing). Too much or too little water and it won’t be steamed to al dante!

Washing the Rice, the Old Fashioned Way
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
This is handcrafted sake. Here rice is being washed 12 kilos at a time, very labor intensive.

Washing the Rice
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie

Washing the Rice
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie

Washing the Rice
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie

Weighing the Rice and Calculating Water Content
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
Twenty-eight percent water content was the goal.
Notice the firehose sized hoses in the background, they pump out 100s of liters per minute of ice-cold, delicious Fushimi water.

Toji Inspecting Washed and Soaked Rice
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie

Toji Inspecting Washed and Soaked Rice
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
If the rice half melts, half crumbles, it is just right for steaming, which will be done the next day. The rice is covered with wet linen sheets in stainless steel hoppers and loses no water content over night.

3.) Steaming and Cooling the Rice

Rice Steamer
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
This kurabito inspects rice as it comes out of the steamer and into the cooling chamber, which is behind him. Rice is steamed in this massive machine for 50 minutes.

Inspecting Steamed Rice
Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi - Part 2
Toji and kurabito inspect rice as it exits the steamer.

Chilled After Steaming
Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi - Part 2
The steamed rice has been mechanically chilled. Next it will be transported to an open air room to be chilled further.

Cooling the Steamed Rice for Premium Daiginjo SakeSake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
The make the best sake possible, the rice should be as cold as possible. After being mechanically chilled it is moved to this room with the windows open and fans blowing on the rice for an hour or so. They were able to chill it a further 1°C. Here the president, Mr. Kitagawa (left) lends a hand.

Cooling the Rice for Premium Daiginjo Sake
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
Notice the fan, left.

Cooling the Rice for Premium Daiginjo Sake
Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi - Part 2
Notice the thermometer, center. They are trying to lower the temperature by just 1°C! The colder the better the sake.

4.) Fermentation

Transferring the Koji to the Vat (via yellow bucket)
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
The metal cylinder contains the koji mixture/fermentation starter for this production lot.

Vat Interior – no.18
Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi - Part 2
Koji mixture, next comes the rice.

President and Toji Confer
Sake: A New Series at KyotoFoodie
Here rice has come out of the mechanical chilling machine. Mr. Kitagawa (left) and Toji (center) inspect the rice will discussing details. The kurabito (right) prepares to move the rice to the large open air room to cool it further.

Rice Added to Vat
Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi - Part 2
Now the fermentation process begins. It will take about 1 month.

Sake Series:
Learning to Make Sake: Part 1
Learning to Make Sake: Part 2
Learning to Make Sake: Part 3
Learning to Make Sake: Part 4
Learning to Make Sake: Part 5

14 Responses to “Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto – Part 1”

  1. Kat says:

    wow! what a great experience 🙂

  2. etsuko says:

    Great summary! I look forward to reading more about your experience at this Kitagawa Honke throughout the brewing season.

  3. PekoPeko says:

    Hey there gals,
    Yes, it was great fun! Actually, I just got back from Kitagawa Honke again. Today I photographed the progress of ‘no.18’ and peeked in on ‘no.20’ (we just got acquainted today).
    Also, they were pasteurizing and sealing vats today. That was very interesting. Got some more great pictures!

  4. Lori says:

    I really like that painting of the classical sake production process! That style of painting is so beautiful often with great historical value. 🙂

  5. […] enjoyed this dinner with Muroka Nama-genshu (無濾過生原酒) from Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery (Part 1) that I picked up on a recent visit. This unfiltered (muroka) sake is both namazake and genshu, […]

  6. Wookie says:

    I found your link on Serious Eats. Thanks for the education on sake. Most people I know, myself included, know very little about sake beyond what is served at the local sushi places. Sad. I’m looking forward to picking up more info through your blog.

  7. PekoPeko says:

    Hello Lori,
    Yes, that painting caught my attention, but I was more in awe of the bare feet after I had just been getting chilled to the bone, dressed in winter clothes and rubber sandals (which were kindly changed to rubber boots for me). The painting looked to be about 150 years old to my eye.

  8. PekoPeko says:

    Hello there Wookie!

    Thanks for stopping by — and leaving a comment.

    I hope that I can do an adequate job ‘educating’ you all — honestly I need to educate myself a whole lot more on this subject matter.
    But I do hope that people will understand and remember that making an alcoholic drink, especially a fruity one from grain such as rice is very difficult indeed!

    You might want to checkout Beau Timken’s sake story over at True Sake? Some REAL sake can be had there.

    Apparently, Beau (whom I have never met) visited Kitagawa Honke on a recent trip to Japan.

    I will be keeping the sake articles coming. So, please check back!

  9. Christina says:

    Fascinating! What a cool experience (in more ways than one obviously!). Looking forward to hearing and seeing more.

  10. PekoPeko says:

    Hi Christina,
    Yeah, it was/is certainly cool! I will keep the info coming!

  11. John P says:

    So cool! I am jealous.

  12. PekoPeko says:

    Hey John,
    Thanks again for the great article on your blog about foodie photography!

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