Sake: Learning to Make Sake at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery in Fushimi – Part 2
This morning I awoke at 5am, opened the window and looked out at Kitayama, the North Mountains of Kyoto to see everything covered in heavy, wet 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.
In part 2 of our sake series, we examine the following:
- The history of Fushimi, Kyoto.
- The water of Fushimi and the two tastes of Japanese sake.
- The social and organizational relationships within the sake brewery.
Fushimi water hardness (softness), minerals and saccharification. Again, saccharification is the process of converting starch into sugars. Minerals in the water influence the fermentation process.
Fushimi is synonymous with sake in Japan and Kitagawa Honke is located here. Fushimi was once it’s own city but is now a ward of Kyoto.
Fushimi is one of several bakufu-machi (幕府街), literally, military government city, in Japan. Kyoto was the seat of the throne, but the emperor was often not consequential as a leader. The real power resided with the bakufu, the military and political leaders that comprised the samurai class.
After the Warring States period, Fushimi was built as seat of the bakufu.
Fushimi is a very interesting town. It was once the fifth largest city in Japan. It was the ‘port’ of landlocked Kyoto. Fushimi is criss-crossed by navigable rivers, which run down from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, through Fushimi and lead to the merchant town of Osaka and the sea. Much commerce was conducted between Kyoto and Osaka by river.
Fushimi is a delightful town, with many historic places to visit. For example Fushimi Castle and Fushimi Inari Shrine. Fushimi is about 10 minutes by train from the center of Kyoto.
Fushimi is blessed with springs that produce water of unusual softness. The original meaning of Fushimi appears to mean ‘hidden water’ (伏水), spring water. It is said that in 1594 water began vigorously bubbling up from the ground and sake breweries began to spring up and the town began to develop and prosper.
The rivers of Fushimi have nothing to do with the taste of the sake, they provided the transportation of it to the rest of Japan, via Osaka.
The Taste: Feminine Sake vs. Masculine Sake
Even today, Fushimi is the second largest producer of sake in Japan. The largest is Nada, in Kobe. Nada-zake is considered to be masculine in taste, Nada’s water is hard. Fushimi-zake is considered to be feminine in taste, Fushimi’s water is soft. Brewing style and tradition are surely part of the taste of the final product, but mineral content in the water creates unique characteristics in the fermentation process. And the fermentation process makes the taste.
Relationships: Kuramoto – Toji – Kurabito
As with all else in Japan, human relationships are very important to getting anything done, including making great sake!
Kuramoto (蔵元): brewery owner
Toji (杜氏): master sake brewer
Kurabito (蔵人): brewery workers
The kuramoto (president/owner) of the brewery oversees all aspects of the business.
The toji, master brewer, oversees all aspects of the sake production and hiring and managing the brewery workers. The position of toji and his relationship with the president/owner is very interesting. Every year, they decide what kind of sake that they will make and how much. From there, the toji is completely entrusted with the production of the year’s sake. A bit different than the modern CEO – department head relationship.
Currently there are three main ‘schools’, or ryuha of toji.
The meaning of toji is quite interesting. ‘To’ is said to be family name of the Chinese man that invented the process of brewing alcohol from rice. ‘Ji’ is the most polite form of ‘Mr.’ in Japanese. So, ‘Mr. To’ in honor of the man that started it all. The position of toji is highly respected in Japanese society, similar to the ‘celebrity chef’ phenomenon in Western countries, only with centuries more history.
Under the toji are the kurabito literally ‘brewery person’, a person working in the brewery. These people wash the rice, steam it, ferment it and bottle the sake. This is very hard work, manual labor. More than that, it is cold and wet work. The colder the air temperature, the better the sake that can be made. Water is used everywhere in the production process.
It is quite interesting to note that in many traditional industries here in Kyoto, it is very difficult for the owners to find young people that want to work in, say, a weaving or dying factory, but sake breweries have no trouble recruiting young, hardworking people excited about making great sake.
Traditionally, the sake brewery was the domain of men, but here at Kitagawa Honke there are two women on the kurabito crew. There are even female toji now.
Here are some (more) photos I took of various stages of the production of ‘no.18’.
This shows the rice, from left to right, in it’s natural state as brown rice and milled down to 70%, 60% and 50%. The more it is milled the higher the quality sake that can be produced.
Old and New: Instruments and Shinto ‘Paper Amulets’
The ‘paper amulets’ are from Matsuo Shrine in the Western Hills of Kyoto. In Matsuo Shrine is the God of Sake. These o-mamori (御守) are everywhere in the brewery, even attached to the most sophisticated instruments!
Production Lot No. 18. 1/26
This instrument measures, regulates and records the temperature in the vat.
In the Lab: Kiki-zake (利き酒・聞き酒) Evaluating the Sake
The toji took me down to the lab to taste some of the brews that he is most proud of. These three sakes were absolutely out of sight! How do you get such a complex and fruity taste out of rice? I do not know!
Of course you are supposed to spit out the sake, and I did spit out most of what I tasted. But the taste is different and fuller when swallowed. I ended up completely smashed, by 11:30 am!
In the Lab: Three Sakes
The Toji invited me down to the lab to try these three sakes of which he is particularly proud.
In the Lab: Tarekuchi Sake
This sake, Tarekuchi was exquisite, complex and fruity.
In the Lab
In the Lab