Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi – part 1
Umeshu: Japanese plums, called ume (梅) are mainly used to flavor alcohol and vinegar and to make the incredible umeboshi, pickled plum. In early summer, it is popular to make ume flavored alcohol, called umeshu (梅酒) at home, but we were fortunate enough to get to learn from the pros this year.
Our friends and KyotoFoodie fans at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery showed Peko how they make their one-of-a-kind, Hannari (はんなり) brand ‘Kyoto style’ umeshu.
To make umeshu, the ume fruit are steeped in shochu (焼酎) for 6-9 months. The shochu is quite strong, 35% alcohol, but the finished umeshu is usually less than 15%. The shochu draws out the ume extract, ume extract combined with the sugar halves the alcohol content. If steeped longer than 6-9 months, the shochu will start to leach out the bitterness of the ume pits. After removing the fruit, umeshu can then be consumed or aged.
Umeshu is not fermented, therefore it is NOT ‘plum wine’. It is a liqueur.
The steeped ume fruit can be eaten and are sweet and tasty, yet quite intoxicating. It is common at New Year’s and other family gathering occasions in Japan to see some children red-faced and buzzing thanks to Grandpa fishing a few ume out of the jar for them to eat.
Now there are many kinds of umeshu available, many combining novel ingredients but it is always sweet and plum fruity. In the winter umeshu is excellent served with hot water and in the summer on ice or with soda water.
Umeshu is often made of the green ume fruit, however Kitagawa Honke uses fruit that are slightly more ripe, being more yellow in color. This creates a mellower and more full-bodied, complex flavor. (More about Hannari brand umeshu in part 2, and the recipe in an upcoming homecooking article.)
Umeshu Production Process
The process for making umeshu is quite simple.
1. De-stem the ume fruit.
2. Check quality, remove any overly ripe or rotten fruit.
4. Place in container with sugar and alcohol (35% by volume).
5. Seal container and place in a cool, dark place for aging.
The ume is in the plum family, but it is actually more closely related to apricot than what Westerns would usually think of as a plum. In the Kyoto region ume blossom in later winter, usually February. If you are lucky, you can see ume blossoms in the snow! The fruit is mature by early summer and often used when green and unripe.
Wakayama Prefecture, to the south-east of Kyoto produces the best ume in Japan. Vitually any high quality ume product in Japan uses ume from Wakayama, or Kishu (紀州) as it was once called. Kitagawa Honke selects ume from Kinan (紀南), which is the southern most part of Wakayama. The warm, mild climate makes for excellent ume.
Sake is made during the cold months so the brewery is not so busy in the summer, however in mid-June, when the ume are in season there is a 10 day flurry of activity when umeshu is made. Early every morning several tons of ume arrive and the fruit are sorted and de-stemmed. In addition to the kurabito (brewery workers) crew, the warehouse crew and the employees that work in the office walk down the street to the brewery and help out. All of this work in finished in the morning. After lunch, the kurabito crew wash the ume and place them in tanks with shochu and sugar.
In Japan there are numerous kinds of shochu. The most common shochu are distilled from sweet potato, barley or rice. Many other ingredients are used now; soba, black sugar (kokuto 黒糖), sesame — even milk!
Kitagawa Honke makes the shochu that is used in their umeshu, and as they are a sake brewery, they make it from rice. Rice shochu is fairly close to vodka in taste.
As I approached the brewery this morning, the fragrance of ume fruit was heavy in the neighborhood!
Making Umeshu at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery
Crates of Nicely Ripened Ume
All Hands on Deck
70 Crates of Ume
Seventy crates of ume today to sort and de-stem.
De-stemming and Sorting Ume
Everyone in the company joins in, even the ‘suits’!
De-stemming and Sorting Ume
De-stemming Ume – Before and After
The stems are plucked out with a simple needle-like metal instrument.
De-stemming and Sorting Ume
The ume on the left are ‘B’ quality, they have some bruises and blemishes, the ume on the right are ‘A’ quality. When the umeshu is finished, the ‘A’ quality ume will be added to bottles or bagged and sold separately for eating. ‘B’ quality ume taste just fine. (see part 2)
The de-stemmed and sorted ume are carefully weighed in preparation to adding to the tanks.
Hues of Ume
From green to yellow, orange and even red, this variety of color produces a more complex flavored umeshu than the usual unripened green fruit. More precision and labor is required, but the quality of the end result is obvious.
Two tanks, differing in size will be filled today. Brewmaster Tashima (left) oversees the final check of the recipe and crate count for each tank. The shochu and sugar has already been added.
The ume absorb water which will affect the taste of the umeshu, so they have to be washed quickly, and of course, thoroughly. Kitagawa Honke uses rather ripe ume fruit, so they are easily bruised by the mechanical brushes in the washing machine. The ume are washed for just 35 seconds.
As the ume spin on the cylindrical brushes, one of the crew hoses them with Fushimi water.
After washing, the ume are returned to clean crates then allowed to drain but not quite dry for about 20 minutes. Excess water can cause the umeshu to spoil later.
The ume are lifted with the forklift then unceremoniously dumped into the tank.
I love this shot! And, I got splashed taking it!
The ume are all submerged in shochu and then the tank is covered. See you in the springtime, ume.