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Houraitsuru: Japan’s Smallest Brewery

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #25
October 30, 2001

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IN THIS ISSUE:
-Houraitsuru: The Smallest Sake Brewery in Japan
-Kame no O Summit
-eSake.com Web-based US Sales: UPDATE
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information
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Houraitsuru: The Smallest Sake Brewery in Japan

Shiki Jozo means year-round brewing. Since long ago, sake has for the most part been brewed only in the winter. The main reason for this is that fermentation takes place at lower temperatures, and so the ambient temperature needs to fairly low to control this. Another reason is that rice is harvested in the fall, and sake brewing begins after that.

But over the last 40 years or so, a handful of the nation’s largest breweries began to crank out sake in large, climate controlled factories all year round. For many reasons, only the largest breweries can pull this off. Them, and Horaitsuru, the smallest sake brewery in Japan.

Horaitsuru was founded in 1805 in Hiroshima City. Back then, there was a lot of space, and it was not odd to have a sake brewery in the city. But the times, they change. As less and less sake is consumed, more and more breweries go under each year. Eventually, Horaitsuru was faced with a difficult decision. They could not sell enough sake to continue the way they were, but did not want to throw in the towel completely. So they came up with a creative solution.

In November of 1995, they tore down the original brewery, and built in its place an apartment building. Narrow and tall, the gray-brick structure looks like any other apartment building in Japan. But this one is different: in its basement is the smallest sake brewery in the world.

The entire operation fits into a space of about 300 square meters. This includes a retail shop and tasting room. The “brewery” is a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned room in which all major steps of the brewing process take place.

All the operations – brewing and business – are handled by three people: the son, daughter-in-law and daughter of the previous generation. Naturally, we are not talking a lot of volume here. They brew a total of 20 kiloliters a year, or just over 100 koku, which is just over 2000 12-bottle cases.

With such spatial limitations, some steps – most notably rice milling  – are outsourced. But they have been truly ingenious in creating a fully-functioning “micro-kura” that produces very good sake. This is no mean feat.

The heart of the sake-brewing process, koji production, needs to take place at very specific temperatures and humidity levels. Here, they have solved this by putting up a small Gore-tex tent, and making the koji in there, in small (60 kg or so) batches.

Their three (cute) fermentation tanks lined up against one wall are of the size that most breweries use for the moto, or yeast starter. One tank is begun every two weeks or so throughout the year. Each is filled with about 180 kilograms of rice, maybe a tenth of the average sized tank for a small brewery.

The tank for the actual yeast starter is even cuter. It is about the size of a large pan for soup or stew, and is kept warm with a 60-watt light bulb placed underneath.

Amazingly, despite their small scale, they have a nice range of products. You would think they would want to keep it simple. But they have at least nine products, not counting any aged sake. Some is junmai, some is not, some is namazake (unpasteurized), some is pasteurized, and different rice is used as well. This is more than a lot of larger breweries can say.

How is the sake? Excellent. Balanced, tight, and overall light yet mature. Their junmai ginjo, in particular, is a fresh and soft sake with a solid acidity that emanates from the center of the flavor, tying it all together. The recess of the flavor is fairly full, with a wide but shallow range tinged with herbs and nuts. Unique indeed.

As one might expect, Horaitsuru is not likely available at your corner store. Your best bet (unless you live in Hiroshima) is to call them and ask if they can ship – as long as you live in Japan.

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The 2001 Kame no O Summit

Kame no O is a sake rice that has recently become popular with a number of brewers from around the country. While it may not lead to the elegant, refined and lively fragrances and flavors created by that most hallowed (yawn) of sake rices, Yamada Nishiki, Kame no O leads to sake with definite character and solid, definable quality. Anyone who thinks rice is rice, and that sake rice lacks the romance, history and culture of wine grapes should have been at the Kame no O Summit last month in Amarume, Yamagata Prefecture.

Yes, that’s right, a summit for rice. Kame no O is a particularly interesting rice strain for several reasons. It is one of the few pure rice strains left in Japan (most are crossbreeds). Discovered about a century ago right there in Amarume, farmers ceased growing Kame no O about 50 years ago, as it is difficult to grow, being delicate and tall, and necessitating much labor. But back in the early 1980s, it was rediscovered, in a sense, and is now grown by a handful of farmers, mostly in the northern part of Japan.

Upon arrival, I wasn’t sure what to expect for several reasons, not the least of which being I had not bothered to read the promotional material and schedule for the day. But it all began predictably with the usual endless parade of on-stage greeting, one after another. Mayors, board members, relatives of the man who discovered Kame no O  – everyone got a chance to say hello and thanks for coming.

Then the lights dimmed, and from the back came this god-awful din. Strolling down the aisles came two men dressed in nomadic clothing and straw sandals, honking loudly on conch shells. Their funky garb indicated they were yamabushi, mountain warrior-ascetics. They slowly honked their way up to the stage, and approached a display of rice stalks. Here, they sang-prayed in an eerie but pleasant chant that was interesting for the first five minutes. After about 15, however, it was me who was praying ・for them to stop.

Eventually they did, and the next performance was the first of two short but excellent rakugo performances (a traditional humorous monologue) that sandwiched a solo butoh dance performance, and a panel discussion on all things Kame no O.

Lastly, the 22 brewers there, about half of all the brewers in Japan using Kame no O, all signed a declaration of their intent to do continue to do their best to promote it.

They have their work cut out for them. Kame no O calls for a lot of effort, and most of is grown by contract; brewers promise farmers that they will buy their entire crop before they even begin. The risk to the farmers is just too great otherwise. But in talking to several farmers up their growing Kame no O, they all seemed very happy and proud to be involved in doing so. It calls for all of their experience and honed skills, and old, traditional techniques that have all but fallen out of use in the wake of modern machines and technology.

Naturally, Kame no O is expensive. I heard a story of a sushi shop in Akita Prefecture (up north, next to Yamagata Prefecture) that, presumably out of local pride, attempted to use Kame no O rice instead of the usual table rice variety. He soon had to give up his little project, though, as the rice used in his sushi was more expensive than the piece of fresh fish that sat on top of it!

After the signing, the party finally began. Lined along one wall were Kame no O sake from all the brewers present. This was going to be an education. My serious tasting efforts were acutely hampered by the well-intentioned friendliness of the locals, who were into some serious fun. I did my best, however, and somehow managed to work through almost all of them, and take proper notes along the way.

Jamming away on the stage to the theme song of the Kame no O summit was a band with Kazuyoshi Sato, the young president of Koikawa Brewery, on bass and vocals. Sake brewery president by day, rock-n-rollah by night. The lyrics were at least relevant, if somewhat inane. Kame no O-oh-oh, … Yume ni miru no sa…” (Kame no O, I dream of you…). The band sounded great, but the wall of sake may admittedly have affected this assessment.

The next morning I met a high school teacher from Osaka that several years ago won a top tasting competition in Japan. Very impressive. He asked me what I thought of the sake I had tasted the previous night, and I answered honestly: “The Tohoku region sake seemed to convey the characteristics of Kame no O the best. It seemed that the farther west I went, the tighter the flavor became, and more the sake seemed to be defined by other things, like perhaps the choice of yeast, rather than the Kame no O rice.”

Sensei tilted his head slightly and looked away into space, feigning mild confusion. What he said in this silent way of his was, basically, “You don’t know what you are talking about, Jack.” The fact that Sensei works closely with one brewer “out west” in Shiga Prefecture on their Kame no O sake may have tainted his objectivity, national tasting champ or not. That’s OK; champion schmampion. It’s my opinion and I am sticking to it.

And it’s an important distinction, I think. It shows that sake rice, like wine grapes, grows best in certain regions, and works best with the water and brewing traditions of that region. Not that it cannot be used elsewhere, and not that my preferences indicate absolute truths, but in general, this relationship between rice and region seems to have validity.

Later in the morning, the participants went to see where the rice was discovered in 1898, just a few healthy stalks poking out of the snow, by one Kameji Abe, from whom the rice takes its name.

Glaringly absent from the event was Mr. Kusumi, the president of the kura brewing Kiyo Izumi sake in Niigata Prefecture. One would think he would be there. After all, it was he, really, who made Kame no O popular again. He found about 1000 grains of the all-but-forgotten rice and revived it in Niigata back in 1982. Although details are both fuzzy and debatable, everyone else may have just jumped on the bandwagon, riding the Kame no O wave. If anyone should have been at the summit, he should have. Ah, well, even the sake world has its politics.

For those that simply must see photos from the Kame no O summit, including a couple of the funky yamabushi, you can find them at http://www.dewa.or.jp/kamenoo/summit5/index.html.

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eSake.com Web-based US Sales: UPDATE

eSake.com hit a small snag in the form of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms paperwork, but will begin any day now selling 11 brands of premiumsake in many states over the Internet. It really is just a matter of days. One sake from each of eSake.com’s 11 kura will be available. Although not all states will be covered at the time of opening, as many as 19 should be. It is only a matter of weeks (as many as eight weeks, depending on the state) until all those states that allow shipment of alcoholic beverages in one form or another will be part of the network of deliverability. To know whether or not you can receive delivery when we launch, soon thereafter, or not for the foreseeable future, please go to: http://www.esake.com/Store/USStore/Ship_Tax_Popup/ship_tax_p opup.html  When the system is 100% live and robust, another email newsletter will be sent with a detailed description of the products available. Stay tuned.
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Sake events and other miscellany…
UPCOMING SAKE EVENTS
November 17, 2001 (English)
On the evening of Saturday, November 17, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting another sake and Japanese pottery seminar, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm.If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 50. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

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Sake books:

The Sake Companion, published by Running Press

A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

Also worth searching for:

-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.

-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.

-Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Rikyubai in Osaka) in Japan.

-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.

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Home-Brewing Sake

If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at jliddil@vms.arizona.edu. On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing: , and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word 都ubscribe・without the quotes to sake-request@hbd.org . To unsubscribe, send the word “unsubscribe”, without the quotes, to sake-request@hbd.org. For a list of other useful commands, send the word “help”, less the quotes, to sake-request@hbd.org. Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to sake-owner@hbd.org

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Publication Information

Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

All of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted (or soon will be) in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to www.sake-world.com, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, sakeguy@gol.com

Copyright 2001 Sake World

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