Apr 30, 2010

Visiting a 300-year-old Sake Brewery of Hideyoshi (Part.1)

Sake (酒) is a Japanese traditional alcohol beverage purely made of rice and water. Akita prefecture is best known for its farming of rice, as well as clean water which is provided by the large amount of snowfall prespitation during the winter. Akita has a superb condition of both ingredients. That is why it's known for Sake Brewing.
In winter, Akita is deeply covered in snow. The low temperature and high humidity result in abundant snow, which purifies the air and create the perfect environment for sake brewing. It requires complex procedures of fermentation and saccharification, which slows down and create the most delicate rice wine to be enjoyed.

Suzuki Shuzoten of Hideyoshi is an excellent example of Sakagura (sake breweries) in the Semboku plain. The brewery welcomes visitors, from newbies to aficionados, and provide a fun experience to introduce you the brewing procedures and tell you about commitment inherited for more than 300 years.

Hideyoshi's Suzuki Shuzoten


Late April but still very cold this year!

The guide will take you through the individual room. In the end, you get to taste various bottles of sake of this brewery. The guided tour is very informative - so that we will tell you in two posts.

Part 1: The Tour Inside Kura
Part 2: Sake Tasting

Our guide was Mr. Masami Saito. He explained the complex brewing procedure with some jokes.  He himself had been a kurabito (brewery worker), so he could explain it with passion!
The very first step of sake brewing is polishing the rice grains (Seimai). The Polishing Rate (Seimai-buai) is the percentage of white rice left after the polishing compared to the unpolished original weight of brown rice.

Leaving the brown part (bran and protein) too much will give a negative flavor, thus the lower the rate is, the higher the quality of sake is, in the basic principle. For example, Daiginjo is polished to 50 % rate and is considered as the most premium quality.

The rice is polished in process that takes over 3 days.
This giant machine takes out the germ and bran  and leaves the white part at different rate.
The polished rice is then thoroughly washed in clean running water. This process is important and carefully conducted because it makes a great difference in the taste of sake.  Kurabito (brewery workers) work in a team until it is cued by toji, a chief master of the brewer.

“Too much water makes the sake too light and watery: Too less water negatively affects the fermentation. Precision is the key”, Mr. Saito emphasizes.

The washed rice is then steamed in this vat called koshiki. The rice is prepared for several ways to make koji (rice malt) and moromi (main mash), before the next procedure takes place in kura, the warehouse. 

Mr. Saito, former kurabito, is our guide this day.

The rice steamer

"Hi no Yojin" means "Be careful with fire"
This brewery have never had fire accident over 300 years!

Another "Hi no Yojin" sign
Kura refers to a traditional storage house. Its thick walls keeps  temperature, thus the interior space is ideal for brewing, for the temperature plays an important role in fermentation. Different procedure takes place in each kura. You will notice the difference of smell.
The main kura is straight ahead from the brewery entrance.

Each tanks contains about 7,000 liters and has an record book.

Traditional tools are still being used. 

Mr. Saito told us stories from the pre-industrial period.  Many traditional folk songs were made by farmers to cheer themselves up to endure the hard work. The brewery workers also had worksongs - not only to cheer themselves up but to measure the timing of certain procedure!
“The songs helped them to know what the others were doing. It helped the team work. But on the other hand, the silence meant they were not doing the work - perhaps being lazy or took too much sip and having too much fun."

The kura is a sacred place. There is a Shinto alter where Matsuo-Sama, goddess of sake brewing,  is worshiped. Because many shinto goddess are thought to be jealous, women are  prohibited in the house to respect her sentiment. Today such tradition is hardly kept, so women can be guided in the tour.

Matsuosame Shrine in the Sakagura house.
Despite the religious belief, there was also a practical reason for this: Women have ups-and-downs of body temperature, which could interfere the fermentation. But Mr. Saito continues, “Perhaps that was right, but in my opinion, it must have been more convenient for men!"

The Koji Room

Temperature and humidity are important.

The ears of sake rice.


The mixed ingredients are both fermented and saccharified at the same time.

After the sake finishes the fermentation, the liquid is filtered or pressed. The completed sake is bottled and packed before shipping to the market.

These sacks are used for the traditional pressing technique to separate out the sake lees.

Individually checked and bottled by hand by woken.

Suzuki Shuzo shows their impressive collection of  hisotorical articles in great condition. They have been passed down through generations over 300 years!

A beautiful raden (traditional pearl-inlaid) drawer and a sword.

Ginsen-Zaiku (Filigree) Hairpins

A book to teach sake brewing.
"Go outside and feel the ground with your bare feet.
 If it feels cold, you can start brewing sake. If warm, do not make sake".

The very last part of our trip is tasting different types of sake! (Part 2)
Part1: Tour Inside Kura


lina said...

This tour looks so informative and fun.
For those who love sake, a visit to the brewery would be great to appreciate the drink. :)

Tazawako Tourism Association said...

Thank you Lina! Do you drink? If you do, I hope you find a favorite sake bottle while you are here!

lina said...

We thought of buying some in our previous trips but the thought of putting those bottles in our check-in luggage stopped us from bringing back any. :(

BTW, did you have a great GW holiday? :)