Monday, October 15, 2012

Tochigi Gohyakumangoku Rice Harvest

I can't write about what this day meant to me without acknowledging Melinda Joe for the gracious invitation to participate in the rice harvest, organized by Shimazaki Shuzo. One day there will be a stronger bridge between the sake breweries in Japan and their admirers around the world. The careful, professional documentation and journalism from writers such as Melinda, who writes for the Japan Times, is vital to the rest of the world in terms getting a glimpse into the unique culture of sake. You can most easily find her work by following her on Twitter -- @MelindaJoe. Melinda's account of this day can be found here:

Short video of working in the soil can be found on YouTube:

I was told to bring boots, but to my dismay, the Sports Authority sporting goods store in Aomori had absolutely no size 11 boots/shoes/Crocs/flipflops -- zilch! So I did not come prepared, which was okay, but I had to do the work in my stocking feet!


What I can tell you about the rice is less significant than what I can tell you about the community that came together to harvest the rice, and the hospitality of the family who will brew sake from this rice. But I am a geek, and it's important to note that the rice is Gohyakumangoku variety. The most recent statistics I could find indicate that it is the second most popular rice, behind only Yamadanishiki, and accounted for 29.5% of the sake rice harvested in 2005. This famous rice is originally from Niigata, but is grown in Tochigi prefecture and elsewhere (Tochigi is adjacent to Niigata) and was officially designated in 1957. Resilient to cold, this sake rice (aka "sakamai") is often grown in areas not historically suitable for rice production. Because of the kernel's small size, this rice is usually milled to only to 50%, but because of its fruity aroma, this sakamai is highly prized for making ginjo and daiginjo sakes.

Community Effort

The day started at Shimazaki Shuzo itself where were were given instructions and also lead through some stretching exercises. It's worth noting there were dozens of volunteers present -- close to 100 -- and this includes entire families with small children working with sickles and tromping through the muddy rice fields doing the work alongside mom and dad.


When the work was done -- everyone was dog tired. We were grateful to get the harvest done the day before a typhoon was to arrive and even more grateful to be entertained back at the kura. There were new friendships forged over sake, a most delicious meal, and even live music at the very end of the evening.

I was there for most of the day, and very much appreciated Melinda's company as well as her friend Masumi. But when I got home, I had no trouble falling asleep!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

From Momokawa Brewing of Japan: The 2012 Nanbu Toji Guild Champion

From Momokawa Brewing of Japan: The 2012 Nanbu Toji Guild Champion. Of the 330 contestants at this year's competition, this sake won "Best in Show". Thanks to the hustling of Kyota Murai, he was able to find three bottles of this delicious sake that is not commercially available (except locally for special customers in Aomori, though not widely.) 

Yesterday I shared one bottle of the Champion with a few friends. They were not disappointed.

The sake has a seimaibuai of 35%. I went to the Tsunami Grill with my friend Hannah to share the sake with my friends who work there, only to have my friend Todd Eng, the Bar Master at Corkage next door, to have gone AWOL. But Jojo, Elaine, Charley and Dan each enjoyed an ounce or two in his absence! Later on at Nombe, I shared the rest of the Champion with Gil and his management team.

(Photography credit goes to Amanda Mathson)

I would describe the sake as delicate, yet mighty. It was compact, and I was surprised at the viscous, almost oily nature of the sake. Hannah kept trying to identify the nature of the oil, and settled on mackerel. Indeed, mackerel is a staple in Aomori, with squid being the only fish that brings more industry to where this particular sake is brewed. Jizakes like this are brewed with tradition of the local cuisine in mind, to compliment the cuisine, so Hannah's insight was keen.

Notes of anise, banana, and tropical fruit came to mind. But the mouth-feel was what I returned to, and the delicate yet firm nature of the sake. Sake this good is elusive, and descriptions often limit the appreciation of the sake. It was a masterpiece and it's just enough to enjoy the sake with friends who appreciate greatness when they taste it!

PS: for background on the nature of Toji Guilds, please see this summary:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Momokawa Brewing of Japan

I write now from my favorite American city, San Francisco. I have several weeks before brewing season begins in Kyushu with gusto, and so now I have time to reflect on my recent travel experiences.

One very prominent day for me recently was the occasion of visiting my dear friend Kyota Murai, the scion of the family behind Momokawa Brewing of Japan in Aomori prefecture. It was the Murai family which gave SakeOne in Oregon the assistance we needed to begin brewing operations 15 years ago. Visiting Momokawa in Aomori was one of the most special experiences. It was by drinking their premium sakes 15 years ago that lit the fuse for my devotion for nihonshu. A passion for their sakes was renewed thanks to the time and attention Kyota and the team at Momokawa Brewing in Aomori.

The Murai family behind Momokawa has been brewing sake for since the Edo period. A fire ravaged the city of Oirase in the late 1800’s, destroying every building and the recorded history of Momokawa that predates the year of the current structure (1889). By capacity Momokawa is one of the 50 largest sakes breweries of the 1166 (approximate number) still in operation. Their business has achieved the ISO 9001:2008 certification, one of the first breweries in Japan to accomplish this feat in 2002.

The toji (brewmaster) at Momokawa is the most honorable Mr. Yoshio Koizumi. Koizumi-san has been brewing sake with great distinction for many years and has earned a lifetime achievement award identifying him as one of five great brewers, winemakers, and distillers in all of Japan. Momokawa has won a gold medal at the Nanbu Toji Sake Competition for a record 64 years... consecutively. This is a record of unmatched achievement amongst the 330 sake breweries represented in this most prestigious sake brewers guild.

Here I am meeting Mr. Cheong Hwanseo, President of Momokawa Brewing of Japan.

Here I am in front of the world's largest sugidama or cedar ball, measuring 2.2 meters in diameter and weighing 1,100 lbs. The sugidama adorns the entrance of the sake brewery and signifies the role Japanese cedar plays in the production and drinking of sake. At the end of each year the withered sugidama is replaced with a fresh, green one as an offering of thanks to the gods for the previous year's yield.

After a tour of the operations I was given the chance to taste through a selection of 12 of their delicious sakes.

Meeting Mr. Cheong Hwanseo with Kyota.

It was such an amazing day, not just one of the best days in Japan, but one of the best days of my life. I am forever grateful for my friendship with Kyota Murai, his family, and the team at Momokawa Brewing of Japan for making my morning visiting the kura so very special.