IN SEARCH of craft sake, I found myself in Nikko city, in the Tochigi prefecture, just 140 kilometers north of Tokyo. The brewery is Katayama Shuzo Co. Ltd., a highly awarded sake brewery that is still pretty much small scale and traditional. The present CEO Takayuki Katayama is the 6th generation head of the family managing the business.
The Katayama Shuzo brewery is inconspicuously located in Segawa Nikko-shi Tochigi-ken. From the façade outside, it does not seem like a sake factory at all. Having visited the huge facilities of the Nikka Distillery, the Hakushu Distillery, the Yamasaki Distillery, the Chateau Mercian Winery, and the Asahi Brewery in Japan, the Katayama Shuzo brewery is their antithesis. It is small, unassuming, and a hole-in-the-wall. While being toured by the CEO Takayuki Katayama himself, it does not take more than five minutes to actually have a look at the facilities the brewery has… most of the equipment is low tech, traditional, and mechanical. But the charm, quaintness, passion, and artisanship can also be felt. Takayuki spoke no English, and we had a translator to convey his talk for us. You can see how proud he was of his family’s small brewery that started in 1880.
THE WATER ELEMENT
Water has often been mentioned as one of key ingredients in making high quality alcoholic beverages from beers to whiskies, and the same holds through with sake. As Takayuki firmly believed, “no quality sake can be made without access to quality water.”
In an area of the Takino Shrine near the popular tourist spot Nikko Futarasan Shrine, there is a spring called Sake no Izumi, which literally means “spring of sake.” Takayuki’s great-great-great-grandfather moved from his original base in Kashiwazaki in Niigata prefecture to Nikko some 250 kilometers southeast just to get access to this quality water. Sake no Izumi has supplied the water for sake production of Katayama Shuzo since the brewery’s founding in 1880. The spring water is drawn from 16 meters underground, and is soft, with a neutral taste and aroma that is perfect for sake.
THE LOST ART OF SAKE MAKING
The Katayama Shuzo Co. takes pride in their traditional and ancestral way of brewing sake. This method takes a lot of time and effort, with no short cuts. The steps include the selection of the best ingredients, in this case the rice (they use Yamada-Nishiki special rice from Hyogo Prefecture), the polishing of rice, the making of the koji mold, the shikomi preparation (mixing of water and rice in the vessel/tank or mashing is called shikomi), and the pressing.
One quality determinant that Katayama Shuzo is very proud of is the use of the century old Sase-style shibori process. Shibori is the straining process involving the division of moromi (the fermentation mash that looks like swollen rice grains during the saccharification) into sake and sake cakes. This Sase-style shibori is very labor-intensive and involves hand-stuffing of moromi into cloth sacks, then stacking them, before slowly pressing down from the top sacks to extract more sake. This style of pressing is repeated until all the possible sake extracts are released. Each single press can produce very little sake as the technique involves gentle pressing with just the right amount of pressure each time — very time consuming.
Takayuki vouched for the quality of their sake based on the correct pressure applied on extracting sake in this long lost Sase-style pressing. In fact, only a small percentage (10%) of all sakes are made this way. Most sake breweries, especially the bigger ones use the Yabuta-style — the contemporary method using automated pressing machine that involves pressing of several moromi batches together to extract sake. It tremendously reduced the time, effort, and even cost in making sake — particularly labor cost which is quite expensive in Japan as we all know. Takayuki concluded that there is no way a machine can be a substitute for human hands in terms of applying the right pressure during the shibori process.
WHAT ARE GENSHU SAKES?
Genshu stands for undiluted sake. This means water is not added after pressing, and therefore the alcohol percentage is higher than regular sake. Genshu sake alcohol is around 17-18% as compared to the 15% found in regular sake.
Katazama Shuzo’s sake brand is Kashiwazakari. Their top sakes are both genshus: the blue bottled Sugao Junmai Genshu (junmai is made with a rice-polishing ratio of 60% — see my last column), and the translucent bottle Sugao Nama-Genshu — nama-genshu means unfiltered, unpasteurized, and undiluted sake. Nama-genshu, because it has not gone through filtration and pasteurization, has much shorter shelf life, but has a fresher, more delicate aroma and mouthfeel, and is normally sold directly from the sake breweries.
According to Takayuki, many sake breweries are no longer making genshus or no longer equipped with its know-how, primarily because in the past, government would impose higher taxes on products with higher alcohol content. Though now taxes are at parity among sake products, the older sake breweries are not gung-ho into jumping back into the genshu category.
Kashiwazakari Genshu — “sweet-scented, floral and nutty notes, fresh, rich and creamy at the end; alcohol well concealed and supple all the way”; an entry level sake that is extremely good already
Sugao Nama-Genshu — “very fresh nose, juniper berries, cantaloupe, good viscosity on the mouth, rich and very refreshing with umami like lingering aftertaste”
Sugao Junmai Genshu — “fragrant, nose of cavendish banana, tropical fruits, buttered toast, silky on the palate, once more alcohol sweetly concealed, and long with multiple layered finish”
I am first to admit that I am no sake expert, but what I tasted from this artisan-like brewery convinced me no end what tradition and craftsmanship can do to a Japanese old time favorite drink, sake. These three sakes were absolutely the best I ever had in my super small sake sample size. It is very unfortunate, however, that getting overseas distribution of this small scale brewery’s genshus will be tough — but it surely makes for an extra incentive to travel to Tokyo or Osaka, where there are more craft sakes to discover and experience.
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.