Meet the Japanese Sake Brewers Taking Cues From French Winemakers
Kuno Kuheiji, his youthful face framed by a wild halo of greying hair, strides through his Banjō Jozo sake brewery in Nagoya, an airy construction of white walls, dark cedar beams and vertiginously steep stairways that dates back to the 18th century. Stopping at a stainless steel tasting table, the 15th-generation owner of the family brewery pours me some sake from a hand-labelled brown bottle. “Try this,” he says, “it was just pressed today.”
A sampling of his “Kanochi” label junmai daiginjo, it consists only of highly polished rice, water and, to jump-start the fermentation process, koji (the mould that transforms rice starches into fermentable sugars) and yeast. The brew is so young, it’s still rough around the edges, redolent with aromas of banana, strawberry and rice, but lacking the elegance and structure it will gain over six months of bottle aging.
Kuheiji is embarking on a grand Japanese-French experiment reaching from his rice farm in Hyogo Prefecture to his Domaine Kuheiji winery in the heart of Burgundy. It’s a venture built on his romantic dream of a mixed marriage between the two ancient drink traditions. Sake, which has been around for more than 2,000 years, is brewed more like beer. Quality rice, water and the talent of the master brewer are crucial to a good brew, but a sense of regionality has been lost in modern times. Traditional French winemaking, by contrast, celebrates the alchemy that occurs between grape variety, the land it is grown on and the skill of the winemaker.
Kuheiji, a cult brewer in Japan, stands at the forefront of a new movement in sake brewing, one that is deeply influenced by France’s wine culture and techniques and increasingly interested in telling the story of terroir. “There are 80 different varieties of sake rice,” Kuheiji points out. “I want people to know about those the way wine drinkers know the difference between a chardonnay and a pinot noir.”
There’s also the matter of who grows the rice. Back in the day, premium sake brewers, no matter where they were located, had the king of sake-brewing rice, a variety called Yamada Nishiki, shipped in from Hyogo Prefecture, where it thrives in the region’s mineral-rich soil and warm, temperate climate. To solve the problem this poses to any self-concept of terroir, Kuheiji simply bought land in Hyogo and started growing his own rice. “If we don’t raise our own rice, then we’re only conveying half the story,” Kuheiji explains. “I want to show the drama of the rice field that’s been hidden in sake-making until now.” Eventually, Kuheiji will open a brewery on the site where his rice is grown. But the ultimate expression of his dual-country love affair, he confides, will be “the day I serve an entire multicourse meal, pairing each course with one of my own sakes or wines.”
As I journey through four distinct prefectures and regions, it becomes clear that part of the reason these skilled practitioners feel so inspired by France is market-driven, a search to make the opaque, ancient sake-making tradition more accessible, more relatable, to Westerners. They’re also part of a global shift away from the industrial and back to the small-scale, local and handmade ways of their ancestors. Their embrace of French technique, meanwhile, stems from a quintessentially Japanese openness to foreign concepts.
Later that evening, back in downtown Nagoya, only a 15-minute train ride from Banjō Jozo, I’m sitting in Marutani, a warm, lovingly lit sake bar housed in an artfully restored, 150-year-old former rice godown in the historic Nagono neighbourhood.
My dining partner is Takeshi Sekiya, president of Sekiya Brewery, which, like Banjō Jozo, is located in Aichi Prefecture. Sekiya Brewery collaborated with the prefectural agricultural research centre to develop a strain of rice called Yumesansui (a cross between Yamada Nishiki and a variety suited to the local climate and topography), and cultivates this and other local varieties on 25 hectares of its own rice paddies.
Against a backdrop of classic jazz and the low murmur of businessmen at leisure, we sample Sekiya’s deep sake list, sold under the Houraisen label, and Marutani’s farm-to-table menu. There’s a shabu-shabu salad, made with local beef that feeds on two brewery by-products, sake lees and rice bran; local wild boar served as ham, bacon and jerky; and a delicious beef-tendon stew thick with the prefecture’s famous red soybean Hatcho miso.
Sekiya also brews with indigenous yeast, and has taken to bottle-aging his junmai daiginjo Maka, brewed from a single paddy’s yield using local koji-kin, the Aspergillus oryzae fungus that enables the fermentation process. Where before the goal was to create a brew consistent in taste and quality from year to year, these new brewers are expanding the bandwidth of rice expression.
A few days later, I am in Kawaba, Gunma Prefecture, only 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo by bullet train, but worlds apart in feel. Snow-dusted mountains, a tangle of rivers and a nearby ski resort form the backdrop to the charming Den’en Plaza agritourism village that Noriyoshi Nagai, president of Nagai Sake Brewery, is leading me through. Dreamed up by his father Tsuruji and now managed by his brother Shoichi, it’s got something for everyone: a craft-beer brewery, a butcher shop, bakery, farmers’ market, even pick-your-own blueberry bushes.
Nagai, who dresses like a banker but speaks with the passion of an artist, recalls his month-long travels through France’s Champagne region, including a stop at the venerable house Pol Roger. The journey helped him perfect his Mizubasho Pure sparkling sake, a quest that, after 500 failed attempts, had nearly driven him to despair. “I thought if I couldn’t find the answer there, I was ready to give up,” he recalls. He did find the breakthrough concepts he was looking for (a combination of low-temperature fermentation and cellaring), which produce hauntingly pure and delicate sparkling sake perfumed with notes of cherry and lychee.
Michelin-starred France and French-influenced chefs around the world have now embraced this new wave of sake. Nagai’s Mizubasho sake can be found at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Restaurant Daniel in New York, while Kuheiji’s Eau du Désir is poured at Guy Savoy and the restaurants of Yannick Alléno in France.
The Nagai family’s original brewery space, built in 1886, was converted into the rustic Kura Cafe after a new brewery was built next door. Here, they serve plates of the regional specialty aonori konnyaku (devil’s tongue root flecked with bits of green nori), goose pastrami and Nagai’s mother’s soup made with sake lees instead of miso. Sweeter than miso soup, its flavour is equally complex: savoury, nutty, with a ricey undertone. It’s food that matches the elegance, satiny finish and pear-and-peach notes of Mizubasho’s junmai daiginjo.
“It’s still morning,” says Mitobe Sake Brewery president Tomonobu Mitobe apologetically as his wife Junko serves me the most delicious cheesecake, creamy yet light in the Japanese manner, along with cups of freshly ground and brewed coffee. I’m in the snowbound Tohoku region of Yamagata Prefecture, in the small town of Tendō, famous for producing shogi chess pieces. Like the morning dessert we’re savouring, Mitobe is a slightly iconoclastic blend of Eastern and Western influences. He has taken to growing his own rice, too, and is about to launch a rice farming company. Mitobe has also helped push for Yamagata sake to become the first prefecture in Japan to receive Geographical Indication status from the government, a counterpart of sorts to France’s famous appellation system. Yet he refuses to denounce the use of rice from other regions. “I don’t want to erase the possibility of making a great sake by ruling out non-local rice,” he explains.
Mitobe’s own wine studies and travels include an encounter with an Italian prosciutto di Parma producer that led him to create a milder sake with more acidity and sweetness to match the prosciutto. The answer was his Yamagata Masamune Malola, which transposes the winemaking technique of malolactic fermentation into the sake register. Converting tart malic acid into softer lactic acid happens naturally in wine barrels (think rich reds and buttery chardonnays), but took effort and ingenuity to achieve in the higher-alcohol environment of sake. Warmed and paired with the dry-cured ham, the rich, mellow and rounded acidity of the Yamagata Masamune Malola balances and melts the fat in the mouth, conjuring a slice of umami heaven.
Thwack. The sound of steamed rice hitting plastic mats rings out at Dewazakura Sake Brewery, located across town in Tendō. Brewery workers scurry about to quickly cool down the rice, which will be added to today’s yeast starter. Other brewers chant in unison, “Hai, hai, hai, hai,” as they use long oars to break up the rice in the starter tanks, evoking the half-forgotten brewing songs of bygone years.
Dewazakura’s “all-local” standout is its brightly acidic and layered unfiltered and unpasteurized junmai ginjo Dewa Sansan, which uses the local rice Dewasansan and local koji mould and yeast. Where the sake connoisseur of past decades “just wanted famous sake rice varieties like Yamada Nishiki or Omachi,” Naoki Kamota, Dewazakura’s manager of export development told me, the recent trend toward developing local rice varieties has made both sake drinkers and brewers realize that “rice that’s taken root in local soil is fascinating.”
There is much more to see, but I have a bullet train to catch to Tokyo. Kamota hustles me into his van and whisks me back to the station. On the ride, I reflect on the passionate sake makers I’ve met, their sublime brews and their collective admiration for French winemaking.
Ironically, their wanderlust has in the end brought them closer to home, to the land, with a renewed confidence in the value of their own cultural traditions. “What I learned from French winemakers,” Tomonobu Mitobe told me, “was to not be afraid to be different. I learned to shut out all the information we’re bombarded by and to just do what I really want to do.”
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