Sake, Sake, Everywhere
Whilst in Japan sake (酒) refers to alcohol in general, to the outside world it means just one thing, the usually clear, fairly strong ‘rice wine’ that is served at your local Japanese restaurant back home. The drink being referred to is actually nihonshu (日本酒 lit. Japanese sake) an alcohol that has been produced in Japan since the Nara period, some 1300 years ago.
Sake production was introduced to Kyushu in the 16th century, and led to the creation of sake’s rival alcohol shochu (焼酎) a drink primarily based on the distillation of barley and other crops instead of rice. This piece of history means that Kyushu’s reputation as a producing region is based more on its shochu than its sake and yet, in Fukuoka Prefecture alone, there are over 70 breweries producing more than 1000 varieties of high-quality sake each year, meaning it is home to the fifth most sake breweries in Japan after Niigata, Nagano, Hyogo and Fukushima.
Because of this, Fukuoka’s reputation as a region of high-quality sake is on the rise, with both domestic and international retailers starting to take note of the numerous competition winning breweries that use traditional methods to set themselves and their sake apart from the mass produced sake that is prevalent across much of Japan.
FUKUOKA SAKE DIRECTORY & MAP
We’ve compiled an exhaustive list of 70 sake breweries in Fukuoka Prefecture in English, and plotted them on a Google map. We’ve include information on their annual events, their shops and websites. See the full directory and map here.
The History of Sake in Japan
The collective term sake refers to a huge number of nihonshu varieties that are brewed across Japan’s 3000km archipelago, united in their brewing methods, but vastly different in their taste, texture and consistency. Just as wine refers to the drink first drunk by the Romans, made popular by the French and now produced from Argentina to Australia, sake in Japan refers to a grouping of alcohols that are as unique as they are ubiquitous.
The Kojiki, compiled in 712 A.D. and by all accounts the first written history of Japan, contains several mentions of sake and it is thus thought that sake was first brewed in Japan in the early Nara period. For several hundred years, sake production was kept under government control, limiting production and availability but, from the 10th century onwards, temples and shrines began to brew a crude version of sake known as doburoku (unrefined sake) that was drunk at festivals to aid the worship of Shinto deities.
The Edo period (1603-1868) saw the creation of seishu (refined sake) the alcohol that we would recognise as modern day sake. But it was not until the Meiji Era that this form of the drink spread out into the more rural areas of Japan, distribution facilitated by industrialisation and mechanisation. During this period, breweries were deregulated, leading to the establishment of some 30,000 breweries across the country, each brewing local versions of the drink and resulting in the variation we now see. Though brewery numbers have declined significantly since the Meiji Era peak, there are still some 2000 breweries in operation today.
Sake in Fukuoka Today
Fukuoka is home to several sake brewing areas, including Yanagawa, Mizuma and Kurume. Many of Fukuoka’s brewers now brew a range of high value added sake, including junmaishu (sake made only from rice polished to 70% of its original size, water and koji mould), using locally grown rice or new rice hybrids developed for sake brewing. Efforts are also underway to create a regional brand for Fukuoka’s sake.
Of these breweries, a few are open to the general public to tour. Fukuoka Now recently visited two of these breweries, Shinozaki and Morinokura:
Shinozaki is a large family-owned brewery located in Asakura City and produces 1.3 million litres of sake, shochu and amazake every year. It has a shop that sells a wide variety of alcohols brewed in house, as well as other souvenirs.
Also family owned, the Morinokura brewery has been making sake just outside of Kurume City since 1898 and, until 10 years ago, when the brewery’s current President decided to make the brewery’s sake more available to the public, had won 10 consecutive gold medals at the Annual Japan Sake Awards.
At both breweries we were able to sample the various types of sake and shochu as we toured the factory in dashing hairnets. We were given complete access to the factories with the exception of the dedicated koji rooms which are kept under controlled conditions at all times (read on for how the brewing process works). The tours were incredibly informative to the non-professionals amongst us and at times had you believing you’d entered Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the mesmerising co-ordination of the mechanised bottling plant plants absolutely fascinating to watch.
The Brewing Process
Though sake is often translated outside of Japan to ‘rice wine’ the production process is actually much more similar to the brewing of beer. In a typical brewery (kura), brewery workers (kurabito) work under the supervision of a master brewer (toji). In the past, toji were not employed year round by a specific brewer but were farmers with sake brewing knowledge who worked as brewers in the winter months when there was little farm work to be done. Groups of six or seven toji would contract with local breweries to make their sake. They would spend the winter months living and working in the brewery and return home when it was time to plant rice.
The first step in the manufacturing process is the selection and harvesting of sake rice (seimai). Sake rice is very different to typical table rice, with several strains of rice selectively bred just for the purpose of brewing sake. Of these, the Yamada Nishiki strain (of which Fukuoka Prefecture is the second largest producer in Japan) is most frequently used to brew high-quality sake due to its winning combination of high starch content and low fatty-acid content. Table rice, by contrast, has a much lower starch content and much higher fatty acid content making it more flavoursome, but less useful for brewing. Other strains of sake rice are also used, and, while the strain of rice used may not matter as much as grape variety does for wine, different rice strains lend themselves to different types of sake.
Rice grains from the field are milled or polished to remove the outer layers (bran) which detract from the flavour of the sake. The level to which it is polished (semai-buai) determines the classification of the sake (see below). The shinpaku or opaque, starchy centre that can be seen in uncooked rice is the most desired part of the grain, and modern polishing techniques come close to being able to isolate just this part of the grain. Once polished, the rice is left to cool at room temperature and regain moisture lost due to the heat of the milling process. The rice is then washed and steamed in the brewery’s koshiki (steamer) to remove unwanted particles left over from the polishing process. The length of this process depends on how well polished the rice grains are, with the most highly polished grains being steamed for minutes, compared to hours for less polished grains. About 20% (minimum 15%) of the rice is separated at this point to create koji rice.
Koji rice is created by adding koji mould (麹, Aspergillus oryzae) spores to the rice under highly controlled conditions. Over the course of two to three days, the mould spreads through the rice particles and digests the starch molecules in the rice to create sugars that give sake both sweetness and flavour. The mould is prevented from completely digesting the rice by rapid sudden cooling on the third or fourth day, creating the end product, koji rice, small white balls similar to polystyrene in texture with a strong, sweet taste. As with much of the rest of the brewing process, this stage is done by hand, and the creation of koji rice is considered to be one of the most defining aspects of a sake’s eventual flavour, more spores creating a much heartier, full-bodied sake.
The remaining 80% of the steamed rice is mixed with pre-prepared koji rice, water and yeast to create a fermentation starter mix called moto. Recurring arguments exist in the sake world about which is more important in defining a sake‘s taste, the water or the rice, and many breweries place a huge emphasis on the purity and history of their water. Certainly the abundance of clean water from the Chikugogawa River basin has helped turn Fukuoka into a sake producing Mecca. However, while it is true that many minerals, particularly iron, can have an effect on the taste of the sake, modern filtration methods make water purity less of an issue than it has been historically. Once prepared, the moto undergoes a three stage process known as san dan shikomi. This three to four day process sees the moto doubled in volume by adding more koji rice, water, and steamed rice to create the main starter mix, moromi. The mixture is left to ferment over a 25 to 35 day period (including the four days for san dan shikomi, during which more water and yeast are added to achieve the desired alcohol content (15-20%).
Once fermentation is complete, distilled alcohols may be added to enhance specific flavours and bring out certain aromas or textures in the sake. Pressing then follows and the liquid sake is separated from the sake lees (sake kasu) a byproduct which can be used to make other drinks such as amazake (4-8% sake, non-alcoholic versions also exist) and to create a type of shochu known as kasutori shochu. Whilst most sake are pressed by force, particularly high-quality sake is left to separate under gravity to give an even smoother texture. Filtration removes any remaining solid particles and the sake is then pasteurised so that it keeps. While sake is not normally considered to age in the same way wine does and is best drunk young, some breweries will store and age sake to taste.
Main Classifications of Sake
• Futsushu (普通酒) or ordinary sake is the most prevalent sake on the market and comprises some 75-80% of all sake sold in Japan. It does not meet minimum rice polishing standards and is the type you’ll find in 1.8l cartons in Japanese convenience stores for ¥700. Hangover warning.
• Junmaishu (純米酒) is sake made up of water, koji mould, yeast and rice that has been been polished so that at least 30% of the bran has been removed. This is the minimum standard of polishing for what is considered to be high-quality sake.
• Honjozo (本醸造) is similar to junmaishu in that it is made up of rice (30% bran removed), water, koji mould and yeast. It differs in the addition of a small amount of distilled alcohol to the moromi.
• Ginjoshu (吟醸酒) is sake that is made up of rice, water, koji mould, yeast and a small amount of distilled alcohol. The rice is polished so that 40% of each grain is removed.
• Junmai Ginjo (純米吟醸) is sake that is made up of water, koji mould and yeast. The rice is polished so that at least 40% of the grain is removed. Similar to ginjoshu, but with no alcohol added.
• Daiginjo (大吟醸酒) is sake that is made up of rice, water, koji mould, yeast and a small amount of distilled alcohol. The rice is polished so that 50% of the grain is removed.
• Junmai Daiginjo (純米大吟醸) is sake that is made up of water, koji mould, yeast and rice polished so that 50% of each grain is removed. Similar to daiginjo, but with no alcohol added.
• Amazake (甘酒): Non-alocholic sake made from the sake lees. Sweet and nutritious, a combination of a smoothie and good porridge, said to be particularly effective for people who lose their appetite in the summer heat.
• Koshu (古酒) is sake which is aged after bottling, taking on a slightly darker colour and stronger flavour as a result.
• Nigorizake (濁酒) is sake that is filtered using a less-fine mesh in the press. As a result, some particles from the moromi remain in the drink, changing texture significantly. This most closely resembles the doburoku sake of old.
• Kijoshu (貴醸酒) is considered a dessert sake, made exceptionally sweet by replacing approximately half the water in the brewing process with sake.
• Namazake (生酒) is unpasteurized sake.
• Muroka (無濾過) is sake that is not filtered using activated charcoal or carbon powder.
• Genshu (原酒) is undiluted sake, in which water has not been added to lower the alcohol content. Significantly stronger than its watered down cousins.
When it comes to choosing a sake, experience goes a long way. However the above classifications are a good guide to the quality, if not the taste of the sake. However, another distinction exists between the world of dry sake and the world of sweet sake, neatly measured by the nihonshu-do (日本酒度) or Sake Meter Value (SMV). The scale uses 0 as its benchmark, a value which indicates that a sake is neither particularly dry nor particularly sweet. As the SMV rises into the positives, the sake is said to be drier and, conversely, as the value falls into the negatives, the taste is said to be sweeter. The scale in fact measures the relationship between residual sugar and alcohol in the sake, so a negative value also indicates that there is more residual sugar. Of course, taste is subjective, but it can be a useful reference point if you know what you like and is usually clearly displayed as a number or colour coded sign on sake bottles or their price tags.
Sake can be drunk in many ways, depending on context, season, the sake itself and the food it is being drunk with. Though many experts deplore the heating of sake, it is no doubt a common way to drink it and can prove to be a very different experience to drinking it chilled. As with everything sake related, there is an art and practice to warming sake and a drinker must be careful not to overheat sake, causing it to lose both taste and alcohol content. The best method for warming is to place a pitcher (tokkuri) in simmering water so that it slowly warms to the appropriate temperature. When ordering in a restaurant, there are three grades of hot sake. The coolest of the warm sake is nurukan and will means the sake is served anywhere between room temperature and 40°C. Asking for your sake to be served kan results in sake being heated to between 40 and 55°C and, if you want it served really hot, then atsukan is the one, the sake will be served between 55 and 60°C.
Hot or cold, the process of drinking is also important, and as with the serving of tea, Japan has its own traditions for drinking sake. In particular, rituals exist around serving the drink and if all participants are observing the tradition of oshaku then you should never have to pour sake for yourself, only for those around you. The size of the sake cup (sakazuki) combined with this ritual of only pouring for your companions is supposed to create a sense of community whilst drinking and create friendships, no matter how short lived or poorly remembered. An alternative drinking vessel to the sakazuki is the masu, a small wooden box that was used historically to measure quantities of rice in the brewing process. These may still be seen at large gatherings or rural festivals, or plastic or lacquered versions can be seen at newer bars.
The Future for Fukuoka’s Sakes – A Growing Appeal
Fukuoka’s reputation as a region of high-quality producer of sake is gaining traction and on our tours of the brewery, we were joined by Stephen King and Carlin Kumada, two sake connoisseurs interested in broadening the reach of Fukuoka’s sake. Stephen King represents True Sake, a San Francisco based shop and the largest retailer of high-quality Japanese sake in the United States. Carlin Kumada is likewise from San Francisco but is now vice-president at Meishi no Yutaka, a Hokkaido based sake retailer, as well as a judge in the sake category of the annual International Wine Challenge based in London, UK. Both were attracted to Fukuoka by the sheer diversity of Fukuoka’s sake, which offers tastes to suit the needs of any consumer. Whilst independent from one another, both are seeking to popularise sake amongst non-Japanese consumers by making it more accessible and by breaking the link between sake and Japanese cuisine.
On this front, the future for Fukuoka’s sake is promising. At a tasting event organised by local government agencies, Mr. King and Mr. Kumada spent an evening discussing the promotion of Fukuoka’s sake internationally with a group of local brewers and retailers. This is part of a larger trend which has seen high-quality sake become increasingly available abroad, with dedicated sake shops being set up across the world that import and sell high-quality sake from Fukuoka and wider Japan. While it is likely to be more expensive than buying it in Fukuoka, sake’s growing global presence means tasting, trying and becoming an expert does not need to be a hobby confined to Japan. And if you’re yet to cut your teeth into Japanese sake, Fukuoka is the perfect place to do so. With so many breweries and so many varieties to try, you’re bound to find one, if not more, that you like.
Facts about Sake:
• Oct. 1 is the official Sake Day (日本酒の日) of Japan.
• There exists an unrelated word also pronounced sake, but written with a different kanji (鮭). This means salmon.
• Breweries hang sugidama (sugi – cedar, lit. cedar balls) outside of their shops to indicate a new batch has been finished, the Edo Period equivalent to a status update.
Recommended Shop to Buy Sake in Fukuoka
Sumiyoshi Syuhan – This shop has a fine selection of shochu, sake and wine at reasonable prices as well as very friendly service.
• 3-8-27 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku
• Tel.: 092-281-3815
Author: Oscar Boyd
Oscar is a student from London, UK. He is a keen hiker and aims to summit every mountain in Fukuoka visible from his bedroom window. If you have any suggestions contact him on Twitter @omhboyd
Text by Oscar Boyd for Fukuoka Now