As a leading producer of the nation’s rice, Tohoku has many renowned breweries and sake brands. It is not only the region’s grain that makes a great brew, though. In fact, other ingredients like clear, mineral-rich spring water also play an important role in making a refreshing swig of sake. Two natural springs, Daiji-Shimizu and Seiryu-sui in Morioka’s Nataya-cho, particularly attract locals. It is common to see people in the area drinking and collecting crystal-clear water from the public spring. Like the water gently flowing through the area, Nataya-cho is best when explored at a slow, relaxing pace. Along the old merchant streets, you will find traditional buildings, cozy cafes, impressive temples, and Asabiraki Brewery.
The method of brewing sake started back before even being recorded in history. Over the years, formal ceremonies, special events, and casual drinking parties have cups of overflowing Japanese liquor. Being so popular, it is therefore the national beverage of Japan.
Much like other ancient Japanese practices, the gods were heavily involved. The god of sake is, logically, the same as the god of rice growing and harvesting. Consequently, the drink became a major part of religious festivities, appearing in traditional dances and Japanese art. It brought a sense of importance to such activities. In other words, sake is inseparable from the Japanese identity, much like shrines, samurai and sushi.
Brewing sake is astoundingly complex, especially considering the age of the culture around rice wine. Of course, modern techniques now enhance and mass produce the liquor with consistent quality. However, the steps are largely the same as those from ancient times. The major brewing method used in this area is the Nanbu style. A group of experts called the Nanbu Toji developed and distributed this technique of brewing delicious sake over 300 years ago.
Contrary to what you may think, Japanese sake naturally has the highest alcohol content compared to other liquors. This takes into account the multiple distillations that whisky and others go through to concentrate the alcohol content. Sake’s strength mostly comes from the kouji-kin, or spores, that the brewers mix with steamed rice. It is a distinctive feature of sake. There are of course many steps involved, but fermentation takes the longest time. As a result, the process takes three to four weeks. Meanwhile the mixture is constantly monitored and stored at the optimal temperature.
You can learn more details about the sake production process by touring the pristine and modern Asabiraki Sake Brewery. In fact, guided tours are available and easy to understand. It is amazing to see how much effort is involved in brewing the sake. With the amount of polished containers and shiny metallic equipment, the facility seems just as suitable for building rockets as it is for making rice wine.
Asabiraki literally means “opening sun”, but they prefer to translate it as “new age”. From the spectacular view inside the brewery – especially the blinking buttons and switches in the control room – I would say that Asabiraki has successfully entered the new age of sake. Actually, the technology used is far from what the samurai who founded and led the brewery back in 1871. However, the crimson torii gates leading up to the building show that Asabiraki hasn’t forgotten its roots.
Fortunately, we had a chance to speak with the CEO of the brewery. His passion for sake was clear, as we talked over tea made from the same delicious spring water that goes into the brew. Asabiraki aims to spread the flavors and culture of sake around the world and welcomes foreign people to visit the brewery and learn about sake. Obviously, the brewery produces many flavors, so it is hard to recommend any over the other. In fact, the brewery won gold at the National Sake Competition 12 times in a row.
Hirota Shuzoten is a small brewery in Iwate-ken that has been producing clean-tasting, and, umami-infused sakes since 1903. Using local rice and clear water springing from their home town, Hirota stays true to its roots and family-oriented quality. While it does use modern methods, Hirota Sake Brewery contrasts greatly with those that mass-produce on an industrial scale. Instead, an exceptional female brewer leads a select group of men to blend unique sake.
The craftsmen and craftswomen at the humble brewery use the natural aspects of its region. Tohoku’s home-grown ingredients and freezing cold temperature during winter produce Hirota Shuzoten sake’s honest flavor. Somehow their hard work – lifting and stirring some hundred kilograms of rice every day – is also bottled up with the product and enhances each sip. As a result, every brew is unique, like a work art that can only be experienced once. That quality spreads through all of Hirota’s products.
To learn more about traditional sake brewing processes founded by the Nanbu Toji, the expansive Nanbu-Toji Brewer Museum is nearby – a reminder of the passion the area has for sake. Replicating old Japanese rice wine brewery, wooden tubs and traditional architecture tell the story of sake’s creation and how it influenced Japanese culture. Complete with charming educational videos and priceless artifacts, there is a lot to explore. The museum sits at a michi no eki, or rest stop along the road. There are many local sake brands and other items to purchase as a gift.