BREWERY VISITS Kanagawa

 

About 2 hours away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, lies a modest little sake brewery, overflowing with youthful charm, boasting a hand-made sake with essence of cherry blossom flower.

FOREWORD

With a yield of only 300koku (54,000 litres) Nakazawa brewery is one of the smaller breweries but that puts it squarely inside my radar. With a limited supply you might struggle to find their sake, even in Tokyo, but exclusivity is never a bad thing and they make premium quality sake completely by hand making the whole thing look remarkably easy in the process.

I have to take this opportunity to thank my Tencho, that’s boss in Japanese, of a little pub where I was working at the time, for inviting me to visit this and a number of other breweries together with him. I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to introduce this fantastic little brewery to you.

BREWERY LOCATION

The brewery is located on the coast of Kanagawa prefecture, just one hop from Tokyo, in Matsuda city which is easily reachable in about 3 connections. The third connection requires careful planning because the timetable is somewhat erratic.

The train ride alone is a highlight offering up views of plum fields and snow-capped mountains that really spirits you away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, but nothing beats the spectacle at the halfway point; 50-100 oaps trying to exit a small station with only one exit for the annual plum festival.

You won’t have any problem finding this brewery because It sits right beside the railway tracks.

SAKE TOURISM: THE LOCAL SIGHTS

Nakazawa brewery is also listed as a stop on a walking tour of the area which takes you from a nearby station, up the hill to a herb garden through various plum viewing spots along the way.

TOJI

At the helm of our sake tour, the Sake prodigy of Matsuda himself,

Drumroll please!

Akira Kakiwada, an 11 generation brewer, one of the youngest making sake today and the current head of the brewery.

I read afterwards that he earned his stripes at none other than the world-renowned Ichinokura brewery in Miyagi prefecture before returning to the family business to apply his newfound knowledge.

(Akira represents a new generation of young sake brewers, which I will be writing about more as this blog progresses, who are changing the image of sake, once considered an oyagi ( grandfather) pasttime, making it popular again with a younger audience and putting their localities on the map. I can’t help but feel inspired and at the same time incredibly optimistic for the future of the beverage.)

THE BREWERY GROUNDS

The entrance to the brewery is completely different from what I expected when I saw the exterior, not industrial looking at all. My eye leads me past a green verdure up a small well-kept pathway to a cozy little residence. The snow on the ground reminds me more of an alpine lodge than a brewery.

It is not uncommon to see a residence like this at the entrance of a brewery. After all breweries are more often than not also the family home. You might like to make the obvious comparison with a winery. No doubt this residence is preserving centuries of ancestry in its brickwork.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

Akira san treated me to a full and concise tour of the brewery. In all it took about 40 minutes but admittedly I did waste perhaps a little too much time trying to snap a picture of a bubble popping on the surface of the sake mash. Akira san’s explanation is quite straight forward and deals mainly with the basics, although I often sent him off on a tangent with my somewhat maniacal questions. Nevertheless The tour is all in Japanese so an interpreter is essential.

The tour begins at the rear of the brewery.
There is an opening from which the brewery interior is visible. It is here where shoes are swapped for some trendy plastic sandals to make sure we don’t bring any organisms in from outside, a peculiar but 100% necessary custom of the brewery visit.

One of the things that fascinates me about sake breweries and makes each tour so interesting is that each one has their own unique customs and traditions, an inbred individuality if you like. Nakazawa brewery is no exception. For they are none other than one of the few remaining breweries making their sake completely by hand.

Washing and steeping the rice

A stride over a plastic water hose takes us unto the first stage of the tour, the washing and steeping of the sake rice.

Like a lot of breweries in and around the capital, the rice is polished off site. They mainly use Miyama Nishiki from Nagano prefecture as well as the standard types like Yamada Nishiki and Gohyaku Mangoku.

The aim of the steeping stage is to absorb water into the rice. The koji mould enters the rice through these water pockets.

Too much and the rice simply falls apart, too little and the koji will be discouraged from entering. At this point my curiosity leads me to ask about the water which I am told is medium soft ground water (Fukuryusui), taken from a subterranean river a very common source of sake water.

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Koji room –

It is always a great privilege to be able to actually enter the koji room, think of it as the equivalent of entering the inner sanctum of a Japanese temple, so if you get the opportunity, do grasp it with both hands. Just be sure that you have not had natto in the last 24 hours. The organisms from natto are one of the sworn enemies of the koji mould. Thanks to sake, the “no eating natto” rebuttal is strengthened.

Akira san’s koji room is much cooler than I had geared myself up for. It is not the sweedish sauna with the tradition of stripping down to the waist that you may have read about, even if the interior does mimic one ever so slightly.

There is a reason for this. The brewery only makes koji when it is required. The 2nd & 3rd stage (Soe and Naka) rice is bought in super easily in the morning, around 6am, when it is easy to dry out the rice so no humidifier is required. Unfortunately, we were not able to see any koji being made but then that is not surprising since it is almost out of season.

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SEE

Well for starters, the tasting hall is brimming with sake culture. I particularly liked the clay model version of the sake making process and visitors are given the chance to solve that age-old question (a quiz posted on the wall).

Q: Just what is the most often used Japanese kanji character in sake nameology anyway? In second place we have the character for crane (Tsuru) and in third place, a slight surprise result, True (Masa).
The answer may well surprise you. As a little hint, all I will say is that the key to the answer lies in one of the ingredients.

Don’t leave without trying the sake cake! Actually don’t leave without buying some sake cake!

THE TASTING

Nakazawa brewery’s tasting offers up a very diverse range of different styles but in it I could clearly pick out the atypical junmai and honjozo. These sakes have a very simple taste profile, one which I think would fair well in an overseas market. Incidentally, the brewery has yet to expand into that market so if you like their sake please spread the word in your country.

My eyes lit up when I saw the freshly brewed sakes at the end of the table.

Oh! Akira san you do spoil us…

SIGNATURE SAKE

Akira san’s first masterpiece as Toji is a sake made with a yeast obtained from a variety of cherry blossom flower, the symbol of Matsuda called Kawazakura. That which I lovingly referred to as essence of cherry blossom. This sake certainly has a cherry taste to it, a lovely sweet sake with much less body than the Matsumidori series.

SIDE NOTES

Nakazawa brewery is reachable from Tokyo in under 2 hours via either the Odakyu line or Gotenba lines en route to Yokohama. You could consider including this brewery tour as part of a day trip to Yokohama and still have plenty of time to do a bit of sightseeing in between somewhere. I think you can always gauge how far outside Tokyo you have ventured by a station that doesn’t accept Suica cards. Beware: Matsuda is that very station so make sure you have plenty of cash ready to pay the fayre at the ticket office on arrival. Although this brewery openly welcomes foreign visitors on an appointment basis I have to take this opportunity to thank the Tencho of the Izakaya I did a little stint at in the winter months for putting this tour together for me. It was only a few days since I had started working there and as soon as he heard of my interest in sake he put this and a number of other visits together for me. I am eternally greatful to him for arranging everything so quickly.

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