SAKE IN TSURUOKA
Japanese sake (nihonshu) is an alcoholic drink consisting of rice, water, koji-kin (aspergillus mold) and yeast. Contrary to what many people think, sake is not a distilled spirit. It is actually more similar to wine and beer, which undergo fermentation during the brewing process. Often referred to as nihonshu in Japanese, it has gradually become more trendy and recognisable as a drink around the world as international interest in Japanese cuisine has also continued to grow in recent years.
Sake brewing in Japan is believed to date back as far as the 5th century BC, when China introduced rice cultivation to Japan. During that time, sake was mainly produced by the imperial court; as such, only the privileged had access to sake. Clear, rich-flavoured sake was reserved for special occasions such as New Years’ and festivals, usually after being offered to the gods. Sake production eventually shifted from the court to shrines and temples, though it was still perceived as a luxury item. As time passed, its production expanded out of this sphere and was taken up by common folk; sake thus came to be brewed throughout the year. Together with technological advancements that enabled numerous developments in brewing methods, the quality of sake increased, which boosted industrial production; this, in turn, allowed it to become a commodity in regular Japanese people’s lives by the 20th century.
What is sake made of?
A special type of rice called sakamai (sake brewing rice), created solely for this purpose is used in sake brewing. Compared to the rice we usually eat at our dinner tables, sake rice grains are larger, lower in protein, and have a porous core. As of 2020, there are over 100 different strains of sake rice, each with a distinct harvesting season, as well as their own subtle yet unique flavour profile. Brewers may choose to use specific strains based on their flavour and/or their harvesting seasons.
Water, which makes up 80% of sake, is as important to sake brewing as rice. In order to obtain good quality water, sake breweries are often located near places where there are famous natural springs. The unique characteristics and profile of the water, often unique to the area, create diverse flavours in sake. Soft water (with small amounts of minerals and metals) is mostly used to produce light and smooth tasting sake, whereas using harder water with a slightly higher mineral content tends to produce sake that is fuller in flavour.
Koji-kin (aspergillus mold) is cultivated on steamed rice, and plays an important role in sake brewing. They produce a mass of enzymes that help break down rice starch into glucose, and protein into amino acids. This process also provides the necessary vitamins for yeast during fermentation. Koji-kin is broadly divided into yellow and black varieties, whereby the yellow koji is commonly used in the production of sake, miso, soy sauce and mirin, and the black koji is used in making shochu.
Different types of sake
There are two basic types of sake: futsū-shu (ordinary sake) and tokutei meishō-shu (special designation sake). Futsū-shu is similar to table wine and makes up for the majority of sake produced. Tokutei meishō-shu refers to premium sake that is distinguished by the degree of rice-polishing, as well as the presence or absence of brewer’s alcohol.
Rice-polishing or rice-milling rate (seimai buai) refers to how much of the rice grain is left behind after polishing. A rice grain with a lower percentage is thus highly polished. As such, sake made with a lower rice-polishing rate is usually more expensive—not because it tends to be lighter and smoother in taste, but due to the fact that more rice is required to produce the same amount of sake. On the other hand, sake made with rice that has a higher rice-polishing rate is generally richer in flavour. Distilled alcohol added to the mash at the end of the fermentation can help to stabilise the quality and adjust the taste of the final product.
There are eight varieties of special designation sake.
Sake in Tsuruoka
The Shonai Plains, where Tsuruoka is situated, served as a major rice-producing region for Japan during the Edo Period (1603 – 1867). Even today, this region continues to produce great-tasting and high-quality rice such as the Tsuyahime, Yukiwakamaru and Haenuki varieties. In addition to producing award-winning rice, this region is also famous for cultivating many different varieties of sake rice and is thus referred to as a sake-producing region.
It is said that the rice used to brew sake has seven gods: earth, wind, clouds, water, insects, sun, and the person who makes it. Our forefathers were thankful for nature’s blessing and the workings of life; through their efforts and diligence, the sake brewing industry was able to take root here and blossom. Their industrious spirit was passed down to the seven sake breweries in Tsuruoka, and has led to the production of delicious sake which has been highly evaluated at competitions.
Among the different areas within Tsuruoka, Oyama was recorded in historical texts as tenryō during the Edo Period. Tenryō is the common name for the territory under the direct control of the Edo shogunate and was a major source of revenue for them. Thus, sake produced in Oyama was under their dictation. One of the reasons why Oyama thrived as a sake town was because taxation on sake brewing was less strict under the shogunate than that of the feudal lords, who had ruled prior. From the Kyōho Period (1716 – 1736) till the end of the Edo Period and the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), there were more than 40 sake breweries in Oyama. Together with Saijō district in Hiroshima (known as the Sake Town of Japan) and Nada district in Hyogo (the top sake producing region in Japan), Oyama became known as one of the leading sake brewing districts in Japan and came to be known as the “Little Nada of Tōhoku”.
Water used for sake brewing in the region is divided into soft water, produced at the foot of Mt. Gassan, and semi-hard water, which is found near Mt. Chokai. In the Oyama district, the groundwater used in sake brewing contains lower quantities of iron, making it ideal for the fermentation process. Thus, sake brewed in Tsuruoka tends to be lighter and smoother in taste.
Although sake can now be brewed throughout the year thanks to technological advancements in the field, sake brewing is still thought to be a seasonal activity. The most visible association of this is the sugitama, a globe made of cedar leaves that is hung outside the brewery when new sake is brewed. Once its green leaves turn brown, brewers know that the new sake has matured and is ready to be drunk. Every second Saturday of February, four breweries in Oyama area host the “Oyama New Sake Festival”. Participants are welcome to visit all four breweries and taste the newly brewed sake and specialty brands from each brewery.
Sake breweries in
Tsuruoka has a total of seven sake breweries, with four located in Oyama, two in Haguro and one in Kushibiki. The high-quality sake produced from these breweries are not only known for their good quality within the prefecture, but are also highly regarded throughout Japan. In perfecting their craft, these breweries have both supported the local economy of Tsuruoka for over 400 years, and have also become a feature in the city’s local landscapes and environments, making it a valuable source of traditional culture in the region.