Family brew: Experiencing sake in Japan

Lunch at casual restaurant Yoakejaya with Mr Kohtaroh Kinoshita (in maroon jacket), the seventh- generation president of Kitaya brewery. The toji or sake master (left above) of Mori No Kura brewery scoops out sake which is still in its fermentation s
Lunch at casual restaurant Yoakejaya with Mr Kohtaroh Kinoshita (in maroon jacket), the seventh generation president of Kitaya brewery. PHOTO: SAKE BREWERY TOURS
Lunch at casual restaurant Yoakejaya with Mr Kohtaroh Kinoshita (in maroon jacket), the seventh- generation president of Kitaya brewery. The toji or sake master (left above) of Mori No Kura brewery scoops out sake which is still in its fermentation s
The toji or sake master of Mori No Kura brewery scoops out sake which is still in its fermentation stages.PHOTO: EUNICE QUEK
Lunch at casual restaurant Yoakejaya with Mr Kohtaroh Kinoshita (in maroon jacket), the seventh- generation president of Kitaya brewery. The toji or sake master (left above) of Mori No Kura brewery scoops out sake which is still in its fermentation s
Horse Sashimi at Yakitori Teppo Hanabatake.PHOTO: EUNICE QUEK

Sake-making in Japan's Fukuoka prefecture is a family tradition that often transcends generations

There is no better way to experience sake than in its motherland, Japan.

Every prefecture boasts a variety of the fermented rice beverage and the array of options can be confusing, possibly intimidating.

However, there are ways to learn more about sake - from meeting the rice growers to seeing first-hand how the drink is made to learning how to pair it with food.

One of the best places to learn about it is in Japan's Fukuoka prefecture. It is considered a sake-centric area because it is at the basin of the Chikugo River, Kyushu's largest, and known for the purity of its water, which is used in the making of sake.

On a five-day tour of the area earlier this year, I get a crash course in sake.

The trip is organised by independent tour operator Sake Brewery Tours, in collaboration with travel agent Michi Travel Japan, which runs the tours during the brewing season from November to March.

  • Getting there

  • Singapore Airlines flies daily to Fukuoka Airport from Singapore. The flight takes about eight hours.

    Transportation from the airport to and from the hotel is not included in the tour. It is about 20 minutes by taxi to the Hakata Excel Tokyu Hotel (4-6-7, Nakasu, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi, tel: +81- 92-262-0109, www.tokyuhotelsjapan.com/en/TE/TE_HAKAT/index.html) and the ride costs less than 2,000 yen (S$23) one way.

    Throughout the tour, we travel by chartered bus. It takes one to two hours to get to our destinations.

    For trip updates, go to saketours. com or e-mail info@saketours.com. The website is updated at least six months prior to tour dates. The five-day tour is priced at 280,000 yen a person, based on double occupancy. International flights, travel insurance and some meals are not included.

Together with 10 tourists and two other writers, we start our tour at Mori No Kura brewery (www.morinokura.co.jp) in Kurume. It is a family business run by Mr Kazuhiro Morinaga, 44, who is from the fifth generation.

Here, we get a two-hour crash course on sake basics by American sake expert John Gauntner, who talks about the different varieties of sake and the brewing process.

He tells us to remember the word "ginjo", as it encompasses four subclasses of premium sake - junmai daiginjo, daiginjo, junmai ginjo and ginjo.

The differences refer to the degree to which the rice has been milled. Junmai means "pure rice", so junmai sakes have no distilled alcohol added.

Mori No Kura was founded in 1898 and still focuses on making junmai-style sake. Other breweries on the tour make different sake varieties as well as shochu.

I can get used to all this drinking, especially when we get to pair Mori No Kura's sake with Fukuoka's specialities at Hishimura (tel: 092- 717-5655), an izakaya, a drinking and small eats restaurant.

Dinner includes dishes such as live squid sashimi (the tentacles are fried tempura-style), fugu (puffer fish) sashimi and mentaiko (spicy cod roe).

The next day, we travel to the agricultural region of Itoshima to meet sake rice farmers at the office of the Japan Agricultural Association. The association acts as the middleman between the rice farmers and sake brewers.

We meet the association's representatives and four rice farmers who answer questions from the travellers about dealing with climate change, preparing for the future generation to take over the business and the group's role in ensuring the longevity of the farms.

It is fascinating to hear how their businesses date back many generations. They grow a variety of rice for making sake, including omedi, yamada nishiki and ginno rice, along with vegetables.

With insight from the farmers, I get a wider perspective on the sake industry and its challenges.

The biggest brewery we visit on this trip - Kitaya (www.kitaya.co.jp) - was founded about 190 years ago and is home to award-winning sakes.

It is eye-opening to witness the intense labour involved in the early stages of sake production, from steaming to koji-making.

Koji is steamed rice that has had koji mould spores cultivated onto it. It is one of the key components in making sake, besides rice and water.

The mould breaks the rice starches into sugars that can be fermented by the yeast cells, which then give off carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Seventh-generation president Kohtaroh Kinoshita, 52, compares a good brewery with an orchestra and, indeed, his staff carry out the production in a serious and silent symphony.

We get tasting portions of the sake in various stages of fermentation, as Mr Kinoshita wants us to understand how the rice is broken down within the brewing period.

Then it is on to more sake and food pairing as he joins us for lunch at casual restaurant Yoakejaya (www.mutugorou.co.jp).

Very much an eatery for the locals, it specialises in chinmi (rare taste in Japanese) from the Ariake Sea. Here, we have grilled mudskipper, unusual varieties of kelp and shellfish.

This tour is also not for the faint-hearted, as we try horse sashimi at yakitori restaurant Yakitori Teppo Hanabatake (www.teppo.jp).

While it takes some time for the horse-lovers in my group to try it, the rest of us enjoy the delicate flavour of the meat, which tastes a little like beef.

The yakitori skewers are paired with sake from the next brewery - Wakatakeya Brewery (www.wakatakeya.com), which also owns Kyoho Winery. It makes wine from kyoho grapes, among other fruit.

Like at the other breweries, owner Hayashida Hironobu, 49, takes us around the facility and tells us about the work that goes into his sake, which he calls his "children".

He lives within the brewery's compound and wakes up every few hours to check the koji. He has to ensure the temperature (about 30 deg C) and moisture levels are optimal because heat is generated when the koji mould is on the rice grains, which could affect the flavour profile of the sake.

Our last visit is to Yamaguchi Brewery (www.niwanouguisu.com), which keeps everything in the family.

Owner Tetsuo Yamaguchi runs the brewery while his 70-year-old mother Reiko Yamaguchi has a cooking studio where she cooks vegetables and eggs using geothermal energy from the ground.

Their sake label is called Niwa no Uguisu, named after a nightingale in the garden.

The brewery's sake debuted in Singapore at yakitori restaurant Shirokane Tori-Tama in Robertson Quay in March.

But with its new market, Mr Yamaguchi is also scaling back on exports to the United States as the demand exceeds his supply.

In an effort to "regroup" to meet the demand for new and existing markets, the brewery's building will be expanded the space so it can increase production.

Like the other brewers, Mr Yamaguchi will bring only the best of his sake to the rest of the world.

If this is the way the current generation of sake brewers are going, kanpai (cheers in Japanese) to the longevity of the drink.

The writer's trip was sponsored by Sake Brewery Tours.

This story first appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "For the sake of sake".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Family brew'. Print Edition | Subscribe