Exquisite brew

Fukushima produces some of the best sake in Japan

Mention Fukushima and the 2011 nuclear power station disaster comes to mind.

You would not want to go anywhere near there?

What if it produces some of the best sake in Japan?

It is not my usual drink, save the occasional sip when dining Japanese.

But who can resist when the promotional material says: Most gold medals won than any other sake-producing region in the last three years.

So here I am at the Niida Honke brewery in Koriyama, Fukushima, on day one of a four-day, fivebrewery visit organised by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.

Mr Yasuhiko Niida is an 18th generation brewer and owner and he is about to introduce me to a world steeped in the tradition and culture of a 304-year-old business that revolves around the one thing every Singaporean is familiar with.

Rice is what sake is about, but you do not know rice until you get to know sake and how it is made.

Here at Niida Honke, the brewery grows its own, which is unusual.

  • Sake breweries in Fukushima

    Where: North-east Honshu. It is the third-largest prefecture in Japan

    How to get there: Just over an hour on the Shinkansen from Tokyo

    No. of sake breweries: 74

    No. of gold medals won at last year's Japan Sake awards: 25 (more than any other prefecture in the last three years)

    Sake brands with gold medals in the last three years: Meotosakura, Suehiro, Kokken


    BREWERIES VISITED ON TRIP:

    Niida Honke

    First in Japan to produce organic junmai sake made with 100 per cent organic rice.

    Where: 139 Takayashiki, Kanezawa, Tamura-machi, Koriyama, Fukushima

    Tel: +81-249-55-2222

    Founded: 1711

    Info: www.kinpou.co.jp/english.html


    Daishichi

    Uses traditional kimoto method to brew sake and pioneered rice-milling technology.

    Where: 1-66 Takeda, Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Founded: 1752

    Info: english.daishichi.com


    Yamatogawa

    One of the few breweries which grows its own rice.

    Where: 4761 Teramachi, Kitakata, Fukushima

    Tel: +81 -241-22-2233

    Founded: 1790

    Info: www.tengusake.com/brewery/yamatogawa-shuzo


    Suehiro

    Pioneered yamahai brewing method in 1910.

    Where: 2-38 Nisshinmachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima

    Tel: +81-242-27-0002

    Founded: 1850

    Info: www.tif.ne.jp/lang/en/foods/topic.html?id=17&category=6

    Tsurunoe

    Boutique brewery run by female toji Yuri Hayashi.

    Where: 2-46 Nanukamachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima

    Tel: +81-242-27-0139

Sake rice has a bigger grain than the type you typically eat, with more starch at the centre.

That is good because starch is what you want to convert into sugar and then to alcohol.

But surrounding the starch in every grain of rice is protein and fat, which are not good because of the unwelcome flavours they add to sake.

So every grain has to be milled down and the best gets reduced by up to 60 per cent.

But it is what the brewery does to the milled rice that forever changes my view of sake and the world around it.

The first hint comes when we are told not to eat natto, the fermented soya bean that is the staple of the Japanese breakfast, on the morning of the visit to the brewery. No yogurt either.

It is a necessary precaution to ensure we do not introduce any unwanted micro-organism into the sake-making.

Then we are garbed in white coats and hair nets, take off our shoes to put on clean slippers and enter the room where koji is being made.

Koji is the magic that turns rice to sake with a yeast that has been carefully cultivated after years of research.

It is a living, bubbling mash and the fermentation takes up to a month before it is ready to be pressed to separate the clear sake from the rest of the brew.

But to get the exact flavours and aroma requires craftsmanship honed through the centuries.

The master brewer, or toji, decides, using his senses, how much water is needed and the temperature and humidity at each stage of the process, and he turns the koji by hand with huge ladles to get the mix right.

We visit four other breweries.

The rice may be different, so too the amount milled and the type of water used, and there are variations in the techniques that make for different types of sake.

But everywhere, it is the same care and dedication to the craft.

At the Suehiro brewery in Aizuwakamatsu, we meet 80-year-old toji Juichi Sato.

Here we try our hand, carrying the hot steamed rice in wooden buckets to spread on the floor to cool it down, then wrapping it up in cloth, up a flight of stairs, to pour the cooled rice into the koji mix.

It is back-breaking work, but Mr Sato moves like an 18-year old. He decides everything that goes on at this 165-year-old brewery.

At Yamatogawa brewery in Kitakata, we are taken to the rice fields it owns.

It is the last day of the harvest before winter sets in and proud owner Kazunori Sato tells us it has been a good one this season.

There have been years when the cold weather arrives early and destroys the crop.

Perhaps the most innovative of the breweries we visit is Daishichi in Nihonmatsu.

It specialises in a traditional method of brewing called kimoto, in which naturally occurring lacticacid bacteria is used to create a very strong yeast, resulting in sake that can keep over time with a mature aroma and deep flavours.

Founded in 1752 by a samurai family, it has modernised its operations, including inventing a special machine that is able to mill rice elliptically, taking off more of the unwanted stuff than in conventional methods.

At the last stop, Tsurunoe brewery in Aizu Wakamatsu, there is a pleasant surprise: Ms Yuri Hayashi is a rare female toji in a male-dominated business, having taken over when her brother decided sake was not his cup of tea.

She runs this boutique brewery with her husband and everything is done by hand, including capping every single bottle and labelling it.

They are as bubbly a couple as you can find and the sake they produce is wonderfully balanced.

Four days and five breweries later, I am intoxicated by the exquisite nature of this world I never knew existed.

But this is Japan, with its timehonoured tradition of respect for the master craftsman and its obsession with preserving its own culture.

The sake world distils all these elements to produce a unique blend of delicate flavours and aromas.

But the Fukushima brewers, for all their skill and history, have no answer to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated this part of the country in 2011.

Fifty-one of the 65 breweries then were affected, though only four were completely destroyed.

The more destructive force was to come later, when radiation fears caused sales to plunge, and they have not recovered. It is an irrational fear as radiation levels are easily measured and there is no trace in the region we visited.

But still the concerns persisted, even among the Japanese.

The brewers, with help from the local authorities, responded with characteristic Japanese efficiency, conducting extensive checks on all foodstuff.

Some of the testing seems excessive, but these are desperate times: Every bag of rice and every slaughtered cow is tested at the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Centre.

We are taken to see the facilities and one cannot help but be impressed by the thoroughness of the screening.

I am satisfied there is no danger.

I am also beginning to discover the aromatic attraction of sake.

At every brewery, we taste six to eight different bottles, some paired with different food, including foie gras, cheese and chocolate.

Sake goes surprisingly well with non-Japanese cuisine and I wish I had discovered its amiability earlier.

Back in Singapore, I ask Mr Derrick Lim, who runs his own sake distribution business, IVGS, how it is doing here.

He says there has been keener interest in recent years, but not enough understanding of its many qualities and how well it pairs with food.

He wants to do more to promote it and has organised food-pairing competitions and master classes bringing in Japanese experts.

More such activities are in the works.

The sake scene is still in its infancy here, but like koji, it bubbles with possibilities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Exquisite brew'. Print Edition | Subscribe