Wednesday Lessons Recap: Visiting brewers Kawatsuru, Yamada Shoten, & Chiyonosono (4/16/24)

Wednesday Lessons Recap: Visiting brewers Kawatsuru, Yamada Shoten, & Chiyonosono (4/16/24)
We were incredibly lucky to have three exceptional kuramoto (brewery owners) visit Sunflower this April. During a [Tuesday] Lessons class, each one shared a bit about the sake they export to the US as well as their brewery and personal history. Monica Samuels, who manages the Kome Collective import portfolio, acted as translator and introduced their stories, sharing tons of in-depth detail. In the classroom we had a full house, with attendees including prospective sake brewers, local industry veterans/sake champions and enthusiastic regulars. For my part, it was an absolute pleasure to welcome these esteemed guests and listen to them speak from the heart about their family businesses. There is nothing more touching to me than welcoming brewers into our little sake club house.

What follows are the notes I took during the class, as well as the notes I recorded during our private tasting session with the kuramoto of Takatenjin, Rihaku, and Tentaka, who visited us earlier in the day but had a separate engagement that night.

Note that instead of the (elder) Mr. Honda of Chiyonosono depicted above, we instead welcomed his daughter, future kuramoto Ms. Yuri Honda.

Yuichiro Kawahito, Kawatsuru Shuzo, Kagawa

Kawatsuru Junmai “Crane of Paradise”

Named for the local river and considered to be an umakuchi style sake: on the dry and crisp side, but with strong umami on the mid palate. Considered to be a difficult style to make. They use Yeast #9 for this, one of the earliest ginjo yeasts, for its relatively understated but still pretty aromatics and slightly higher acid production.

Kawatsuru grows their own Yamadanishiki in Kagawa which is used for this sake. Pretty unusual to go to this length for a vertically integrated, seed to bottle sake.

Interestingly, as the prefecture with anywhere between the least and 3rd to least rainfall annually, they undergo periodic drought. When that happens, local sake brewers like Kawatsuru are the shared community resource as they have the best wells and water access. So Kawatsuru has a community responsibility to share water in periods of drought, something they dont take lightly.

Monica feels this is a Mezcal and Sauvignon Blanc lovers’ sake, because it has a bit of the sweet agave smokiness and slippery texture of mezcal, as well as the delicately tropical and lime-like note of Sauvignon Blanc. An interesting intersection. Sweet Italian sausage is an excellent pairing thanks to the sweet fennel, umami tomato and fatty meat being cut cleanly by the refreshing sake.

Kawatsuru Junmai Ginjo “Olive”

Japan in general- Obsessive with production and refinement. Olive growing in kagawa… smallest prefecture but also only place olives are grown. Mission olive introduced ~50 years ago and now influencing all aspects of local culture. Olive wagyu. Olive hamachi. For this they use a hyper local rice, sanuki yoimai . Briney and buttery character on the palate.

Super hard to develop the product. Tried to adjust temperature and it would rebel. Want it to be cold? it would warm up, and vice versa. Had to let the yeast call the shots. The issue is that too high of temperature develops the acidity to excess— too low of temperature and there’s a risk of stuck fermentation, even though low temperatures encourage ginjo aromatics. So you have to ferment cold but always riding the line. Ultimately it’s a difficult yeast but it has rewarding outcomes.

His favorite pairings would be Spanish food, for example gambas al ajillo. Locally they have older laying hens that they cook in olive oil and paprika until tender— called Bone in (honetsuki) chicken and paprika.

Kazuhiko Yamada, Yamada Shoten, Gifu

Yamada Shoten Tokubetsu Junmai “Mukashi no Manma— Everlasting Roots”

This is made with a local rice, Hida-Homare, developed for the Hida mountain range/Gifu prefecture and is matured a short while before release. It’s a bit of a pain to grow but produces fuller bodied sake and has helped the Gifu region develop a stronger regional identity.

When we decided to release 900ml it was because we decided we need a mini bottle—1.8L is not always the right choice, it’s cumbersome and doesn’t travel well, doesn’t it in refrigerators anymore. So this is the smallest size we make and it’s one that encourages generosity of pours. It’s a great size for 3, sometimes even 4 people, lets two people have a good time and maybe even an extra glass or two the next day. It represents a spirit of generosity.

Sansai (wild mountain vegetables) and niku (beef) are a part of the core culinary lexicon in Gifu, as well as miso. Generally speaking, Gifu sake has more acidity and umami and more restraint aromatically.  This particular sake among the whole of the Yamada Shoten portfolio has the most Gifu character.

When he takes over, he wants to engage more with sake through the lens of gastronomy. There’s a concept of casual pairing— “this sake goes with food,” “does not fight with food”— but the concept of a perfect pairing is really new and unexplored. So in the future he wants to really develop and identify specific strong pairings for his sake, giving it a purposeful place at the table.

With that said, his favorite food with Everlasting roots is anything miso rich, with the sake being room temperature. The area is known for akamiso and hatcho miso, relatively deep flavor aged misos, so these form a great pairing with the umami-rich sake.

Yuri Honda, Chiyonosono Shuzo, Kumamoto

Chiyonosono Junmai “Shuhai: Shared Promise”

Kumamoto is really shochu (distillate) country and the brewery also makes shochu, of course. But the roots of the Honda family are as prominent rice wholesalers and that really governs their approach to production as well as their commitments. In 1896, the family started a sake brewery to add value to their rice and because during this period the Meiji government was offering strong incentives to begin sake production (sake tax was funding modernization and wars after all). It was around this time that the original owner Honda Kikuhachi also directed rice breeding trials which led to the development of Kyushu Shinriki, a sake brewing rice with high starch content.

During WW2 there were extreme rice shortages. There was more potatoes than rice eaten during this time— so getting rice to make sake with was very difficult. As a result all brewers were required to make sanzoshu, highly diluted sake— only about a third of the liquid was the original sake. The rest was added alcohol, water, and artificial flavorings, sweeteners. After the war, when brewers once again regained access to rice most people had forgotten about junmai (pure rice sake) and believed it was stupid or uneconomical to resume junmai production. But Chiyonosono believed it was a worthwhile effort to make: they were committed to the integrity and purity of rice and its products.

In 1968, Chiyonosono went on record as one of the first breweries to produce Junmai (at around this time, 1967 in Saitama and 1964 in Kyoto, other early adopters were also making moves). At Chiyonosono, the brewery workers made a pact: sharing sake from a red ritual sake cup, a shuhai, to continue working to improve the quality of sake in Japan. Thus the Junmai brand was named “shuhai” (English translation, ”shared promise”) in honor of this pact.

This is clearly a southern-style brew. It has a saison-like spice and malty hoppy quality.  Something remotely beer-like, and in fact makes a perfect sake to follow up your beer with. The sake long ago was made with Gohyakumangoku but is now made with Yamadanishiki for the koji and Hananishiki for the kakemai.

Ms. Honda was asked about her experience being a woman and being expected to take over the brewery in a male-dominated industry. Her feeling is that because it’s so unusual being a woman she is used to things being unusual, her fresh set of eyes is very individual, and this gives her an advantage in a changing market. She’s less likey to just go with the flow and accept things as they are. In turn she gets less pushback when making changes because her mere presence is already different.

Chiyonosono Junmai Ginjo “Shinriki: Sacred Power”

This is made with 100% Shinriki rice. Shinriki is an heirloom rice indigenous to Honshu and very difficult to grow, about 3x the height of standard crossbreeding rice. To grow it requires a lot of skill, and in fact has so much personality in the brewing process that it could be said the rice decides the sake. As mentioned previously, a distant relative in the late 1800s helped develop the particular strain of Shinriki that was later to be used for sake brewing here.

So it’s very difficult to grow— it’s hard to find farmers willing to grow it. And it needs to be personally certified by a representative from the government every year to be an official sake rice for Kumamoto prefecture. Someone has to take a plane from Tokyo, drive out to the fields, and physically certify the rice every time. It’s a huge pain, so Chiyonosono tried to ask the importer if they could change the rice up a bit, or maybe use a combination of rice to make this product. However, Kome Collective would not accept this and insisted on 100% Kumamoto shinriki rice. As a result this sake is ONLY exported— the Japanese version is a blend. If you visit the brewery, you can’t even try this 100% Shinriki sake.

It has a maritime smokiness and kombu seaweed quality. Specifically Monica references Kombu-cured sashimi, which can take on a texture like velvet. This particular sake also has that rich velvety texture, making for an excellent pairing.


Tasting with the brewers: Takatenjin, Rihaku, and Tentaka

Doi Shuzo, Takatenjin Tokubetsu Honjozo "Sword of the Sun"
(Doi Shuzo: makers of Kaiun and Takatenjin)

Doi shuzo makes around 2000 koku of sake per year, putting them on the high side of small or the low side of medium. Generally speaking the prefecture has the highest delta in elevation: the top of Mt. Fuji to the coastline, and is rich with extremely clean water. Famous for growing green tea, wasabi, and other products that require clean water. They are approximately 50% solar powered which is one characteristic that influenced the naming of their honjozo.

Takatenjin Honjozo “Sword of the Sun” Double pasteurized, 60% polished rice. Yamadanishiki from Hyogo for the kojimai, Haenuki from Yamagata for the kakemai. The water is extremely soft—nansui, and the style is considered to be kirei, “pretty” style. For this product they pasteurize twice and use a yeast developed at this brewery by the former toji, who was widely considered one of the 5 most influential and prominent toji of his day, training countless acolytes. The yeast, HD-1, is named for the toji (Hase) and the brewery (Doi) and would help lead the way to Shizuoka’s dominance in sake awards for nearly a decade.
The sake is very refreshing and pretty, with delicate aromatics and mouthfeel, overall mild and water-like but with more palate presence and finish than a Niigata style clean and dry (tanrei karakuchi) sake. The fruit notes are subtle, leaning a bit toward muscat and mineral.

Takatenjin Junmai Daiginjo "Sword of the Sensei"

This sake was developed after the passing of Hase-san, Doi Shuzo’s revered toji who is largely credited with bringing Shizuoka sake to the stage. It uses HD-1 yeast and Hyogo Yamadanishiki rice.

The texture of the sake is super slick and fluid, luxuriously silky. Very light and delicate aroma and palate. Green florals (lily, lemongrass, pandan), mineral, and a light grip on the palate (but not a bitterness) reminiscent of white grapefruit. The overall impression is clean and pure.

Rihaku Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori “Dreamy Clouds”

Shimane, he says, is really in the middle of nowhere and as it has no shinkansen it’s fairly low population. It’s cool, foggy, cloudy, receiving moody weather from the Japan Sea that faces China and Russia. Essentially the first of its kind, Rihaku Nigori is dry, quite refreshing, with gentle notes of blueberry flesh and pear, fresh herbs and minerality. It’s made with Gohyakumangoku rice grown locally which reinforces these characteristics. I asked about Gohyakumangoku rice grown in Shimane, and his response was a little vague but simply that it has its own flavor profile and body. The weather isn’t really as nice so the rice is pushed to develop in darker and more humid overall conditions, giving it a distinctiveness. They also use Shimane #9 yeast, which is perhaps a little more aromatic of a sub-strain compared to classic #9 yeast. This sake is pasteurized twice: once going into storage and again at bottling. They use 100% ko-on tooka method as their starter fermentation due to its efficiency and clean taste.

I asked him about hanakobo, as he is a member of the hanakobo society and used to engage in hanakobo development when he was at Tokyo Nodai. To identify saccharomyces cerevisiae suited to sake brewing, which is an alcohol fermenter like wine yeast but very distinct in other respects (different tolerances, even different shape under a microscope) researchers expose the prospective yeast to an antibiotic produced by koji. Sake yeast can withstand this antibiotic, but other yeasts can’t. Once it’s determined that the yeast can survive it, then you begin the process of iteration to create a yeast with desirable characteristics and resistance to high alcohol. Only members of the hanakobo society are permitted to use these yeasts.

Tentaka Junmai "Hawk in the Heavens" (Tochigi)

One of very few breweries with organic certification: a looong process, 3 years, and one which can upset lots of neighbors (”he’s turning organic, so now there’s more bugs every year.”) After that you must re-certify annually which is a huge production and expense. They source Tochigi rice, specifically this product uses 100% local Gohyakumangoku. This is a product exclusively made for the export market and in fact underwent changes when it shifted to export-only. They increased the aging time to 1 year to give it more flavor intensity and richness, and the aging is done in ‘ambient’ (air conditioned) temps of around 55-60F. It has a lovely deep aroma, classic jukusei style, without being too strong. In Japan you can find both Tentaka brand and their new brand Kyubi (nine tailed fox) as well.

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