Every journey begins with one step. For people into booze, this means more variety than the casual drinker and putting effort into visiting producers. Personally, it also means being all over the place, as I’m getting into all sorts of things except vodka.
Here I am, bitten hard by the sake bug. I’ve been madly curious about sake ever since I first listened to the Sake on Air podcast. That curiosity became stronger when I tried some flower yeast fermented sake, for the first time, from Harushika Brewery in Nara. Ever since that brewery visit, I’ve made sure to visit at least one sake brewery for every trip I make to Japan. It was thanks to Ai (at.ome_official), who handles English tours of Ozawa Brewery, that I learned of Fujioka Shuzo.
The brewery opened in 1905 but stopped operating in 1995 due to the sudden passing away of its 3rd generation owner. Luckily, it experienced a rebirth in 2002 when 5th generation brewer, Masaaki Fujioka, wanted to reopen his family’s business.
It’s about a 20 to 30-minute train ride from downtown Kyoto to the station in the Fushimi district. The area is apparently a sake brewery district, as there are at least 5 other breweries nearby. From the station, it’s about a 5-minute walk to the brewery. The brewery is small, so you will need to watch out for a sugitama (cedar ball), which gives away the presence of a brewery.
Sadly, I don’t think touring the brewery is part of their regular programming. The only part of the brewery one can visit is the gift shop, which is also connected to the bar. The bar has a window where you can see the inside of the brewery. If you’re worried about communicating, everyone can speak basic English. The bar menu also comes in English. If you don’t know what to buy, you can try their sake by the glass. A glass of sake costs from ¥450 to ¥700. There are also food options like sake lees ice cream (lees refer to the leftover stuff from sake brewing), tofu, Japanese pickles, cream cheese and some others in case you want to eat. (P.S. sake ice cream is amazing)
It was drinking in the brewery’s bar when I realized how sake is very different from western fermented alcohol. Just like Japanese cuisine is different from western cuisine. Japanese cuisine is reliant on dashi (Japanese soup stock), koji (used in making soy sauce and miso) and pickling. While western cuisine is more reliant on butter and salt.
I already mentioned, in a previous review, that sake is reliant on Koji-kin for fermentation. Looking at the brewery store made me notice that a brewery can have many expressions at a similar price point (usually sake of similar grades). While a winery usually doesn’t. As far as I know, the expressions of a wine brand become more expensive as the quality of grapes used or the vintages get better. But the grape varieties or blend of grapes are usually the same. For sake, the differences in the expressions are usually different based on the rice variety and/or yeast and/or other parts of production.
Also, because sake production is only allowed from October to April, breweries will usually have seasonal releases. I have heard of sake made with strawberry yeast and sakura yeast. It’s safe to assume one can only make sake with these yeasts when the flowers/fruits are in season.
I’m not aware of the beer having brewing seasons. As far as I know, the mass producers of beer only have one or a few skus they regularly produce. I’m not counting the “limited edition” bottles full of marketing bullshit though.
I only got to try three of the sake available as I went there on a Sunday afternoon. But I only bought 2 bottles. It was shockingly full of locals from the time I went in, to the time I left. So, that must mean it’s a really popular brand.
One of the two I tried and bought is this Miyama Nishiki Junmai. Miyama Nishiki is a kind of sakamai which was made from crossing two different strains of rice. Sakamai refers to rice meant for brewing sake. Despite this being my first time to try sake made with Miyama Nishiki, the rice is apparently the third most used variety. It is only behind Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It is characterized to have a grainy profile with a mild sweetness but a muted nose. Junmai just means the sake was made only with rice. The abv is 17%. The polishing ratio is 60%. A 500ml bottle of this cost me ¥1,700.
The other bottle of sake I tried and bought is this Kinuhikari sake. Kinuhiraki a kind of table rice. Which I found odd for a small and highly recommended brewery. Sakama is often the preferred rice for brewing quality sake due to the physical makeup of the rice. Brewers mainly want the starch in a rice, as the koji-kin will convert them to sugar. The more sugar you have the more alcohol you will get. The physical makeup of table rice is kind of like beef where the meat and fat aren’t separated well. In table rice, the fat and proteins are mixed with the starch. The fat and proteins will create impurities in flavor.
The physical makeup of sakamai rice makes it easier for the brewer to polish the rice. Aside from the grains being larger, the separation of starch from fat and protein are better. The more a brewery polishes a sakamai grain, the impurities there are and the more starch will go into the brew.
I guess you could say sakamai are like barley for whisky. Barley is said to be the best grain for taking in flavor. Single malts require barley so people after prestige and/or quality will go for barley. While table rice is like the grain for grain whisky. But not all single malt are better than grain whisky, right?
Miyama Nishiki Junmai – review
Color: pale yellow
On the nose: An unsweetened yogurt kind of smell that I also get in some soy sauce. I guess this is the smell of koji-kin? Some hints of citrus like yuzu, orange peel and lemon tart. Behind the citrus are notes of white rice cakes and some marzipan.
In the mouth: A very soft and floral white rice cake tastes with a creamy feel. But it’s also accompanied by a persistent light yogurt, whey milk taste mixed with coconut water. The creaminess gives way to a Thai mango sticky rice with coconut milk but with more rice than mango taste.
A very solid sake that I’d love to drink with sake newbies over dinner. This is one of the more memorable sakes I’ve had despite it being so cheap. I think this does better when slightly chilled. When chilled, the floral and creamy flavors are more prominent. The flavors are consistent all throughout making it very easy to drink.
Kinuhikari – review
On the nose: Yogurt water, hints of creamy cow cheese, followed by orange peel and lime peel. I get some edamame beans mixed with something floral like fresh muscatel grapes and melons.
In the mouth: Floral and fruity. I get refreshing fruit notes like Japanese melon juice mixed with muscatel grapes, pears and kiwi. There are hints of tastes like cucumber, cream cheese and yogurt water. The yogurt water taste is a lot less persistent here.
A sake I’d drink when I’m in the mood to geek out. There are more subtle and unfamiliar notes to dissect with this when compared to the Miyama Nishiki. The flavors sometimes alternates which can make this tricky. This will also shock and prove to be educational to sake drinkers who think that all sake made with sakamai are superior to table rice sake.