Written by John Lee
Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery in Kanazawa - Learn How Premium Sake Is Made!
Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery in Kanazawa - Learn How Premium Sake Is Made!
Enjoy a guided tour of Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery, Kanazawa's oldest existing brewery, and learn how premium grade sake is made! There is also a sake tasting session where you can get to know the famous labels Fukumitsuya is famous for.
Written by John Lee
Founded in 1625, Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery has a longstanding tradition of brewing the highest quality sake. Located in Kanazawa's Ishibiki district, it came of age during Japan's Edo era (1603 - 1868) when the exquisite food culture of Kanazawa flourished, and is now an inextricable part of the culinary scene.
Today, Fukumitsuya is referred to as a Junmai gura ("Junmai Brewery"), as it brews strictly Junmai sake, using high quality sake rice and water, and no other additives.
The Kanazawa sake shop affronts a main street, and its modern and stylish interior belies the fact that the brewery has occupied the same site now for close to 400 years. There's a clear reason for this though, and it lies well beneath the ground upon which the brewery is built. It's referred to as Hyakunen mizu ("100 Year Old Water"), and is indispensable in making Fukumitsuya's high quality sake.
Hyakunen Mizu, The "100 Year Old Water"
Some 50 kilometers to the southeast, rainwater falling at the foot of Mount Hakusan starts a journey spanning 100 years. Filtering down through the mineral rich soil of the region, it permeates into the groundwater where eventually it's drawn from deep below the brewery. The calcium and magnesium rich water is ideal for brewing, and its slight hard-water quality is essential in creating the desired kara kuchi ("dry") flavor.
The well outside the brewery entrance is available for all to use, and having tasted the water myself I noticed its clean and crisp taste. The Sugi dama ("Cedar Orb") hanging above the well was recently fashioned, and symbolizes the start of the new brewing season. The shimenawa (a rope made of straw used in Shinto rituals) strung over the entranceway, signifies the sacred space of the brewery interior, as one crosses in from the outside.
The Special Features of Sake Rice
There are many varieties of rice, and sake rice is used specifically for making sake. Fukumitsuya sources its from regions of Japan such as Hyogo, Nagano and Toyama, which are highly regarded for the quality of the rice grown there. In preparation for soaking and steaming, the rice is first polished, as the inner grain contains the essential starch compounds. The degree of polishing in part determines the type of sake, and as much as 50% of the outer grain is removed (consider that with table rice, approximately 10% is removed).
Meet a Toji ("Brewmaster")!
A toji is the chief brewmaster of the sake brewery. Drawing upon skills handed down through generations, and direct experience working in the brewery, the toji is charged with overseeing all stages of the brewing process, and takes responsibility over all the kura bito ("brewery workers"). "Toji" is a revered title, and they're often regarded as artists in their own right.
There is ever only one toji at one time in a brewery, and in cases successive generations. I had the great pleasure of meeting Itaya Toji who has been working at Fukumitsuya for 27 years and has been a toji for 5 years now. On the wall behind are plaques received from Kanazawa city for top honors in the Ginjo-shu sake category. Having received these in the past consecutive years, someone lightheartedly teased that there is always room on the wall for some more!
A Guided Tour of Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery
Guided tours are available with advance reservations, and offered in Japanese, English, and French. On the day, I was welcomed into the reception area, and over the course of the 90 minute tour I would see, hear, smell, taste, and touch my way through it, as I learned on Fukumitsuya's history, brewing processes, and sake.
Learn about Sake Brewing! Some Important Keywords
Koji kin ("Aspergillus Oryzae")
Koji kin ("Aspergillus Oryzae") is a type of mold that is indigenous to Japan, and without which sake would not exist. Under controlled conditions, Koji kin is set to germinate upon beds of steamed rice, and after propagating for two days, the Koji kin seeded rice, called Koji, is ready for the brewing process. The enzymes released from the Koji conduct the essential task of breaking down the starch in the rice into simple sugars for fermentation.
Shubo ("Seed Mash")
Steamed rice, water, and koji are combined, and a culture of yeast is added to create the shubo("seed mash"). A large amount of yeast is cultivated, as needed for fermentation, and there are a variety of yeast cultures each creating a distinct fragrance and flavor to the finished product. Lactic acid bacteria also play a role by impeding the growth of unwanted organisms, and are also cultivated during this stage.
With close monitoring and temperature control, the shubo is prepared over a period of two to four weeks. It was impressive to see it from close and feel how concentrated it is.
The brewery building itself is composed of four separate floors, with separate stages of brewing occurring on each. A vast network of pipes and an array of tanks set throughout the building are used in transporting, processing, and storing the brewing materials. The level of engineering sophistication required to ensure the quality and scale of production was remarkable.
Moromi ("Main Mash")
Over a period of several days incremental amounts of shubo, koji, steamed rice, and water, are combined into large tanks forming what's called moromi. There within the tanks, both saccharification and fermentation occur simultaneously, as the starch in the rice is converted into simple sugars, and the simple sugars turn into alcohol.
It's an incredible balancing act, as the respective portions of the added ingredients influence the degree of fermentation, which in turn influences the fragrance and flavor of the sake, and not to mention a number of other simultaneously occurring variables.
Pressing, Pasteurization, and Storage
After 20 days or so, the moromi is transferred from the tanks to pressing machines, where the sake is separated out from the sake lees, and then pasteurized to halt further fermentation. It's then let to mature in tanks for a period, and at the final stage is blended, filtered, and adjusted with water as needed to obtain the desired finished color, fragrance, and flavor.
Sake Tasting! Introducing Fukumitsuya's Representative Sake Labels
Having tasted the shubo and moromi during the brewery tour, I was intrigued to have a taste of the finished product itself. I tried four different labels, each with its own distinctive character. I'm a complete amateur as far as discerning, no less explaining, about the nuances in fragrance and flavor, but under the guide's warm encouragement, I did manage a phrase or two in describing the unexpected and delightful experience.
This limited edition junmai sake was my top pick of the four. It is available only at the Kanazawa stores of Fukumitsuya, so I suppose that might provide one more reason to visit!
Fukumitsuya's Kagatobi (*"Kaga tobi" used to be the name of a firefighters association in the Edo period) label is popularly known in Japan, and is regarded for its exceptionally light and fruity flavor. It's recommended for those not as familiar with sake, and suggested that it's best enjoyed similarly to white wine when pairing with dishes.
Fukumitusya's Kuroobi label is considered the ideal sake for the discerning palate. Its deep and complex taste has been perfected upon over generations as leading restaurateurs in Kanazawa called on Fukumitsuya in refining the sake's taste to accompany their gourmet offerings. It's best savored with the main dish, and when served hot, atsukan style, it has an especially rich taste.
Fukumitsuya - A Delightful Blend of Tradition and Innovation
Fukumitsuya pursues excellence in both tradition and innovation. In recent years, as shifts in Japan's demographics have brought more women into the workplace, a base of customers with increased earning power has emerged. In responding to the times, its shops and product designs have been refashioned to suit a new sensibility, and further introduced new products such as skin-care and healthy foods, using the natural byproducts of the sake brewing process.
In the end, the guide reminded me as to who are the true, sometimes unseen heroes behind every bottle of quality sake, the craftsmen. It's by their guiding hands, borne of tradition and innovation, that a multitude of different processes occur in harmony, to achieve a common goal.
It's fitting then that when speaking with a craftsman, he joked good-naturedly how rather that yeast and koji are the true heroes, working ever tirelessly and without complaint. I couldn't help but laugh, and hoped for an opportunity perhaps to share a toast one time, in sound agreement. Kanpai!
Fukumitsuya offers regularly scheduled weekly guided tours, which are available in Japanese, English, and French. Please note that advance reservations are required. There are two types of tours offered, and the tour of the brewery building itself where visitors can observe the actual brewing processes is limited to the sake brewing season, between October and April.
When in Kanazawa, do consider visiting Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery!