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Discovering Sake in Gifu

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by Rajiv Mahajan

"Let's have one more," our tour guide at Ten Ryo Brewery said pouring a generous portion of honjozo sake in two cups.

"It's my favorite, too."

sake pour at Ten Ryo PicmonkeyMy trembling fingers, numb from the winter cold, manage a toast before I gratefully down the contents. Aniseedy, floral yet dry, and for something made of mostly rice and water, it is both powerful and fresh.

It began as a three-night retreat with my wife, Kaori, and baby in Gifu in central Japan and transformed into a discovery of sake visiting two breweries: Ten Ryo in Gero and Nihon Izumi in Gifu City.

Gifu may not appear on most travelers' itineraries, but it is a region popular with the Japanese, who are lured by bubbling volcanic pools and misty pine-green mountains.

With natural hot springs in Gero and rustic villages that dot the landscape, Gifu is full of balanced contrasts, characterized in its sake, too, I would later discover. Unfiltered, yet refined, intense but light, each sip is a harmonious clash of flavors.

I'd written about sake before but never visited an actual brewery, or sakagura, let alone two. I usually drink the cheap stuff while tucking into a bowl of sashimi. What's so special about sake? It is just rice, water and a little alcohol, after all. Or so I thought.

Brewing sake is incredibly complicated. So much can go wrong with few ingredients. Attention to detail is painstakingly meticulous - as I was about to learn.

From the outside, both breweries seem unremarkable to the casual eye. The tiny Nihon Izumi brewery, run by the Takeyama brothers, is tucked below a nondescript office building by the main train station.

And in Gero, one could easily mistake Ten Ryo's entrance for a village restaurant. But its modest, storefront exterior masks the brewery's sheer size. We are in the dead of winter, and it is cold inside. Even with my coat and gloves, I'm shivering. So cold in fact, I can almost see my own breath. Unfazed, our guide weaves us through a maze of giant cauldrons, leading to a huge accordion-like contraption. "We gently press the sake here to separate the liquid," he says pointing to the machine. It is then stored in large tanks that can hold 6000 liters (1585 gallons).

sake rice

Many breweries can import their ingredients, but Ten Ryo and Nihon Izumi source local Hidahomare, a short-grained rice with a higher starch content for many of their sakes.

"Why not ordinary rice?" I asked our guide.

"The greater quantity of starch means less amino acid taste. The sake has a purer flavor," he replied.

Looking at the rice grains on his chart, Hidahomare is much shorter with a starchy center. Through a method called polishing, the outer core is stripped to reveal the precious interior. While ordinary sake can use more than 60 percent of grain, higher quality sake requires more polishing. "We only use between 30 and 35 percent (of the grain) to make Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo," he explains.

With the rice selected, it is quickly washed, drained, steamed and cooled down to prevent from absorbing too much moisture.

"Too much steam can make it sticky (and ruin everything)," he says.

Like many breweries, Ten Ryo and Nihon Izumi only use fresh mountain spring water. "It has less mineral taste and makes the sake smoother," our guide says.

Mixed with koji – a mold cultivated on rice that breaks down starch, the added yeast or kobo does its magic, making alcohol. Most breweries like Nihon Izumi cultivate their own koji. It is a sensitive operation, and we're allowed only a quick peek. Kept covered in sterilized chamber resembling a mini surgery room, it must be monitored day and night.

"We don't sleep those nights," Shohei Takeyama joked.

sake tasting room PicmonkeyBut when does it become sake?

The mixture of rice, water and koji is then brewed in giant vats. Bubbling and oozing, it looks almost alive. Shohei's brother dips a wooden ladle into the mixture and pours the slop into a cup.

"Try it," he smiles. At first, I think he's joking. "It's still moving!" Eyes closed, I mutter, "Here goes." It's like an alcoholic rice pudding.

Like an American craft brewery can make several kinds of beer, a sakagura in Japan also brews different types of sake. Fresh varieties like the milky, sweet Amazake are easy to make. The dry, clean-finish Honjozo and Genshu also need less brewing time. The longer-brewed Junmai Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes are more fragrant with intense long-lasting flavors. Nothing is wasted, and even the cake-like byproduct sakekasu is perfect for marinating fish and meats.

Sake is a marriage of tradition and modern innovation. Nihon Izumi dates back to the late Edo period but uses modern technology. It can brew the same quality of sake year round, thanks to maintaining a constant temperature. While much is still done by hand to make Junmai Ginjo, its continuous production helps it compete with the larger brewers.

Our tour concludes at Nihon Izumi's sophisticated tasting room with classy jazz playing in the background.

sake pourer at Nihon Picmonkey

"These are from our Funakuchi series," Shohei points at five bottles before us. Funakuchi is unfiltered sake.

"Why unfiltered?" I ask.

"These days, people are after a more authentic rice taste in the sake," he responds.

We start with fresh sakes before ascending up the ladder to the bold Junmai Daiginjo. The Amazake, popular for its alleged healthy properties, earns my wife's immediate approval, but my heart is stuck to the Genshu, an ode to my inner cheap-sake connoisseur. The subtle flavors of the rice still come through. Finally, the nectar-like Junmai Daiginjo is so intense that I am lost in deep thought.

"How would you pair this?" I ask.   "I like it on its own," Shohei smiles.

It is an eye-opening experience to meet the passionate individuals at Ten Ryo and Nihon Izumi. Their devotion is matched by their generosity towards others. As I have learned in Japan, one good-bye is never enough. There's always an extra bow and a second clink of sake cups. Before we exit, Shohei runs back to the office to retrieve a final souvenir for us.

"Thanks for visiting," he said handing me a large pack of sakekasu. "Please come back again," bowing once more.

 

 

 

 

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About Rajiv Mahajan

Writer, educator, traveler and city explorer, Rajiv Mahajan founded WhereNYC - a website devoted to world cuisine and drink. He comes from an international background and is fluent in French.

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