It’s a lovely time to be in the Japan Alps. The snow is melting in the bright sunshine, sending crystal-clear rivers streaming down the mountainsides. The air is fresh and crisp as we wander along the beautifully preserved old streets of Takayama City. But most importantly, outside the Funasaka sake brewery, the sugidama – cedar-leaf spheres that have symbolised sake since the Edo period – have turned an earthen brown. Spring is here, and there’s sake to be drunk.
The tradition of sake-making in Takayama City dates back 300 years, although where once there were 20 breweries, Funasaka is now one of only eight kura in the city. In recent decades, the age-old Japanese spirit has fallen out of fashion with younger drinkers seduced by beer, wine and Western spirits.
As the mass market drops away, however, small boutique breweries like this one producing quality, artisanal sake or jizake are fuelling a growth in interest at home and overseas. Specialist sake bars in Tokyo appeal to the burgeoning connoisseur market with up to 50 different brands, while in the US sales of sake have tripled in the past decade. With extensive sake lists now featuring at already-fashionable Japanese restaurants Zuma and Umu, London is also picking up the trend.
True enthusiasts know, however, that for the ultimate sake experience you have to go to the source. With around 1200 microbreweries scattered across rural Japan – mostly family-run and producing modest quantities to be sold only within the district – sake-tasting tours are increasingly popular around the production season from late autumn to late spring (October-April).
A return to tradition on one hand, but behind the old-fashioned wooden exterior of the 200-year-old Funasaka brewery lie gleaming steel vats that point to the increasing use of technology in sake-making. Director Seiji Hiraoaka has been making sake here at Funasaka for 22 years, and says that technological advancements have done nothing but improve the quality of the sake.
He shows us the grains of rice, grown locally and specifically for sake. The outer layers of each grain must be polished down according to the grade of sake being made – for the finest, daiginjo, only 35% of the kernel remains. This painstaking work, once done by hand, can be done more accurately by machine. While technology may hone the final product, the three most important ingredients for good sake will never change, says Hiraoaka: good rice, good water and an ice-cold winter to kill off any undesirable bacteria.
With the three boxes ticked, we’re about to taste the result. Although brewed, sake is closer to wine than beer, with a sherry-like strength of around 15%-17% alcohol – while cheap sake is usually served warm, jizake is too good to heat”, Hiraoaka tells us as he delicately pours out ice-cold samples of daiginjo.
The sake-tasting vessel is a small, delicate white cup with deep blue rings in the bottom to help distinguish colour and viscosity. First, we swirl a little and inhale – the fragrance is fruity and floral but feather-light. With only the faintest tinge of colour, the liquid looks so pure and clear as water … or indeed, neat alcohol. Remembering that my last sake experience was something akin to warm paintstripper, I take a deep breath and sip. This is like the nectar of gods has been collected in a flower, flown down from heaven by an angel and poured directly onto my tongue. I think I hear tiny silver trumpets in the distance.
It isn’t just jizake’s complexity of character that rivals that of Bordeaux’s finest. As with the French terroir, there are numerous site-specific factors that mean each sake is different: water quality, production methods, type of koji and type of rice (there are 65 kinds). Premium-grade sake makes up less than 10% of Japan’s total output, and with each tiny kura producing up to 10 different bottlings (labelled, of course, in Japanese), it’s a world of intricate detail.
When I’m buying my own bottle of elixir to take home, the cashier urges me to drink it straight away. Like the spring cherry blossom, the best sake doesn’t hang around for long – sake is not vintage-dated and, with the exception of special aged versions, is best consumed within a couple of months. “The sooner the better,” says Hiraoaka. “That’s why the best place to enjoy sake is here in Japan.”
WHERE TO DRINK IT
The Kansai Region is a good place to visit sake breweries, such as Kitashoji Brewery in Osaka, Sake Harushika Brewery and Yagi Sake Brewery in Nara and Nada Izumi in Kobe. For details on these and other breweries that welcome visitors, see www.jal.com/en/sake. The Esake website lists the top 10 places to enjoy sake in Tokyo at www.esake.com/Knowledge/Pubs/Top10/top10.html.
Matsuo Taisha, in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, is a shrine dedicated to the god of sake (open 9am-4.30pm, entry ¥500 (£2.25)) – take the subway from Kyoto station to Shijo-Karasuma then take the Hankyu Railway Arashiyama line to Matsuo.
Impressive (if pricey) sake collections can be found at Umu (14-16 Bruton Pl, W1; 020-7499 8881) and Zuma (5 Raphael St, SW7; 020-7584 1010; www.zumarestaurant.com). A more affordable option are Japanese izakaya (tapas- style restaurants) such as Ikkyu (67a Tottenham Court Rd W1; 020-7636 9280) and Yoisho (33 Goodge St, W1; 020-7323 0477).
THE SAKE-MAKING PROCESS
• Special hida-homare sake rice is polished down according to grade of sake required.
35% for daiginjo
40%-50% for junmai-ginjo
60% for junmaishu
65% for honjozo
70% for regular sake
• Rice is washed several times and left to steep for 20 minutes.
• Compressed steam is pumped in from below to cook the rice for 40 minutes.
• Steam-cooked rice is cooled, mixed in a tank with yeast and koji spore (aspergillus oryzae) and left for a couple of days at a temperature of around 30°C, with more rice, koji and water added in batches. During this fermentation process (‘shikomi’), the bacteria transforms the rice starch into glucose, resulting in ‘shubo’ seed mash.
• Mash is left to ferment for a further 18 to 32 days, then pressed to remove solids. After a few days more, the sake is usually charcoal filtered and then pasteurised.
• Sake is aged for around six months, diluted slightly with pure water and blended to achieve consistency.”