Master Sake Brewer Turns To Rice From Japan's Northernmost Prefecture

Master sake brewer turns to rice from Japan's northernmost prefectureA brand of rice developed in Hokkaido attracted attention from local sake brewers almost immediately after it was first used in the brewing process.
Now, a sake company located here in Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture, has turned to using the Ginpu strain of rice to brew its "junmai daiginjo" sake--a highly refined pure-rice wine.

Kokuryu Sake Brewing Corp. has more than 200 years of history, and its expensive ginjo sake is beloved by fans of craft sake.

Winter is the season to prepare rice for sake brewing. This year, Kokuryu is using the Ginpu rice strain for the first time.

Ginpu was registered as a rice strain in 2002 after being developed by the Hokkaido Central Agricultural Experiment Station.

The next year, a Hokkaido sake brewer that used the rice was the recipient of a gold prize at the Annual Japan Sake Awards 2003. That caught the attention of sake brewers around Japan.

Even as the overall volume of sake consumption in Japan declines, devoted sake drinkers are always on the lookout for new labels with a unique taste.

That has led to rice growers around Japan looking for new strains to grow as the trend strengthens of consuming local produce. Hokkaido has gone beyond simply fostering new rice strains for the dinner rice bowl, but is moving to develop a strain of premium quality that is needed to produce the best sake.

On a recent winter day at the Kokuryu brewery, workers were in their third day of preparing rice for the sake brewing process. That preparatory stage is important in setting the foundation for good sake. Bubbles could be heard popping in the tanks containing the rice as the yeast was working on the rice.

"Toji" (master brewer) Hiroshi Hatayama waved his hand over the rice surface, bringing a sweet aroma similar to melons or bananas.

Kokuryu has long prided itself on the refined taste of its junmai daiginjo. It has entered into a project with Shumon no Kai, a national organization of sake retailers with the goal of spreading the popularity of locally brewed sake. One plan currently being promoted by Kokuryu and the organization is to spread an appreciation for sake among the younger generation.

In explaining the relationship between the raw materials and the kind of sake he wants to brew, the 43-year-old Hatayama said, "It comes down to how Ginpu performs on the stage that is Kokuryu.

"Our job is to bring out the specific taste of the rice so that it matches what the stage requires."

Hatayama first came into contact with Ginpu about a decade ago at a tasting event involving sake brewed around Japan.

He recalls thinking, "What is this?"

Hatayama felt that Ginpu had huge potential because not only could it become a good junmai sake, but there were also hints that it could even be turned into a daiginjo.

Coincidentally, Hatayama himself is originally from Matsumae, a town in southern Hokkaido.

That tie came full circle a few years later through the efforts of Naoto Mizuno, the 50-year-old president of Kokuryu. During a trip to Asahikawa, Hokkaido, that arose from an interest in farming, Mizuno was told by local farmers that they held great expectations for Ginpu rice.

This year's sake brewing process followed three years of testing with the Hokkaido rice, which is polished down to leave only 40 percent of the grain. The yeast used was chosen for its ability to bring out aroma, while restraining an overpowering taste.

Mizuno said his image of the planned sake can be likened to the green fields of Hokkaido, meaning it should have a full, but pure flavor with a touch of sweetness.

Kokuryu plans to sell the sake in spring 2016 after allowing for a year of maturation.

Company officials began eying a new rice strain to use in brewing because they are well aware that the rice now used will not likely be available forever.

Kokuryu has used Yamada Nishiki and Hyakumangoku, among the most prized strains for sake brewers. However, company officials are also painfully aware of the rapid environmental changes in Japanese rice fields.

The Ginpu rice strain has a "shinpaku" at the kernel core, much like Yamada Nishiki and Hyakumangoku. The shinpaku makes it easier to cultivate "koji" fungi that produce the essential enzymes used for fermenting rice into sake.

The rice farmers who had provided Kokuryu with raw materials for many years are aging. Kokuryu even tried a newly developed local strain of rice, but gave up on that idea when company officials found the rice did not meet their high standards.

Turning to Ginpu rice is one way of passing on the long tradition of the company.

Others who sell locally brewed sake expressed understanding for what Kokuryu was trying to do.

Satoshi Kimijima is president of Yokohama Kimijimaya Co., which sells sake and other alcoholic beverages from around Japan and the world.

"In the world of Japanese sake that is experiencing a passing on of the generational baton and greater diversification, what is being called into question is the starting point of each brewery," Kimijima said. "That means brewing sake using good rice that matches the local water."