Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew
Niigata prefecture, a hundred miles north of Tōkyō, is called the kingdom of jizaké, or local saké, because of its many family-run breweries marketing relatively limited quantities of well-crafted, unique-tasting products.
The ninety-seven breweries in the prefecture offer a range of saké, many of them not widely available outside of Niigata or Japan. In late May, 2015, we traveled to Niigata, from Echigo Yuzawa to Sado Island, to taste and buy its high-grade saké—favorites that are hard to find in Honolulu, as well as saké we've never tasted before.
The highest quality saké, called daiginjo (very carefully brewed), uses rice polished down to 50% or less of the grain. The polishing removes outer layers of proteins and fats that give ordinary saké a harsh taste. What's left after polishing is the shinpaku, or "white heart" of starch that's converted to sugar and alcohol in the brewing process.
Mid-quality saké, called ginjo (carefully brewed), uses 50-60% of the grain; ordinary saké uses more than 60%.
Other factors affect how saké tastes: the type of rice used, the mineral content of the water, brewing techniques, and aging. Niigata brewers aim for tanrei karakuchi, a light, smooth, and dry taste, with subtle, complex flavors.
A visitor can get an introduction to the range of Niigata saké at a wall of 120 dispensing boxes at Echigo-Yuzawa station, the first stop in the prefecture on the train lines and expressway through the mountains from Tōkyō. For ¥500 ($4), you can sample five saké with a small porcelain cup. A chalkboard lists the ten most popular, and a shop next door sells bottles of the brews.
But to sample the best Niigata saké requires traveling farther. Fifteen miles north from Yuzawa, down the Uono River valley, is the brewery that produces Hakkaisan, a saké that may be familiar to Honolulu drinkers because its ginjo (but not its daiginjo) is on the menu in Japanese restaurants here. The name, "Eight-seas Mountain," comes from a nearby peak that is the brewery's source of water.
The setting is rustic: a field of bright yellow nanohana was blooming, and rice paddies in front of the brewery had just been planted.
The weathered Isurugi Shrine watches over the area in a cedar grove on a low hill next to the parking lot. (Saké is revered as a gift from the Shintō gods.)
We purchased two bottles of a favorite, Hakkaisan daiginjo, one to drink on our journey and one to bring home. It's made from grains of Yamada Nishiki (polished to 40%), the most widely used rice for daiginjo because the shinpaku dissolve quickly in the brewing process and produce a layered, fragrant flavor.
Before leaving Hakkaisan, we had a soba lunch at an old house converted into a restaurant. (There is also an udon restaurant, a gift shop, and a bakery selling baumkuchen.)
The next day we visited Asahi ("Morning Sun"), a brewery thirty miles north from Hakkaisan, in Nagaoka. Asahi produces Kubota, whose gingo (Senjyu) and daiginjo (Manjyu) are served in restaurants outside of Japan.
The brewery also offers three other daiginjo, under different names, as well as five seasonal daiginjo. At the tasting bar, I compared an Asahiyama daiginjo produced with Gohyakumangoku, a favorite saké rice of northern Japan, polished to 50%; and two daiginjo labeled Esshu (an old name for the region), brewed with Senshuraku, a rarer saké rice, low in protein and resistant to breakage during polishing.
One daiginjo, Roku no Esshu, was brewed from grains polished to 40%; and second, Go no Esshu, polished to 50%. Of the three, Roku no Esshu had the most nuanced, beguiling flavors. (Taste, of course, is highly subjective and difficult to describe or justify; as a connoisseur noted about high-quality saké, "Each taste asks the drinker more questions than it answers.")
After a night in Niigata city, we caught a jetfoil to Ryōtsu on Sado Island and rented a car to drive to two breweries. The Sea of Japan, known for its stormy weather, was sunny and as calm as a lake, making for a pleasant hour-long, 39-mile crossing at speeds of over 40 miles per hour.
On the southeast side of Sado, in the fishing port of Akadomari, is Hokusetsu, which produces the saké served at Nobu restaurants around the world, including the ones in Waikīkī and on Lāna‘i.
Hokusetsu means "Northern Snow," a reference to the snowy winters of Niigata, which, before refrigeration and sterile, air-conditioned rooms, helped brewers control the brewing process. (Traditionally, saké was brewed in the winter.)
Restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa was introduced to Hokusetsu saké by a friend in 1987 and was so enchanted by its taste, he persuaded the small, remote brewery to supply it to his first American restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Hokusetsu produces ten daiginjo. I sampled the gold medal winning YK35, made from Yamada Nishiki polished to 35%.
I also compared two daiginjo made with Gohyakumangoku polished to 40%—one labeled junmai, the other not. Junmai, or "pure rice," refers to saké whose alcohol content is only from the converted glucose of rice; the other daiginjo had distilled alcohol added in the brewing process to retain components of flavor and fragrance.
For another comparison, the bar host poured a daiginjo labeled Nobu, brewed with Koshitanrei, a hybrid of Gohyakumangoku and Yamada Nishiki (40%) developed in Niigata to blend the clean taste of former with the layered flavors of the latter.
I preferred the Hokusetsu daiginjo; undecided whether the junmai or non-junmai tasted better, I bought a bottle of each.
The second Sado Island brewery we visited was Obata, on the main street of the small town of Mano on the west side of the island. Its saké is called Manotsuru ("Crane of Mano"). The brewery offers daily tours in Japanese or a video in English, followed by a visit to the tasting bar.
Obata produces eight daiginjo; we sampled its gold-medal Maho (Yamada Nishiki, 35%), named after a brew master of a generation ago.
We also tried a ginjo nama. Nama refers to "raw" or unpasteurized saké, which contains active enzymes and has a mildly fruity zestiness. It must be refrigerated and is drunk chilled—very refreshing in the unseasonably hot (upper 80s) weather. (High quality saké tastes best when slightly chilled or at room temperature.)
Rumiko Obata, the fifth-generation owner of the brewery, writes, "… jizaké is truly appreciated when one has tasted it in the region where it was produced. It would be an honor if one day people from across the globe would set foot on Niigata's soil and enjoy our jizaké paired with traditional regional cuisine."
Back in Niigata city, we made reservations at Kitayama, a 38-seat restaurant run by Ishimoto Brewery, which produces the legendary Koshi no Kanbai ("Winter Plum Tree of Koshi"), considered one of the pinnacles of the brewer's art. ("Koshi," like "Esshu," is an old name of the region that includes Niigata.)
The restaurant offers a full range of Ishimoto products to go with a course of seasonal, regional foods: an otōshi, or starter dish; an appetizer, which included steamed soy beans, a sea snail, konnyaku (yam cake) topped with miso, and a sushi made with pickled mioga (ginger shoot).
A traditional food set followed: a raw dish (squid, with seared tuna), then a grilled dish (sea bass, garnished with lemon and a pickled ginger stalk) and a simmered dish (bamboo shoots and snapper, with yuba, or tofu skin, and fu, or wheat gluten). (See "Food" for photos of the dishes.)
The dessert was a sorbet flavored with kasu, or saké lees. You can add to the course, or order à la carte. We added a salad of greens, radish spouts, seaweed, and tiny sakura shrimp over soba noodles, dressed with a light ponzu-yuzu-sesame-wasabi sauce.
The most intriguing dish was the otōshi, made with small leaves and stems of water shield, an aquatic plant, floating in a lake-like clear, chilled dashi (soup) around a center of foamy tororo (mountain yam)—a cool summer treat.
We ordered two flasks of daiginjo: a junmai (Yamada Nishiki, 38%); and a non-junmai (Yamada Nishiki, 30%). The junmai was slightly sweeter and fuller, but both complemented the seafood well. The friendly server-host also brought us small glasses of Ishimoto shochu (distilled liquor) and plum wine to finish the meal, a fitting end to our four-day excursion in the domain of jizaké.
Other adventures await: at the wall of saké in Echigo-Yuzawa, we tasted three summer-limited daiginjo with unfamiliar names—Koshi no Hatsu Ume ("First Plum of Koshi"), Koshi no Homare ("Pride of Koshi"), and Megurogorosuke. On a future summer trip it would be fun to locate the breweries and see if they have tasting rooms.
And Asahi Brewery offers Tokugetsu in September, a junmai daiginjo brewed for moon-viewing in autumn and hard to find in May. The saké uses Yukinosei, a rice grown in Niigata, polished to 28%, each grain a pearl, like a tiny full moon. I tasted it several years ago and hope to taste it again, under an October moon.