Discover Traditional Sake Making
Have you ever tried Japanese sake? Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, water, and yeast. This traditional Japanese drink is gaining popularity in many parts of the globe. On 23 Nov. 2020, I visited Hakutsuru Sake brewery museum for this Japan Online Tour!
Kobe is one of Japan’s largest sake producing regions. Around 30 percent of Japan’s sake is produced in the cities of Kobe and Nishinomiya in Hyōgo Prefecture through 5 breweries known as the “Nada-Gogō” or The Five Villages of Nada. The first recorded production of sake started here nearly 700 years ago. What makes Nada so special is the unique characteristics of the area that give its sake a distinctive taste. Miyamizu water is hard water that comes from Mount Rokkō in Nishinomiya. This water enables the sake to become strong and thick. It has the ideal balance of minerals suitable for sake making because of its high levels of phosphorus, potassium, and calcium, but with less of the iron content. Rokkō oroshi is what they call the cool winds that originate from Mt. Rokkō that also helps in slowing down the fermentation process. Nada sake is often characterized by its sharp and dry flavor.
As a native resident of Kobe, I’m proud and excited to show you around the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. Located near the sea side of Nada district, this museum was actually an old sake brewery or “sakagura” that was repurposed to allow visitors to learn about the Japanese rice wine making process. The two-storey structure also features many memorabilia from the past including short films. This building was built in the 1920s as a Sake brewery and was in operation until 1969, then converted into a sake museum.
During my visit, I was warmly welcomed by Masakazu Takata-san, Director of the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. In this museum, even if you don’t speak Japanese, the museum has installed explanatory videos in English playing in each key area so that you can learn more details about the displays at your own pace.
One of the first things I noticed was a display highlighting the different rice varieties used in sake production. Takata-san explained that the premium sake varieties Daiginjō, Ginjō, and Honjōzō use a variety called Yamada Nishiki rice, which has a dense white core, low in protein content and is stickier that traditional rice. The rice grains are larger so that it can take in more water than standard ones. These features are ideal for the kōji mold to grow and ferment the rice into sake.
As we walked along, I saw various human size figures wearing traditional clothing depicting the different stages of sake production. They are so lifelike that one is transported back to the past.
One section showed workers pulling on ropes tied around a large vat for sake preparation. This was being brought up to the second floor using a huge pulley. Takata-san then guided me to the area where the rice is steamed. The rice must first be polished, thoroughly washed and soaked before it is steamed. Two workers are shown working together as they cooked the rice in a large barrel called “koshiki.” These barrels are so huge that sometimes workers known as “kurabito” fall into them.
I was then led to the wooden stairs going up the second floor. At the bottom step, he showed me slippers known as “waraji” made from straw that are typically worn by workers. The second floor is the area where rice is cooled. Takata-san pointed out the big windows in the northern section. Because strong winds blow from the north, the windows capture them into the facility. The south side had smaller windows to keep the cool air within the building.
We then walked into a temperature-controlled room called “kōjimuro.” This is where the mold is grown. The room maintains high humidity to promote kōji mold growth. The ceiling is also kept low for the same purpose. I learned about the “hankiri taru” or half-casks which are tools used to manually control heat and allow for the optimal growth of the kōji mold.
As we moved along, I started hearing people singing. Takata-san explained that these added effects show that workers used to sing in order to keep the timing of processes right and also help them stay awake since they often start early in the morning. I found this fact quite amusing. Walking through the room, I saw many different types of barrels and vats of various sizes. Takata-san introduced me to one named “Kaeru” (frog) and another named “Neko” (cat). It was interesting that they actually had names. Apparently, this helps in training young brewers to remember the proper tools to use and allows them to learn quickly.
We then got to the “shikomi” process which is the mashing stage and fermentation. After adding the “shubō” (yeast starter) to the fermentation tank, koji, steamed rice and water are added in 3 stages over 4 days. It’s called “sandan-jikomi” or three-stage preparation.
Once the “moromi” (fermenting mixture) is fully developed, it is placed in cotton cloth sacks and pressed to separate the sake from the rice solids. Takata-san showed me one that is dyed with persimmon that is said to increase its durability.
The extracted liquid then undergo further filtration, pasteurization and eventual maturation until the right taste of the sake is achieved. The squeezed Moromi mixture is placed in special vats covered with “washi” paper and left to ferment for 3-6 months.
Various types of sake can be made depending on adjustments in the production process. Junmai, for example, uses only rice as an ingredient with no added distilled alcohol. Ginjō sake is made from 40% milled rice, while 60% retain their original size. Daigonjō is like Ginjō but with around half the rice grains maintaining its original size. Genshu is made with no water added for dilution and Namazake is sake that is not pasteurized.
Takata-san shared that sometimes charcoal is used to lighten the slightly yellowish color of the sake and make the aroma less intense. I saw sake stored in “taru” barrels and labelled with the company’s brand name. Another section displayed all the other previous labels that have been used since the Meiji era. We also passed an Omiyage shop where tourists can choose from a large selection of sake and buy interesting souvenirs and memorabilia. They have items such as t-shirts and aprons with the Hakutsuru logo.
At the end of the tour was my favorite part, which is the sake tasting. Here you can taste different kinds of sake. I had the pleasure of tasting both the Jumai-shu and Honjōzō-shu. They were really delicious. Premium sake is also available, and I was lucky to try one that was sold for 11,000 Yen. You can try a small sample for only 500 Yen with cute ceramic cups. Wow! It was really different and high class. This type of sake go through a different process. Instead of pressing, they are simply left in the cloth hanging with the liquid dripping on its own. This makes a world of difference in terms of flavor because of the slower process and also the reason why they are much more expensive.
Sake can be taken hot or cold depending on the dish you are pairing it with. Cold sake goes well with sashimi while hot sake is good with hotpot. But I recommend you try it for yourself so you can decide.
Sake is such an integral part of Japanese life. Understanding its history and production process are essential in better appreciating this alcoholic beverage. I hope you enjoyed my tour 🙂 If you get the chance, I do recommend a visit to the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum for a unique learning experience.
Watch the past Tour
Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum 白鶴酒造資料館
|Business Hours||9:30am – 4:30pm|
|Closed||Summer Holidays and New Year Holiday Period|
(Please call ahead to check exact dates)
|Reservation||Reservation required for groups of 10 or more|
|Address||4-5-5, Sumiyoshiminami-machi Higashinada-ku, Kobe 658-0041 See GoogleMaps|
|Transportation||Get off at Hanshin Sumiyoshi station (about 5 mins walk)|
Get off at JR Sumiyoshi station (about 15 mins walk)
Get off at Hankyu Mikage station (about 10 mins drive)