One of the few people to participate in the same internship program as me has been successful in becoming one of the kurabito (brewery staff) at a sake brewery in Saku – a town not too far from Nagano. Greg Newton, a Canadian National, has been a resident of Japan for several years with his initial exposure to the country by way of academic research. He currently works at the brewery much like the experiences of the initial internship earlier this past year. However, the work does not cease after a week like the internship did. He has been busy since mid Autumn, working six days a week assisting the other staff of the brewery; working 10+ hour days. The brewery he belongs to is known as Sawanohana. When compared to other companies producing sake throughout Japan, Sawanohana is a modest mid-sized brewery and caters to a more local community. However, interest is currently growing within the company and they are experimenting with international exports to other countries. As with many producers, this particular brewery has a diverse selection of sake produced. Everything including Honjozo type sake, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo sake. Additionally, they produce shochu and liquers with sake as an ingredient.
Greg Newton speaks with his Toji
The Toji, master brewer, is a man of great pride in his sake production and looks to see his brewery’s continued growth and place in the local community and region of Japan. As part of my visit to see Greg, we were shown around the brewery by the Toji and introduced to some of the staff. Following our tour we had the opportunity to sample the entire product line of sake produced by Sawanohana – a real treat indeed. I purchased a bottle of their Junmai and Junmai Daiginjo to bring back with me. I must confess, purchasing two 700ml bottles of sake so early in my trip has made my journeys all the more difficult – all of my luggage is on my back!
One of the difficulties in touring sake breweries throughout Japan is that prime brewing season is in winter. Saku, of all cities, is incredibly cold during that season. We were too early for the dumping of snow, but the weather certainly had a chill in the air that was certainly difficult to shake. A collegue of mine had the pelasure to go wine tasting in very amicable weather in Argentina earlier this past fall (springtime south of the Equator). So, only diehard fans of nihonshu dare venture into the cold that wraps most of Japan during the production season. And as a bit of history trivia, sake production had originally been limited to the colder, winter months because rice obviously does not grow during that season. Many of the farmers of said rice had little to do during the winter with a bounty of rice crop, and so they turned to sake production. Granted, the cold weather is integral to sake production – some breweries expose their sake storage tanks to the outside air for refrigeration because it is so cold.
Some of Sawanohana's Brands
The following morning after our visit to see Greg and the brewery he works at, we were shown to another brewery in Saku by the name of Chikumanishiki. Chikumanishiki is a producer of award winning sake with a larger physical presence. Their brewery is about two to three times the size of Sawanohana. The size of their staff is also larger to match. We did not have time to visit with Toji nor take a tour of their facilities – we had a train to catch later that morning bound for Tokyo. I did, however, snag a bottle of their top tier Daiginjo to bring back with me (again with the self-punishment of additional weight on back). Our train ride that morning (and Greg’s car drive that afternoon) were both to head to see friends and (in his case) family for the New Year holiday. This may be a bit late, but to those reading, Happy New Year! Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
All in all, this was a good trip north of Tokyo for a few days to experience a bit of cold, friends, and sake.
Additional photos from the Sawanohana visit.