Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sake Brewery Tours

Kobe Japan is a part of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto megalopolis. It's located a little less than a one-hour train ride north-west of downtown Osaka. Just east of downtown Kobe is an area called Nada that's famous for having a large number of Sake breweries in a very small area (map). On Saturday I had the opportunity to visit a couple of the breweries and take the tours.

The first stop was at the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. Apparently this is a very large and famous sake company. Their museum was a two-story mannequin display of how sake used to be made in the past along with video screens (in English!) showing how it's done today. This is one of the displays:

Sake is alcoholic beverage made using a very complex process. Many people think of sake as a wine but the process to make it is closer to how beer is made. In the past, it was only done in small batches during the winter months but today the product is made all year in large factory breweries.

First, the rice is polished, which removes all the oils and proteins from the rice and leaves behind only the starch. After the polished rice sits for a while (soaking up some moisture from the air), it is washed, soaked, and steam cooked (not boiled as with normal rice preparation). Next, the rice is allowed to cool and is then mixed with yeast and koji (rice that's cultivated with a special type of mold), which is really the art in the process. The mix is then allowed to ferment over four days. Once this is done, the rice mash sits for 18 to 32 days when the sake is then pressed out of the mash. The pressed sake is then filtered and blended depending on the variety being made. Finally, it's packed up for shipping.

This scene shows the old way of packing the sake in containers wrapped in fabric (for protection):

This museum was pretty good since the materials were available in English. It gives a great overview of both the old and new ways of making sake. The tasting room and shop were okay. The staff was very helpful though so I'd recommend a visit if you're in the area. The one bummer is that you can't visit the actual factory, which is next door.

Mandatory "here I am shot" out front of the Hakutsuru museum and factory:

The next stop was about five blocks away at the Kiku-Masune Sake Brewery Museum. They offer an audio guide in English but I chose to join in with a Japanese group that was just starting their tour when I arrived. Let's say that I didn't understand much of what the guide and group were saying. Having just been to the other museum I wasn't overly concerned. Here's a cool carving made from a single (giant) piece of wood along with some sake containers that are located in the entry way:

The museum was a smaller version of the other one but was just as thorough. The guide seemed to have a fairly dry sense of humor as he was laughing (alone) at all his own jokes. In Japanese, they say "oiaji gagu" (oy-ah-ji gah-gu) for this type of humor. It means pretty much "middle-aged guy jokes" and applies to (I'm thinking) 95% of the jokes that I try to tell. (Note that gagu is a adaptation of the English word gag.) That's him just to the left of the center with the white shirt facing the crowd:

This next photo is a relative close-up of the giant device they used to use to press the sake out of the rice mash. The mash was placed into burlap-type bags and then squeezed until all the liquid was out. What's cool (to me) is the size of the handle, which is probably 20 feet long and extends much farther out to the right of the photo. At the other end are giant rocks tied to ropes that I'm guessing were used to help squeeze out the sake.

Finally, and most importantly, the tasting room! This tasting room provided many more free samples than the first museum. It was a fun experience to try "fresh" (or young) sake that they are unable to ship because it needs to be consumed the same day it's produced. I also got to experience the sake more like at a winery. Very interesting to be able to tell the difference between a sweet/fruity sake and a dry sake.

There are about 12 sake factories in the area. Some have museums and others are just a store front where you can buy product. It's definitely something you should do if you're in the area. And, another location...another photo of ME! Note how happy I look after all my "tastings". :-)

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