Snow Country Sake: An Advanced Course

By Matt Klampert

Previously, we introduced you to sake culture in YUKIGUNI, as well as an overview of some of the fine breweries in this area. However, there is no end to the things you can learn about sake while here in Snow Country!

Some recent sake trends

Sake has been brewed for over one thousand years in Japan, but recently we have seen a global shift in the sake market as people become more and more interested in sake all over the world. The combination of an increase in the number of Japanese restaurants abroad, along with better preservation techniques for exported sake, has resulted in larger amounts of better quality sake available for consumption overseas. Now there are over 20 sake breweries in the United States alone, one of the most prominent being Brooklyn Kura. This brewery has partnered with YUKIGUNI brewery Hakkaisan to continue to promote and develop sake in the United States.

Aside from increased interest in Japanese cuisine, restaurants and pubs abroad have also begun pairing sake with Western food. It is not uncommon for trendy bars across North America to pair their sake with a burger, or even pizza! The sake-drinking demographic trends noticeably young, with a majority of new sake drinkers outside Japan in their 20s and 30s.

Other sake styles worth trying

One of the first things people learn about sake is that there are so many different kinds! Most sake is called “Futsushu,” which is typical table sake that can be bought inexpensively. On the other hand, Japanese makers have been moving towards producing more premium sake, such as Junmai Daiginjo. We have also been seeing more sake varieties with lower alcohol content and more wine-like qualities. These days it is quite common to find many of your favorite brewers now produce sparkling sake as well!

Some of the sake that sells the best overseas are sweeter and fruity varieties. For example, Nigori sake is commonly called “unfiltered sake” in English, but this actually is not the case, as all commercial sake is required to be filtered. The filtering process for Nigori allows some rice to remain in the sake liquid, which gives it a “cloudy” white color instead of a more typical clear sake. Nigori is commonly considered a sweeter “dessert” sake, and is also great for cocktails!

There is also “nama” sake, meaning unpasteurized sake. Unpasteurized sake still has live enzymes inside of it, and so it is difficult to keep the quality and flavor consistent. Nama sake is typically consumed soon after brewing in Japan, especially at summer festivals, but sake drinkers abroad have begun to appreciate “mature” nama sake as well!

Lastly, let us mention a special kind of sake called “Doburoku.” This is the closest thing remaining to “homebrewed” sake, which was banned in the 1800s during the Meiji period. These days, brewers require a special dispensation to serve Doburoku, such as at Shinto shrines and some restaurants. However, it can be bought in YUKIGUNI, including in Yuzawa where Doburoku is produced! Yuzawa Town was designated as a special area for Doburoku in 2005, and won a national prize after only one year. Click HERE to learn more.

Go on a sake tour!

You can visit a sake brewery as soon as you get off your bullet train! The Shirataki Sake Brewery is just a stone’s throw from Echigo-Yuzawa station, and their tasting room is full of exciting new innovations from the Snow Country. Highlights include their line of “Jozen” premium sake, including Jozen White, a low alcohol Junmai Ginjo. Specialty sake like Takaki no Ippon Junmai Daiginjo was named for their 29-year-old brew master. At the Shirataki Brewery you can enjoy free tastings of limited edition flavors, including kiwi-flavored sake, and Kimoto, a Sweet Nigori, which has a creamy sweetness with a bit of texture from rice solids. You can buy gift sets, a range of skincare products, and even sake lees! The brewery is very English friendly, and has been successful abroad-Shirataki Sake is exported to Europe, USA, Australia, and Brazil.

While you’re here, why not go on a Sake Adventure out to the town of Tsunan? This remote Niigata town is famous for the quality of their water, which is used to brew premium sake in limited quantities at the Tsunan Sake Brewery. They are eager to welcome you for an exclusive brewery tour!

Local innovations in sake

Recently, local brewers within YUKIGUNI have endeavored to further innovate their brand and broaden their appeal both within Japan and abroad. The Tamagawa Sake Brewery has been operating for over 350 years in rural Uonuma City in Niigata Prefecture. They have recently developed a special sake known as “It’s the Key,” with the goal of “opening a new door for sake” in the world. This light, wine-like sake was given the Gold medal at the Fine Sake Awards in 2017.

It’s the Key is available for tasting along with approximately 10 other varieties (including hard-to-find limited edition flavors!) during the brewery’s sake tour. While on the brewery tour, you will learn how the brewers at Tamagawa use the traditional sandanshikomi process to wash, steam, and ferment rice to make sake, before it is pasteurized and bottled. You can view their Yukimuro – or snow refrigerator – that is filled with snow year-round, and even get a taste of the fresh groundwater from which their beloved sake is made. This snow storage ensures constant temperature and humidity for the sake, and is considered an ideal preservation method. The gift shop includes other sake themed items such as pickles made with sake lees, sake cakes, jams, and sake cosmetics.

An interesting side trip- The Meguro Manor House

Right next door to the Tamagawa Brewery is “Meguro Tei,” a beautiful manor house belonging to the influential Meguro family of samurai, which has been designated as an important cultural property of Japan. The Meguro settled in YUKIGUNI beginning in 1590, and the head of the Meguro family served as headman for what were originally 15 different villages in the area. The Meguro family themselves owned extensive lands for farming, and after the Meiji Revolution members of the Meguro family became elected government representatives in the region and helped to modernize the YUKIGUNI area, including developing the local infrastructure.

The current “Meguro Tei” building was constructed in 1797, and contains an inclined roof and thick pillars to prevent the home from collapsing under heavy snow. It is well maintained and a valuable reminder of the samurai era of Japan with a beautiful courtyard and fire pit called “irori.” You can see the remains of storehouses here, where they previously stored their own rice, miso, and of course sake. Click HERE for a sample tour including both the Tamagawa Sake Brewery and Meguro Tei.

Find your perfect sake at a “Sake Museum”

In order to provide visitors with an insight into famous Niigata sake, there are three “Ponshukan Sake Museums” in the prefecture, including one inside Echigo-Yuzawa station. At their Sake Cellar, a 500 yen coin will buy you a sample of 5 different kinds of sake, plus an optional 150 yen for… a cucumber! You can have it plain or eat it salted as a palate cleanser, or just drink water if you like. It may seem that 500 yen will go quickly, however you have over 100 different kinds of sake to choose from! For those interested in local wine, you may sample some varieties from Echigo Winery, who we wrote about HERE. To assist you, staff recommendations are written on the walls (in English), as well as a special AI you can consult to find the perfect sake for you. Many of the varieties you can sample at the Ponshukan Sake Cellar are available for purchase.

Information for Travelers

Tamagawa Sake Brewery (and Meguro Tei)

Address: 1643 Suhara, Uonuma City, Niigata Prefecture 946-0216
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Contact: Please inquire with brewery for tour information

Shirataki Sake Brewery

Address: 2640 Yuzawa, Yuzawa Town, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata Prefecture 949-6101
Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed on Weekends
Contact: Click HERE to book a brewery tour. Tastings available without reservation

Tsunan Sake Brewery

Address: 7141 Akinari, Tsunan Town, Naka-Uonuma District, Niigata Prefecture 949-8313
Contact: Tours available, reservation required (Phone:025-765-5252)

Echigo Sake Museum (Ponshukan)

Address: 2427-3 Yuzawa, Yuzawa Town, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata Prefecture 949-6101 (Located inside Echigo-Yuzawa Station)
Hours:9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.