Saturday, November 03, 2007

11/3/07: Day 2 in Japan Part I- Sakura Masamuné

Today was a very special day indeed. Before I came over to Japan, I had asked my friend Chiaki to introduce me to the very prestigious Sakura Masamuné Brewery (櫻正宗). I had visited their museum during my trip to Nada two years ago, but this visit was much different as I would be introduced to the Brewery straight from the President, Mr. Tazaemon Yamamura (山邑太左衛門) on the day they celebrate "open house" to the visitors.

The Brewery had a very festive and communal feel, as the parkling area was converted to a carnival ground. There were booths with foods, games, a clown... kind of like tailgating. As an added bonus, they had several casks of the newly brewed Namazaké created specifically for this event. Somehow through fate and luck, my Japan trip coincided with the perfect day to visit Sakura Masamuné.

After checking in, Mr. Yamamura (11th Generation to carry this name) greeted me and my friend Motohiko. Mr. Yamamura, despite his very traditional name befit of a samurai, was far younger than I had imagined. He accompanied us with Mr. Saimura (才村), the Toji of the Brewery with over 40 years in experience. The tour began with the decontamination process, and we had to wear a mesh hat as yeast is very sensitive.

Mr. Saimura, who Mr. Yamamura commented as being the mad scientist, lectured us on the brewing process starting with selection of the rice. They select their rice from the highest rated area in Hyogo, an area classified as "Block A," and interestingly, each year they fine-tune the selection of rice from even within the same plot. While it was my understanding that each year, each Kura would want to create a consistent product, Sakura Masamuné takes that approach and takes it further by saying, they would like to aim for consistency while improving the quality every year. They have their ideal saké, but they've never reached it, and they feel that they never will - but nevertheless, they strive for perfection every year.

Such demand for highest detail is reflected in their production approach, which I can best describe as marriage between traditional and modern method. The Brewery uses the best technology for parts of saké production that demand absolute consistency, including transportation and steaming process. For transportation, Mr. Saimura mentions that a mere act of a man carrying the sack of rice can affect the mositure in rice. The steaming process is automated, but it allows Toji to alter the process (timing, temperature) quickly based on his demands. To further demonstrate the Brewery's commitment to excellence and attention to detail, Mr. Yamamura mentions that to Toji like Mr. Saimura, they live in the world of seconds in areas such as washing rice (洗米), where 5 seconds difference in contact with water can drastically alter the flavor of saké. At the same time, the timing is different for each day, and that is all determined through the experience of the Toji.

Further understanding of the history of the Brewery shows that they have been persevered to survive, overcoming several tragedies to remain in production for now over 400 years. The first major challenge was the World War II, that destroyed the Brewery and with it, perishing of Association #1 yeast, first cultivated and identified by Sakura Masamuné. The yeast was thought to be extinct, until it was discovered 60 years later that some strains were kept in a research laboratory outside of the Brewery. Then, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 destroyed all of the old Kura. Mr. Yamamura mentions that the area surrounding the brewery went through incredible changes, and he showed us the affected area from the company Conference Room while showing us the picture of the olden days. Sakura Masamune did indeed prove the old adage, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mr. Yamamura concluded the tour by giving us some interesting tidbits of the Brewery and showing us some of the historic artifacts that are displayed in the main building as well as Sakura En museum/ gift shop/ restaurant.

This Koshu on the right, is made in 1931. Mr. Yamamura says it is drinkable without adverse affect on health, and tastes more like Chinese "sho-ko-shu," somewhat akin to Amaro bitters from Italy.

This is a fan without electric plug, as it runs on alcohol. This was used to blow away the foam after fermentation.

Here are some interesting facts:

* Their old Kura was constructed using a traditional buidling technique that did not use any nails, as metal has
* Discovery of Miyamizu
* First color print in Asahi Newspaper was the advertisement for Sakura Masamuné
* First brewery to export sakés to the US, having sent sakés to New York and San Francisco followed by Hawaii in the 1870's. Sakés were exported to Paris even earlier.

In regards to importing to the US, Mr. Yamamura mentioned that Prohibition Law greatly slowed down the exportation business. At this stage, while some bottles of Sakura Masamuné is available as evidenced here, they are not aggressive until they feel they can be confident that their saké is something that will be appreciated, not just something that merely sells well. (In that case... please feel free to export them to directly to my home!)

At this point, Mr. Yamamura concluded the tour, having dedicated 2 hours of his precious time on such a busy day. If that wasn't enough, he gave us parting gifts in the form of Kinmaré. The words cannot adequately express the level of gratitude we felt, and I hope he would visit New York in the near future so I can properly pay my respects. On the way out, I tried Aramakiya Tazaemon Junmai Daiginjo (SMV: +2.5, Acidity: 1.1, Rice: Yamadanishiki from Yoshikawa, Seimaibuai: 50%), which was milder and gentler version of Kinmaré, picked up a bottle of the special Namazaké, and left with the ultimate gift of incredible memories.

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