A Taste with a Twist from Takayama

Throughout the series of Taste with the Toji events that Super Sake Boy and I have been attending since April, it has never failed to amaze me that regardless of what kind of sake the Toji (head brewers) are brewing, or what kind of kura (breweries) they are brewing in, a hundreds of years old wooden, old style brewery, or a modern and more industrial space, there are always wonderful quirks and significant differences in the way people do things. It is like the kura themselves have personalities and the variety of interest we have found in these sessions has been incredibly entertaining.

This session saw us virtually visiting Watanabe Shuzo, makers of Hourai Sake, a brewery in the very beautiful Gifu Prefecture, in the Japanese Alps. We always feel very happy to see someone we know online, during these sessions. As the sessions are run by the wonderful and dear friend of ours, Simone Maynard, aka The Sake Mistress, who has been instrumental in our blossoming and ever growing love and knowledge of sake, we have been fortunate enough to have personally met several of the people, Toji and Kurabito in Melbourne. Darryl Cody Brailsford, or Cody, is a Kurabito, who has been brewing at Watanabe Shuzo for 15 years. Cody is American and is such a lovely and humble person. We were lucky enough to work with him on the Super Sake stand at the Sake Matsuri in Melbourne last year, and he is a wealth of knowledge and super interesting to speak to, as he can explain the life of a Kurabito through the eyes of a Westerner. He is also very dedicated to his craft.

Cody’s Toji, Kitaba Hiroji, also joined the session, as did Akane Kimoto. Kitaba-san has been brewing for 30 years. Watanabe Shuzo has been in business since 1732, however, originally, the company traded in silk. In 1870, the President of the company tasted sake on a trip to Kyoto and decided to begin brewing sake. Situated at an altitude of 3000 metres and in a place that the temperature is often below 0℃, the brewery often needs to be heated to be warm enough to brew sake, and they have access to mountain spring water that comes from underground.

Watanabe Shuzo brew several different kids of sake, but in general their product is quite refined, ginjo and daiginjo, and the environment is quite industrial. The brewery tour was interesting, this brewery makes a lot of sake. They steam around 3,000 kg of rice a day. There was a lot of stainless steel and the whole place was fastidiously clean. It was quite an unexpected surprise when Kitaba-san and Cody began explaining the “laughing fermentation”. Many breweries seem to play music to the sake, which I guess is not dissimilar to playing music to your plants, to encourage growth, however, at Watanabe Shuzo they play stand-up comedy to their sake. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You could audibly hear the comedy in the background. I initially thought that someone had accidentally taken their mute off, but, no, it was Japanese stand-up. They explained that the have a Kura Matsuri (festival) every year and comedians come in on that day and perform the comedy to the sake, live. I love this concept, of happy, laughter imbued sake.

Not only does this sake get entertained with comedy, it is also blessed by the well-wishes of all the visitors who come to the brewery. Masaru Emoto was a Japanese researcher who published a book in 2004 about the consciousness of water. His research into the effect of different frequencies and vibrations on water crystals was quite popular, and his photos of water crystals that had taken on beautiful patterns, like snowflakes, has led to visitors to Watanabe Shuzo being invited to write positive affirmations and messages directly onto the tanks. Sake is predominantly water, with alcohol and dissolved solids, so harmonising the water in the tanks with positive vibrations and energy is a beautiful concept and an interesting eccentricity that sets this brewery apart. The other vibration currently being attached to many sake labels is an Amabie, a mythological Japanese mermaid or merman, with three legs who prophesies epidemics (or pandemics, I guess). This movement in Japan is about staying safe from COVID-19 by drinking sake. It is a movement that I am more than happy to give the benefit of the doubt towards, and has, thus far, been a successful strategy.

Watanabe Shuzo Sake, under the label Hourai, can be purchased in Australia through Super Sake.

Please follow link here to the Sake Mistress.

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