14 Sep 2015

Saké is a type of Japanese rice wine, made from fermenting rice. It is a popular drink in Japan, and is the national beverage of the country. If you are planning on visiting Japan, you should definitely try saké at least once. Or better still, visit a brewery to learn more about how this rice wine is made:

Inoue Saké Brewery

Today I am heading to the Inoue Saké Brewery. I start from Tokyo Station, before taking the the Tokaido Line to Kōzu Station. The journey takes about ninety minutes. I have to wait at Kōzu for a while; the trains here appear just twice an hour. Eventually a train comes, and I take the Gotemba Line to our destination, Kami-Ōi Station. From the train I can see the sea. The journey is a long one, so I hope it is worth it.

At Kami-Ōi Station, the place is completely deserted, it is so quiet that there is no ticket gate. The area is definitely the countryside, mountains and the sea. Rice growing everywhere. The air is clean. I leave the station and in five minutes I arrive at the Inoue Saké Brewery.

A Tour of a Saké Brewery in Hakone

A globe of cedar leaves hangs outside. I am told this it to represent this year’s saké. In the end of October this will be replaced with a new cedar globe, when the new batch of saké is made. The idea is that the leaves start off green, and as the saké matures, the leaves turn brown. A representation of sorts.

Inoue Saké Brewery was established in 1789, during the Edo period. The owner, Mister Inoue, is incredibly humble, passionate, and speaks reasonably good English. I take a seat, he talks me through the process, the history, and the various types of saké; then the tour of the brewery promptly begins. He explains that the cold Hakone air is perfect for the production of saké. The brewery uses locally grown rice, and water from 150 meters underground. I drink some of the water; just as I expected, it is clean, fresh and clear.

What Is Japanese saké? A Short Explanation
The Different Types of saké 
Japanese Saké: Hot or Cold?

A Tour of a Saké Brewery in Hakone

Saké production is somewhat similar to wine, except an extra process is added before fermentation. Starch from the rice is added to Koji, a diastatic enzyme. The enzyme helps to break down the rice and convert the starch into sugar. The process is known as Saccharification. Next, sugar and yeast are added and fermentation begins. With wine, grapes naturally contain sugars, so just yeast is added, but after that, the process is very much the same.

I visit the room where the Koji is added to the rice, see the large tanks where the rice is steamed, where it is stored, where it is mashed. I am surprised to discover that all of the processes are done by hand. The mashing process, for example, takes place in huge 8,000 litre tanks. The masher stands above the tank on a dangerous looking wooden platform, and smashes a huge stick into the rice, for four days.

A Tour of a Saké Brewery in Hakone

The result is a liquid made from starch. Next multiple parallel fermentation takes place. The mixture is rested for up to 32 days, during which, Saccharification and fermentation take place at the same time. Following this, the saké is pressed through cloth, filtered, before a pasteurisation process begins. Finally the saké is aged for up to six months, bottled, and eventually sold to the consumer.

The saké is sold in 1.8 litre bottles, or 720 ml bottles. A much smaller bottle is also sold, however, the other two sizes are the most common. After the tour I sit down and try a few varieties of saké. My favorite is the gold-medal winning Hakone-yama Junmai. Junmaishu is a traditional style of saké, and often has a mellow bouquet with a rich, smooth flavour.

How to Combine Saké with Food
A Short Guide to Japanese Sake
The Social Rules of Drinking Sake

A Tour of a Saké Brewery in Hakone

Hakone-yama Junmai can be enjoyed in three different ways. Room temperature, cold, or hot. I try the room temperature first, and it tastes good, with just a subtle amount of flavour. I then drink it cold, and it tastes a lot nicer, with a much smoother texture. Finally, I try the hot variety, which also tastes great, the flavour really opens up, and the scent is a lot stronger.

After the tasting, I am given a Masu as a souvenir, a small wooden box which was originally used to measure rice, but these days it is used as a container for drinking saké. Impressed with what I have seen and tasted today, I decide to buy a bottle of saké for ¥1200. After that I say goodbye to the owner and return to Kami-Ōi Station.

A Tour of a Saké Brewery in Hakone

From the train station I can see the base of Mount Fuji.

Guidebook from Planetyze about Hakone
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Inoue Saké Brewery
- Saké Brewery Tours
-
 Saké Tasting Tours

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