Miaygi Prefecture is known as one of Japan's leading rice-producing areas. Located close to the center of the prefecture is Taiwa-cho, Kurokawa-gun - a town blessed with abundant clean water from the Funagata mountains. Here, about 20 years ago, Taiwagura Sake Brewery established a brewery. Since then, more than 30 kinds of Japanese sake has been produced, including junmai-shu (pure-rice sake) and ginjo-shu (sake made from highly polished rice). Brewery has introduced modern facilities that are ranked among the best in the northeast region of Japan.
"We pride ourselves on being able to offer excellent Japanese sake to customers across the country."
President, Nobuo Yamauchi
Nambu-Toji, Masatoshi Sasaki
Japanese sake is a living product. While Taiwagura Sake Brewery is equipped with state-of-art facilities and systems, many years of knowledge and experience are indispensable for making delicious Japanese sake. As expressed in a common saying of the sake-world, "first koji, second shubo and third moromi". Koji making is the most important process that determines the quality of the Japanese sake. In the midst of increased automatization, it is also an essential task for toji to pass on traditional craftsmanship to future generations.
"We believe that making good sake begins with human resource development."
Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, made from rice. It has been a part of Japanese culture for around 2000 years. Sake is also the national beverage of Japan, according to ancient Japanese traditions sake is exchanged as gifts, especially to deities. In Japan it has been customary for people to give sake as an expression of sympathy after accidents.The ceremony of exchanging sake cups is performed in order to symbolize the creation of special bonds between people. For instance as a part of a wedding seremony, it is common to take three sips of sake while making vows to Shinto deities. The act of exchanging sake cups can also be perfomed as a pledge of friendship.
The alcohol by volume of sake is usually around 15%, while undiluted it contains 18%-20% alcohol. Sake is traditionaly served warm, from a small porcelain bottle and drank from a small porcelain cup. Although the taste and techniques have changed over the years, the basics of sake have remained the same. In Japanese the word "sake" can refer to any alcoholic drink, but the word "nihonshu" refers to the beverage commonly known as sake out side of Japan.
Large scale production of sake was started by an organization called the sake brewery office, which was established by the Imperial court in order to make sake for ceremonies during the Heian period (from year 794 to 1185). Afterwards during the Muromachi period (from year 1336 to 1573), hundreds of small sake shops were started in Kyoto and sake was there after made all year round. The modern process of brewing sake was established due to the development of rice breeding, brewery science and facilities, after the Meiji era (from year 1868 to 1912). The process of turning rice starch to sugar and then to alcohol has not changed in over 1600 years.
The process of making sake or Nihon-shu starts from processing the rice to be used. Different kinds of rice is used in different brands on sake. The process called "rice polishing" involves brown rice first being de-husked and then polished until around 30%-50% of the grain remains.
The resulting white rice is then washed two times and then cooked, this process takes one day. Winter is the most suitable time to make sake, since the cold air can be utilized to cool down the cooked rice. In summer, machinery is instead used to handle the cooling.
After the cooked rice has cooled down, koji is grown for two days. Rice koji is a fungi-like product that is grown on the steamed rice, spores are used to plant the koji on the rice. Koji is needed for the rice to ferment, since rice on it's own does not contain sugar.
A seed mash or starter mash is made by mixing water, yeast and koji. In order to make the fermenting mash or main mash, water, steamed rice and koji are then added in three stages, called "soe", "naka" and "tome". This is done to allow the yeast to keep up with the volume of the mash.
The main mash is stored in a large tank while it ferments for around one month, during this time additions are made (except in the case of pure sake). These additives are called brewers alcohol, which is commonly distilled alchohol.
Then the main mash is filtered by pressing it through pieces of cloth, to separate it into sake and sake cake. In most varieties of sake, it is pasteurized by heating afterwards.
Filtration and Pasteuration
Aging and bottling
The resulting clear sake is then stored in storage tanks, letting it age the desired amount of time. The complete product bottled and stored.
Finally the packaged products are shipped to stores all around Japan.
We are three students from Finland who came to Japan for student exchange at Sendai College of Technology. As part of the exchange, we participated in a two week internship at YaMaYa, and this web page is a result of it. We also had a chance to visit the Taiwagura sake brewery and taste some Japanese sake.
Taiwagura sake brewery is located in a beautiful rural area north of Sendai city center, about 45 minutes by car. On arrival, we were greeted by the company president Mr. Yamauchi, and soon left to have lunch and participate in some sake tasting in a nearby restaurant serving traditional Japanese food, washoku.
There are various different types of sake from mild to strong, bitter to fruity and all between. They also differ greatly in price and quality.
We were presented with six different types to taste, with recommendations on which type of sake suits which type of food.
For example, strong tasting sake goes well with greasy foods like tempura, and sweet sake is best enjoyed with desserts. It was great to get to taste many different kinds of sake, because the selection in Finland is quite limited.
After lunch we headed out to Shiogama shrine to see cherry blossoms (sakura). The shrine is located near one of the famous three views of Japan (Nihon Sankei) in Matsushima.
Fifteen of the shrine's buildings, that date back to the Edo period have been designated as Important Cultural Properties. We visited the worship area where people can say their prayers to the deity.
Coming back from the shrine, we were finally ready to take a look inside the Taiwagura sake brewery! As our guide we had the master brewer or Nambu-Toji Masatoshi Sasaki. Before heading inside the production facilities we had to get dressed in labcoats and hair nets.
Sake production begins by careful selection of the best rice, and polishing it to the desired degree. Normal white rice that is eaten as a meal, is polished to 90 %, which means 10 % of the husk of the grain is ground off. The rice used for the making of sake is usually polished from 70% up to 35 % for the best quality sakes. The leftover rice powder is used in the making of sembei, Japanese rice cakes.
The rice is then washed twice, steamed and then cooled down. We were shown all the machinery used to achieve this. Traditionally the rice was cooled down outside in the winter when it is cold, but nowadays there are machines used for the same result in the summer as well.
Rice has no sugar by nature (unlike the grapes used in wine making) so a special fungi is used, koji, to be able to start the fermentation process.
After seeing the koji, we were taken to the room with sake mash. We had a taste and to our surprise, it actually tasted quite good already. The taste was really strong. In the next room were large tanks with the fermentation process in progress.
To achieve the clarity usually found in sake, it needs to be carefully filtered. Traditionally cloths were used for filtering, and some of the highest quality sakes are still produced this way. The modern, more common method is to use air pressure in addition to cloths to filter the sake. We were shown the equipment used for both methods.
Finally, after the filtration, the sake is pasteurized and put into tanks and left to mature for months. Then it is pasteurized once more before bottling and shipping. This the most common way of producing sake.
After the extensive tour around the factory, we were back at the office to do some more sake tasting.
The master brewer Mr. Sasaki showed us the proper method of sake tasting: after pouring the sake in to a cup, you rotate it inside the cup in order to bring out all the wonderful aromas and examine the colour and any fine particles there might be present in the sake. Then you take a sip of sake, and let it linger on your tongue, breathing in air at the same time in order to bring out the flavours, and let you enjoy the aftertaste as well. The first sip is not drank, but discarded in a spit bucket dedicated for this specific purpose.
Taiwagara sake brewery offered us a great opportunity to observe the complex and time-consuming production of sake from the beginning to the end. We believe that there aren't many other ways to experience this part of Japanese culture as thoroughly as we did at the Taiwagura sake brewery.