Having long held the conviction that great events arrive in twos, within a week, I had the unique experience of being hosted by the CEO of Hakkaisan, Jiro Nagumo at the Minamiuonuma Niigata brewery, and five days later at the very last minute, of joining a Tokyo American Club Hakkaisan pairing dinner hosted by the Master Brewer, Shigemitsu Nagumo at Chop in Azabu, Tokyo.
While the sake and culinary delights were off the charts, the highlight of the dinners was listening to Jiro-san give his take on sustainable tourism and Japanese Sake culture which he spent ten minutes in a welcome toast explaining his thoughts on promoting inbound tourism to the Uonuma valley and to the overall Japan islands post Tokyo Olympics and Para Olympics 2020. Hospitality is a vital part of the local economy and Jiro-san passionately advocated using high quality aspects of Japanese culture to promote tourism. Sake production and consumption is deeply engrained in the culture and diet of Japanese people, and should be used cleverly to attract tourism revenue.
The Japanese government under Prime Minister Abe has engaged the hospitality industry and mandated various new initiatives to increase inbound tourism. While some of these initiatives replicate western concepts such as legalizing gambling through Integrated Resorts and updating minpaku laws to promote a sharing economy, Japan should reach deeper down to its existential being and promote this unique high quality sake culture. Hakkaisan will endeavor to promote tourism through “Good sake for all.”
On Saturday August 18 afternoon, a group of fifteen foreign university students and a local foreign contingency of sake enthusiasts were given a brewery tour of Hakkaisan sake. Ikuko Takano of the customer service section and Masatoshi Murayama, Brewery Manufacturing, First Section gave a Hakkaisan overview and brewery tour, respectively. Makiko McCellan, International Marketing Department, simultaneously translated for the brewery visitation and dinner. Donning white outer garments and hair protective nets and masks we were given an overview of the brewery’s history and geographical advantages of producing premium sake. Hakkaisan brewery is at the base of a seasonally heavy snowfall mountain that produces soft, pure water that is filtered by the mountain soil. It takes decades for the water to travel through the various layers of soil and rocks before it reaches the wells that provide water to the brewery.
My first impression inside the brewery is how clean and pristine the premise remains on the offseason. We changed walking slippers twice between rooms in the first five minutes of the brewery tour. There are large green sticker floor mats between rooms much like you see in semiconductor labs and co-location server sites. Likewise, the overall detailed attention to maintaining a clean room environment is on par with a science lab.
Starting in the rice polishing room, we learned that high quality sake originates from using only the very center part of the rice kernel. Given that the rice season ends in the fall, polishing begins early winter in a cold room to prevent deterioration of quality of rice that may occur in higher humidity and temperature environment. Hakkaisan’s production has frequently taken advantage of technology and as much as automation increases quality, management has adopted structural changes over the years particularly in the washing and soaking process. Evenly saturating the rice and preparing for steaming has been a key improvement over the years.
Although we did not enter the Koji rooms, we were able to see the wood paneled rooms where the steam rice is sprinkled with Koji for 48 hours. There is a small sign above the Koji room entrance that asks the Sake Gods for a bountiful yield. Hakkaisan has three separate Koji stage areas where they can process multiple batches simultaneously. Following the Koji stage, over a two-week period, yeast starter or “Shubo” is then mixed with the rice, Koji, additional water and lactic acid. The main mash or “Moromi” is combined in the main brewing tanks for 30 days. The brewing phase uses a water-cooling system surrounding the tanks that replaced using snow and ice by hand. Large pipes and tubes run from the brewing tanks downstairs to the pressing rooms where fresh sake is separated from unfermented rice solids known as “Kasu”. Immediately following pressing, the sake is filtered to remove impurities and then pasteurized to kill any remaining enzymes or bacteria. Finally the sake is stored underground for six months for flavor improvement. Water is added to stabilize the alcoholic content at 15% before bottling.
During the tour while viewing the pressing stage, I was able to inquire with Maruyama-san about the special Tokyo American Club 90th anniversary vintage Junmai Ginjyo. He replied that he was responsible for the production and in fact they used these smaller special presses we were viewing to separate the fresh sake for the vintage. Maruyama-san further explained that the philosophy of Hakkaisan is to brew in small amounts in order to control quality.
Following the brewery tour, our group was ushered to a beautiful ryokan next to the corporate headquarters where Jiro-san and his family were ready to host a sake-pairing feast. The main dining room seated over thirty people and has a breath taking garden view of Uonuma valley.
Many of the seasonal local foods were included to match the sake. We started with multiple dishes of appetizers ranging from the lightly salted edamame to various marinated seafood dishes. We were also able to sample two of Hakkaisan’s recent venture into brewing beers, both Rydeen’s IPA and Weizen that were served with the appetizer. I enjoyed the beers immensely. The main course of the evening was tempura. It was paired with a unique special sake vintage which Jiro-san only serves on premise. During the course of the meal, Jiro-san explained that one of the wide body glasses with a narrower top was designed and ordered by Hakkaisan from a French glass maker. This glass allows the sake aroma reach the nose the same time the sake reaches the tongue. Towards the end of the meal we were served a small portion of Minamiuonuma’s prize winning Koshi Hikari rice with pickles.
During dinner Jiro-san mentioned that every year for the past seven he has visited Mongolia, so having Mongolian foreign exchange students visit his brewery has important meaning. He hopes that these students will take back with them a great appreciation of Hakkaisan Sake and special memories. Other countries represented by the students included Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. Our local sake enthusiasts originally hailed from countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.
On Thursday August 23 evening, a group of 30 Tokyo American Club members gathered for a Hakkaisan Sake pairing dinner at the member’s 3rd floor restaurant Chop house. Arriving early I was able to greet my Uonuma neighbors and welcome them to the club I have called home for nearly two decades. They had arrived in the afternoon to prepare and review the dinner that included bringing Hakkaisan local special water for drinking during the meal. The main course specialty beef was marinated in the brewery’s koji salt. Here is the spectacular menu pairing:
Kelp-Cured Scallop Carpaccio
Pomegranate Gelee and Oyser Leaf
Hakkaisan Clear Sparkling AWA
Imperial Shrimp with Dragon Fruit Salsa Sudachi Lime Crème
Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo
Hakkaisan Special Daiginjo
Mole Duck “Taco,” Puffed Rice, Avocado Coulis, Pineapple Radish, Goji Berries and Shaved Feta
Hakkaisan Junmai Daiginjyo Kouwa Gura
Koji Salt-marinated Rib Eye Cap Charred Corn and Snow Crab Succotash
Hakkaisan TAC Junmai Ginjo
Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo (three years)
Textures of Rice
Representing Hakkaisan brewery at the TAC dinner, Shigemitsu Nagumo, Senior Managing Director & Production Director Master Brewer and Mayumi Sato International Marketing Department as well as Makiko McLellan whom had most graciously hosted the earlier event in Uonuma.
Shigemitsu-san was very informative on the brewing process of the various sake types, and went at great lengths to be sure the audience understood the finer details of how each Hakkaisan brand is produced. A few important take away’s from Shigemitsu-san included that (1) the soft water from Hakkaisan is piped in from several kilometers away at the base of Hakkaisan mountain. (2) There are 60 employees responsible for brewing and out of the 60 there are 6 elite brewers that were assigned to produce and bottle the American Club 90th Anniversary Hakkaisan Junmain Ginjo.
A few questions from members included, (1) Does Hakkaisan use the Niigata’s famous rice Koshi Hikari to produce sake? (2) Which country do you most export your sake to?
(1) Shigemitsu-san explained that although Koshi Hikari consistently ranks as the best rice in Japan, this rice is not used for producing Sake because the nutrients in the rice kernel do not match the ideal sake brewing standards. Typically the rice kernel is milled and polished which means the outer layers are removed. Koshi Hikari when milled still has a large amount of nutrients that do not ferment well into sake. The ideal rice kernel for brewing sake is neutral in flavor: Yamadanishiki, Miyamonishiki, and Gohyakumangoku rice is mostly used in Hakkaisan’s sake.
(2) The United States is the largest export market for Hakkaisan. Speaking directly to Mayumi Sato in the international Marketing Department she mentioned that she has been to my home town, Los Angeles twice on marketing tours where she partners with Mutual Trading Company who distributes Hakkaisan. She has visited restaurants and Japanese supermarkets in Orange County with Mutual sales people out of Little Tokyo, and has made best efforts to market the brand through out the United States.
While it is difficult to compare each dining experience, I thoroughly enjoyed both. The diversity of flavor and pairing ability of Hakkaisan’s range of Sake’s is a testament of a high quality beverage. Sitting down at the brewery’s guest dining room and sampling local Niigata dishes with the same sake five days later at the Tokyo American Club Chop Restaurant cuisine has left an indelible memory on my palette.
Part of enjoying the amazing dinners and sake pairings for me personally was to be sure that I had proper transportation to and from the brewery visitation and dinner as well at TAC dinner. On Friday morning I jumped onto the Shinkansen 7:10 am at Tokyo station and coincidentally happened to sit next to Shigemitsu-san. It was an enjoyable trip back to Niigata. Not only do great events come in twos, but I have a good feeling that I will be drinking a lot of Hakkaisan in the years to come.
“We were invited to Hakkaisan breweries for a tour and dinner with twenty foreign students from the International University of Japan. It was my first time to see how sake is made…
We then went to the private dining room…
Our host, the most amiable Jiro Naguno, plied us all with the most amazing food and copious amounts of sake, beer and more sake. What a wonderful experience… if you get a chance.. don’t miss Hakkaisan hospitality…”