Monday, March 15, 2010

Kawa Nishi-ya Sake Tour

One of my former students is a member of a group of sake fans, and they'll periodically visit sake breweries or host events at restaurants where a famous brewer will come in to speak. We got to talking about sake and beer last Fall, and he offered to let me know about the next event, which took place on March 14. Normally, I work on Sundays but I was able to take the day off.

The brewery is near Shin-Machida station, an hour by rapid train from my apartment. Once you get about half an hour out, the separation between stations is closer to about 5 miles apart, so even though the train stopped at each station after Sagami-Ono, I still ended up getting pretty close to Mount Fuji in that time. Unfortunately, we were only able to see the mountain from the taxi and I wasn't able to get a good shot of it. There were about 20 of us, and we needed 5 taxis to get to the brewery, which was 10 minutes away.

(Our tour guide (left) and one of the other workers.)

(Cooking the rice.)

(Old brick furnace, no longer used.)

Kawa Nishi-ya Shuzo is a small brewery, with a few buildings in an area about half-a-block wide. There's no gift shop, showroom or tasting area. Mainly, it's just the work spaces and refrigeration rooms. There is one small meeting room up on the second floor, which was packed with all of us in at one time. We were broken up into 2 group. While one toured the brewery, the other stayed in the room watching a 30-minute video on the making of sake, and then listening to the brew master answering questions.

(After the rice is cooked, it's put into these wooden boxes for cooling and transport. When the rice is removed, the boxes need to be cleaned very carefully. The little set of wooden picks in the top box acts as a scraper to extract the rice from the corners and between the wooden slats.)

(Some of the boxes, after cleaning.)

(Shrine over the door leading to the fermenting room.)

(Precise temperature control is needed to maintain yeast activity.)

The rice is cooked, cooled, spread out on a table, and then sprinkled with active yeast cultures. It's kneaded and then placed in the vats for fermentation. Initially, there's a lot of carbon dioxide produced that has a very specific aroma, later the gas production decreases and you can only occasionally seen the mash bubbling. The room is kept at 9.5 degree C to control the yeast activity.

Our guide mentioned the dangers of working around these tanks. Since the tops are at knee height, it's easy to trip and fall in, and since the CO2 is heavier than air, there's a "killing zone" a foot above the mash. You do not want to be working alone and fall in.

When the rice mash reaches the desired flavor and alcohol level, it is moved into this filter press.

(Top of the filter press.)

There's a steady stream of sake exiting the press into this container. When the container nears getting full, the sake is pumped into one of the other vats back in the fermentation room. The sake at this point tastes a lot like apple juice. From here, it needs to age to develop all of the desired nuances and notes. Some of the sakes produced here are intended for the customer to store them for 1-2 years after purchase.

(Some of the rice cake that remains in the filter pump when the sake is removed. It has the consistency of bees wax, and almost no flavor at all. It used to be used for cooking, but not so much now since it's difficult to work with. The guide suggested having it with ice cream. It has a very high nutritional content.)

(One of the main storage refrigerators after the sake's been bottled.)

(Close up of the bottled sake. The guide mentioned that sake changes it's flavor with exposure to air, and how the sake at the top of the bottle can taste different from at the bottom, and therefore you're actually going to get a better flavor experience if you buy the larger bottles...)

(Cleaning the cloth materials. He's holding a cloth bag that is used as a filter for the sake. It's attached to a pipe and the sake flows through it. To avoid getting weird tastes in the sake, the cloth needs to be washed up to 30 times before it can be used.)

(Old-style brooms, still commonly used in Japan.)

(Used bottles awaiting recycling.)

(More bottles for recycling.)

Afterward, we took taxis through meandering back streets to a restaurant near the train line one station out from Shin Matsuda. The restaurant, too, was packed. The Spanish-themed food was selected to match the Kawa Nishi-ya sake and was brought out in 8-10 courses. There were 6 flavors of sake, some served chilled and others heated. (Flavors ranging from sweet to dry, fruity to astringent. The drier versions were more popular.) The courses started with boiled potatoes, boiled spinach and a baked fish topped with a miso paste. We'd arrived at the restaurant at 3 PM, and at 4 we were told we'd have to clear out by 6. I had a hard time imaging how we'd be able to keep busy that long. Then, the highlight of the meal came when the chef went to one table and started clearing it off, constantly saying "I need more space, more space!" None of us knew what was going on. Then he returned with a large frying pan, the size of a large deep dish pizza, filled with a rice pilaf. He followed this with a big bucket containing 3 whole, cooked chickens. He put the chickens in the rice, deboned them, and mixed everything up together. The dish tasted really good, too. That's when I was surprised to find that it was already 5:45. We didn't actually get out of the restaurant until 7. The evening was a bit pricey - train travel was 610 yen each way, plus another 850 yen for the taxis, and 6000 for the meal. So, 8000+ yen (approx. $90 USD) for an all you can eat and drink evening, plus the travel out to a small town halfway towards Fuji. It was worth it.


bartman905 said...

I have never been on a Sake Tour, so this post was very good, with lots of pictures. No free sake samples :-)

TSOTE said...

It was my second time. The first was back in '95 when I first worked in Japan, and was part of a city walk out in a small town near Tokuyama, Yamaguchi. The brewery just demonstrated the empty vats and the refrigeration room. At the end, they did have free samples, but they were just in small plastic cups, and of the cheaper stuff. (I was the only one in the tour group to express interest in the workings of the brewery, so the master gave me a free 150 ml bottle of the better grade sake).

This time, Kawanishi-ya didn't have a tasting room, so the only samples were what the guide ladled out of the vats for us. Raw, unaged, and tasting a lot like apple juice.

There are a number of sake breweries around Tokyo, but most of them only give tours to groups of 8 or more. Two places will let in individuals, but you need to make a reservation first, over the phone and only in Japanese. Which is why I haven't gone to them yet.