Philippe Bourget - 2012-09-15
In Kanazawa, a town on Honshu Island on the Sea of Japan, the venerable Yachiya factory has been producing traditional sake for 13 generations. Its head, 90 year old Fumiyo Kamiya, perpetuates this ancient know-how with boundless enthusiasm.
The brewery is in a traditional 19th century house, situated in an anonymous street in the Ohi-machi district, north of the town centre. Behind a heavy wooden door that’s seen thousands of bottles passing through, a crucial episode has been written in the history of Kanazawa sake. Not that the city has any exclusive claim to rice wine. In Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, there are nearly 2,000 functioning breweries. The uniqueness of the Yachiya Brewery comes from its being the oldest in a city where Japanese traditions have continually been defended tooth and nail, just like in the big sister city of Kyoto. Noh, kimonos, porcelain, gold leaf, geishas, traditional cooking and of course sake all participate in creating the reputation of a town that the Japanese themselves consider to be one of the main strongholds of Japanese identity.
Fumiyo Kamiya is undoubtedly aware of this, and filled with a communicative enthusiasm he ushers you in to visit his shop and back room. Built in 1628, the factory moved into the house two hundred years later, but you'd swear by its patina of time that it’s older. In the guests’ reception area, the irori, the traditional Japanese hearth used for heating and cooking, has pride of place. At the end of a dark passage, Fumiyo Kamiya, wearing spectacles and a toothless smile, proudly displays what looks like a giant safe. Double swing doors as heavy as lead made from solid, thick timber open into a room where bottles and precious commodities used to be stored.
Fermentation and pressing ... just like wine
Next door the crowning centrepiece is the vat where rice is boiled. The manufacturing process is similar to that used in wine production. Harvested in September and October in Ishikawa Prefecture (of which Kanazawa is the capital), the rice is boiled before yeast and koji rice (rice broth cultured with a fungus) and water is added. The substrate is then fermented for twenty days before being pressed to collect the "juice" - the sake. Its production and blending process are so intricate that it’s impossible to go into details here. In Japan there are as many sakes as there are breweries, and the quality of Kanazawa’s offering comes in part from the variety of rice grown in the region. The drink rarely exceeds 16% proof and is consumed young, cold or warm. Yachiya Sake Brewery produces 100,000 bottles per year as well as plum wine and a liqueur.
The tasting at the end of the visit gives you a chance to assess the quality of the brew. It’s the secret of Fumiyo Kamiya’s longevity, whose good humour and social skills are boundless, yet for some it may seem just a touch bland. However, as you become accustomed to it, delicate flavours are revealed that invite further knowledge and appreciation. Kanazawa’s venerable Yachiya Sake Brewery is a good place to start. Kampai! (Good health!)