How to Make Sake from the Waters of Chichibu

By Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Saitama Prefecture is the top sake
producer and consumer in the Kanto region, which boasts the 4th largest of its
kind nationwide, with 35 sake breweries in the prefecture. Chichibu, also known
as the "sake brewery town," has an environment ideal for sake brewing,
including the high quality water of the Arakawa River, and the unique climate
of the basin, and all kinds of regional liquors such as whiskey, wine, shochu,
beer and sake are made there.

Buko Sake Brewing Company: Exterior (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Well-established fine sake made from the waters of Chichibu

I visited "Bukou Shuzo Brewery," which has been making sake there since its foundation in the middle of the Edo period (year 3 of Horeki era), which is 266 years ago. Its building has also been registered as a tangible cultural property of the country, and its long history can be felt from the large pillars and the outstanding beams of the ceiling.

The storefront displays more than 15 types of sake, including daiginjo, junmai, nigori, taru, etc., which are all made from the “underflowing water of Mt. Bukou.” It is the famous water of Chichibu, which has been selected as the “top 100 waters of the Heisei era,” and has enriched the lives of the local residents since the ancient times.

Buko Sake Brewing Company: The 13th Kuramoto (Brewer) Mr. Koichi Hasegawa (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The most important element for a sake brewery is the water that it uses. Without this, sake cannot be made,” says the 13th President Koichi Hasegawa. "The underflow water filtered by the limestones of Mt. Bukou is a mineral-rich, hard water that results in a slightly dry, refreshing sake.” There is an inner well on the premise, and anyone who brings a container can take the water home.

Buko Sake Brewing Company: Well Water (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Buko Sake Brewing Company: Well Water to Be Sprinkled on the Premises (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The reasons for maintaining the traditional sake brewing technique

The sake brewing period is from October, when new rice crop becomes available, until the beginning of April. Sake made during the winter is referred to as “kanzukuri (cold brewing),” which is a finely textured, aromatic sake that results from inhibition of growth of bacteria and microorganisms due to the cold temperature. "The temperature difference of the Chichibu Basin, which drops to -10°C in winter, and approaches 40°C in summer, also promotes the maturation of sake.”

Buko Sake Brewing Company (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The first key step is to use carefully-selected brewer’s rice to make steamed rice. You can’t make excellent sake without properly performing this step.” After combining the rice malt, yeast and water, it’s slowly fermented. Afterwards, it’s squeezed, filtered, and heated.

“Proper processing of the raw ingredients is important in sake brewing, as illustrated in the ancient phrase, ‘In the order of importance, malt rice comes first, yeast mash comes second, and the actual processing comes third.’ It’s the same as cooking; without effort, nothing tasty can come out of it.”

Buko Sake Brewing Company: Sake Brewery (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Afterwards, it is matured in the refrigerator. Staffs climb the scaffolds surrounding the tank, and mix them throughout the day and night. Although some breweries have computerized all management processes, we at Bukou Shuzo have consistently maintained the traditional method. A Japanese sake made in such manner via time and effort can exhibit a flavor profile that can range from something light and refreshing, to flavorful and mellow. “Sake can taste much better depending on the situation and the food you pair it with. We definitely encourage everyone to foster a keen sense of being able to choose a sake that matches the occasion.”

Buko Sake Brewing Company: Comparing the Tastes of Various Sake (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Buko Sake Brewing Company: The 13th Kuramoto (Brewer) Mr. Koichi Hasegawa (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

While having inherited a tradition, Mr. Hasegawa is diligently making daily innovation in exploring new products that are aligned with the changing times. He eventually developed new products including liquors made from plum and rice, as well as sweet sake, salt-marinated rice malt, etc. that are made from white, polished rice malt. “There are a lot of things I want to do by fusing Chichibu's blessings with our brewing techniques,” Mr. Hasegawa said with a smile.

Buko Sake Brewing Company: The 13th Kuramoto (Brewer) Mr. Koichi Hasegawa (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Nagatoro Valley in Fresh Green SeasonMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Exterior (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Chichibu whiskey captivates the world

After hearing about a Japanese whiskey that’s made in Chichibu, with fans from around the world, we decided to visit the “Chichibu Distillery” of “Venture Whiskey,” which is the only specialized whiskey manufacturer in Japan.

After driving about 30 minutes north from the city, and through a hill that overlooks the Chichibu mountain range, we spotted a building with a pointed roof. “That is a malt drying tower called a pagoda, which symbolizes a distillery,” says Yumi Yoshikawa, the brand ambassador. In addition to PR activities, she's also involved in manufacturing.

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Ms. Yumi Yoshikawa (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Ichiro Akuto, the founder of “Venture Whiskey,” established the distillery in 2008 with the desire to release 400 barrels of original sake, which he inherited when his family’s long-established sake brewery business fell apart, and the management rights were transferred. What was born out of the said original sake was “Ichiro’s Malt.” It is now a whiskey brand that has received the world's highest reputation.

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Ichiro’s Malt (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Many Awards in the Past (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Malt as Raw Material for Whiskey (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Handmade with time and effort seeking the perfect drop

“The raw ingredient for making whiskey is barley malt. Most of them are imported from the UK, but about 10% of them are from Chichibu.” The crushed barley is mixed with warm water in three stages while it is put in a scarification tank, and the wort is then extracted. After being combined with yeast in a fermenter, it’s fermented for about 4 days. “We use a fermenter that’s made of water oak. In recent years, many breweries started using stainless fermenters that are relatively easy to take care of, but we stick to wooden ones because we believe the lactic acid bacteria inside the wood will help create a flavor profile that’s unique to Chichibu.”

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Fermenters Using Mongolian Oak from Tohoku (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: 2000 liter Pot Stills (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

After going through two distillations in a Scottish distiller, it results in an unblended malt whiskey. “An important process during the second distillation is called ‘middle cutting.’ The solution is too strong at the beginning, but weak in the end. So we collect only the finest samples in the middle.

The “cutting” point depends on factors such as the ambient temperature and barley variety, so a trained staff determines the timing based on the aroma. Once you’re able to tell the exact moment the shift happens, you are considered a full-fledged craftsman.”

Each run uses 400 kg of barley, which produces 2000 liters of wort, which is distilled to make 200 liters of spirits. All of this takes about a week.

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Aging Chamber of the Chichibu Distillery (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

After adding water to the unblended malt whiskey, and stuffing them in barrels, they are sent to the cellar. Chichibu's climate with an annual temperature difference of more than 30°C is said to be optimal for aging a whiskey. In the cellar, there are about 9,000 barrels of unblended malt whiskey from various countries made in the 1970s, those that their President inherited from his family, as well as “Ichiro’s Malt,” etc.

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Inside the Aging Chamber of the Chichibu Distillery (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Archive of Whiskey Made in the Past (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The passion behind makers of the “taste of Chichibu”: a taste that makes a difference

This time-consuming manual method is referred to as the traditional Scottish method. Hence, the goal of Venture Whiskey is to return back to its origin. “Differences in the local climate and landscape create the personality of a distilled liquor, so if you automate and control everything, all liquors will eventually taste the same. Our hope is for our customers to enjoy a product that was made from the natural characteristics of the land that it was made from.”

Its unique, rich aroma and mellow taste can only be made in this region. The charm of “Ichiro’s Malt,” Ms. Yoshikawa explains, is not its smooth flavor profile, but the fact that you can recognize right away that it’s the “taste of Chichibu.”

Venture Whisky LTD. Chichibu Distillery: Aging Chamber of the Chichibu Distillery (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Chichibu's local sake has been nurtured and blessed by its abundant nature from the Edo period to the present day. Behind the development of such new traditions lay the commitment of craftsmen who continuously innovate and perfect their art while maintaining the inherited technology, and their regional love for Chichibu.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Bukou Shuzo Brewery
Venture Whisky Ltd.
Chichibu area hospitality tourism corporation
SAVOR JAPAN




Photos: Yusuke Abe (YARD)
Text: Renna Hata (exwrite)
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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