Sake Story tour 2010: Tsukinowa Brewery

Tsukinowa Brewery
Iwate Prefecture

incorporated: 1886, 5th generation brewer
annual production: 100k L
varietals: ~ 9
employees: 7
distribution: 50% in Iwate, 25% Hokkaido, 20% Tokyo
breweries in same prefecture: 27

“Hurry up and finish your beer, it’s a promise you’ll be drinking sake from here on in,” says President Mr. Daizo Yokosawa. And did we ever. Toshi-san of Sake Story, myself along with Mr President Daizo and his daughter Hiroko-san (current head brew master), went out after the brewery tour to chit chat over some home-style sushi and drinks. Here’s what I learned: o-ki-na-wa-ri means one more please in a way that’s polite to the merchant. I’m not sure how polite it is, but the merchant was definitely smiling and friendly after the ten rounds of sake we ordered.

Mr. President Yokosawa Daizo during his ball days

Mr. President Daizo-san says sake is now centered on flavors whereas before it was just about high and low rankings hence their mainstay classic honjozo Tsukinowa Kinen (Blue Hue) and daiginjo Yoi-no-tsuki (Midnight Moon), of which he passed on the brewing techniques to Hiroko-san.

In sake brewing, the koji mold that initially breaks down starches of the rice into fermentable sugars is crucial. Brewers train the koji by fluctuating temperatures so that the koji starts and stops constantly building up their strength and numbers for when they’re dumped in the mash. The standard amount of time it takes to cultivate koji is about 2-3 days, but at Tsukinowa the process takes about 16 days. Hiroko-san says from being in a constant struggling motion for a longer period of time is what gives her sakes the layers and complexity they seek.

Responding to the changing landscape of sake, Hiroko-san created Mochiko (Rice Baby), Tsukinowa (Moon Ring) and other varietals to the brewery portfolio honing in on the complexities and various nuances sake can carry.

Hiroko-san getting ready to pour the Mochiko (Rice Baby) and Yoi-no-Tsuki (Midnight Moon)

Mochiko (Rice Baby) is very unconventional in that mochi rice (aka sticky rice) is used to make the sake. Mochi is typically pounded to make rice cakes as it is a stickier, plumper rice grain, but when brewed for sake it imparts a buttery, viscous mouthfeel that’s just slightly sweet.

Another response to the outgoing trends of traditional sake brewing is what they do with the leftover rice lees (known as kasu) after the fermented rice mash has been pressed for sake. Hiroko-san says less people are buying kasu, traditionally used in rice cakes or soup broths, so she’s found another use for them- she’s using it to distill shochu.

It took Hiroko-san 3 years of experimentation before releasing small batches of the breweries first shochu.

the small still imparting big flavors

Pictured here is a still used at Tsukinowa to distill their small batch shochu. As Hiroko-san experimented, the size of the still was not enough to withstand her use, and the still started to get burnt, which turned out to be a pleasant accident.

Flavors of heavy dark chocolate were a direct result of the stills over usage, blending with the strong dry finish of the shochu very nicely. Clocking in at 35% abv, this shochu packs quite a punch while also retaining a dark toasty flavor relieving it from the need to mix. Back to the basics, drink it simply on the rocks.

Aside from making actual shochu, Hiroko-san also brought back the practice of using it in place of distillers alcohol to bring out aromas in sakes that call for it. And there’s no stop in her calling she discovered 13 years ago.

Hiroko-san lived in Tokyo for a while surrounded by advancements of metropolis and felt culture and tradition fading into irrelevancy. During university she was only exposed to mass sake which she didn’t like very much, but was at a bar one night when the bartender suggested a “good” sake which happened to be the Yo-noi-tsuki her father brews. The epiphany hit and she moved back to learn the tradition in 1997.

The Tsukinowa team recently featured in a magazine

Today, she’s got a young team of about 7 people helping her brew, all averaging the age of 25. A very young team compared to most breweries across Japan, but she feels that sake needs a younger perspective to bring out innovations of the sake brewing tradition.

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Tsukinowa Brewery sakes: Yoi-no-tsuki (Midnight Moon), Tsukinowa Kinen (Blue Hue), and Mochiko (Rice Baby) are all available for purchase at Bowery and Vine in NYC and select restaurants.

Distributed in New York City by Craft Division at Paleewong Trading Co.


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