In 2009 I did a write-up on my top sake choices for Gunma Prefecture, so if you want to follow-up you can click here. The significance for this post is to re-introduce another great Japanese sake from one of the best breweries in the industry. Nagai Shuzo. I shot most of the trip in film from a Pentax K1000 at 400 iso Fujifilm. No filters. 35mm. No better time to be up in these parts of Japan than in autumn. The lush vegetation this prefecture is known for having is now toasty brown and amber, especially when viewed along the highway. The preferred mode of travel is via “ The Drink Bus.” A group of old men get together and rent a driver and a large bus for the whole day. At the back of the bus is a round table replete with sake, beers, and cocktails. This was actually the reunion bus from last year, so it was nice seeing some of the same people I saw last year.
Our itinerary was to meet up in Tokyo first. 7a.m. and from there to Kawaba in Gunma Prefecture, about a two and half hour drive. Breakfast on the bus was from 7am to 7:20pm, then we moved on to cup sake and by the time we got on the expressway the party was on. Sundays are supposed to be spent this way. We even had a half a dozen Jukujo for the trip. I was happy.
If you read my write-up back in 2009, you’ll understand that there are a few types of sake brewed at Nagai Shuzo, but what I didn’t mention were the two different yeast strains. A flower yeast for their shiboritate(first press sake), and mountain yeast for their Tanigawa brand. On the drink bus we had plenty of time to sample both kinds, so by the time we reached the brewer we were thoroughly sauced.
When our bus pulled up to the brewery, thoughts were running through my head. These guys do not know me, but for the last five years I have been the only person pushing their product, in both languages, and now they are really getting looked at. Business is very good for them now, so much so that just about everything is automated down to the milling machines.
Water makes up about 80% of sake in its final stages, so whenever you have a chance to sample the water, like in this picture you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how delicious it is. It’s rich in potassium, phosphoric acid, and Magnesium which are all ideal for brewing sake. However, just tap water is not suitable as it contains trace elements of iron and fluoride which are detrimental to sake, as well as manganese.
In this picture you can see yeast propagation tanks in their 2nd week. Basically, you walk up to one of these wells and remove the cover. Looking down into one you’ll see and smell yeast propagating as it releases carbon dioxide into the air. The aromas are divine.
We also had a chance to sample the "sakamai" or sake rice to check for firmness. Often times brew masters will chew rice to check for sweetness this is a good indication that the mold is propagating perfectly onto the rice - haze. A very crucial step in the sake making process is to have good mold propagation which is a big determiner in the final taste of the sake.
The tour of the facilities continues on and then it was dinner time with all-you-can-drink sake, beef, and chicken.
We sample the entire line up and it tasted like the soul of Gunma, beautiful, refined, and refreshing.
When making sake the yeast and the water play a significant role in the final product. I also believe that the landscape adds regionality to the sake being brewed. There's something about the trees and the crisp cold air for me that's reflected in every sip of Nagai Shuzo sake. The rustic little houses and wooden sheds that adorn rice fields.