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Hokkaido’s Rice and Local Breweries Part 1: Snowshoeing Beyond Otokoyama

Mar. 02. 2023
by John Josephson

Part 1: Snowshoeing Beyond Otokoyama

If you’re drinking sake in the US you might think Otokoyama is all Hokkaido has to offer in terms of nihonshu. Otokoyama is basically synonymous with Hokkaido sake, and the lack of selection of other brewers from the region does little to change that. I was still under that impression on my way from Hakodate to Sapporo, drinking the Otokoyama cup I picked up at the station.

Otokoyama One Cup on the Limited Express Train from Hakodate to Sapporo

What I was soon to discover was a region rich with interesting rice varieties, small breweries making sake with utmost care and attention, and some of my favorite sake to date.

Otsumami at もろはく (Morohaku) in Sapporo

The second night in Sapporo I found myself at the elegant sake bar “Morohaku”. The night started with the usual suspects loved by sake nerds such as Aramasa and Kamonishiki. I discovered that I had overlooked the front section of the menu, which included locally selected brews from Hokkaido. Seeing the bartender’s mood perk up when I asked for recommendations from this section, I decided to make a point of trying as many Hokkaido brews as I could. It just so happened I was there at the perfect time, as the bottles available were fresh, just-pressed winter sake.

Kita no Nishiki Tokubetsu Junmai

My first taste was from Kita no Nishiki located in Kuriyama-Cho, Hokkaido. Elegant, textured and complex, I was immediately hooked. Using 100% local rice from Kuriyama-cho, this brewery puts a large emphasis on supporting their local region’s rice-farming industry. While the brewery doesn’t specify the rice strain for this brew, this focus on regional rice strains and growers is a common thread throughout Hokkaido.

 Breeding History of Hokkaido Sake Rice

Ginpu (吟風) is Hokkaido’s flagship sake-brewing rice and a reasonable guess for what was in that Kita no Nishiki. Adopted in 2000, it has become a popular rice – and for good reason. Similar to its Hiroshima born Hattannishiki ancestor, it produces sake with a mellow aroma, while also being capable of rich texture and mild taste. By 2020, it had risen into the top 10 sake rice produced (by volume) across Japan.

Otokoyama 今朝ノ酒 “This Morning’s Sake”

A return to Otokoyama was in order. But this was unlike any of the Otokoyama I had previously had. Usually reserved for sale at the brewery warehouse, the “Kesa no shu” (This Morning’s Sake) is bottled immediately after the sake and sake lees are separated without any further processing. Bottled two days prior to the time it was poured into my glass, this was the freshest sake I’d had to date. A 60% milled Kimoto, it was unctuous, juicy, and packed with umami. This was the peak experience of the “unprocessed” style of sake I love. Similar to the Kita no Nishiki, the label withholds the varietal of rice used. We can make another educated guess that Ginpu was somehow involved in the making of this sake.

Gohhou Tokubetsu Junmai Made with Suisei Rice

I selected next a brew with the rice varietal Suisei (彗星), which was deftly used by the brewery Gohhou located just outside Hakodate. Suisei is a descendant of Ginpu, and shares some similarities with its parent. Suisei was adopted in 2006, and is known for its light and crisp sake. This brewery blew me away. Located in a relatively urban location north of Hakodate, Gohhou offers microbrews that are packed with attention to detail. This sake was soft with subtle fruit and finished crisp and clean. I’m dying to get my hands on more bottles from Gohhou.

Niseko Brewery “Aoki Onoe” Suisei Rice Usu-nigori Namazake

Two rice farmers, Onoe-san and Aoki-san, were the first to cultivate Suisei rice. This bottle from Niseko Brewery in Kutchan, Hokkaido, is part of a collection of three sake produced by three different breweries. While the other two breweries are outside of Hokkaido, the collection is made with Hokkaido Suisei rice farmed by the creators themselves – Onoe-san and Aoki-san. Niseko takes this rice down to 50% polish and bottles it as an usu-nigori namazake. The residual rice and unpasteurized bottling give this sake a beautiful, creamy texture, while retaining all the elegance and crispness of Suisei rice. This is expertly crafted with the famous rice front and center on display.

Niseko Brewery Junmai Ginjo made with Suisei Rice

Later, at a tempura omakase, I would have the opportunity to try another Suisei rice brew from Niseko. They use the runoff water of melted snow from the surrounding mountains to brew their sake. The brewery is completely covered by snow in the winter, leading to a naturally chilled insulation perfect for brewing. These traits make this brewery a perfect embodiment of the Hokkaido sake industry. Regionality is a complex topic within sake. Some regions such as Niigata have clear styles, while others have eclectic styles between the brewers. The Hokkaido regionality starts to come into focus with the Suisei and Ginpu brews. The local rice lends itself to crisp, soft sake, which is often restrained. This gets a boost from the natural low temperatures and snow, which promote complexity and elegance with low temperature fermentation and aging.

Fuku Tsukasa Junmai Yamahai with 60% Ginpu Rice

Finishing the night at Morohaku was a Yamahai from Fuku Tsukasa. This brewery is located way out on the eastern coast of Hokkaido, in Kushiro. This is a very tame Yahamai, tempered by  cold temperatures and skilled hands at the brewery. However, hints of the barky umami and lactic acid peak through, coupled with the crisp and mellow profiles of Ginpu that we know and love. Easy drinking, this would be excellent served gently warmed with grilled fish.
The unfortunate end to the night’s adventure is that, besides Otokoyama, none of these breweries currently exports to the US. This importer claims to import a bottle from Kita no Nishiki, but I have yet to see it sold anywhere. Not to fear, as Hokkaido sake besides Otokoyama are starting to trickle their way into the US. In the next parts, we will explore some additional Hokkaido breweries, as well as highlight a brewer who exports both a Ginpu and a Kitashizuku sake into the US.