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John Townsend

Welcome back, sake fans one and all! by John Townsend

Oct. 02. 2020
by John Townsend

This is John Townsend (Mr SAKE Japan 2018), back with another look into the world of sake.

Today, I’d like to talk about brewery tours (referred to as kura-kengaku in Japanese), which can be a wonderfully eye-opening experience for anyone with an interest in sake, whether you’re a veteran or just getting into it.

Recently, I had the pleasure of accompanying Yuki and an international group of some thirty sake lovers to visit Tsukinoi Shuzoten and Inaba Sake Brewery, two breweries (kura) located in Ibaraki Prefecture, just north of the greater Tokyo area. It was my first time visiting both, but I was struck by each of their unique approaches to the brewing process, and the particular philosophy and passion expressed by the owners (kuramoto in Japanese) and toji (master brewers). Needless to say, the sake that we were able to taste was delicious as well, making for an incredibly rewearding experience.

If you’ve never gone on a brewery tour, you might be a bit intimidated. But have no fear! You don’t need to be a sake expert to enjoy the experience. And while you might have the impression that breweries are located far away in difficult-to-reach locations, there are actually plenty of brewers near or even within Tokyo or other major cities. Long story short: sake breweries are closer and more accessible than you might imagine!

And if you’re still new to sake, don’t worry! Most breweries that offer tours will require advance reservation, and will ask you to follow some basic rules, but as long as you do, beginners are more than welcome! (Please note that there are some breweries that do not offer tours at all, or are closed to visitors during the brewing season. You’ll definitely want to call in advance.)

So, what’s the benefit of visiting a brewery, rather than just enjoying sake at home or at your favorite local watering hole?

These are just a few of the things you can look forward to!

#1: Put a Face to Your Favorite Sake!

By visiting a brewery, you’ll be able to see what sort of environment the sake is brewed in—not just the buildings and equipment, but the surrounding landscape as well. You’ll be able to hear the owner, the toji, and the brewers describe the passion that they put into the brewing process in their own words. You’re sure to find that being able to put a face to the sake, so to speak, will give you an deeper appreciation for that particular brewery’s product that you can’t from simply reading a label. If you ever come across the same sake in the refrigerator of a liquor store, or on the menu at a sake bar, you’re sure to feel a closer connection to it—and it’ll almost surely taste even better for the experience.

#2: Get a Deeper Look at the Brewing Process

While the overall process of brewing sake is the same at any brewery, the devil is in the details—and you’ll soon find that each brewery brings their own unique approach. Some breweries might have implemented special equipment for rice washing or milling, while others might take pride in doing everything by hand. Some breweries may commission rice from local farmers, while others might even have their own rice fields. From the ingredients to equipment to all aspects of the brewing process

, you’ll see exactly what makes that particular brewery’s sake unique.

#3: Taste Sake at the Source

Needless to say, this is a highlight of most brewery tours. After taking a tour of the facilities and listening to the brewers describe their unique passion and approach to the process, you’ll almost certainly have the chance to sample that brewery’s product. (*Note that while many breweries offer tastings, there are some exceptions. Also, tastings may be free or require an additional fee, so be sure to confirm in advance.)

Depending on the season, you may be able to enjoy fresh-pressed sake or sake not typically available outside the brewery. In any event, tasting sake right at the source is sure to give you a whole new level of appreciation for this amazing beverage.

[Brewery Tour Etiquette]

Going on a brewery tour is like a field day for adults—if you’re a sake fan, you’ll likely feel as giddy as a schoolchild! That said, don’t forget that a sake brewery is a place where professionals are carrying out precision operations in a strictly controlled environment. You’ll want to be sure that you follow some basic rules so as not to disturb or interfere with the process.

1. Don’t consume fermented food like yogurt or natto (preferably for a day before visiting).

(This is so you don’t bring in unwanted outside bacteria that can negatively affect the fermentation process.)

2. Wait until after the tour to enjoy your sake.

(Drinking alcohol before your visit is a serious faux pas—after all, you can’t expect to be able to pay attention to what the brewers are saying if you’re drunk! There’ll be plenty of time to enjoy sake after the tour and on the way home.)

3. Be sure to reserve your visit in advance, and to arrive and leave on time.

(Of course, you’ll want to contact the brewery in advance to reserve your tour. Also, showing up late or overstaying your welcome can prevent the brewers from doing their job, so you’ll want to be punctual.)

4. Follow the brewery staff’s instructions at all times.

(Your guides will lead you through the process, so pay close attention and follow their lead—it’s simply common sense, both for your own safety and that of the brewery’s.)

Well, what do you think? Are you convinced that you want to go on your first (or second, or tenth) brewery tour? If so, why not go on the internet, find a nearby brewery, and see if they’re welcoming visitors? There are also many online communities of sake fans organizing regular events, which can make the barrier to entry even less intimidating. More than anything, you’ll have the opportunity to meet fellow fans with whom to share your love of all things sake—and what could be better than that?

Until next time, this is Mr. Sake signing out. Raise a glass and say kanpai!