Beer is made from grain, and wine is made from fruit.
So what’s up with the common practice of calling sake, made from rice, “rice wine?”
Especially since sake is brewed, it has more in common with beer than anything else, though the fact it is made of grain, from which the starch is converted to sugars, is where the similarity ends.
Without going into a lot of technical details, sake is fermented by a process in which enzymes work in tandem with yeast.
No other alcoholic beverage is produced this way, making sake one of those Japanese things that actually is unique.
In this issue, we are going to feature
“the other beer,” so to speak, with a visit to Nagai Shuzo, a very typical regional brewer that, some 12 years ago, re-invented itself as a producer of premium sake created for the more demanding palates of today’s somewhat savvier sake drinkers.
The brewery, along with a splendid restaurant specializing in country cooking of the region, is located in the smallish village of Kawaba in the hilly northern part of Gunma Prefecture.
It’s just to the west of Nikko Kogen,
with its extensive hiking and a few golf courses, and a little to the east of Minakami, Gunma’s adventure capital, making it an ideal stop on an outdoor weekend in the area.
Like many small local breweries, Nagai Shuzo offers tours of the brewery which take about two hours and explain (in Japanese only) the basics of how sake is made. However, with modern equipment, not much of the process can actually be seen, though getting a whiff from the huge fermenting tanks is certainly a pleasing experience.
The brewery has two distinct lines of sake, Tanigawadake and Mizubashou, with about six varieties of each. The Tanigawadake line is generally dry and straightforward, with a refreshingly crisp aftertaste.
I recommend the Tanigawadake Chou-karakuchi-junmaishu (see photo), an extra-dry sake with a light body and brisk finish. This is available in Tokyu Dept. Store for the surprisingly reasonable price of ¥1,150 a bottle.
Mizubashou, on the other hand, is generally softer, fruitier and sweeter. It seems to be aimed more toward the connoisseurs who are primarily in urban areas.
I recommend the Mizubashou Junmai Ginjo a fruity and somewhat complex sake with lower-than-average alcohol of just 14 percent.
The Koshinkan brewery restaurant is a real treat. Created in the building that housed the original brewery which was replaced in 1995 with the new plant, the restaurant offers a great dining experience in traditional décor, with tables that have sunken charcoal pits in the middle. Diners grill their own specialties – meats, seafood and vegetables – at their table.
Brewery tours are offered to the public, but are in Japanese only.
Call well in advance (in Japanese) to arrange a visit. Tel: (0278) 52-2311.
Nagai Shuzo / Koshinkan Restaurant
713 Monzen, Kawaba-mura,
Tel: (0278) 52-2313
Web: www.mizubashou.co.jp (Japanese)
Call ahead for operating hours and other information.