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An Up-and-coming Chief Brewer's Sake Revolution


When people think of a sake brewery, they often envision a place out in the countryside, surrounded by natural scenery. However, even Tokyo is home to its own breweries. I headed to nine different facilities including sake breweries, wholesaler shops and others in search of local Tokyo brews. Let's take a look at ISHIKAWA BREWERY co., ltd., the brewery that makes the sake "Tamajiman."

Chief Brewer Innovates at a Traditional Brewery

The toji, or chief brewer, at Ishikawa Brewery devotes himself to the creation of a sake beloved by many for its rich aromatic properties and clean, elegantly dry taste.
Says Ishikawa Brewery Toji Koichi Maesako, "We aim for a gently aromatic, sweet-tasting sake."
He's in charge of making "Tamajiman," a well-known Ishikawa Brewery sake brand.

Ishikawa Brewery

The brewery was founded in 1863, during the latter part of the Edo Period (1600–1868), in an originally rural area where rice farming prospered. The Ishikawa family served as village heads in the traditional Edo Period hierarchy and made sake using surplus rice stores. Tamajiman has been a local favorite in the area for more than 150 years now.

Daiginjo grade "Tamajiman" sake

Explains Maesako, "Some consumers prefer a dry sake, while others focus on aromatic properties. Each has their own preferences and tastes, and in order to meet this wide range of needs we created [Tamajiman], which some might say is the ultimate sake product for this purpose." Unfortunately, sake consumption continued to decline over the years, and Ishikawa Brewery found itself facing an increasingly tough operating environment.

Four years ago in the summer, when Maesako was still a regular worker in the brewery, the company president came to him with some news: "You'll serve as toji from the next brewing season."

Koichi Maesako, toji (chief brewer)

Reflects Maesako, "It was really sudden and came as a shock to me, but I started thinking about what I wanted to do as toji, and took a lot of time to talk with the president. If I simply kept doing the same things a before, nothing would change, so I felt it was time to take a risk. I made the decision to switch to a sweeter-tasting sake, which in some ways went contrary to contemporary consumer preferences."

The water used in the brewing process remained unchanged, preserving the foundations of the Tamajiman flavor from past generations. However, Maesako made changes to all other parts of the production process, from the koji malted preparation through to brewing and processing. The end result was a sweet sake with firm flavor, as Maesako had hoped.

Sake Like Beer and Wine: Brewery Tradition of Pursuing New Challenges

Although some customers complained that Tamajiman's flavor had changed, that it was no longer a dry sake, Maesako refused to waver, responding firmly, "this is the sake we're going to make." And gradually, bit by bit, people began to understand that this was modern-day Tamajiman's flavor. The number of regular customers started to grow.

"The seeds we planted have sprouted, and the flowers are starting to open up," says Maesako. "Although we haven't reached full bloom yet, I feel we're getting some positive results."

The brewery's flagship product and most popular offering is Tamajiman Junmai Muroka, a junmai grade, unfiltered variant of Tamajiman. It exudes rich flavor characteristics as well as a firm umami (savoriness) foundation, without feeling cloyingly sweet or heavy. This brew goes well with seafood, and it also has a substantial enough body to accompany dishes featuring fatty meats, fried food, and similar culinary pairings.

Tamajiman Junmai Muroka (junmai grade, unfiltered)

Ishikawa Brewery has a history of stepping up to tough challenges. Japanese brewers began making beer during the Meiji Period (1868–1912), and in 1887 Ishikawa Brewery started producing their own beer using local water, just as they did with sake.

Although their beer products met with high praise, the bottle glass used at the time broke easily, and people didn't have the means to remove the crown-cap style bottle caps that we see so commonly today. More importantly, the Japanese market was not yet ready to adopt beer as a large-scale product.

Ultimately, Ishikawa Brewery gave up on beer brewing after only a few years, but they began making it once again in 1998, more than 100 years after the previous attempt. "Tama no Megumi," one of their current beers, is sold mainly in the local region as well as in the brewery's onsite restaurant Fussa no Birugoya.

"Tama no Megumi" beer

In recent years, the brewery has also taken advantage of the rapid rise in craft beer popularity throughout Japan, and established a new brand called "TOKYO BLUES." This is a true Tokyo craft beer, brewed locally and featuring the Tokyo name.

"TOKYO BLUES" craft beer

Sake for Casual Consumption at Home

Ishikawa Brewery is also making bold new efforts in the sake market. The "Malic Acid" series of Tamajiman sake emphasizes the characteristic sweet-and-refreshing Tamajiman taste while achieving a sake that's reminiscent of wine.

"Mizuru Ao," a fresh and invigorating variety whose name means "fresh blue," uses charming, picture-book-esque animal illustrations on its labels, and is so unique many are surprised when they realize it's a sake.

Says Maesako, "I want to potential customers who have limited experience with sake, such as the younger generations and people from other countries, to feel compelled to try our products without preconception or bias. I hope they'll be pleasantly surprised to discover a unique type of sake—and one made in Tokyo on top of that! The fresh and surprising appeal these products provide can inspire more people to visit our brewery."

"Mizuru Ao" brand sake

"It's important to preserve our long-held vision for Tamajiman, which is a sake that can be enjoyed along with meals," continues Maesako. This does not, however, refer to the currently popular trend of searching out pairings between sake and food.

"I have a small child, so a lot of times we eat hamburger steak, pasta and other such dishes for dinner. This means very few good sake pairings," he adds with a laugh. "However, we crafted our sake to be used in this type of household setting. We don't want our sake to be something for special occasions alone; rather, we aim to make it a casual, day-to-day beverage."

Maesako shows no signs of hesitation or doubt as he moves boldly forward.

Tradition is about more than just preserving what is old; it's also about challenging oneself and innovating to build on things from the past for the sake of the present.

(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)

Haijima Daishi (Hongakuin Temple) Located in Akishima City, this temple was built at the start of the 19th century, and the original design of the former main hall has been almost entirely preserved. The Daruma-ichi Market is held in the temple grounds every year during the New Year holiday, on January 2 and 3. Visit the temple's website for further details: http://haijimadaishi.com/
Tama Riverfront Cherry Blossoms Five hundred cherry trees are planted along the bank of the Tama River. In spring, the Fussa Cherry Blossom Festival is held when the cherry blossoms come into bloom.

A 20-minute walk from Haijima Station on the JR Ome Line and Seibu Haijima Line
1 Kumagawa, Fussa City, Tokyo 197-8623
TEL: 042-553-0100(front desk)/ 042-530-5057(number for tours)
Free use of facilities. Tours available for a fee, reservations required.
Grounds closed on Tuesdays