Brewed Alongside a Clear River Brimming with Fish, Nakamura Shuzo's "Chiyotsuru" is Light and Clean with a Bold Flavor
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 Nakamura Shuzo, the brewery that makes the sake "Chiyotsuru."
The Aki River is the biggest tributary of the Tama River, and the Okutama region's Aki River Gorge extends for about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the Ajiro district of Akiruno City to the village of Hinohara (both in Tokyo). This gorge area is home to pristine, clear waters and beautiful mountain scenery that changes along with the seasons. Many people visit for barbecues, fishing, river recreation and other such activities.
Nakamura Shuzo has made sake along the bank of this very same Aki river since the Edo Period (1600–1868), pumping up clean water for brewing from 170 meters (about 560 feet) underground after it has spent long periods of time filtering through the Chichibu Paleozoic strata.
The Nakamura family has lived on this land for more than 400 years, since before the Keicho era, and began brewing sake in 1804.
The 18th and current brewery head, Hachiroemon Nakamura, explains that the Chiyotsuru brand name, meaning "the crane of a thousand ages," was chosen by the 9th brewery head. "The Aki River area used to be populated by a number of tsuru [cranes], and the name Chiyotsuru was apparently chosen due to its auspicious underlying meaning." Today as in eras past, the Aki River area is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty.
Exploring the Past and Present of Sake-making at the Sake Museum
I urge all visitors to Nakamura Shuzo to check out the attached Sake Museum. The building is a restoration of an earthen-walled storehouse originally erected in the Meiji Period (1868–1912) and hosts tools once used in sake-brewing, informational materials, and more. Visitors can sample sake in this facility while enjoying flowers and plant life throughout the seasons.
Various sake-making equipment that has seen long use over the years is exhibited in order of sake production processes, including a rice cooker and large steaming vat, a wooden vat for making the sake itself, and pressing equipment used to squeeze sake from the mash.
Contemporary sake brewing employs mechanized equipment, refrigeration and other such technologies to achieve more reliable production output, so viewing these old tools made me realize just how hard the old processes were as brewers work hand-in-hand with Mother Nature.
As I examined the old equipment, Nakamura added, "Akiruno City turns cold quickly in the winter, with snow falling at times. I think these local climate conditions made it possible to produce good sake even in the time before machinery was available."
Four-stage Mash Preparation: The Secret Behind Delicious Sake
Shiohiko Sato, the toji (chief brewer), oversees actual sake-production operations. He has been involved in sake production as a brewery worker for more than 30 years, and is a veteran toji with 24 years of experience in the position.
"Throughout our long history, we have always strived to make light and clean sake with a bold flavor," explains Sato.
The koji (malted rice) is key to the sake's end flavor, and Sato faithfully utilizes brewing techniques passed down through the generations to create Chiyotsuru's characteristic flavor.
The sake production process, which involves adding koji, steamed rice and water in three stages (known as hatsuzoe, nakazoe and tomezoe) to the final batch, is known as sandan-jikomi, meaning three-stage fermentation mash preparation. Although this three-stage approach is most common among sake brewers, Nakamura Shuzo utilizes yondan-jikomi, a four-stage mash preparation process, for many of their products.
During the fourth stage of yondan-jikomi, they add saccharified rice to the mash to impart more savory (umami) taste— this is the secret behind the "bold flavor" of Nakamura Shuzo's sake.
Reflecting Contemporary Trends: Using Yeasts for Flavor and Aroma Adjustments
According to Sato, the brewery relies on yeasts to respond to ever-changing contemporary trends and demand, as yeast changes enable minute adjustments to aromatic properties and flavor characteristics. Nakamura Shuzo spares no effort in the exploration of yeasts, which they carefully choose and culture.
Says Sato, "Sake is luxury good, and each person has their own standards for what they consider delicious and enjoyable enough to justify a purchase. However, each era has certain tastes that come to dominate the market. While always preserving our careful production approaches, we make sure to avoid becoming too focused on what we personally think is best, and instead respond as needed to the flavor and aromatic characteristics that people demand. In this way, I believe each toji has evolved the Chiyotsuru brand in their own way."
Chiyotsuru Ginjo Karakuchi, a ginjo grade, dry-tasting sake, has a refreshing taste and gentle aroma, whereas Chiyotsuru Junmai Ginjo is a junmai ginjo grade sake with subdued aromatic properties and a sweet-and-savory, well-rounded rice flavor that slowly embraces the palate. Just as the toji said, these offer light and clean tastes with bold flavor.
Abundant Tokyo Nature Results in Good Sake
Carefully selected rice from Niigata, Hyogo and Okayama (famous sake rice production regions) is used to make Nakamura Shuzo sake. "Tokyo is most definitely not a leading rice production center. However, thanks to the absence of high-quality rice locally, I've developed my skills in searching out and finding good rice elsewhere. I think this is actually a strength for Tokyo-based breweries," says Sato.
"Even if the same tools and machinery are used, the flavor of the resulting sake will vary from brewery to brewery. This is because the brewing process involves brewery workers. Sake is made not only through the power of nature, but by the efforts of people. I consider this to be one of sake's most appealing aspects."
The local area's most famous products are the various fish caught in the Aki River. Sweetfish are caught here in the summer, and the same river system that supplies the waters in which these fish live also provides the subsoil water used for brewing Nakamura Shuzo sake. It goes without saying that these fish and this sake pair exceptionally well.
In reality, even locals are often unaware of this local sake brewery. "Tokyo is home an abundance of natural splendor, which is why it's possible to make good sake. I want more people to become aware of this," says Nakamura. "Although the number of Tokyo breweries is small, each one makes highly unique sake. I hope everyone will enjoy drinking and buying local sake, and better experience Tokyo through its sake culture."
(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)
A 15-minute walk from Akigawa Station on the JR Itsukaichi Line
63 Ushinuma, Akiruno City, Tokyo 197-0826
Brewery tours available. Reservation required.
Museum with space for sales and tasting