A Genuine Sake Brewed by Hand Since Long Ago
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 NOZAKI SHUZO co., Ltd., the brewery that makes the sake "Kisho."
Tokura, Akiruno City is located in far west Tokyo. There’s a small mountain where there once was a castle called Tokura-jo. At the foot of the mountain, called Shiroyama, there’s a brewery called Nozaki shuzo that has been making sake since the Meiji era (1868-1912).
In the final days of the Edo period (1603-1868), first generation owner Kisaburo Nozaki, the second son of an Echigo farmer, made his way to Edo at the age of 16. He gained a wealth of experience in each region, studying sake making as a chief brewer. He found out about a brewery for rent in the then Tokuramura, where the current brewery is located, and came to the area. In 1884, the company was established as Nozaki shuzo. Since then, the Kisho brand has come to be loved by the local inhabitants.
“The water that wells up from underground in Shiroyama has been used for domestic purposes since a long time ago, and the residents use it with care. It’s a good quality of soft water that is suitable for sake brewing, so we use it to make our products.”
This comment comes from the president of Nozaki shuzo, Mitsunaga Nozaki. He is the current and fifth generation of owners, and is taking the lead himself in brewing sake. Using the traditional method of steaming rice in a basket, the sake is carefully prepared by hand.
Excellent Sake That Causes Excitement around the Country
During WWII and the post-war period, there was a shortage of rice in Japan. Therefore, it became common to add sweeteners to sake when brewing, and until around 1979, futsushu made by this method was the commonplace for sake. Nozaki shuzo was no exception, and after that it dealt largely only with futsushu. At the time, Echigo’s chief brewers and the subordinates from Niigata worked away from home when making sake, but with time the demand for sake began to decline.
In 1992, a new chief brewer was welcomed. Since then the special name sake that the brewery had never made before has increased, with Mr. Nozaki stating, “Sake had turned into a gallery. Honestly, it was a gamble. But the new chief brewer has great skills despite still being young. Two years after, we won an award for excellence, which is something we hadn’t done in a long time.”
Raising the quality of the sake has made some things happen for the first time. A local sake specialist shop in the center of the city contacted the brewery, saying that it had selected their sake to be sold alongside sakes from around the country. “I was surprised to find that there are so many good sakes. It’s very exciting, but at the same time it makes me think that we have to keep on improving.”
Because the brewery was short on manpower, Mr. Nozaki would lend his assistance. He foresaw troubled times ahead if the manager wasn’t able to make the rounds in the production workplace, so he made active efforts to go to the brewery. However, he was not taught specific know-how for sake making from the chief brewer. He participated in a short course held at a sake testing institution, and studied further through a distance learning program. Bit by bit, his knowledge grew. “No matter what, I simply had no choice but to do it myself. That was my mindset.”
One Step at a Time: The Head of the Family Takes Up Sake Brewing
Four years ago when brewing was finished, Mr. Nozaki made his decision to become the head brewer starting from the following year. “As my 50s drew near, I felt like I needed to make my move decisively. Honestly, it was really a snap decision,” says Mr. Nozaki, while looking back at that time. Even though he had seen a chief brewer’s work up close before, in reality he didn’t understand anything involved in the process, or even how to use the machines. He spent all day from morning to evening in the brewery, and learned through struggle. “It was really tough. In the end I was able to make sake better than I’d thought I would, but we faced major losses. Those were some expensive lessons,” he laughs.
He made step-by-step improvements, conducting trial and error, and every year his output received a better reaction. Kisho Junmaishu has a subtle aroma, but taking a sip allows the rice’s rich, savory flavor, or umami, to spread fully across the palate. It can be enjoyed at room temperature, or warmed up during the cold seasons. Shiroyama-zakura Ginjyoshu carries the unique qualities of the water from the area of its namesake, with a clear, refreshing flavor. This sake is best enjoyed chilled. Both of these spirits are imbued with the feel of Mr. Nozaki’s earnest attitude toward making sake and the genuine craftsmanship involved in their creation. It seems as if a sake takes on the characteristics of the brewer who brings it to life.
This year marks his fourth year as the head brewer. As we closed up our interview, Mr. Nozaki spoke earnestly, as is fitting with his personal style.
“Rather than just trying to be different, I want to put my efforts into raising the quality of our products, one step at a time.”
(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)
A 1-minute walk from the Tokura stop on the Nishi-Tokyo Bus Line (bus bound for Hinohara), leaving from Musashi-Itsukaichi Station on the JR Itsukaichi Line
63 Tokura, Akiruno City, Tokyo 190-0173
No brewery tours – only sales