The climate is very cold in winter and cool in summer. This means the weather is too cool to age the sake deeply. Flavors take longer to ripen and the youthfulness of the sake is preserved longer. Seafood (sea urchin, salmon roe, crab meat, scallops, etc.) is plentiful and eaten in simple ways, uncooked (nama) or grilled in salt. To fit this local food, the sake from Hokkaido is usually clean, delicate, very light and dry.
Hokkaido was only seriously settled by the Japanese in the late 19th century, so sake breweries are seldom more than 130 years old. Their numbers increased with the immigrant population and reached a peak of 50 at the time Hokkaido's coal mines were active in the first half of the 20th century. Since then the number has decreased and now (2015) there are 13, mainly located in the Ishikari Plain.
Hokkaido produces a lot of rice. Sake was originally mainly made with food rice as Hokkaido's "kirara 397 ", but there are now also two popular types of local sake rice: "ginpu" and "hatsushizuku".
Some companies use the special climate of Hokkaido in inventive ways. There is one company using ice from the Sea of Okhotsk as part of the brewing water; another company builds an ice dome in its grounds to ferment the main mash inside.
Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
- Chitosetsuru (Nippon Seishu K.K.), Sapporo. "Crane of Chitose" (Chitose is a name for the Sapporo area). Set up in 1872 as Shibata Shuzoten. The only brewery in Sapporo. Used to be one of the larger breweries in the whole country with eight factories in Hokkaido alone; still produces more than 10,000 koku. Also produces wine, miso and mineral water. The adjoining Chitosetsuru Sake Museum offers sake sampling and also operates a shop.
- Kitanohomare (Kitanohomare Shuzo K.K.), Otaru. "Pride of the North." Set up in 1901. Operates brewery museum in historical kura "Shusenkan." Produces more than 10,000 koku. 65% of production consists of premium sake, especially junmaishu. Has developed its own yeast for ginjo sake. Welcomes visitors to the Shusenkan museum, also operates a shop and a tasting corner. 10 min. by taxi from JR Otaru St.
- Kitanonishiki (Kobayashi Shuzo K.K.), Kuriyama (Yubari). "Brocade of the North." Founded in 1878 by Kobayashi Yonesaburo to cater to the workers in the newly opened coal mines and therefore one of the oldest breweries in Hokkaido. Still uses a beautiful kura built from red bricks (often used as location in TV dramas). Produced about 12,000 koku when the mines were still open, but the volume is now down to about one third. Welcomes visitors to its memorial hall, event hall, restaurant and other facilities in the large brewery; warehouse tour only upon reservation (the grounds contain 13 warehouses and other buildings more than 100 years old and built in Western style from bricks and stone). Ten min. walk from Kuriyama Station.
- Kokushimuso (Takasago) (Takasago Shuzo K.K.), Asahikawa. The brand name Kokushimuso means "No Equal in the Land." Established in 1899 as Kohiyama Sake Shop. In 1926 it became the first Hokkaido brewery to win a gold medal at the National New Sake Awards. Took over another brewery after WWII, and started calling itself Takasago Shuzo. The brand name Kokushimuso was introduced in 1975. This is the company using the ice dome mentioned above for its moromi (Asahikawa is one of the coldest places in Hokkaido). Ice storage is also used to age certain sakes. Takasago's traditional brewery, built in 1909, is open to visitors (reservation necessary); there are also a shop and a tasting room. A short walk from JR Asahikawa Station.
- Kunimare (Kunimare Shuzo K.K.), Mashike. "Rare in the Land". Mashike lies on the Japan Sea coast in northwestern Hokkaido and used to be a fishing village for herring. The brewery was set up in 1882 by Honma Taizo, who came from Sado Island (Niigata) to cater to the thirsty fishing crews. The herring has disappeared, but the sake remains. The company still occupies the original buildings of stone and wood. It is Japan's northernmost sake brewery. Uses the subsoil water of Mt. Shokanbetsu as brewing water. Operates a small museum, shop and tasting corner. Mashike is a historical town with several interesting old buildings and can be reached in about two and a half hours by train from Sapporo.
- Otokoyama (Otokoyama K.K.), Asahikawa. Also called "Hokkai Otokoyama" to distinguish it from other "Otokoyama" brands. Otokoyama ("Man Mountain") is a hill just south of Kyoto with the famous Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine. When this brand name became famous in the Edo-period, many breweries adopted it. The present company in fact has officially acquired the brand name from a famous brewery in Itami that used to provide sake to the Tokugawa shoguns, but that went out of business in the middle of the 19th c. The brewing water is drawn from the subsoil flow of the snow of the Daisetsu mountain range. Produces more than 10,000 koku annually. The share of premium sake, especially junmaishu, is 50%. Uses the Kimoto-method and other traditional techniques for some of its sakes. Otokoyama started exports to the U.S. in 1985. The company operates a brewery museum where visitors are welcome; exhibits include ukiyo-e by Utamaro in which the Otokoyama brand is featured. There are also a shop and a tasting corner. Fifteen min. by taxi from Asahikawa St.; there are also buses.
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.