Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

February 24, 2012

Sake from Yamagata Prefecture (Sake Regions)

Yamagata Prefecture is famous for the Mogami River, the mountain temple Yamadera near the capital Yamagata and the mysterious area of the Three Dewa Mountains and its yamabushi. But it also has a large central basin and the Shonai coastal plain where from olden times rice cultivation has been important. Sakai has always been a major trading port for commerce with, for example, the Kansai area. Other important towns are Tsuruoka, the gateway for pilgrims to the Dewa mountains, which used to have more than 30 sake breweries in the past, and the castle town of Yonezawa.

Yamagata's sake breweries are mostly small and traditional, but large in numbers (49 in 2015) and they all have a good and steady quality. Many of them have a long tradition. In other words, thanks to the presence of so many excellent, small sake houses, the prefecture has become a sure haven for jizake fans.

The brewing system is interesting: instead of working with a toji, many breweries work with teams made up from local farmers, where natural leaders take the lead, instead of having a toji (although there are also some breweries which employ Nanbu toji).

Yamagata's breweries also work together to promote the prefecture's sake, for example by creating common "prefectural" brands, such as "Funamaezake" for unpasteurized Shiboritate sake, or "Yamagata Seisei" for low-alcohol sake. The most famous example is the junmai ginjo "Dewa 33": here not only the local sake rice, "Dewa Sansan" has been used, but also local Yamagata yeast and even proprietary koji from the prefecture. The prefecture has also developed the KA yeast for ginjo sake and plays an active role in supporting its breweries via its technology and research centers.

Sake rice used is often Miyama Nishiki or the famous but rare Kamenoo sake rice. The local sake rice Dewa Sansan took 10 years to develop and was first cultivated in 1996 - it is suited to Yamagata's hot summers and cold winters.

Sake from Yamagata is generally crisp and clean, but with a full depth of flavor and aroma - in other words, it also has  plenty of  "body;" at the same time, each small  brewery has its individual characteristics. In general, the breweries from Yamagata excel in ginjo sakes.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Benten (Goto Shuzo, Takahata-machi, Higashiokitama-gun). Founded in 1788. Dedicated to small lot production of high quality sake. Named after the Goddess of Music and the Performing Arts, Benzaiten, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Produces its Benten sakes with a large variety of sake rice brands, from Dewasansan to the legendary Kamenoo sake rice, and from the local table rice Tsuyahime to Bizen Omachi sake rice. 
  • Chiyokotobuki (Chiyokotobuki Toraya Co., Ltd., Sagae). Brand name means "Long Life for a Thousand Generations." Est. 1696. Sagae (close to Yamagata City) has water of the quality of the famous Miyamizu (underground water of the Sagae River which in its turn consists of the ice water of Mt. Gassan). Uses only local Yamagata rice. Makes Junmai sake with the Yamahai method and also has an interesting Ginjo Koshu in its lineup. Also makes wine (both from the cherries cultivated in Sagae and from grapes).
  • Dewazakura (Dewazakura  Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. , Tendo). "Cherry-blossoms of Dewa" (Dewa is the ancient name for Yamagata). Named after the cherry-blossoms on local Mt. Maizuru. Est. 1891. The Oka brand is a long-seller among ginjo sakes, and was in the past instrumental in developing the fledgling ginjo market. Much of this brewery's sake is sold unpasteurized (to that purpose, all aging tanks have cooling attached). The brewery also operates the Dewazakura Art Museum, with many works on the theme "sakura." Tendo is just north of Yamagata City and famous for its hot springs and the production of shogi (Japanese chess) pieces. The brewery is a 15 min. walk from Tendo Station. 
  • Eiko Fuji (Fuji Shuzo, Tsuruoka). "Glorious Fuji." Est. 1788. The Oyama district of Tsuruoka where this brewery is located was once called the "Nada of Tohoku." Now only four breweries are left, among which Eiko Fuji is one of the most venerated. Founded by a member of the family of the warlord Kato Kiyomasa. Uses No. 10 Yeast which has almost no acidity.
  • Kudoki Jozu (Kamenoi Shuzo Co., Ltd., Tsuruoka). "Good in seducing the heart and mind," a name which does not refer to a pick-up artist, but to the ability of the warlord Hideyoshi to manipulate people to his advantage. Established in 1875. More than 70% of total production is junmai ginjo sake. President also acts as the Toji. Labels in easy to recognize ukiyo-e style. Uses Yeast No. 10 for an elegant taste. 
  • Toko (Kojima Sohonten Co., Ltd., Yonezawa). Est 1597. Patronized by Uesugi lords of Yonezawa. Brewery now 23th generation owner. Operates sake museum "Toko no Sakagura" in city of Yonezawa (small entrance fee, also tasting corner). Take a 5-min taxi or a junkan bus to the Omachi 1-chome stop.
  • Juyondai (Takagi Shuzo Co., Ltd., Murayama). "Fourteenth Generation." Est. 1615. Does not pasteurize its sake and therefore only produces a limited quantity. Also does not press its sake, but uses natural drip method. Difficult to find but popular among connoisseurs. 
  • Take no Tsuyu (Take no Tsuyu Sake Brewery, Tsuruoka). Est. 1858. Located in the temple town at the foot of Mt Haguro, one of the Three Sacred Dewa Mountains. Company named "Take no Tsuyu," "Des on the Bamboos," because the brewery stands in a bamboo forest. The name for the junmai ginjo of the company, "Hakurosuishu" compares the white dew to pearls. Uses only locally grown rice.  In this company, too, the owner also works as toji.   
  • Hatsumago (Tohoku Meijo, Sakata). Est. 1893. The present brand-name, ”First Grandchild," was selected when the first grandson was born to the owner. One of the largest brewers in Yamagata, with two facilities in Sakata. Makes its sake according to the Kimoto method. Operates a "Museum of Sake" where also tasting is possible (15 min taxi from JR Sakata Station). A plant tour is also possible, but in contrast to the museum, advance reservations are required.
  • Taruhei (Taruhei Shuzo, Naka-Komatsu, Kawanishi-machi, Higashi-Okitama-gun). Ages its sake in wooden kegs, which adds a deep cedar-wood flavor; also rather high in acidity. Does not filter the sake with charcoal, so amber colored. Uses Sumiyoshi brand for dry junmai sake, and the Taruhei name for more richly flavored sake. Junmai more than 80% of output. Its dryness is interesting, as here it is not obtained by adding alcohol. The brewery operates a small ceramics museum, the Kikusui Handicraft Museum, but is itself not generally open to the public (museum must also be arranged in advance). A 15 min. walk from Uzen Komatsu St on the Yonesaka line.  
  • Yonetsuru (Yonetsuru Sake Brewery, Ltd., Takahata-machi). Started sake brewing in the Genroku period (1688-1704). Uses no toji, but Yamagata system of teamwork with local farmers. Employs brewers the whole year, in summer they change into rice farmers cultivating the sake rice Yonetsuru uses. Brewery developed new rice strain Kissui. Was the first to make ginjo sake in Yamagata. Brewery tour possible upon advance reservation from April to October (when the brewery is not active). Also tasting and shop. Half an hour by taxi from Yonezawa.
Yamagata Sake Brewers Association
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.