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August 3, 2015

Sake from Fukushima Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Fukushima Prefecture, the southernmost of the Tohoku prefectures, is the largest prefecture in Japan after Hokkaido and Iwate, and is in fact made up of three areas: Nakadori in the center, where the Shinkansen and expressways are and the capital Fukushima City as well as Koriyama - this is also the industrial and agricultural heart of the prefecture; Hamadori along the coast, with Iwaki in the south (a large city in a former coal producing area) and Soma in the north - the industry here is mostly fishing and power generation (this is where the nuclear accident of March 2011 happened); and the large Aizu basin in the west.

[Daishichi Sake Brewery, Nihonmatsu]

There one also finds the beautiful Bandai-Asahi National Park, around the volcano Mt Bandai which erupted lastly in 1888. Aizu Wakamatsu is an old samurai town, Kitakata is known for its many stone storehouses. Ouchijuku in the west is an old post town, almost untouched by time.

As the weather and food in Fukushima differ per region, the taste of sake also is different. Hamadori (which only has a handful of breweries) is known for its relatively dry sake, in Aizu with is snowy winters and fermented foods (miso), the sake is sweetish and deep in taste. The sake from Nakadori is neither sweet nor dry, but strikes a good balance between the two other areas.

Fukushima is home to 56 breweries (figure from 2015), putting it in the top ten nationwide, and at the head of the Tohoku region (although the total volume produced in Akita is much larger). There are both large and small companies. More than half of all breweries can be found in the Aizu area in the west, on the one hand because the Aizu basin is a good rice producing region, on the other hand because the feudal lords of Aizu Wakamatsu enthusiastically promoted sake brewing as an industry. In the town itself, one still finds 12 breweries.

In general, there is a lot of variation among breweries in Fukushima - there are breweries that work with the Kimoto or Yamahai methods, breweries that use organic rice, etc. Toji working in Fukushima are often from the Nanbu or Echigo (especially in Aizu) guilds. The prefecture was as a whole a bit late to jump on the ginjo bandwagon, but that has now changed, partly thanks to the development by the prefecture of the "Yume" (dream) yeast for ginjo sake. Popular locally produced types of sake rice are Gohyakumangoku and Hanafubuki.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Daishichi (Daishichi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Nihonmatsu). Est. 1752. Finest proponent of the traditional Kimoto-method for making the yeast starter. Unique super-flat rice polishing technology leads to more efficient polishing and therefore a purer sake. A well-balanced combination of depth ("body") with sophistication and refinement. All sakes suitable for dinner, including main dishes. Kimoto provides "bridge" to creamy and buttery dishes, as well as being sturdy enough to fit to meat. Also makes a prize winning Umeshu with junmai sake as its base. Active exporter. Extensive English website (also in French, Dutch, traditional and simplified Chinese, as well as Korean). Brewery visits with tasting possible upon advance application, but in the brewing season the inside of the brewery cannot be shown. Located in Nihonmatsu, between Koriyama and Fukushima, in the Nakadori area.
  • Eisen (Eisen Shuzo Co., Ltd., Aizu Wakamatsu). Est 1869. Located in the Aizu region, and uses pure water from Mt Bandai and Mt Nishi. Makes a dry sake where the usual sake from the Aizu region is rather sweet. Moved from the city to a new factory at the foot of Mt. Bandai (of which one among three Kura is fully automated; ginjo is handwork). Ginjo sake of high level. 
  • Oku no Matsu (Okunomatsu Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Nihonmatsu). Est. 1716. Another brewery from the old castle town of Nihonmatsu. Known for its light-flavored but down-to-earth junmai, as well as its sparkling sake. Active in exports. Label features an interesting calligraphy that looks like a human face. Sake gallery with shop and tasting corner.
  • Suehiro (Suehiro Shuzo, Aizu Wakamatsu). Est. 1850. One of the largest producers in Fukushima. Has contracted more than 100 local farmers for its rice. Products show great variety, from a very dry Honjozo ("Kira," or "killer" in English for its razor sharp finish) to a polished Daiginjo. First to experiment with Yamahai method in 1911. Also active in exporting. Moved to new factory in outskirts, but old factory "Kaeigura" in Aizu Wakamatsu still in operation for ginjo and kimoto sake. Visits to Kaeigura are possible without reservation. Also has a cafe, camera museum, hall and shop (take circulation bus Haikara-san and get off at the Yamato-machi bus stop).
  • Yamatogawa (Yamatogawa Shuzoten, Kitakata). Est. 1790. Grows its own rice, including Yamada Nishiki for the Daiginjo sake. Its Kasumochi Genshu is a sweet sake made with double the amount of koji. Other brand names the company uses include Yauemon, Tsuki Akari and Rashiku. Old brewery in the city is now brewery museum, moved in 1990 to new facilities in outskirts. The Yamatogawa Sake Brewery Museum is a 15 min walk north of Kitakata Station and also has a tasting corner. 
Fukushima 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
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: 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.