The natural environment is of course very favorable: cold winters, clean and crisp air, plentiful natural water and in summer relatively many hours of sun which is good for the rice harvest. But most of all it is the snow that makes the sake here: as snow clouds rolling in over the Japan Sea from the Asian continent shed their heavy load in the wide plains of Niigata, the prefecture has seven locations in the top ten of "highest snowfall" in Japan - and we are talking about real snow here, between 11 and 17 meters on an average annual basis! What does the snow do for sake brewing? It not only provides a good cold climate, but also a very stable cold atmosphere, with little ups and downs. This is excellent for long-duration, low-temperature fermentation, which in turn leads to clean, smooth and graceful sake.
Niigata is also one of the country's most important rice producing areas - its food rice Koshihikari is very popular among Japanese consumers. But Niigata has also captured high praise in the field of sake rice, with varieties as Gohyakumangoku and Koshitanrei. Gohyakumangoku was developed in 1957 at the Niigata Agricultural Research Institute (the name refers to a bumper crop of five million koku) and is now is the most popular sake rice in the country, grown in many areas in Hokuriku and Northern Japan. Koshitanrei is a hybrid between Gohyakumangoku and Yamada Nishiki and is used for ginjo sakes.
The sake rice in Niigata is polished to the average ratio of 59%, which is better than the national average. One of the secrets of Niigata's popularity is this advanced polishing ratio, which leads to a more elegant taste, even when the sake is not of the ginjo type.
The brew masters guild of Niigata is called Echigo Toji, and is the second largest in Japan, after the Nanbu Toji. They work primarily in their home prefecture, but traditionally one also finds a scattering of them in Nagano and the Kanto. There are about 250 Echigo toji. They are masters in the karakuchi style.
Niigata also operates the Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute, the only independent sake R&D organization in Japan. The institute was set up in 1930 and has greatly contributed to the technical development of Niigata sake. In addition, in 1984 the Niigata Sake Brewers association has set up the Niigata Sake Academy, with the aim of training technical personnel for breweries during a three year course. The Niigata Sake Brewers Association also organizes an annual sake festival, the "Sake no Jin." It is held once a year in the Niigata Convention Center.
But you don't have to wait for that event, for all Niigata sake breweries can be sampled in the Sake Museum Ponshukan inside Echigo Yuzawa Station (small fee). You can even take a sake bath there!
Finally, Niigata boasts a museum set up to the memory of Dr. Sakaguchi Kinichiro (1897-1994), Japan's most famous scholar (at Tokyo University) in the field of fermentation and applied microbiology and the author of many books on sake. The museum, called "Sakaguchi Memorial Museum," stands in the city of Joetsu, where Mr Sakaguchi was born.
As already indicated above, Niigata sake is clean and smooth, without off-tastes, and it is also elegant thanks to the advanced polishing ratio and the soft water. Sake breweries from Niigata market the whole of the prefecture abroad as one brand, as dry and clean sake, comparing themselves to the Bordeaux region in France. This has the advantage that smaller breweries, which perhaps don't have such a strong brand, can ride along with the group.
Some of the major breweries are:
- Hakkaisan (Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Ltd., Minami-Uonuma). Est. 1922. "Mt Hakkai," one of the three great mountains in Niigata. The watershed of Mt Hakkai provides excellent water free from impurities, resulting in very smooth sake. Lifted the level of polishing of the rice and established a low temperature storage environment for storing all their products. Has brought regular sake to a higher level. Honjozo and Junmai Ginjo also popular abroad. A favorite in izakaya as standard bearer of the "tanrei karakuchi" style. English website.
- Ichishima (Ishichima Sake Brewery Inc., Shibata). Est. 1790. The Ichishimas were a large-scale landholding, banking and trading clan from Shibata, besides sake brewers. Innovative sakes, such as "Karen" brand of low-alcohol sake in pastel colored, small-sized bottles. Brewery museum with display about the Ichishima family. Close to JR Shibata St. English website.
- Kakurei (Aoki Shuzo Co., Ltd., Minami-Uonuma). Est. 1717. One of the snowiest spots in Niigata. Concentrates on making full-flavored sake, different from the usual "light and dry" Niigata style. English website.
- Kikusui (Kikusui Sake Co., Ltd., Shibata). Est. 1881. "Water of the Chrysanthemum," the name of a Noh song about an old man who enjoyed perpetual youth. One of the three top producers in Niigata. Makes light sake in the representative Niigata fashion. Was a pioneer in the marketing of unpasteurized and undiluted sake ("Funaguchi," in the well-known gold-colored aluminium cans). Also makes an organic junmai ginjo. English website.
- Kiyoizumi (Kusumi Shuzo Co., Ltd, Nagaoka). "Clear Spring." Est. 1833. In 1981, the president of this company rediscovered the dormant Kame no O sake rice strain - a romantic story that became the basis for the manga series (and anime) Natsuko no Sake by Oze Akira. Through energetic cooperation with local rice farmers, Kame no O sake rice was revived. Makes delicate sake.
- Koshi no Kanbai (Ishimoto Shuzo Co., Ltd., Niigata City). Est. 1907. Forerunner in the popularization of jizake in the 1980s. Typical "Tanrei Karakuchi," "light and dry" style, which fifty years ago was seen as revolutionary and which drove the popularity of sake from Niigata. Remains a favorite also today.
- Kubota (Asahi Shuzo Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Nagaoka). Est. 1830. Other brand names: Asahiyama, Esshu, Etsu no Kagiroi. The brand Kubota became famous for its flagship light and aromatic Manju sake (a junmai daiginjo) in the 1990s. This is part of a series that also contains Senju (tokubetsu honjozo), Suiju (unpasteurized daiginjo), Hekiju (junmai daiginjo made with the Yamahai method), etc. Kubota is a very clean and dry sake that has hardly any tail.
- Mine no Hakubai (Mine no Hakubai Co., Ltd., Niigata City). "White Plum on the Summit." Est. 1639. Located in a region where in winter cold mountain winds blow. Uses underground water from Mt Kakuda. Clean and dry Niigata sake. Average polishing ratio 59%.
- Shimeharitsuru (Miyao Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Murakami). Est. 1819. Umami-rich sake with a clean finish. One of the first breweries to turn to junmai brewing in the 1960s. Uses Gohyakumangoku sake rice.
- Shirataki Jozen Mizunogotoshi (Shirataki Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Minami-Uonuma). Est. 1855. Based in Echigo Yuzawa, an area known for its heavy snowfall (and famous through Kawabata's novel Snow Country). Ultra-light style, as the subtitle indicates: "Mizu no Gotoshi," "like water." Also has other brands, as Minatoya Tosuke and Uonuma. No brewery tours but tasting possible. English website.
- Taiyo (Taiyo Sake Brewery Co., Ltd.). Originates in the merger in 1945 of 14 local breweries in castle town Murakami in northern Niigata. The oldest of these breweries has been in operation since 1635. The Taiyo Sake Brewery was one of the pioneers in ginjo sake, introducing Daiginjo Taiyozakari in 1972. The brewery has won many awards, and was named the best sake in Niigata at the Kanto Shinetsu Taxation Bureau Sake Show in 2007. Murakami is known for its processed salmon with which Taiyo's sake forms a good match.
- Yoshinogawa (Yoshinogawa Co., Ltd., Nagaoka). Est. 1548, the oldest brewery in Niigata. Uses water from a historic well and rice from local fields, resulting in a true regional sake. Has a subsidiary company that makes yeast; all yeast is thus proprietary. Light sake in typical Niigata style. Sake brewery museum Hisagotei. Brewery tour possible if reserved in advance; also shop and tasting. 12 min by taxi from JR Nagaoka St. English website.
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.