Despite being a hundred or so kilometres north of the largest metropolitan area in the world, Ibaraki Prefecture is one of the least visited in the country. There are forty-seven prefectures in Japan, and Ibaraki ranks thirty-fifth on the list of domestic destinations. Of the twelve less visited, six are on islands. The remaining prefectures are in far-flung reaches of the mainland. Though Japan might not have fly-over states, perhaps Ibaraki could be thought of as a train-through prefecture.
Famous for agriculture, melons and natto, the love or hate dish made from fermented – read rotten – soybeans (clearly I’m solid ‘Team Hate’), maybe it does sound a little dull. Producing twenty-five percent of the country's bell-peppers doesn’t seem to be getting the tourists through the door.
And that's a total shame. I’ve always loved my time here. With a population of 2.8 million, Ibaraki sits on the Pacific. The natural splendour of the coastline, the majestical views off the Kanto plain from atop Mt Tsukuba, the famous and stunningly beautiful Kairakuen Garden in central Mito City, there is an awful lot to like. And I do. I really like the place. The fact I always come to Ibaraki to visit sake breweries is probably just a coincidence…
Mito, Ibaraki’s capital, is about seventy-five minutes north of Tokyo. My guide, Yoshikubo Hiroyuki-san, meets me at the station exit. A boisterous man with a ready smile, he is the twelfth-generation owner of the Yoshikubo Shuzo, a sake brewery. First stop, a trip to the water source.
For the production of a quality beverage, quality water is absolutely essential. We drive to a small area off the edge of Semba Koen, the second largest urban park in the world, to check out the spring.
Not only is Japan blessed with excellent water, it’s blessed with an abundance of gods. There are said to be 100,000 in residence across the country, and to call them ‘keen on alcohol’ would risk underplaying their enthusiasm for the beverage.
At this spring, the dragon shaped god who resides in the shrine at the top of the small rise keeps the stream flowing fresh and clean. When the company first started trading three hundred and fifty years ago, water travelled three or so kilometres via aqueduct to the brewery. These days it’s simply trucked across town every morning.
Yoshikubo Shuzo wasn’t always a sake brewery
Founded in an area that had recently been converted from wetlands, they were originally rice traders. Two hundred and thirty years ago some bright spark figured that if they have the water and rice, they were already most of the way there, so sake production began in 1790.
In all of Japan’s breweries, with an average age of just twenty-three, Yoshikubo Shuzo has the youngest team. And in an industry where the median age of the head-brewers has been high and steadily going up, the man calling the shots here is only forty-four.
In the current environment, the trend many producers are following is to look to the past for inspiration. Yoshikubo Shuzo’s relative youth might in part be responsible for the underlying philosophy of constantly moving forward. While some are reproducing old recipes, reviving old techniques and tools, Yoshikubo-san explains to me that he isn’t interested in looking back. He believes things have evolved for the better, and will continue to utilise innovations so that his brewery can continue to make the best product possible.
Though the team may lack the years, they have more points on the board than you’d expect. Even the youngest member has five seasons under their belt, and this is due to a hiring policy that recruits directly from high-school. Attitude is critical when looking for new staff, and one of the CV must-haves is experience in a team sport.
The rationale behind this becomes abundantly clear when you learn how tough brewery life can be. When the roster reads twelve hours a day of non-stop brewing for six months of the year, you need to know your workmates have your back should things get hectic. The pressure and comradery can get to a level that might be hard to comprehend. For example, three years ago, flu took the team down. The entire team. But as any great artist can relate, the show must go on, and the team pulled together, had each other’s backs, and pulled through.
Brewing stops for no man, women, or virus.
This work culture might seem extreme, but dedication that borders on self-punishment is by no means unusual within the sake industry. One of the breweries I worked in started at 4am, and finished at 11pm. That’s nineteen hours. Every day. For three months.
Having such a young team can come with downsides. As with any form of art, experience is never a bad thing. To balance things out, as personal experience builds with each brewing season, the system at Yoshikubo Shuzo relies heavily on numbers to achieve the excellent results obvious with every sip.
Using information from across the industry and data obtained from previous seasons, the brewers can maintain their high standards while still pushing things forward. And though some aspects of production have been industrialised, the higher grades of sake are very hands on.
Art needs a human touch.
The fermentation space
The room where the fermentation takes place is a beautiful stonewalled structure, with massive wooden beams providing the skeleton. Huge tanks are full with soon-to-be sake, and the smell coming off is sharp. Reminiscent of pineapple, banana and melon. The horrible headrush delivered by a sniff from a CO2 vent is enough to be quickly reminded that people have died in the past, overcome by the lack of oxygen and toppling into the tanks.
Yoshikubo-san provides another reminder of my mortality, pointing to the massive cracks in the beams above, created by the intense forces at play that were unleashed by the deadly Tohoku earthquake of March, 2011. Some of the huge lengths of timber were pulled from their supports, and the repairs are clearly visible in the different colours visible on the wood.
Workers were in this room when the tremors struck. Because March is at the end of the brewing season, thousands upon thousands of litres of produce was lost here alone when seams split after tanks escaped their footing. Spare a thought for the poor guy who was inside one cleaning.
Perhaps one of the safest places to be, encased in all that steel, it might not have felt like it at the time.
We move on to a tasting of four sakes, each made in exactly the same way, the only difference being the rice used. Despite how it is referred to by many, sake isn’t a rice wine. It has much more in common with beer, as it is brewed, so the differences between the four aren’t the same as you would find by comparing different grape varieties. Still, it is easy to distinguish between each offering, and each glass brings with it distinctly different characteristics, all of them delicious.
All were of the Ginjo grade (the middle grade of special designation sake that generally exhibit fruity aromas and flavours).
Gin no sato rice
Honeydew and rockmelon, with a long dry finish. Very elegant and refined. The kind of drink you’d start a meal with.
Big, oily, smooth and instantly accessible. There are notes of chocolate, banana and pineapple. You could call this a breakfast sake, if that’s how you roll.
A granular character, with spice and anise. Much sharper than the previous two, which makes me think it will be amazing with fried dishes.
Spicy, herbal and very complex. There is an earthy depth that would match with rare beef dishes exquisitely.
With that, it’s time to wrap things up. Life as a brewer can involve long hours and hard work, but no one could accuse Yoshikubo-san of leading from behind. Once he finishes showing me around, he’s off to manage tables and run food at the restaurant the company has recently opened. I don’t know where he finds the energy.
Me, limited by what I can carry and a bias towards Omachi rice in general, that’s the bottle I’m going for. Mito City nightlife is calling, hinting at another reason to recommend Ibaraki to my friends.