The Happy Energy of Sake Brewing: Watanabe Sahei Shoten

Thanks to the pandemic, public consumption of alcohol is currently banned in large parts of Japan. What better time to tour a sake brewery?

Watanabe Sahei Shoten is a fun and easy to access sake brewery in Tochigi’s Nikko area. It was founded in 1842 by an ancestor of Watanabe Yasuhiro, the current proprietor, who flexibly shifts from Japanese to English as he guides a mixed group of visitors through his brewery.

The tour begins in a breezeway leading to the outer working areas of the brewery. A table is set up with sample bottles and boxes of rice that Watanabe-san uses to explain the varieties of rice and extent of polishing used to produce just the right flavor of sake. The best sake is made with rice polished down to 40-55% of full grain size, while only 10% of rice ordinarily served with meals is polished away.

Watanabe-san also explains that the best sake is produced during the cold winter months, so no sake is being produced at this time of year. Nonetheless, he is happy to walk us through the brewery and the brewing process.

The first step is steaming the rice. Rice for eating is boiled and tends to be very wet, but sake production requires the individual rice grains to remain separate, so steaming is best. The polished raw rice is put into large vats and covered with cloth while pipes bring steam from a boiler next door to beneath the vat.

Watanabe-san proudly points out a small signboard on the wall with a QR code and explains that during the pandemic, when the brewery has been less busy due to fewer visitors and less demand for sake, he has used the “spare” time to develop audio explanations of various parts of the brewery and the brewing process, available in Japanese and English, enabling visitors to guide themselves around the facility as well.

Moving deeper into the brewery, Watanabe-san explains that after the rice has been steamed, it is spread onto trays and sprinkled with a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae) which contains enzymes that help convert the starch of the rice to sugar that ultimately becomes alcohol. The trays of rice sprinkled with koji are left in a very hot, humid room for a few days while this process takes place. This use of koji to get things started is one of the distinctive features of sake production.

While Watanabe-san explains this process, visitors can follow along on a production flow chart on the wall, but many are more interested in the map of the world showing locations of sake breweries outside Japan, unexpected information in a place like this, but clear evidence of the rise of sake’s popularity around the world (and perhaps also of the Japanese diaspora).

Next water and yeast are added to create moromi (mash). Good quality water is essential to the production of delicious sake. As the tour moves on to the fermentation room, Watanabe-san eagerly explains that his brewery has a well to draw tasty Imaichi water that probably originated in the nearby mountains decades, if not centuries, ago.

The moromi is placed in massive vats for fermentation. This is the step at which colder weather plays an important role. As the fermentation proceeds more rice and water are stirred in in stages. This is said to intensify the flavor. The stirring is done manually using special wooden tools on long poles. Watanabe-san’s eyes twinkle as he explains to the scientifically-minded grade schooler in the group how important it is not to fall into the vat, since the fermentation creates so much carbon dioxide. The child’s big brown eyes widen.

When the mash has alcoholized, it must be pressed to separate the liquid sake from residual solids. Over the centuries various devices have been used for this process, with the most modern one being a machine that resembles a giant accordian. The mash goes into the several soft pockets of the machine and is then squeezed. The sake is collected at the bottom and the solids are saved and used for various dishes. As sake brewers like to say: nothing goes to waste.

The final steps are filtering, pasteurizing and bottling.  Sake can be aged, but mostly it is consumed within one year of production. Another fun fact!

In “normal” times the tour would end with a tasting, but since public alcohol consumption is currently prohibited, that was not possible. Instead, visitors return to the small shop at the brewery’s entrance, where Watanabe-san provides more details about his various sakes: this one sweet, that one dry, this one bold, that one subtle. Watanabe Sahei Shoten produces sake under two labels: Seikai and Nikko Homare. Needless to say, Watanabe-san made a few sales. After all,  a private tasting at home is still allowed. And the taste was excellent!

Watanabe Sahei Shoten is open daily from 8:00 to 18:00. It less than 10 minutes by foot from either JR Imaichi station or Tobu Shimo-Imaichi station, making it easy to stop on your way to or from a weekend in Nikko or Kinugawa. And what better way to round out a leisurely weekend in the mountains than a visit to a sake brewery? Especially one with a fun guide like Watanabe-san!

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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