As sake becomes more recognized, not only as a world-class beverage, but also as an enjoyable topic of conversation and study, it can be fun to look at its interesting and culturally rich history.
Historically, the Nada district of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture has been generally perceived as the most significant sake-brewing region of Japan. More than one-third of all the sake produced in the galaxy comes from this area. But even Nada was once the young upstart of the sake-brewing world, having taken the crown from its Kansai neighbor, Itami.
At the end of the 17th century, Edo had a population of 1 million, about half of whom were samurai and their attendants. Folks like that make for a thirsty lot, and Edo was quite the consumer center for sake.
Western Japan — more specifically Osaka, Hyogo and Okayama — supplied Edo with most of its sake. Almost all of this came from 12 villages that came to be known as “Edo-tsumi Junigo.” These villages included modern-day Ikeda, Amagasaki, Sakai, Itami, Nishinomiya and Nada. But among these, it was Itami that rose to the top.
In 1804, the population of Itami was only 8,200, but 5 percent of the 2,200 households were sake brewers. Include all the craftsmen needed to make the wooden tanks and casks, the bamboo bindings and tools, the straw coverings and all the other business aspects of brewing sake, and it is clear that the entire town’s economy was focused on Edo-tsumi sake.
At their peak, brewers in Itami shipped 280,000 taru (casks) to Edo by taru-kaisen (special ships used for carrying sake to Edo from Kansai). That is more than 20 million liters — and this was, believe it or not, in 1804.
But things slowly began to decline from there. By 1853, brewers in Itami were producing only 30 percent of their peak. The baton had pretty much been handed off to the region surrounding Nada, a strip of five fishing villages where breweries had begun popping up since the early 1700s. Why Nada? In short: technology, water and a sea-port.
Nada has six rivers that flow down from Mount Rokko that were used to drive waterwheels used in rice milling. Using these, they were able to mill 2,400 kg of rice a day. Back in Itami, they were using ashifumi seimai — stomping on the rice to mill it. This dubious method yielded only 23 kg per person per day.
Other changes to the brewing process were affected by Nada brewers. A smaller ratio of koji to straight rice (down to the current ration of about 30 percent) and smaller yeast-starter batches also came to be common practice at this time. These combined to increase both quality and yields.
Also, Nada has some of the best sake-brewing water in Japan, from the famous Miyamizu, which rises up in wells after filtering down through Mount Rokko. This point actually enticed many well-known brewers to move operations from Itami and other places into Nada.
And finally, it was much easier to load the sake onto the Edo-bound ships from Nada than it was from landlocked Itami.
Many of the most renowned names in the business set up shop in Nada. Consider the Kano family, who founded Sakura Masamune (the seventh largest brewer) in 1659. A branch of the family broke off and founded Hakutsuru (the second largest brewer today) in 1759. Not to be overlooked is Osakaya Choubei, a dried-herring wholesaler that, in 1711, decided to try sake brewing in Nada. Today they are known as Ozeki.
Now, almost nothing remains of the Itami legacy. One large brewer, Shirayuki, held fast and continues to brew there today. Beyond that are two small kura, Otegara and Oimatsu. Although Itami is no longer a significant brewing region, its place in sake-brewing history is quite secure.
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Shirayuki (Hyogo Prefecture)
One of the original greats of Itami, Shirayuki is still brewing there and is the eighth largest brewery in Japan. This junmaishu is light and easy to drink, yet bolstered by a supporting acidity.