It is likely that few of us remember — or put much value on — our high school curriculum. After all, the three Rs and a dollop of foreign language is hardly a memorable course of study. Now, of course, if we were able to study and practice something like, say, sake brewing, well that would be fun — and something to remember.
Well, the lucky students of Yoshikawa High School in Yoshikawa-cho, Niigata, get to do just that. Yoshikawa High School is the only school in the nation that has a sake-brewing course of study and an actual license from the government to brew sake.
It is otherwise a normal Japanese high school, although its overall curriculum tends a bit toward the agricultural.
Yoshikawa-cho is a town that is famous for being a source of toji (the head brewer at a sake brewery) from the Echigo Toji group. It is toji from this group that make most Niigata sake the sterling brew that it is. Of all the villages in Niigata, more Echigo Toji come from Yoshikawa-cho than any other.
The school employs its own toji, currently one that has worked at two well-known kura, Hanaharu in Fukushima and Nanawarai in Nagano.
The high school is well-equipped, having four fermentation tanks, a sake-pressing machine and koji-making and rice-milling facilities as well. (This is one step up on some of the smaller local breweries that do not even have their own milling equipment.) What they do not have is pasteurization or bottling equipment. From mid-January to the end of February, they brew four tanks, with students alternating shifts of staying overnight at school to mind the sake.
Although in the past a high school in Hiroshima and one in Aichi also had sake-brewing departments, Yoshikawa is the now the only one with a special permit from the Finance Ministry allowing it to brew up to 30 koku (5.4 kiloliters).
There are just two catches: One, they can’t sell it, and two, being minors, they can’t drink it.
Because they don’t have a sales license, the sake is sold by another company, Kato Shuzo. The name of the sake is Yoshikawa no Wakaizumi. It was at one time called Yoshikawa High School Wakaizumi and bore the crest of the high school. But this was considered less than appropriate and was changed a few years ago to the present manifestation. In the end, only about 3,000 bottles are made each year, and rarely do they leave Yoshikawa-cho. Apparently, the final flavor profile of the sake is mellow but sharp and clear.
Naturally, all of the students’ hands-on experience is supplanted by plenty of classroom work, including microbiology of fermentation, sake-brewing theory and, of course, the courses that all high school students take in Japan. But the sake-brewing classes are likely to be the most memorable of all.
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Kaganoi (Niigata Prefecture)
Over 350 years old, this brewery was near a ryokan used by the daimyo of Ishikawa. The head of the Kaga clan (based in modern Ishikawa Prefecture) was fond of this sake, hence the name.
This daiginjo is elegant, slightly fragrant and dry, like much Niigata sake, but is softer and fuller on the palate than most.