Sake and Shochu Talk

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoIf I were to describe Hokkaido in a word, I'd say that it's very rugged. Although the western side includes modern cities like Sapporo and Hakodate with all the creature comforts, most of the island consists of windy roads, towering mountains, higuma (brown bears), and rustic towns with old heaters and septic systems. I was very happy to be driving around Hokkaido when the days were balmy and clear. I can't imagine the gear you would need to find your way when the conditions are snowy (which is much of the year).

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoFrom Hakodate to Kushiro in our 4WD Vitz

Hokkaido was taken from the native Ainu people by the Japanese in 1869. The Japanese were on a tear and also took Okinawa ten years later in 1879. The Ainu are said to have originally come from Russia when there was one continuous mass of ice between Japan and Russia. Sadly, much of their unique culture had been destroyed when the Japanese took over what is now known as Hokkaido.

There are remnants of the Ainu culture in the language and natural terrain of the island. One thing I noticed while there in August was that many things were named Ezo, which is what the island was known as before the Japanese named it Hokkaido. Additionally, there are many sounds that you encounter in Hokkaido that aren't as common on Honshu (the main island of Japan) – sounds like "po", "pu", "mo" and "ro" These sounds are common in the Ainu language and have made it into words that are used throughout Japan today – Sapporo, shishamo, and Ginpu.

Given that the Japanese have only been on the island for 150 years or so, the agricultural processes related to Japanese cuisine are in their infancy compared to Honshu. That includes rice, and by extension sake production. Currently, there are only about 12 breweries on the island.

The Hokkaido landscape is very different from the rest of Japan. Much of the island is flat, and driving through Hokkaido reminded me of driving through parts of California on Highway 5. There were endless farms growing wheat and corn, dotted with dairies along the way. We visited flower farms, dairies, and bee farms. It made for a very relaxing drive.Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoNative bee, Daisetsuzen Park

And then there's the food! Hokkaido's strong suit is wheat and potatoes. We enjoyed glistening udon and somen made with Biei wheat. The bouncy firmness was a texture I'd never had before. We also visited the Danshaku Lounge, which was like an Eataly dedicated to one type of potato. It was truly awesome.

Hokkaido is also known for their seaweed. Many of the cities have their own ichiba (seafood markets) that sell kaisen-don (seafood donburi). My favorite ichiba was in kushiro, where you buy rice at one stall, and have the other stalls top your bowl of rice with piles of ikura, scallops, uni, and fish. You can tell that the catches were fresh by the clear glistening eyes of all the creatures at the stalls.

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoUni in Hakodate. Yes, it was all for us.

So what about the sake?

I would also describe the sake in Hokkaido as rugged (as I described the island as a whole). Because of the short history of sake-making, the sakes on Hokkaido remind me of traditional jizake (local sake). They are satisfying, dry, and not so floral or fruity. You can say they are less nuanced than the delicate, floral daiginjos coming out of Niigata, but they aren't a lesser sake. In fact, I love these more rustic types of sake for pairing with heartier foods. This makes sense, given that Hokkaido is known for rich ingredients like lamb, uni, and miso ramen.

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoVisiting Takasago Brewery in Asahikawa. Takasago Brewery makes Taisetsu Junmai Ginjo, which is offered at both Level 1 and 2 this month.

As of 2016, the Hokkaido Shinkansen runs to Shin-Hakodate Station, with a projected date of 2030 when it'll run all the way to Sapporo. I'd recommend Hokkaido to anyone who loves seafood and/or nature. There is an endless amount to discover and is not as touristy as many places in Japan. For now, sip on these sakes to get a feel for the rugged northern island of Japan.

LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoOtokoyama Tokubetsu Junmai
Otokoyama Brewery (Hokkaido, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Miyamanishiki 55%, SMV: +10

Otokoyama translates to “Man’s Mountain” in Japanese. It was the result of brewer Yamamoto Saemon’s dedication to sake-making in Hokkaido which his descendents carried on for 200 years until it was named Otokoyama. Its long history was apparent as I toured the brewery museum that had ukiyo-e prints incorporating the Otokoyama logo. As the name suggest, this sake is rugged and dry - yet very drinkable. There is no mistaking Otokoyama sake – it’s refreshing, minerally, and bold with a little bit of wheat and grass in the nose and a signature dry finish. The minerality stands up to rich foods like a sweet, tart pad thai, or thick buttery tomato soup. I reached out to the brewery for their favorite way to enjoy Otokoyama: at 59°C with scallop gratin. Try chilled or at room temperature.

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoTaisetsu Junmai Ginjo
Takasago Brewery (Hokkaido, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Ginpu + Suisei 45%, SMV: +3

I visited the Takasago Brewery in the middle of summer, so I saw no sign of the eco-friendly ice igloo that is constructed for aging many of their sake. The brewery opened in 1899 and was remodeled in 2016. I enjoyed the tasting room, which featured so many seasonal and locally limited sakes. My partner was the designated driver, so he enjoyed the sakekasu soft serve that they made.
Taisetsu Junmai Ginjo is brewed using water that trickles down from Mt. Taisetsu and aged for six-month during the coldest months. Thanks to the slow aging at low temperatures, this sake is smooth and slightly sweet. It tastes to me like the jelly botan rice candies I had as a child - with hints of green melon and sweet corn. It was a great pair chilled with salmon with green onions or wasabi, and with spicy lentils. This month, I’m shaking it up and offering this special bottle to both Level 1 and 2 members!

LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoTaisetsu Junmai Ginjo
Takasago Brewery (Hokkaido, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Ginpu + Suisei 45%, SMV: +3

I visited the Takasago Brewery in the middle of summer, so I saw no sign of the eco-friendly ice igloo that is constructed for aging many of their sake. The brewery opened in 1899 and was remodeled in 2016. I enjoyed the tasting room, which featured so many seasonal and locally limited sakes. My partner was the designated driver, so he enjoyed the sakekasu soft serve that they made.
Taisetsu Junmai Ginjo is brewed using water that trickles down from Mt. Taisetsu and aged for six-month during the coldest months. Thanks to the slow aging at low temperatures, this sake is smooth and slightly sweet. It tastes to me like the jelly botan rice candies I had as a child - with hints of green melon and sweet corn. It was a great pair chilled with salmon with green onions or wasabi, and with spicy lentils. This month, I’m shaking it up and offering this special bottle to both Level 1 and 2 members!

 

Sake Gumi: Road Trip Through HokkaidoGinpu Junmai
Kunimare Brewery (Hokkaido, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Ginpu 65%, SMV: +4

Made with local Hokkaido rice, as the Taisetsu Junmai Ginjo above, Kunimare’s Ginpu junmai shares similar flavors; cream, rice, and caramel. As a junmai, this sake goes one step further in its boldness, with a little bit of savory, peppery, and earthy flavors. I particularly enjoy the long, smooth finish that follows flavors of shiitake and maple. Kunimare Ginpu Junmai is brewed entirely from Ginpu sake rice. Another great example of a hearty, rustic sake from Hokkaido that’s delicious warm. I enjoyed this sake at room temperature with lamb curry and potatoes. And if you are in Hokkaido, what better way than to pair it up with the earthy, hearty flavors of Jingisukan (Ghenhis Khan), grilled lamb on a skillet.
Although I did not make it to Kunimare Brewery in Mashike, I’ve heard that this fishing town is rich in nature and local foods. Like Otokoyama, Kunimare has a water station where local residents can collect the brewery’s well-water. When Kunimare Brewery opened in 1882, there were many sake breweries in the town. Today, Kunimare Brewery is the only one that exists in Mashike.

Column: Sake Gumi News
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