This year, we are celebrating Female Frontrunners in March to coincide with Girl's Day on March 3, and International Women's Day on March 8. Every year (when we are open), Kayoko, my mom, and I set up the traditional hinamatsuri doll display at the shop and invite the public to celebrate with us on Girl's Day. It is a jubilant event that inspires us every year, as young and old gather at the shop and celebrate the energy and wisdom of women. Although we won't be able to have the event this year, we'll be celebrating in other ways including through this interview, as part of this month's Sake Gumi theme, Female Frontrunners. Watch for our release of these interviews plus features on Asako Hostetter of Heavenly Soap Co. and Miyuki Takimoto of HAGU. Find all of the interviews as part of this special month here.
Nanami Watanabe is the toji (brewmaster) at Niizawa Jozoten. Niizawa Jozoten brewed this month's Level 2 Sake Gumi bottle, Hakurakusei Junmai Ginjo. Niizawa Jozoten is located in Miyagi Prefecture and first came to my attention when I discovered the wonders of Miyagi sakes. We featured their Atago no Matsu Honjozo for Sake Gumi's Magnificent Miyagi month in October 2020.
Please introduce yourself and your role at the brewery.
My name is Nanami Watanabe. I am 25 years old and I have worked at Niizawa for five years and am in my third brewing season as the toji for Niizawa Sake Brewery.
What would you say is unique about your brewery?
The fact that not only are a majority of our employees women but that there are
women in high ranking positions within the company. The fact that a plurality of our employees are in their twenties is also unique.
While other breweries may not take a single day off during the brewing season, all of our employees get nine days off a month (or 108 days off a year) as well as paid vacation.
As far as our sake goes, the fact that we polish all of our rice in-house is unusual, especially for a brewery of our size. This past year we doubled down on this commitment and bought four more polishing machines, including two flat-polishing (扁平精米) machines that polish the rice not down into a circle but into the same shape as the original grain, just flatter. Flat-polishing rice allows you to remove more of the unwanted fats and proteins while retaining a higher percentage of the starches. In the finished sake this means greater clarity and what feels like a jump in grade (from junmai to junmai-ginjo, for example).
Once we press a batch, we do not age the sake in a tank before bottling, and nor do we blend with past batches. Our sake goes straight into the bottle where it is once pasteurized (unless it is a nama winter seasonal).
We also produce the most polished (and most expensive) sake called Reikyo Absolute Zero. The rice has been polished down to 0.85% and the sake will run you 350,000 yen ($3500) for a 500ml bottle. We produce only 300 bottles a year.
How did you get into the sake industry?
I first became interested in sake-making after taking a course at Tokyo University of Agriculture titled “Sake Studies" while pursing a 2-year program there. Sake is different from wine and beer in how it ferments (multiple parallel fermentation where the conversion of starches into sugars happens in tandem with the conversion of sugars into alcohol). I found it interesting that you can get completely different sakes based on changes in the balance between the various microorganisms.
More than any one step of the process, the thing that is most enjoyable (but also most frustrating and difficult) about sake making is that it never quite goes according to plan. We people are but the guides for the various microorganisms that are really making the sake. This allows me to stay humble and stay motivated to produce better and better sake.
Sake brewing is still a very physical job, but certain especially taxing tasks can now be done by machine. Some breweries (like us) have also shortened our work days so that most people only have to work from 9am-5pm. Many breweries also no longer rely on a toji from one of the brewing guilds and instead have a full-time employee, son, or daughter of the brewery family take on the role of toji. Toji would traditionally bring their own (all-male) brewing team with them and live together in a dormitory for the length of the season. Now breweries tend to hire differently and cast a wider net that includes women.
What do you think is the most important step in sake-making and why?
Since sake-making is a team project, it is not only important to keep an eye on all of the microorganisms working to make tasty sake, but also the people. Like with how happy cows are said to produce more nutritious milk (and more of it), we believe that having happier employees will lead to better tasting sake.
I don’t think there is really any difference between being a man or a woman in a sake brewery. I have gathered more media attention for being a woman, but I think that is less because I am exceptional and more because there are few other breweries who have given people like me a chance.
What are some notable flavor notes for Hakurakusei Junmai Ginjo sake?
Depending on the batch you’ll taste anything from the fruit of a sweet green melon to watermelon rind. When especially chilled you might pick up flavors of grapefruit or orange peel. You won’t be finding sweet aromas or flavors of apple like you often might with ginjo sake.
Anything salty and rich in umami pairs well with Hakurakusei. Generally best to
avoid things that are overly bitter, sour, or spicy. Shellfish is excellent, as are things like Gorgonzola Dolce or Prosciutto. If you’re feeling fun, drape a piece of prosciutto around a square of green melon or Asian pear. Nice snack if you’re enjoying Hakurakusei as an aperitif.
Menma (flavored bamboo shoots) and asparagus (simply boiled in salted water) are also good with Hakurakusei. Menma is a personal favorite food of mine.
Who is this sake most popular with in Japan?
Hakurakusei has fans all over Japan so it’s hard to say where it is especially popular. I think you’ll find more people drinking Hakurakusei at izakaya, kaiseki or sushi restaurants with food than at bars by itself.
We recommend first trying this sake first right of the fridge (40˚F) in a wine glass. This way you can enjoy the sake open up as it slowly warms towards room temperature while you dine and find your preferred drinking temperature along the way. I like to keep my sake stored in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator which is generally kept at a slightly higher temperature (maybe closer to 50˚F). This allows for the best tasting sake right when you open the bottle.
Is this a namazake (unpasteurized sake)? How long has it aged for?
This sake is not a namazake. It has been once-pasteurized (compared to the traditional twice-pasteurized). We tend to let our sakes mellow out in the bottle for two to six months waiting for each batch to reach the front end of its peak drinking period before shipping. The sake we ship to the U.S. we ship earlier, or we choose batches that are slow to age, so that they will not be past their peak once they reach the U.S.
How long does this last after opening the bottle?
There is no point when this sake will become undrinkable (as long as you keep it in the fridge). And since it is not an overly sweet or aromatic sake, it won’t change too drastically over the span of a few days to a week. There are people in Japan that like to enjoy to taste a bottle over the span of a week or two weeks.
Thank you Watanabe-san for taking the time out of your busy brewing schedule to answer these questions for us! And a special thanks to Sam, the fuku-toji for translation.