Brewer's super-premium sake 'perfect introduction' to the spirit
350-year-old boutique Masumi brewery picked to make house sake for Aman Tokyo, the Asian luxury hotel group's first venture in Japan
Outside the newly opened Café at the Aman Tokyo hotel, locals queue for up to an hour for a taste of the Aman experience. The venue is about to gain an added attraction with the delivery of a seasonal sake from the historic Masumi brewery.
The hotel group has chosen award-winning Masumi as the house sake for its first foray into Japan. As well as the nama sake, available on tap, there's a bottled Aman Tokyo Blend created exclusively for the hotel along with Masumi's premium and super premium sakes, and a much-in-demand sparkling sake.
For hotel guests, a trip to Masumi's brewery in Suwa, in the mountainous Nagano prefecture known as the Japanese Alps, can also be arranged.
The Masumi brewery sits on the main street running through Suwa among four other sake houses. It's no coincidence that sake breweries cluster in areas that have pure water supplies. Suwa is renowned for its hot springs - some families have them in their homes and there's even a public one on the train station platform.
Like all kura or breweries, Masumi has a ball of cedar tree leaves hanging above the entrance. This sugidama is hung at the beginning of the sake brewing season in the autumn and blessed by a Shinto priest (there are strong, long-standing links between sake making and religion). The leafy globe starts off green and turns brown through the year - just as the sake matures.
The Miyasaka family who own Masumi have run a brewery on this site since 1662 as the weathered flagstones attest. A higgledy-piggledy clutch of wooden buildings has been built and rebuilt over the centuries. At its centre is a neat, serene courtyard, including a shrine to the harvest gods.
A stone monument stands in homage to Yeast Number Seven - the seventh starter yeast proclaimed by the Japanese government in the early 20th century to be of superior quality. Created in Masumi's laboratory, it is the most widely used yeast in Japan and the basis for the Aman Tokyo Blend sake.
As a boutique scale brewery, Masumi cannot entertain coachloads of visitors, so it feels like an honour to be shown around its premises.
Following the rice harvest in September, Masumi mills the rice in-house nearby in Fujimi. It's one of the few brewers to have its own rice polishing plant and more control of the quality.
From October to April the brewery is a hive of rice washing, soaking and steaming. For the premium sakes, this is done by hand.
Miyasaka Brewing Company president Naotaka Miyasaka is the 25th generation of the family to run the company and remembers his grandfather being in charge. He had his own views from the start. "Sales were booming in the period before I joined the company but none of the sake I tried from that era tasted very good," he says. "So when I took on the business I thought there was much that needed to be done to improve the quality of our products."
One move was to introduce fresh sake, making Miyasaka one of the pioneers of unpasturised sake in Japan. He recalls that when they produced the first seasonal sake, and the filtering room was filled with the fresh and vibrant fruit aromas, he'd never seen the look on his brewers' faces before.
More recently, Miyasaka has noticed a move away from the traditional image of old men drinking sake to younger customers and more women. This is partly due to the lighter tastes being introduced. The trend for sake now, Miyasaka says, is for junmai - a pure sake that hasn't had distilled alcohol added at the filtering stage. The Aman Tokyo Blend is a mix of junmai ginjo, a premium grade meaning 55 per cent of the rice remains after milling, and junmai daiginjo, a super premium grade where 45 per cent [of the rice] remains. The result is a light and fine sake.
Miyasaka specified what he wanted from the Aman Blend to his brewery master. "I've been feeling more and more that most sake is too high in alcohol and there is a need for a somewhat lighter sake that is better for pairing with food," he says.
"I felt that a special blend of this lighter, gentler sake would be perfect for Aman Tokyo because it is an important gateway between Japan and the rest of the world. It's the perfect introduction to sake."