Kitagawahonke sake brewery was established in 1657 in the Fushimi region, Kyoto.
Initially the Kitagawa family operated a riverside inn “Funaya” and they started sake production as an incidental business to provide for their guests. Although they had produced sake for some unconfirmed time before licensing was introduced, the foundation year is dated from when sake production was allowed under the “sake-kabu” license. In the sake-kabu list issued by the Fushimi magistrate’s office, only two of the 83 sake breweries from 1657 still exist: Gekkeikan (then called Kasagiya) and Kitagawahonke.
Given the success of their sake, the Kitagawa family stopped operating the inn in order to focus on sake production. Traditionally, regional breweries were established by local economic leaders as part of their business diversification, but the Kitagawas selected sake production as their only focus.
Their family principle is “we maintain family, not blood.” Even though the owner’s family has children, they will only be appointed as successors on merit. It was not uncommon for adopted children and their relatives to become the successors. This meritocracy ensured their survival for more than 350 years.
Sake Experience Japan interviewed brewery president Yukihiro Kitagawa and current toji Yoshifumi Tashima, who were kind enough to explain their production processes in detail.
They mainly use Gohyakumangoku rice from Fukui prefecture for their sake production. They have historically appointed Echizen (Fukui prefecture) toji. (In Fukui, these are known as Nuka-toji.) The Nuka-tojis have produced good sake not only in Fushimi, but also in other famous sake production regions. Mr Tashima is a permanent employee of the Kitagawahonke sake brewery (rather than a Nuka-toji or toji-for-hire), however following the success of Fukui rice, he continues the Nuka-toji rice preference. The brewery also often uses Kyoto’s sake specific rice Iwai and Yamadanishiki. They have partnerships with farmers to cultivate Yamadanishiki north of Kyoto and Gohyakumangoku at Nagahama (Shiga prefecture).
In the past, rice was seen as a fairly insignificant raw material ingredient for the sake process. However, after working together with these farmers, the brewers started understanding more about rice and viewing it as sake in potential. This changed their whole attitude to rice and the farmers who cultivate it.
Mr Tashima told us that controlling water absorption is the most nerve-wracking process of his sake production. Normally breweries put the rice in a big tank without meticulous water absorption control. Since their production capacity is 3,000 goku (equivalent to 65,000 cases at 8.24L/case), Kitagawahonke is a mid-size sake brewery. For a brewery this size, it is difficult to carefully conduct “limited water absorption” (controlling the rate of water absorption with meticulous care) for all rice. Nevertheless, they conduct “limited water absorption” for all production including big production of 7 tons. The absorption ratio affects the quality of the steamed rice, koji quality and how the steamed rice dissolves in moromi, so he believes limited water absorption is essential for quality control.
Kitagawahonke brewery chooses the koji method according to the size of the production run. For small-scale koji production, they use a traditional hako-koji (koji cultivated in a small wooden box). However, they graduate to an “automatic koji making machine” for larger-scale production.
They have produced sake using “sokujo-moto” and also “kouon-toka-moto”. In the end, brewers misunderstood that they can make sake after they input figures in PC. However, once they produced “Yamahai-moto”, they changed their attitude for sake production because they felt the essence of sake production: giving full-attention to micro-organisms.
President Kitagawa always tells the brewers that they should use their senses to check quality via such proxies as aroma, color and condition of bubbles. Sake is produced under control by the figures or numbers, but quality sake cannot be produced only on the basis of data. The senses are an essential part of production monitoring.
Based on their philosophy of minimal intervention, Kitagawahonke sake achieves an umami flavor from natural materials. The latest trend is for aromatic sake that carries characteristics of higher acidity and sweetness, but the Kitagawa family does not favor the unnatural processes that are required to achieve these characteristics.
Even when they faced unexpected autumn flavors (after a certain period of ageing) they made the minimum necessary interventions to achieve the ideal taste. This balanced management, controlled by the toji, brings a clean, natural flavor and a sophisticated umami which spreads gradually on the palate. This taste is a subtle elegance based on their 350-year history.
The expression of this elegance is connected to the philosophy of Kyoto’s traditional crafts. Kyoto is the center of Japanese artistic tradition and Kitagawahonke sake brewery carries the tradition of Fushimi in Kyoto, expressing their pride in sake production.