Being the birthplace of modern sake, there are many famous sake breweries in Nara. Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery is situated 6km south of UNESCO world heritage Tōdaiji-temple (famed for its big Buddha statue), right in the center of Nara city. It uses the underground water flowing from Mikasa Mountain in the middle of the nearby Kongō mountain range, which is very suitable for sake brewing.
In the mid to late 19th century when Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery was founded, most Nara breweries were subcontractors for major Kyoto and Hyogo sake breweries. In addition to the required by the contracting breweries not only implemented high levels of quality control, they also sent technicians to Nara to improve the brewers’ skills.
Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery was originally no exception and subcontracted since its founding in 1868. However, a third generation Nara-Toyosawa brewer knew that the sake heyday, created through a consumption peak coinciding with lower priced entry level sake, would end sooner or later. He therefore decided to withdraw from the subcontractor role in the 1970’s and focus Nara-Toyosawa’s efforts on producing their own premium Junmai category sake.
Unfortunately, this decision was not without its challenges.
Even though Junmai is classified as a premium sake, compared to lower priced entry level sake, it had been regarded as heavy and not sufficiently pure, especially when it heated. To combat the prejudice against Junmai category sakes, Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery developed a relatively lighter tasting Junmai sake suitable for serving either cold or hot. This sake, named “Kisenjyu”, had a dry, clear taste and enjoyed big success.
In addition to the new sake, Nara-Toyosawa brewery employed a second business strategy to ensure success. The taxation system at that time automatically designate sake produced with polished rice as 2nd class sake, taxed at a lower rate than “better” sake. Normally breweries preferred their sake to hold a higher classification, because of the assumption that class equated to sake quality. They would therefore take their sake to the tax bureau for re-evaluation as first class or exceptional class, and taxed at the higher rate. For this reason, the expense of premium sake was in part because of the higher taxation.
However Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery did not seek to upgrade the classification of “Kisenjyu” and they sold it as 2nd class sake at the lower (because lower-taxed) price.The combination of the superior taste and the pricing strategy brought tremendous success to Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery.
Fifth generation brewer, Takahiko Toyosawa, is a graduate of the authoritative Brewing Faculty of Tokyo Agricultural University and is the current president of Nara-Toyosawa Sake Brewery. The sake specialist manages the company and challenges his to achieve ideal flavors. There are three characteristics of this sake brewery.
They have tried to rationalize the facility and procedure while maintaining important aspects of brewing. Nowadays it is believed that “craftsmanship” (such as hand-made and labor-intensive processes) is one of the attractive features of sake. However at the same time, mechanization has spread and new techniques have been developed. In 2004, the brewery heavily invested to mechanize and modernize the facilities and also commenced use of kouon-touka-moto as a starter, which can be created in only a few days, instead of the usual two weeks.
The room for koji (kōji-muro) remained designed for human activity even though automatic koji-making machines were in use elsewhere in the sake industry. Mr Toyosawa believed that it is important to use all five sense for achieving the ideal koji and if they could not attain ideal koji, they could not compensate that loss by any other procedures. The risk of bad fermentation increases with lower-quality koji , so koji making is still done by passionate brewers.
#2: Challenge to the tradition
The Nara-Toyosawa team is challenging the traditional way of koji making. Normally they mix steamed rice with koji fungus 5 – 6 hours after bringing steamed rice into the koji room. This process is extremely important when pursuing purity in taste because it is the way to make tsukihaze koji. To make tsukihaze koji, it is important for the steamed rice to be dry on the outside. (see types of koji )
However Mr Toyosawa believes that consumers prefer to have a little bit more richness in the pure flavor than is usually brought by tsukihaze koji. For this reason, he stopped using the traditional mix and instead created a mix of half sohaze and half tsukihaze koji which brings purity with sense of rich flavors.
#3: Consumer-driven approach
Nara-Toyosawa Brewery has a firm product launch policy: they do not launch any sake without market testing through offering prototypes at their own bars in Nara and Osaka. Following customer feedback, they tweak the recipe and process until the product meets with customer satisfaction. In this way, Mr Toyosawa pursues the taste preferred by consumers.
Currently their main brand is Hōshuku (豊祝, “to celebrate good harvest”), which has a characteristic of cleanness and milder acidity with round structure. It has a diverse range of flavors developed from using rice ranging from local sake specific rice to Yamadanishiki .
They are going to be trialing a new yeast for their next challenge to achieve attractive flavors and we cannot wait to see the results.