Houraitsuru: The Smallest Sake Brewery in Japan

Shiki Jozo means year-round brewing. Since long ago, sake has for the most part been brewed only in the winter. The main reason for this is that fermentation takes place at lower temperatures, and so the ambient temperature needs to fairly low to control this. Another reason is that rice is harvested in the fall, and sake brewing begins after that.

But over the last 40 years or so, a handful of the nation’s largest breweries began to crank out sake in large, climate controlled factories all year round. For many reasons, only the largest breweries can pull this off.

Them, and Horaitsuru, the smallest sake brewery in Japan.

Horaitsuru was founded in 1805 in Hiroshima City. Back then, there was a lot of space, and it was not odd to have a sake brewery in the city. But times change. As less sake is consumed, more breweries go under each year. Eventually, Horaitsuru was faced with a difficult decision. They could not sell enough sake to continue the way they were, so they came up with a creative solution.

In November of 1995, they tore down the original brewery, and built in its place an apartment building. Narrow and tall, the gray-brick structure looks like any other apartment building in Japan. But this one is different: in its basement is the smallest sake brewery in the world.

The entire operation fits into a space of about 300 square meters. This includes a retail shop and tasting room. The “brewery” is a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned room in which all major steps of the brewing process take place.

Three people handle all the operations -brewing and business – the son, daughter-in-law and daughter of the previous generation. Naturally, we are not talking a lot of volume here. They brew just over 100 koku, which is about 2000 12-bottle cases.

With such spatial limitations, some steps – most notably rice milling  – are outsourced. But they have been truly ingenious in creating a fully-functioning “micro-kura” that produces very good sake. This is no mean feat.

The heart of the sake-brewing process, koji production, needs to take place at very specific temperatures and humidity levels. Here, they have solved this by putting up a small Gore-tex tent, and making the koji in there, in small (60 kg or so) batches.

Their three (cute) fermentation tanks lined up against one wall are of the size that most breweries use for the moto, or yeast starter. One tank is begun every two weeks or so throughout the year. Each is filled with about 180 kilograms of rice, maybe a tenth of the average sized tank for a small brewery.

The tank for the actual yeast starter is even cuter. It is about the size of a large pan for soup or stew, and is kept warm with a 60-watt light bulb placed underneath.

Amazingly, despite their small scale, they have a nice range of products. You would think they would want to keep it simple. But they have at least nine products, not counting any aged sake. Some is junmai, some is not, some is namazake (unpasteurized), some is pasteurized, and different rice is used as well. This is more than a lot of larger breweries can say.

How is the sake? Excellent. Balanced, tight, and overall light yet mature. Their junmai ginjo, in particular, is a fresh and soft sake with a solid acidity that emanates from the center of the flavor, tying it all together. The recess of the flavor is fairly full, with a wide but shallow range tinged with herbs and nuts. Unique indeed.

As one might expect, Horaitsuru is not likely available at your corner store. If you live in Japan, your best bet (unless you live in Hiroshima) is to call them and ask if they can ship.

If this interests you, you will want to check out my book: The Tokyo Sake Pub Guide A guide to 40 sake pubs in Tokyo. Note, this is a physical book, not a download.

 

 

 

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