One of the most tragic occurrences in Sake history is the decline in breweries over the years.
In between 1940 and 2014, an astonishing 4,500 breweries shut their doors to the public, leaving just a fraction – c. 1,500 – in operation. Today the trend continues its downward march (Japan’s National Tax Agency).
Nevertheless, to get to know every single one of the remaining breweries would still require some work, and a substantially deep purse. But isn’t that one of the joys of being a little obsessed by something? The prospect of so much terrain still yet to discover.
There is a bit of method to the madness of exploration though. Faced with a sea of choice, one is drawn towards those breweries with a story, an element of soft emotionality that can be latched onto.
“That is the brewery with the Cornish toji (master brewer),” for example, or “that is the one which polishes its rice grains into diamond shapes…” (allegedly there is one).
And yet, it is not always easy to find this kind of information about Sake breweries. I think this has a lot to do with an Asian cultural bent towards modesty, and a fundamentally different way of appreciating alcoholic beverages in comparison to the West.
Perhaps another contributory factor to the lack of information is the lack of translated material. Sake labels are notoriously indecipherable and what marketing information there is is often written in Japanese. In time this too will change, as Sake exports continue to pick up pace.
Anyway, I wanted to introduce some of my own favourite breweries. “Favourite”, not “best”, or “most expensive”, most “cachet”. “Favourite”, because they are breweries with stories that I enjoyed getting to know.
This week, Akashi-Tai.
What does Akashi-Tai mean?
“Tai” is the Japanese word for Red Sea Bream and “Akashi” is the name of one of Western Japan’s major fishing villages. The brewery is therefore named after the red sea bream of Akashi, which are renowned throughout Japan for their taste.
Symbolically, tai in Japan represents good luck, as it rhymes with omedetai, or “Congratulations”. It is often eaten at “medetai” (congratulatory) occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings.
Akashi-Tai’s logo, a playful sea bream coiled belly up
Date founded: 1886
Production: 73,000l per year, or roughly 400 koku.
Around 73% of Japanese breweries produce annual outputs of <500 koku, which is considered small. Akashi-Tai is therefore firmly at the bijou end of the spectrum.
A full range of Sake is produced at Akashi-Tai, including some of the newer Sake styles, such as sparkling Sake and Sake liqueur.
At every event at which I have seen Akashi-Tai served, the unanimous favourite has always been the umeshu, or plum Sake liqueur:
Shiraume (“White Plum”) Umeshu
A plummy liqueur. Akashi-Tai’s umeshu is made by preserving ume in high quality sake (ginjo sake), rather than distilled alcohol (as is the case with lesser umeshu’s).
Ume are soft stone fruit similar to plums and apricots and traditionally used in Chinese medicine for their supposed health benefits. Therefore, umeshu has also traditionally been seen to possess medicinal qualities – a bit like Mint Julep in the West!
All in all, a rich, velvety drink that could work well with autumn fruit, cheese and certainly with Mince pies.
The brewery is also known for a second Sake, which I have not yet had the pleasure of trying:
Genmai Aged Sake
Released in 2005. This beverage is special for two reasons:
- It is Japan’s first brown rice Sake (usually Sake is made from polished rice i.e. white rice), and
- It is aged for a number of years before consumption.
Hard also to not love the bottle design, redolent of a Glenrothes Select Reserve.
When Mr Yonezawa, President of Akashi-Tai, was asked about his next big development, he stated that focus is shifting from producing Sake that goes with food, to that which can “shine on its own”.
After attending last Wednesday’s drinks reception at Sake no Hana, I would say that this future vision is already within reaching distance. In the downstairs bar, a crowd of Fintech CEOs performed a very traditional Kagami-biraki with Akashi-Tai Sake. Kagami-biraki (“opening the lid”) is where the lid of a sake barrel is broken with a wooden mallet, and guests are served with the sake stored within. The round lid symbolises harmony , so breaking the lid represents opening the door to harmony and prosperity.
And really, nothing makes me happier than seeing Sake being enjoyed as the drink of choice in the 21st century.
Looking to try some Akashi-Tai?
Where to drink Akashi-Tai Sake in London:
Sake no Hana
Where to buy Akashi-tai sake in London:
The Good wine shop
Fortnum & Mason
Lea and Sandmann
Whole Foods Market