A rare and exclusive access to one of the best sake breweries in Japan
For sake aficionados, the rare opportunity to work at Fukugen Brewery, a top artisanal sake maker in Japan, was just too good to pass up. Mah Swee Keong packed his bags to Nagano and shared his experience with epicure.
It was a cold wintry day in late February when I arrived at Azumino in Nagano. The air was still extremely chilly in the Azumino countryside, but the harsh weather could not dampen my excitement for what lay ahead for me over the next few days – the long-awaited dream of working in a sakagura (sake brewery). A mountainous prefecture located in Honshu, Nagano boasts the second largest number of breweries in Japan. The purity of crystal clear waters flowing down from the Kita Alps (the Northern Alps) provides the perfect level of softness and minerals to make the most refined sakes. Azumino is a quiet, unassuming but picturesque countryside with breathtaking views of the majestic Kita Alps, and an increasingly popular holiday home destination among affluent city folks.
The sakagura where I was accorded the rare privilege of working as a kurabito (brewery helper) is Fukugen Brewery, a traditional, family-owned brewery founded in 1758 during the Edo period. Atsuro Hirabayashi, 92, is the 17th-generation owner of the brewery and will be succeeded by his 52-year-old daughter, Seiko. Since establishing the brewery, the Hirabayashi family has contributed extensively to the community and development of the Azumino ward.
Compared to large national brand companies that employ computer-controlled factories to mass-produce sake all year round, Fukugen commits to traditional methods for sake brewing, based on carefully preserved recipes and techniques passed down the generations. The brewery only hires farmers in the area who can work during the winter months and return to agriculture during the other seasons, entrusting the brewery production to the people who not only have a passion for sake but also an intimate knowledge of the land. Unlike many breweries that commonly source sake rice from wholesale suppliers across the country, Fukugen obtains their grains from its own as well as neighbouring farms. There is a strong emphasis on organic farming practices, which are also prevalent in the other farms where its sake rice is sourced from. Fukugen only produces around 35,000 bottles of sake annually.
As family-owned breweries are typically guarded and not easily accessible by outsiders, I was elated to be invited by Seikosan to work as a kurabito under the direct supervision of the Toji (master brewer) himself. After a brief introduction to the Toji, Tatsuya Suzuki, I was shown to my room in the living quarters just next to the brewery. The room was sparsely furnished but