Useful Information

The Sake Brewing Process at Niida Honke

The Sake Brewing Process at Niida Honke

Niida Honke Sake Brewery

Founded in 1711, Niida Honke has seen eighteen generations of master brewers, each bringing their own personality and subtle changes to the company and its sake. The current head brewer is Yasuhiko Niida, an incredibly nice person with an awe inspiring passion for making Sake.

 

Under Mr. Niida’s supervision, Niida Honke has seen many changes. In 2011 the brewery celebrated its 300th anniversary and the achievement of using 100% natural rice in its brewing process. Unfortunately, this was the same year as the Great East Japan Earthquake and the following nuclear disaster. Despite the difficulties, Niida Honke worked hard to return the health of the rice fields.

 

After the fields were cleaned and returned to their healthy status, a decision was made to move the company into a more sustainable and natural direction with the goal of creating its sake with 100% natural and organic ingredients. They currently grow much of the rice used to create their sake in the fields that surround the brewery. Working with local farmers to create healthy, high quality rice that is grown without the use of pesticides or harmful chemicals.

 

In the future Niida Honke aims to brew all of its sake in natural wooden tanks, switch entirely to solar power, and grow 100% of its own rice. For each bottle that you buy, Niida Honke takes one step closer to these goals.

 

Growing the perfect crop (without the use of pesticides!)

Walking around the rice fields here is a unique experience and definitely worthwhile when visiting the brewery, no matter the season. Niida Honke pays close attention to the quality of rice that they use, they only use 100% naturally or organically grown rice, with no harmful pesticides or additives. In the same way that wineries pay attention to the quality of their grapes, and often grow them in their own vineyards, Niida Honke is looking to follow this same model but with rice. By paying close attention to the quality of the rice that they use, they are able to create more delicious sake. In the same way that walking through a vineyard adds depth to your wine drinking experience, drinking sake is made even more special by the sight of the rice fields. As the seasons changes so do the rice fields.

 

In spring when the rice is planted the fields are flooded with clean mountain spring water sourced from the mountains near the village. The fields become enormous reflective pools that mirror the beautiful blue skies, the mountains, and even cherry blossom trees. In the summer, when the rice has grown tall and the fields turn a lush green. When the wind blows the stalks of rice shift like the fur of a magnificent beast. If you take a walk through the fields, you are sure to see some jumping frogs playing in the rice paddies. These frogs protect the rice fields from pests, so to honor their hard work Niida Honke uses frog characters on many of their labels and signs. As autumn approaches, the surrounding mountains are warmed by the autumn leaves. The lush green fields turn to golden brown and finally the harvest can commence.

 

My visit was in winter, so the huge fields lay barren for the season, waiting for the next year’s crops. In just a few weeks the rice fields will fill with snow. While the fields lay quiet for the season, the brewery works at full speed. Winter is the season when sake brewing takes place.

 

Polishing the rice

Once the rice has been harvested, it is polished (polishing is also known as milling) in a process that cuts through the outer layers of each tiny rice grain to reveal the pure white starchy inside. When using lower quality rice, more of the rice has to be polished, sometimes 50% must be chiseled away in order to make high quality sake! This means that only 50% or less of the rice actually gets used to make sake. At Niida Honke, however, the quality of the rice is so high that it only needs to by polished by 73% to reach the level that is necessary to create delicious sake.

 

Preparing the rice

After the rice is polished, it is then washed, soaked and rinsed to prepare it for steaming. Rice is spread out and steamed from below. From the moment that moisture meets the rice, each step is carefully timed to create the perfect product.

 

When the steaming process is complete, the rice must be quickly cooled. The outside of the rice should become cool and dry on the outside while the inside remains moist.

 

Making “koji rice”

Koji is a type of mold that is used to change the starch of the rice into sugar that the yeast will later feed on to make alcohol. This is a very important step in the process of sake brewing.

 

The freshly steamed and cooled rice is sprinkled with kojikin (koji mold spores) in a very warm room and left alone for about four days. In this time, the koji will make its way inside the rice grains. Since the center of the rice is still moist from the rapid cooling process, the koji is provided with a perfect environment to grow.

 

Inside this room the air smells very sweet as the koji turns the starch to sugar!

 

Koji rice, yeast and water are then combined in a room known as the “Motoba”. Here the air is cool, but still smells very sweet. The combined mixture creates a small batch of sake that is known as a yeast starter, it has a very high yeast content. This is vital in the brewing process.

 

Brewing

Finally, the yeast starter, rice, water, and koji rice are all combined into a large brewing tank and left to ferment. This is known as the main mash, the combination of all of the ingredients. Sometimes piano music is played live on a grand piano on the floor above the brewing room, the music is thought to help the sake become more delicious.

 

Currently the large tanks are mostly made from metal, but there are a few wooden tanks that make smaller batches. In the future, Niida Honke hopes to brew all of its sake in the traditional way, in large wooden tanks.

 

Pressing

Niida Honke uses the traditional method of separating the sake from the solids that are used during the brewing process. This method is called “Fukuro-Zuri,” literally “Hanging Bag.” As the name suggests, the combined ingredients are poured into bags that are tied to wooden poles. The bags allow the liquid sake to escape, trapping the excess materials in the bags.

 

The excess materials are pressing into thin sheets that are used to make other products such as the sweet non-alcoholic drink, “amazake,” various sweets, and more!

 

The final product:

Finally, sake is ready to be enjoyed! Sake can be enjoyed hot or cold and pairs well with many types of food so be sure to give it a try.

Latest posts

  1. Useful Information

    Experience Rice Planting in Fukushima, Japan!

    A land of mirrors... Driving around Fukushima in the springtime, you might think you’ve wandered into a world of mirrors. Vast rice paddies flooded with water reflect the mountains, sky, and any cars that travel by creating a beautiful scenery. Due to the hills and valleys, its common to see tiered rice paddies, something I never experienced in America!    What is rice farming REALLY like in Fukushima? Curious about the state of rice farming in Fukushima, I decided to visit a small rice farm run by Masakazu Suda in Iino-machi in Fukushima city to learn a bit more! Upon arrival Mr. Suda, Suda-san, took us into his conference room to talk a bit about his farm. He showed us several bags of rice that his farm had produced the previous year and told us a bit about his rice paddies.    Japanese style vs. American style Most of his rice paddies grow rice the ‘Japanese way’ by first growing the rice to a certain size, then removing and replanting that rice into neat, symmetric rows. This is a practice that takes some extra time and effort, but it allows rice farmers to produce large quantities of rice in smaller rice paddies. Apparently, rice farms in larger countries, like America, that have more space don’t bother with the removing and replanting step, but with this style the quantity of rice produced in only 60% of the quantity produced the Japanese way, but it takes a lot less time and effort for farmers.   I found it really interesting that despite the typically lower yield of American-style rice planting, Suda-san had one of his paddies set aside to experiment with American-style rice planting! He said his neighbors thought he was crazy, but he respects the easy-going style of America and wanted to give it a try.  Safety first! It felt really nice to meet a rice farmer who was so passionate and interested in trying various styles of farming. Suda-san is a really dedicated farmer who strives to produce safe and high quality rice! Following the nuclear disaster, he spent years taking care of the soil and farm, and it was several years before he could continue rice farming, but he never gave up!   Suda-san was one of the first rice farmers in Fukushima to return their fields to safety levels that qualified his farm to earn a FGAP safety certification. The FGAP is a strict certification that is awarded to farms in Fukushima that meet their high standards for safety and Good Agricultural Practices! If you would like to read more about this check out their website (available in English): https://gap-fukushima.jp/en/  Planting rice the old-fashioned way! After our chat, Suda-san handed me and my boss each a pair of crocs and said it was time to plant some rice! Most of his farm is planted using a special tractor-type of machine, but he left some space for us to plant rice the old-fashioned way. Showing us how to take little rice plants and replant them into the flooded, rice paddy soil in a way that it won’t sink too deep or float away. Slipping, barefoot, into the water and soft mud of the rice paddies was a shock at first. Then, it was a comfort. The soft soil was well taken care of and monitored, no sharp stones or surprises, very high quality soil. The music of the frogs filled the air even at mid-day, Suda-san said that when the sun sets their chorus will be even more impressive. Setting into the rhythmic pattern of replanting the small rice plants was therapeutic. The most difficult part was achieving straight lines and adequate spacing, but we tried our best for nearly an hour! The lines and spacing was far from even or straight, but Suda-san encouraged us anyways.  More than rice!  Rice may be most commonly eaten during meals, but rice can also be used to create many other things, my favorites being sake and mochi (a chewy dessert rice cake) sweets.   Suda-san grows a variety of rice types, including mochi rice! After a hard day of rice planting we relaxed a bit and enjoyed some locally made mochi sweets at Suda-san’s farm. It was so good! Hearing Suda-san describe the various types of rice that he grows had me really excited for harvest season, it would be so interesting to try the different varieties that he produces here. Aliens? Yeah that's right.   After bidding farewell to Suda-san, we headed up the hill in town to have lunch at the UFO restaurant. The mountain here is thought by locals to be shaped like a UFO landing pad, and many locals have their fair share of stories about UFO sightings and even encounters with visitors from the stars. There is even a UFO museum where visitors can take a look at photographs, stories, and records of the town’s history with UFOs. The townspeople here were very kind and welcoming to all kinds of people, even aliens! So, it’s definitely a unique place that I would recommend visiting. Next time we visit Suda-san we will ask him if he has seen any UFOs visit his rice paddies!  Interested in a rice planting experience? There are several options for farm stays in Fukushima, you may get to try out rice planting if you visit in the spring! Read more here or contact us about farm stays and experiences in Fukushima.    Visiting Iino-machi? You can catch a UFO, I mean... bus, outside of Fukushima station and it’s about a 40-minute ride to Iino-machi!     

    Experience Rice Planting in Fukushima, Japan!
  2. Useful Information

    Cycling in Kitakata City

    1. Renting a Bicycle in Kitakata City Kitakata is a small city full of hidden gems and local secrets! Wandering the streets of the city you will discover traces of the city’s history as a Japanese warehouse or “Kura” town. You will see many unique and distinctive buildings around town. These unique gems are dotted around a large area that is difficult to fully experience in a day on foot or by car, so I highly recommend renting a bike to get the most out of your trip! Option 1: Garden Hotel Kitakata This is a hotel that offers bicycle rentals to guests for free and non-guests for a small fee, the hotel is a short walk from Kitakata Station. A typical bike rental will cost 1000 yen, while an electric assist bike will run you 1500 yen. There are 3 electric assist bikes and 5 regular bikes. During the spring season, bicycle reservations are not accepted in order to give hotel guests priority, however, the bikes are first come first serve, so arriving early in the morning will give you a better chance of securing a bicycle. Staying the night here is another great way to help you secure your chances of renting a bike.If you are arriving by car, the hotel has a free parking lot for guests, so, if there is space available, bicycle renters can request permission to park here.     Option 2: Akutagawa This is a small local business/gift shop that also rents out bicycles. Located immediately in front of Kitakata Station, this a very convenient place to rent. There are only “mamachari” style bicycles (no electric assist bicycles) and the number of bikes is roughly seven, however the cost of daily rental is only 500 yen making it a great deal. Reservations are accepted over the phone in any bicycle friendly season, however staff only speak Japanese so it may be a good idea to ask for help from a Japanese speaker when making a reservation.     2. Cycling the Nicchu Line Weeping Cherry Blossoms path The Nicchu Line is a gorgeous 3km long stretch of path that is lined with weeping cherry blossoms. Roundtrip, the journey can be as long as 6km! So, most people only manage to see half of the cherry blossoms before they turn around, or exhaust themselves from walking. However, if you are cycling you will be able to maintain your energy so can enjoy a full day in Kitakata and see all that the city has to offer!! Cycling through the trees, you will need to watch out for low hanging branches and also pedestrians. The middle kilometer or the trail tends to be really crowded with people taking photos, Fortunately, there are parallel streets so that if you want to go fast you can and enjoy the cherry blossoms while you zoom by the crowds to stop at your favorite trees. The first and third kilometers are much less crowded so you should be able to cycle between the trees without worrying about a crowd. Click here for more information about the Nicchu Line Weeping Cherry Blossoms. ( https://fukushima.travel/destination/nicchu-line-weeping-cherry-blossom/51 )     3. Grab a snack from a street vendor As you zoom along the trail you are sure to notice various street vendors. Food trucks, local famers’ stalls, festival style food, and more! At one point of the trail I even spotted an older couple who had a long extension cord coming from their garage so that they could sell cold drinks from their fridge to people on the street. We love to see the hustle! But seriously, I hope that you will check out some of these little street vendors and chat with the local people. I stopped at an asparagus farmers stall and bought some of her locally grow asparagus to take home and cook. They were SO delicious. Then I stopped at another stall to buy some sakura flavored “Karintou” snacks. Also, delicious! Finally, my coworker and I spotted a place with mini daifuku (rice cakes) and tea, so we stopped to sit and drink some tea have a sweet snack and people watch in front of the cherry blossoms. Although a quick snack will help you find the energy to cycle up and back the entire path, make sure you take the time to enjoy a proper lunch!     4. Kitakata Ramen for Lunch We chose to try the local specialty, Kitakata Ramen! One of the top three ramen varieties of Japan, you can hardly say you’ve been to Kitakata City if you haven’t tried a delicious bowl of Kitakata Ramen! We went to Bannai Shokudo and had zero regrets! The ramen here is absolutely delicious, however sometimes there can be long lines. So I would also recommend Shokudo Hasegawa (https://fukushima.travel/destination/shokudo-hasegawa/286 ), or discover your own hole in the wall ramen restaurant. Although this is a relatively small city, there are over 100 ramen shops, this is a town that takes ramen seriously. If you choose to stay the night, I recommend trying the local culture of “Asa-Ra” which involves eating ramen for breakfast!     5. Makie Painting at the Kinomoto Lacquerware Store After filling up on a big bowl of ramen, I recommend relaxing with a calming indoor activity such as trying your hand at a makie painting experience at the Kinomoto Lacquerware Store. The Kinomoto Lacquerware Store is full of various pieces of lacquerware that are beautiful and long lasting. The tradition of makie painted lacquerware in Kitakata City has a rich history that goes back some 400 years! To draw attention to this local art form, the shop began offering painting experiences, so visitors can experience this beautiful and relaxing art form by painting designs and then dusting pigments onto the pieces. This is a fun activity and a great souvenir from your trip to Kitakata City. After you finish your masterpiece, I highly recommend taking a look at the “Cats School” diorama upstairs which features lots of cute animal figures (mostly cats!) that are handmade from Paulownia wood and posed doing various cute things. The figures recreate nostalgic scenes of Japanese school life in a large model of a traditional Japanese school. The details are incredible and you can spend a good bit of time taking in each scene of little cat dolls enjoying a day at school. There is even a festival scene that is very cute! Photography is prohibited, so you have to see it to believe it. The display is free to see, so I highly recommend checking it out if you are nearby.     6. Okuya Peanut Factory for desert After trying your hand at painting, you may want something sweet, conveniently located just across the street from Kinomoto is the Okuya Peanut Factory. The shop makes a variety of sweets using Aizu-grown peanuts, my favorite is the peanut soft serve icecream. The chocolate covered version was absolutely fantastic, but of course, you can also get it without the chocolate topping in either a cup or a cone. I highly recommend visiting here if you’re craving a sweet treat! Click here for more information about the Okuya Peanut Factory. (https://fukushima.travel/destination/okuya-peanut-factory/287 )     Cycling around Kitakata city was so much fun! This is a pretty jam packed adventure day, but I hope this will inspire you to take a trip to Kitakata City and try exploring this unique city by bike! Thank you for reading, please contact us through our social media accounts or website if you have any questions while planning your next trip.

    Cycling in Kitakata City
  3. Useful Information

    Persimmon Paradise in Date City!

    Here you can drive though fields of endless persimmons...  At first you might think that someone has hung thousands of lanterns, such a romantic sight might be expected in a town named Date City... but these are actually persimmons! Acres and acres of persimmon trees grow around the Date City area. On top of that nearly every home in the area has hundreds, even thousands, of persimmons hanging from their rafters or in open air pavilions. Dried persimmons are, apparently, a specialty in Date City. These fruits are turned into delicious semi-dried fruits that you’ve got to try! They are so good. The outer skin firms up like fruit leather and the insides sweeten and become gelatinous in texture. If you have ever tried a "gusher," these are like giant gushers that are naturally sweet.  The practice of hanging persimmons at home is still practiced by some Japanese people, however it can be a bit difficult and time consuming. Fortunately for everyday people (who lack both time and skill) the farmers of Date City make and sell plenty of these delicious treats!  Those who hang persimmons for commercial use use a special method that they learned from California raisin makers, this is how they maintain their brilliant color! It was cool to find a connection to my home country in such a cute rural town.

    Persimmon Paradise in Date City!
Top