We're in the back of the Yoshida Sake Brewery, a nearly 150-year-old microbrewery near Kanazawa on the coast of the Sea of Japan, standing before an accordionlike device the size of a small delivery truck. As it contracts, it squeezes sake from unfermented rice left in the mash. Pressing is one of the final steps in the brewing process, and it's the most fun part for us. A steady stream of fresh sake flows from a spout into a tank at our feet.
Yoshida was recently the subject of a documentary titled"The Birth of Sake," and our guide is something of a sake celebrity. The toji (brewer) in training ladles sake from the tank into a large, white cup with concentric blue circles at its bottom that help a drinker judge the sake's color. We pass the cup around, taking a sip of a full-bodied yet subtle sake that reveals layers of fruit and is a tad effervescent. It is delicious.
Our group of six became intimately familiar with the sights and smells of sake brewing over an eight-day adventure into the world of the drink and Japanese cuisine.
Timothy Sullivan and Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, two New York-based sake sommeliers, take groups throughout Japan to discover the delights of the country's national drink on a tour called Sake Journeys.
Tasting sake and shochu at Hakkaisan Brewery in Niigata prefecture. Photo Credit: Wyatt Marshall
We started our journey in Tokyo and made our way around central Japan on the nation's famed Shinkansen trains, zipping past snowcapped mountains and along the coast, stopping in Gifu, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Niigata before returning to the capital.
It doesn't have to be, but sake is often best enjoyed with food. And we ate dazzling meals. In Gifu, we grilled their Hida beef, a rival of Kobe that simply dissolves in your mouth. In izakayas (gastropubs), pieces of finely cut sashimi or flame-grilled fish took on otherworldly forms as they blended with hot, cold and room-temperature sake.
Some of our best eating was in Kanazawa, a city with a foodie reputation that earned it the nickname Little Kyoto. For one lunch we sat at the city's best sushi counter, eagerly accepting monkfish livers and yellowtail served atop grated daikon with vinegar instead of rice. It was peak firefly squid season, and we were treated to the little, inky and salty boiled squids and, later at dinner in an incredibly elegant tempura restaurant, the squids were delicately fried along with vegetables and fish.
Niikawa-Helton and Sullivan's next Sake Journey will begin in November and will kick off at the Joy of Sake festival in Tokyo. See www.sakejourneys.com.