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Yamaguchi sake breweries and the people, land, and culture behind them


Discovering Yamaguchi Sake: A Taster’s Guide to Breweries, Culture, and Terrain by Jim Rion is a deep-dive into a single sake-producing region to highlight its delicious brews as well as the people, land, and culture behind them. Brewing in Yamaguchi—in southern Honshu, Japan—reflects the whole history of sake in Japan, from boom to bust to resurgence, and many of its brands are now at fine restaurants around the world. 


Expert Jim Rion takes us on a tour of all 23 Yamaguchi breweries to introduce the character of each and its brewmasters’ best picks. Along the way he provides background on such topics as rice farmers, drinkware, brewing methods, and the controversy over sake “terroir” (does it exist?). An added bonus for travelers is a mini sightseeing guide to the region and its many delights. Illustrated with photographs and quick-reference sake labels.


Discovering Yamaguchi Sake: A Taster’s Guide to Breweries, Culture, and Terrain by Jim Rion is available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.


Read a sample of Discovering Yamaguchi Sake below.



 


Foreword


When it comes to the world of sake, what does regionality mean, really? The concept of terroir that pervades the wine industry is centered on geology and geography–the trifecta of soil, slope, and sun that imparts unique characteristics to the grapes from a particular area. In a broader context, the term refers to “a sense of place,” which encompasses ideas about how a product should be made and how it should taste.


This seems logical when you consider that wine is an agricultural product whose flavor depends largely upon the variety and condition of the grapes used. As a wine drinker, I can get an idea of what a wine will taste like based on its area of origin, confident in my knowledge that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will exhibit a vastly different flavor profile from Côte de Beaune Pinot Noir. Sake, on the other hand, presents a more complicated picture. After all, would you expect anything less from a drink that harnesses the microbial magic of a benign fungus to kick-start the complex processes of multiple-parallel fermentation? Rice used for sake brewing can be shipped all over the country, and most experts will tell you that sake’s character relies more on the artistry of the toji (master brewer) than the type of rice used or where it was grown. Sake made with the same rice—even using the same yeast strain, in the same region—will taste different in the hands of different brewers.


Indeed, sake is as much about people as it is about place. The decisions made by each brewery determine the extent to which collective social memory—the local food culture, taste preferences, and traditional brewing philosophies—informs the final product. In the case of a relatively young (or, more precisely, recently reborn) sake-making region like Yamaguchi, the influence of individual personalities can be felt strongly. The prefecture is full of mavericks who are defining regional character in their own ways. In the pages of Discovering Yamaguchi Sake: A Taster’s Guide to Breweries, Culture, and Terrain, author Jim Rion introduces the iconoclasts and out-of-the box thinkers behind the area’s sake revolution— from Sakurai Hiroshi, who transformed the ailing Asahi Shuzo into one of the world’s most successful producers of ultra-premium daiginjo, to Nagayama Takahiro, whose love of Burgundy wine inspired him to embrace a domaine-style approach to rice cultivation and sake making at Nagayama Honke Shuzojo, and Okamoto Susumu, who is writing the next chapter in the history of Choshu Shuzo with the help of female toji Fujioka Miki.


The human stories at the heart of this book paint a vivid picture of a dynamic area with an exciting future. Rion renders these narratives in the loving detail they deserve, while providing wider context for each. He explores Yamaguchi’s tumultuous past and roams across its varied terrain, leading readers from the charred moonscape of the Akiyoshidai Karst Plateau, through the terraced rice fields of Hagi, to the palm-tree-lined port of Shimonoseki. Each section highlights cultural connections that go beyond the confines of the brewery, be it the region’s legacy of agriculture, the bars and restaurants where sake is served, or ceramic artists crafting exquisite vessels that enhance the dining experience. By taking a deep dive into a single production area, this volume represents an evolution in the genre of books about sake and invites us to consider regionality as a living mode of expression, rather than a fixed construct. Sake’s terroir is much like the author’s conception of history—a “woven cloth where every thread touches each other.” In this book, Rion attempts to untangle the knots, one shimmering thread at a time.


Melinda Joe



Preface


“Sake to the flesh, haiku to the soul; sake is haiku for the flesh, haiku is sake for the soul.”

—from Taneda Santoka’s Travel Journals, September 20, 1930


The poet, monk, and wanderer Taneda Santoka was born in what is now Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 1882. He gained fame for his “free haiku,” short poems that eschewed traditional formal haiku style in favor of direct expression. He often used themes of mountains and water in his work, reflecting, perhaps, his almost ceaseless walking through the mountains of western Japan and the cool mountain water that was often his only pleasure on those walks. Another common topic in his poetry and his journals was sake—he was, to put it bluntly, a lush. His family in fact owned a sake brewery in Hofu, although it closed only two years after it opened due to chronic mismanagement (the license passed to Kanemitsu Shuzo of Yamaguchi City, which now brews under the Santoka label; see p. 107).


Santoka would surely be pleased to know that the land of his birth, where he tried and failed to brew what he loved (too much), has become known as one of Japan’s newest sake regions. Nectar born of mountain water and locally grown rice now flows from Yamaguchi to the entire world.


It is a wonder how Yamaguchi got here. Japan has roughly 1,200 sake breweries, but only 23 are found within its borders. And yet, of the nation’s forty-seven prefectures, Yamaguchi was the only one to brew and ship more sake, year on year, every year for the twelve years leading up to 2020. It went from fortieth place for annual sake shipped in the 1970s—almost dead last, given that Okinawa and southern Kyushu produced so little sake in general—to fifteenth in 2019.


This mostly rural prefecture was a virtual unknown to the sake world some twenty years ago, and now it is home to arguably the world’s most famous premium sake brand and to others that are starting to make global waves. Mujaku, from the Horie Sakaba brewery in Iwakuni, apparently impressed pop star Rihanna enough to convince her to stock up on a few $6,000 bottles in Dubai. Pharrell Williams and designer NIGO collaborated with Yamaguchi maverick Ohmine Shuzo—a brewery that had been mothballed until 2010—to create the new sake brand Storm Cowboy.


As even the smallest of Yamaguchi’s breweries now win highest honors at awards shows all over the world, drinkers across Japan, and increasingly overseas, are finally beginning to see the name Yamaguchi on sake labels as a sign of something special, made with skill from the best ingredients. In March of 2021, Japan’s government recognized that distinction for the neighboring towns of Hagi and Abu on the northern coast with a Geographical Indication, GI Hagi, based largely on the six regional breweries’ dedication to bringing the flavors of local rice and water to their sake.


I have seen this change happen, coming to Yamaguchi as I did in 2004. I watched Asahi Shuzo’s label Dassai explode onto the global stage. I watched Taka become a favorite with natural wine drinkers. I watched tiny Shintani Shuzo, a brewery staffed by only two people and with nearly the smallest sake production in Japan, win platinum at Paris’s Kuramaster awards. I watched as Yamaguchi became a place where sake breweries could reopen and prosper, not just falter and close.


How did Yamaguchi do this, going from total obscurity to an increasingly global name, with new breweries, new labels, and new appreciation? The answer is, like all of sake, a complex story of land, history, culture, and skill. The story of Yamaguchi sake is that of Japan writ small, a story of rise, fall, and rebirth through reinvention. It is a story of a sake revolution.


This book is an attempt to tell that story. In the first part, I trace the roots from the natural environment to the culture that it has nurtured. I examine how history has shaped the brewing industry here in Yamaguchi. The second part is all about right now. It is a snapshot of every working brewery in Yamaguchi, reflecting the community bonds that create sake and its culture. I have visited the breweries, talked to brewers and staff, drunk the water, and seen fields where Yamaguchi Yamada Nishiki rice is grown. I have tasted the sake, too, and by asking the breweries (when they were willing) to single out one of their products to introduce in this book, I hope to show how a single bottle of sake can express and encapsulate a time, a place, and a story—as well as hold a delicious drink. Finally, to the curious sake drinker who comes to Yamaguchi Prefecture in search of the sake, I offer a small travel guide with a bit of tourist information and recommendations on places to sample local brews.


So, come on, let’s go way off the beaten track and see what this newborn sake region of Yamaguchi has to offer! Pour a cup, think of the mountains, and drink deep.



 


Discovering Yamaguchi Sake: A Taster’s Guide to Breweries, Culture, and Terrain by Jim Rion is available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.

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