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Mitobe-san and Yuuki-san give us a guided tour of the brewery. The summer months – we visit late August – are relatively quiet, but in winter, the premium sake-making period, it’s a morning until night whirlwind of junmai activity, that magic blend of inspiration and perspiration that is top level sake-making.
Every inch of the factory is pristine, nowhere more so than the hothouse-like room where the precious koji is stored. The floorboards and work surfaces are made from precious, locally sourced Kaneyama-sugi wood, and the air is full of the heady scent of rice, sake and cedar wood.
Traditional carpenters were brought in when the centuries old koji-making room was completely rebuilt in 2015, and they chose knot-free timber to ensure ease of cleaning and hygiene. The koji room is on the second floor of the kura, to minimize the chances of soil-based contamination, and even the plaster on the walls has an alkaline base to deter bacteria.
Mitobe is keen to show us the traditional pressing machine, the fune, literally a ‘boat or ship’, named thus for its resemblance to a wooden vessel.
Most kura these days use a modern hydraulic press, but as Mitobe points out, “The liquid sake is separated from the rice lees very gently, at relatively low pressure. This method of filtration is extremely gentle on the sake, resulting in a concentrated, pure junmai‘.
After the tour comes the best part: the tasting. Mitobe Shuzo’s sakes are named ‘Yamagata Masamune’, after a famous samurai sword, in reference to their distinctly crisp, sharp ‘finish’. Made from mineral rich, unusually hard water, they are smooth, beautifully crafted examples of the genre.
First up is the delightfully balanced Yamagata Masamune Junmai Ginjo Akiagari, with its ‘classic’ taste of Yamada Nishiki rice. This sake is made to be drunk during the Autumn.
Thirdly, a rounded Yamagata Masamune Ai, made with Omachi rice from Akaiwa in Okayama prefecture. This is the flagship sake for Yamagata Masamune in their current product portfolio. It possesses the rich umami of rice, and at the same time is sharp with a clear after taste and notable minerality. It is complex and dense.
Finally we finish up with a yet-to-be released prototype Yamagata Masamune, a fine sake still in the making, produced with the local Dewasansan Yamagata rice, and with that razor sharp finish characteristic of the brand. My own personal favorite is the Yamagata Masamune Junmai Ginjo Sake Mirai, though all are excellent, which comes as little surprise give the care with which they were created by the master craftsmen of Mitobe Shuzo.
Mitobe Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. 994-0055, Yamagata prefecture, Tendo city, Haramachi 7. Tel. 023-653-2131