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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001

NIHONSHU

The little brewery that wouldn't die


By By JOHN GAUNTNER

Since time immemorial sake has been brewed only in the winter. But in the last 40 years or so a handful of the nation's breweries pioneered shiki jozo (year-round brewing), cranking out sake in large, climate-controlled factories. For various reasons, only the largest breweries can pull this off. The giants -- and Horaitsuru, the smallest sake brewery in Japan.

Horaitsuru was founded in Hiroshima in 1805, a time when space availability made sake brewery located within city precincts a possibility.

But times change, and as less and less sake is consumed, increasing numbers of breweries go under each year. Eventually, Horaitsuru was faced with a difficult decision. Sales weren't justifying continued production, but the company didn't want to throw in the towel completely. So they came up with a creative solution.

In November of 1995 they tore down the original brewery, and built an apartment block in its place. Tall and narrow, the gray-brick structure looks like any other manshon in Japan. But this one is different: In its basement is perhaps the smallest sake brewery in the world.

The entire operation fits into just 300 sq. meters, including a retail shop and tasting room. The "brewery" itself is a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned room in which all major steps of the production process take place.

The whole operation -- brewing and business -- is handled by three people: the daughter, son and daughter-in-law of the previous generation of owners. Naturally, output is not large. They brew a total of 20 kl (just over 100 koku), equivalent to some 2,000 12-bottle cases per year.

Spatial limitations have necessitated the outsourcing of some processes, most notably rice milling. But Horaitsuru's operators have been truly ingenious in creating a fully functioning micro-kura that produces very good sake. This is no mean feat.

The heart of the sake-brewing process, koji production, takes place at very specific temperatures and humidity levels. These conditions have been met at Horaitsuru by erecting a Gore-Tex tent in which the koji is produced in small (60 kg or so) batches.

The three fermentation tanks lined up against one wall are of the size that most breweries use for the moto (yeast starter). One tank is begun every two weeks or so throughout the year. Each is filled with about 180 kg of rice -- a tenth of the average size for even a small brewery.

The tank for the yeast starter is even cuter; about the size of a large soup pan, it is warmed from underneath by a 60-watt light bulb.

Despite its small scale, Horaitsuru has a range of products. Eschewing simplicity, the brewery offers at least nine products, not counting their aged sake. Some is junmai, some is not, some is nama, some is pasteurized, and different rice is used as well. This is more than can be said for many larger breweries. How is the sake? Excellent. Balanced, tight, and overall light yet mature.

As one might expect, Horaitsuru is not available at your corner store. Your best bet (unless you live in Hiroshima) is to call and ask if they can ship.

The number of Sake Kobo, their retail shop, is (082) 221-1641. For further information in Japanese go to www.sake.co.jp/meishu/kura/S-1-1.html or homepage2.nifty.com/horai/

On Sept. 1, Robert Yellin and I will host another sake and pottery seminar at Mushu. For more information and/or to make a reservation, please contact me by email (sakeguy@gol.com) or fax (0467) 23-6895.

* * * * *

Jukuseishu, one of many offerings from Horaitsuru

Horaitsuru (Hiroshima)
Junmai ginjo

This is a fresh and soft sake with a solid acidity that emanates from the center of the flavor, tying it all together. The recess of the flavor is fairly full, with a wide but shallow range tinged with herbs and nuts. Unique indeed.



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