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Sunday, Aug. 4, 2002
The sweet, soft option
Fukuoka sake, in general, hovers just below the surface of mass attention. You don't hear about it too much, and it doesn't have an image of overall style in the minds of most folks. But this belies its historical significance and, more importantly, ignores the fact that great sake can be found in Fukuoka.
Currently, there are about 80 sakagura in Fukuoka. Many of them are concentrated in the region of Jojima, known as the "Nada of Kyushu," in reference to Japan's largest sake brewing town, Nada, Kobe.
One reason that Fukuoka has always been a source of great sake is that the climate is conducive to growing great rice. Sitting on the northern part of Kyushu, it does not bear the brunt of most typhoons and tropical storms that spin through each summer and fall. Thus, it is a relatively safe place to grow the tall, lanky, top-heavy rice that makes fine sake. In fact, after Hyogo Prefecture, Fukuoka is one of the main sources for Yamada Nishiki rice.
The water posed a bit of a problem for many years. Chemically, it is a bit soft and doesn't lend itself to as vigorous a ferment as harder water does. In fact, in the early Meiji Era (the late 19th century), brewers in Fukuoka went to Nada to study under local brewers who were already light years ahead of the rest of the competition. They even paid for Nada brewers to come down and give lectures and instruction in Fukuoka.
But things weren't getting much better. Nada has very hard water, and so the brewing techniques were not completely transferable to a region which, by comparison, had much softer water. Eventually, brewers picked up on the fact that they had to alter their techniques slightly to allow for the lackadaisical yeast. Two other regions with soft water, Hiroshima and Kyoto, had already learned this lesson.
In the late Meiji Era (the early 20th century), Fukuoka sake took off and the industry grew throughout the prefecture. It grew so well that Fukuoka became the second-largest brewer in Japan in the 1940s, right behind Nada-led Hyogo.
This was all aided by an interesting twist of fate. For some reason, Fukuoka sake became popular as "senba no sake" (battlefield sake). This reputation began with a war with China in 1894, continued with the war with Russia in 1911 and held firm during World War II.
However, peering only momentarily into the dark side of the sake-brewing world, there was later a concerted effort on the part of Nada breweries to eliminate the threat of competition from Fukuoka. Several large producers deliberately and successfully began to undermine the sake-brewing industry in Fukuoka, of course by selling effectively, but also by buying breweries within the prefecture. Fukuoka soon fell from its No. 2 position and never recovered. Today, it's 10th in Japan in terms of brewing volume.
Fukuoka sake does indeed have a thread of consistency running through it. As might be expected, it is often soft in texture and, overall, sweet in comparison to sake from many other prefectures. But much Fukuoka sake is laden with great bursts of flavor that unfold in waves. Much of the higher grades are elegant and smooth, while preserving this general soft fullness.
An unusually high number of my personal favorite sakes are from Fukuoka. The list of recommended brand names is long (and grew longer as I began to write it out). At the top of the list are Shigemasu and Kurodajo Otemon. The latter brewery, known as Mori no Kura, also makes two other fine sake, the straightforward Toji no Uta and the wonderful-for-warming Komagura.
Also worth looking for is Niwa no Uguisu, and of the several fine sake made by Isonosawa. Bandai is a largish producer with excellent sake as well. The list continues with Mii no Kotobuki, Tomi no Kotobuki (no relation) and Kitaya.
Interestingly enough, I find Fukuoka sake relatively hard to get in the Tokyo area, although it may be easier to find in Kansai. This is curious, as many of these brewers are of decent size and should have excellent distribution. It's definitely worth the effort to find.
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Kuroda Jootemon (Fukuoka Prefecture)
This lovely daiginjo is filled with luscious peaches and flowers, evenly distributed throughout a soft, billowing flavor, never overpowering. The aroma is exquisitely balanced with the overall flavor profile. A tad hard to find but wonderful.