Tsunekichi Okura: The Henry Ford of Japanese sake
Aug. 23. 2018 writer
With a state-of-the-art facility up and running, this popular pairing sake looks set for success.
Suigei, meaning “drunken whale,” in Japanese, is the memorable moniker of one of Kochi Prefecture’s best known sake brands. With its crisp finish and mellow aroma, this magnificent mealtime sake is even making waves in international markets.
In 2018, Suigei Brewing Co., Ltd. kicked off production at their brand-new facility, Tosa Brewery, located about 20 kilometers from the company’s headquarters at the Nagahama Brewery in Kochi City.
Drawing on a formidable arsenal of brewing techniques and sake-making expertise, Tosa Brewery is focused on producing junmai daiginjo for the luxury end of the Suigei range. But that’s not all. The brewery is also visitor friendly, offering tours and facilities for curious sake devotees. Eager to get the lowdown first-hand, SAKETIMES recently paid Tosa Brewery a visit.
The modern architecture of Tosa Brewery, with its sheer windowless concrete exterior, certainly looks impressive. A curtain adorning the entrance, complete with a stylized illustration of a whale’s tail, flutters invitingly in the breeze.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted with a spacious high-ceilinged showroom housing Suigei’s high-end collection, as well as special collaborative items made with the renowned French tableware producer Christofle. Fortunately, those keen to sample the wares need not wait, as a tasting corner beckons next to an inviting refrigerated sake case.
Hirokuni Okura, president of Suigei Brewing, explains his motivation for opening the brewery to visitors: “In my youth, I was a fan of wine and visited wine châteaus in France, so I can imagine that people who drink Suigei overseas may be interested in seeing our brewery. That’s why I wanted Tosa Brewery to be open to the public.”
He continues, “My hope is that people will sample our sake here, then spend the evening in Kochi City enjoying plenty more Suigei together with our famous local skipjack tuna. I would like our brewery to become a focal point for visitors.”
The new facility has been at least 10 years in the making. That’s when plans to create a satellite facility to complement the headquarters already located near the tourist haven of Katsurahama Beach first came into being. But, slumping profits at the time forced Suigei to shelve the idea.
Things changed in 2013, when Okura, grandson of the brewery’s founder, became company president. A former salesman for Kirin Beer, Okura drew on business contacts from his previous job to establish new sales channels. Profits increased as a result, breathing new life into the once struggling brewery.
In 2015, Okura set his sights on an even bigger project and the search began for a new brewery location that fulfilled all of the company’s requirements. First, they needed enough space to potentially relocate the entire company, including their headquarters if need be. Second, the area had to be seperate from residential properties. And third, they needed somewhere safe from earthquakes and typhoons. The ideal spot eventually presented itself in Kanbara, Tosa.
“It was love at first sight,” enthuses Okura. “I settled on the new site right away. We are surrounded by untouched nature, with mountains in the background and a beautiful river in front. It really is the perfect setting to make sake.”
Seiji Matsumoto is the factory manager of the new facility and one of the directors of Suigei Brewing. With 20 years of experience at the brewery, Matsumoto was the obvious choice to design the new brewery. He guided the SAKETIMES team on a tour.
Among the various novel features of Tosa Brewery is its rice polishing room, a task that Suigei Brewing had previously outsourced. Making the most of their cutting-edge equipment, the brewers take special time and care to polish their own rice to the high standard required for daiginjo sake.
Sake brewing requires large quantities of rice to be washed and soaked. To this end, the brewery’s design makes worker movement as efficient as possible. In addition, both the washing room and the water used in it are set at a constant temperature of 12ºC (53.6ºF). The emphasis here is on maintaining a stable and consistent environment, thus minimizing the risk of defects in the final product.
To further improve rice quality, the rice steaming tub allows hot, dry air to make contact with the rice in the final stages of steaming, then a cooling machine rapidly lowers the temperature with an icy blast of 2ºC (35.6ºF) air. “Using the rice steaming tub and the cooling machine together,” explains Matsumoto, “we get the perfect rice for sake, hard on the outside and soft on the inside.”
Thanks to the experienced brewmaster at its helm, each step of the production process is fine-tuned for maximum efficiency and uniform quality. To maintain a consistent flavor, Tosa Brewery even uses the exact same water as Nagahama Brewery, drawn from the upstream of the Kagami River to the north of Kochi City.
Tosa Brewery produces a variety of junmai daiginjo labels for the luxury end of the Suigei range using top quality sake rice such as Yamadanishiki and Hattannishiki, polished to 30-40%. Each of these labels possesses its own distinctive flavor and character.
The current line-up is headed by Premium Junmai Daiginjo DAITO, the brewery’s flagship premium sake, with four other varieties rounding off the selection: Junmai Daiginjo Shinn, Junmai Daiginjo Mann, Junmai Daiginjo Ya, and Junmai Daiginjo Sho. Each label features a stylish design incorporating the brewery’s signature whale fluke motif.
“We used to make junmai daiginjo in 1.8 liter bottles, but we decided to focus on 720ml to make sure our customers enjoy the sake while it is still fresh,” says Okura. “Light can affect the quality, so all of our bottles use dark glass, and they are designed to look the part even at high-end French or Italian restaurants.”
“We have excellent standards of hygiene and top brewers from Nagahama Brewery, so we are confident in our ability to make great sake,” says Matsumoto. “At the same time, because everything is new, we are proceeding with caution. Suigei is meant to be a mealtime sake, so we have to make sure that the flavor does not get too sweet or the aroma too strong, otherwise it may not be appetizing. We put a lot of effort into brewing sake that pairs well with food.”
With Tosa Brewery up and running, Suigei is now primed to move forward into the next stage of their development. The time looks right for this drunken whale to make a big splash.
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