As I sat listening to Hyogo Kitahara, the 12th generation operator of Shichiken Sake Brewery, I couldn’t help noticing his demeanour. He had the air of someone who has worked hard to get to where he is, and I felt privileged to be a guest in his Edo-era office. As I was not the only guest in his office, I managed to take a photo through the glass window separating the office from the rest of the brewery.
After drinking an ice-cold smoothie made from powdered mulberry leaves and sweet rice koji (a byproduct of sake production), Mr. Kitahara’s son, Tsushima, took us on a tour of the Kitahara family’s former residence. I say former because they had to vacate the house abruptly in 1880 for a very specific reason. The reason the family had to leave was that the Meiji Emperor stayed in their home for one night while travelling through Yamanashi (then known as Kai or Koshu). As the Emperor was considered to be a living God, the family left without question. For their trouble, they received 50 yen to build a new home. Clearly inflation has greatly diminished the purchasing power of the Japanese Yen as 50 yen would only buy a pack of gum in 2016.
This is one of the the gardens the Emperor would have seen 136 years ago.
After the house tour, we went to see the factory. As this is a family business with just 30 employees, I was not surprised to find out that Tsushima’s brother, Ryogo, is the brew master at Shichiken.
Here is Ryogo Kitahara overseeing the production of sake.
At this stage of sake production, the rice grains are polished to about 50% of their original size to maximize their sweetness. The polished rice in the picture above is being soaked in water to prepare it for the next stage of the process.
The aroma coming from this large vat was that of amazake (a sweet, low-alcohol drink).
At the end of our tour I asked Tsushima, who speaks excellent English, if his family had any special traditions or stories he could share with me. He answered my question with a resounding, “Yes”. He said that his family has always avoided political affiliations and other distractions over the centuries in order to maintain their focus on producing top-quality sake. It is not uncommon for a Japanese family to adopt a son when their isn’t an heir to the family business. However, Tsushima was proud to tell me that he and his brother, Ryogo, are the true 13th generation operators of Shichiken. I hope the Kitahara family can keep producing sake for many more generations to come.
Don’t forget to taste some free sake before you leave the brewery. Be warned! We entered to taste for free, but we left with a half-dozen bottles.