Tomonobu ‘Inazo’ Mitobe claimed that he never wanted to be sake brewer – at least initially – but you’d find it hard not to believe him.
The boyish-looking Mitobe looked every part a city dweller, his face displayed no signs of the hard toil that a profession reliant heavily on agriculture would confer on its practitioners.
He was asked to succeed his father – fourth generation sake brewer Youichi Mitobe – as the head brewer of Yamagata Masamune (山形正宗). Heritage was of utmost importance in the brewing business, much to Mitobe’s chagrin. “I was running away all the time,” he mused, much to our amusement at his refreshing candour.
But eventually he heeded the call of his beleaguered family brewery in 2001, and gave himself 10 years to turn things around. He has not looked back since.
Behind his shy and nervous disposition, Mitobe willingly betrays a brief glance of an impishness, and a disarming honesty. He professes his love for an eclectic array of interests, ranging from classic rock to sumo wrestlers and modern pop culture. He’s a fan of Seth Macfarlane’s Ted. He’s inspired by the quintessential ’80s rockers Van Halen, and in particular, their seminal guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his inimitable fretboard pyrotechnics – hardly the kind of anecdote you were expecting of a serious, fanatical craftsman. He comes across more akin to a master collector of cult vinyl records than a master brewer of exquisite sake.
But make no mistake: beyond the light-hearted self-deprecation, Mitobe’s earnestness in professing his desire to make the best quality sake possible, cuts through his jokes as much as his sake does with the food it was paired.
Clearly more at home making sake than ‘selling’ it to journalists and the media, he takes a swig from his wine glass to calm his nerves. It’s filled with sake, not wine. Mitobe remarks that he’s taken to drinking sake from a wine glass as opposed to a traditional sake cup, as it enhances the nosing experience, a sign that he is no draconian ‘traditionalist’.
While the brewery staunchly stands by traditional methods and handcraft, Mitobe will not hesitate to incorporate modern techniques and equipment. He takes his time to choose his words carefully, but the message is unwavering: he will do whatever it takes to make a better sake.
Arise, little Kura
Mitobe is no wannabe upstart trying to cash in on an increasingly lucrative business. He represents the fifth generation of sake brewers in his family, a testament that it’s not through luck that his label has endured – Yamagata Masamune has an enviable reputation for being one of the best that the prefecture has to offer.
Masamune is a reference to Goro Nyudo Masamune, the legendary 14th century swordsmith who created near-perfect swords. It also describes perfectly their house style – smooth, and crisp. While once relatively unknown outside of Japan, the boom in the demand for sake has pushed ’boutique’ breweries like Mitobe’s to the forefront.
The Mitobe Brewery (also known as a kura) was founded in 1898 by Yasaku Mitobe in Tendo, a city in Yamagata prefecture. A hundred and ten years later, Tomonobu Mitobe picked up the mantle of upholding his family’s legacy of handcrafting top quality sake.
The Mitobe Brewery is actually a very small kura with only three full-time staff of at least 10 years experience each. In the winter, seven temporary brewers will join the brewery. “They are farmers and they have no work in the winter, so they come every winter. It’s a long-lasting relationship,” says Mitobe. They produce about 108,000 litres per year, which is relatively little. Of that number, only three percent is exported. Mitobe hopes to change that.
“We only just started (exporting) three years ago, and in future I would be expanding to add another 20 to 30% to our production. Generally I want to increase my production (to meet export demand), and not to decrease domestic distribution.” The Mitobe Brewery also produces umeshu, but that makes up a mere five per cent of their output, and the number is too small to warrant export.
It’s a fine line – he does not wish to increase production too much as his product is ultimately handmade, and quality always comes first. But in the face of increasing global demand, Mitobe has a challenge on his hands, albeit a good one.
According to a Bloomberg article, overseas shipments reached an all-time high of 8.5 billion yen in the 10 months through October last year according to data from the Agriculture Ministry, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is targeting a fivefold increase in exports of sake and other rice-based products to 60 billion yen by 2020.
It represents a fantastic opportunity for handcraft producers like Mitobe, which is why he stands before us today to promote his product.
“I do the brewing, I do marketing, I pick up the phone, I put the labels on. because it’s a small company, I do everything. But my main job in the summertime is to raise good rice.”
If we judge a man by the work of his hands, then there must be no mistaking his worth – the quality of his highly acclaimed Yamagata Masamune is like a shining light on a cold winter’s day in Tohoku, where the brewery resides.
Importance of Terroir
Tohoku is a region encompassing six prefectures in northern Japan, which includes Yamagata prefecture. Its harsh, cold climate, ironically is excellent for the production of sake, nullifying much of the bacteria that can destroy the taste of a good sake. Surrounded by mountains, its inaccessibility has kept it out of public eye for the most part until modern times.
For most spirits, water is arguably an important contributor to its taste. The hardness of the water sourced from the Tachiyagawa (Tachiya River) riverbed is unusually high – 127 milligrammes per litre as compared to the national average of 61 milligrammes per litre – and has been credited for giving Yamagata Masamune sake its balanced, crisp flavor.
Another key element, rice, is also self-grown whenever they can. In 2003, they started growing its own Yamada Nishiki rice fields, using mostly an organic approach. In line with Mitobe’s philosophy, they abstain from using commercial herbicides or fertilisers unless absolutely necessary.
To date, they have about four hectares of fields, growing three varieties of rice: Dewasansan, Miyama Nishiki, and Yamada Nishiki. The reasoning for variety is purely pragmatic: “because of the harvest time and the planting timing, it is very effective to do three or four different varieties,” says Mitobe. These account for about 50% of their sake production. Yamagata Masamune is produced mainly from local Dewasansan (Dewa 33) rice and the hallowed Omachi and Yamada Nishiki rice.
[FYI] Rice strains used by Mitobe
Rice is one of, if not the key component in the production of sake and there are countless varieties of rice strains used by brewers all over Japan. Mitobe primarily uses three rice strains for its sake: Dewasansan, Omachi and Yamada Nishiki.
Omachi (雄町) was once the ubiquitous choice for premium sake, before the days of cross breeding. However it was difficult to harvest by machine due to its long stalks and soon lost its popularity in the age of industrialisation. A boom in premium sake revived its use, and is now back on its heady pedestal, arguably second only to Yamada Nishiki. Omachi rice has a special place in the hearts of sake fans, as it is one of the last pure strains of rice in Japan, and unlike more modern strains, it has a more earthy profile, and as such, not as outlandishly ‘fragrant’ compared to say, the Yamada Nishiki strains, which are inherently more floral. Mitobe will source Omachi as it is hard to grow good quality Omachi in Yamagata.
Dewasansan (出羽燦々) is a rice strain that was developed to grow optimally in the harsh cold of Yamagata, and took 11 years to develop. It is a hybrid of the Miyama Nishiki and Hana Fubuki rice strains (cross breeds themselves), and are characterised by slightly dry, complex, and fragrant notes.
Yamada Nishiki (山田錦) enjoys a heralded status as the undisputed ‘king’ of sake rice. A hybrid of Yamadabo and Tankan Watari Bune rice strains, it has much less protein and fat than most other rice strains. The reduced levels of protein makes the taste of sake crisp and light, while the lower levels of fat makes the sake more flavorful. It’s prized for its delicate, fragrant flavour.
Quality is a Craft
Despite its small size the Mitobe Brewery does quite a fair bit of work by hand, including the washing of rice and the making of the koji (steamed rice used to culture the yeast). They use a traditional Fune Press to squeeze out the sake, which produces better results than the mass production method of the assaku-ki.
“I ALWAYS WANT TO INTRODUCE THE BEST WAY FOR THE BREWERY, SO OF COURSE I HAVE TO ALLOW FOR MODERN METHODS. TRADITIONAL WAYS OR METHODS HAVE VERY DEEP MEANING BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO MAKE GOOD SAKE – THE BEST SAKE I CAN MAKE. I WILL NOT HESITATE TO ADOPT NEW TECHNOLOGY, OR OLD TECHNOLOGY, OR ANYTHING, TO MAKE GOOD SAKE.”
[FYI] A pressing issue
Joso (上槽), more commonly known as shibori (搾り), is the process of separating the sake from the moromi (醪). The Mitobe Brewery uses the traditional century-old Fune (槽) Press method. While it isn’t as efficient as the assaku-ki (圧搾 機), it is widely acknowledged as the better way of extracting sake, second only to fukurozuri (袋吊り), which is extremely labourious and time consuming, and usually reserved for small batch, ultra-premium sake.
Kura and sakagura can be loosely taken to mean sake producer. They both have their own meanings: kura also means warehouse, while sakagura means sake cellar.
But what sets Masamune apart from the rest of the sakagura (another name for sake producer) in Yamagata? “The water, and the people. In Japanese sake, 20% of the quality comes from the rice itself, and 80% comes from the people, the climate, the yeast and other things; but for me, mainly the people who work on it. We work with the locals, and that affects the quality.”
And quality is a point that keeps popping up in conversation. The brewery’s philosophies and practices are simple. Quality, quality, quality, 和醸良酒 – which roughly translates to good harmony makes good sake, a kaizen (the practice of continuous improvement) approach, as well as an emphasis on the palate.
The last point is noteworthy, as Mitobe consciously designs Yamagata Masamune to pair well with food. He avoids making the sake too aromatic as it doesn’t work as well in pairings.
It’s hard to argue against the result: Yamagata Masamune is an excellent sake, regardless of whether it is paired with food, or had on its own.
YAMAGATA MASAMUNE JUNMAI
The ‘entry-level’ sake in their portfolio, it showcases the local rice of Yamagata, Dewasansan.
Rice Polishing Ratio is the percentage of the rice that remains after milling, a process that removes unwanted fats and proteins. Sake Meter Value is a scale to measure the sweetness to dryness level of a sake; 0 indicates neutral value, positive value indicates dryness, while a negative value indicates sweetness. Acidity balances the sweetness of the sake. It roughly averages about 1.2-1.5, and to generalise, a lower value tends to lean towards a full and rich sake, while a higher value tends to lean towards a light and fresh flavour. The sweeter the sake, the higher the acidity can be without coming across as sour.
Seimaibuai (Rice Polishing Ratio) 60%
SMV (Sake meter Value) +3 (dry)
Notes Smooth but crisp. Dry, with plenty of rice flavour and a hint of delicate fruit and herb.
Price S$56 (720ml), S$115 (1,800ml)
Thoughts A great way to experience the house style of Yamagata Masamune. While there’s no explosion of flavour, its affable nature coupled with light complexity just about keeps you interested, and just encourages you to keep on drinking, and drinking, and…
YAMAGATA MASAMNUE JUNMAI GINJO
Showcasing the Omachi grain, the Junmai Ginjo is well-received, even earning high praise from a Japanese gourmet magazine, “Danchyu”, who regard it as one of the best sake made from a ‘noble’ rice.
Category Junmai Ginjo
SMV +2 (dry)
Notes Clean and lush with a refined fruity bouquet.
Price S$69 (720ml), S$141 (1,800ml)
Thoughts This is actually my favourite of the three as I always like more personality in my drink. The fresh, fruity bouquet is matched in kind by a strong, but never overpowering, ‘earthy’ rice flavour.
YAMAGATA MASAMUNE JUNMAI DAIGINJO SUIFUYO SHINKU
Representing the pinnacle of the Mitobe Brewery, the Suifuyo label is synonymous with the best it has to offer. The Suifuyo Shinku is the top dog of its regular range.
Category Junmai Daiginjo
Rice Yamada Nishiki
Notes Delicate fluffy bouquet, suggestive of the name of sake “fuyo”, a kind of the flower of the lotus, while dry and crisp taste brought by hard water.
Price S$111 (720ml)
Thoughts The delicate floral notes are a highlight in itself, and is a perfect example of why Yamada Nishiki is so popular for the highest end sake. The crispness is a nice contrast and prevents it from being way too ‘fluffy’.
It’s no wonder that many in the know speak well of Yamagata Masamune as one of the hidden gems from Yamagata. And to think that if circumstances were a little different, Mitobe might have successfully wormed his way out of taking charge of the kura.
So what is your idea of the ‘perfect’ sake that you hope to achieve someday, I asked.
Mitobe pondered the question for a moment.
“I imagine it to be soulful and masculine, but with a very soft ‘surface’,” he said, carefully considering the right words. “It should be well rounded, solid, powerful and very heavy – heavy metal, like Unchained (a Van Halen song reference, but of course) – but it also has a very nice and tender surface. Chubby, like me,” he laughs. “I need strength in my sake but I also want it to be friendly. It should be a very well-rounded sake that is very robust at its core.”
Mitobe may vehemently disagree, but to my mind he has aptly described what Yamagata Masamune already is – I’m certainly looking forward to the day he reaches his goal. Until then, kanpai!
Yamagata Masamune is also available at the following fine eateries (bar prices apply):
Sushi Mitsuya 60 Tras Street #01-01 Singapore 078999 / Tamaya Dining 45 Cuppage Rd, Singapore 229464 / The Beacon 6 Raffles Blvd, Singapore 039594 / Seafood International 902 East Coast Parkway, Singapore 449874 / Wooloomooloo Steakhouse 2 Stamford Road, Level 3 Swissotel The Stamford, Singapore 178882 / Yoyogi Sushi Sake Bar #01-12, The Grandstand, 200 Turf Club Road, Singapore 287994 / Tiong Bahru Bar 3 Seng Poh Rd, Singapore 168891 / Chikuyotei Lobby, InterContinental Singapore, 80 Middle Road, Singapore 188966 / Hokkaido Sushi M Hotel Singapore Level 9, 81 Anson Road, Singapore 079908 / Southbridge Rooftop, Level 5 , 80 Boat Quay, Singapore 049868 / Chevron 48 Boon Lay Way, Singapore 609961 / Shinji by Kanesaka (Raffles) 1 Beach Road, #02-20 Raffles Hotel, Singapore 189673 / Shinji by Kanesaka (St. Regis) The St. Regis Singapore, Lobby Floor, 29 Tanglin Road, Singapore 247911 / BAM 38 Tras Street, Singapore 078977 / Marukyu 116 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068585 / Otowa 150 Orchard Road #03-16 Orchard Plaza, Singapore 238841 / Manseki 11 Unity Street #01-07 Robertson Walk, Singapore 237995 / Ginza Kurosan 30 Robertson Quay #01-10/11 Singapore 238251
A shoutout for Sushi Mitsuya
While it’s not quite what we typically cover, but it would be a travesty if we do not at least mention the fine establishment which hosted us, such was the sublime pairing experience that we had.
Sushi Mitsuya is a bespoke Omakase restaurant, and takes pride in providing an exquisite dining experience using the finest and freshest ingredients from Japan. It is currently helmed by Head Chef Ryosuke Harada.
The experienced chef, whose stints include Sushi HIRO in Hong Kong, and Sushi SORA at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, is known for his Edomae-style sushi, often interlaced with his own creative offerings affectionately known as ‘Harada-style’ sushi. His signature creations include the Otoro Miso egg yolk and the Isobe Maki.
Talk to them if you want a special bespoke menu; why not when you already intend to splurge!
Address 60 Tras Street #01-01 Singapore 078999
Seating Capacity 18 pax sushi counter, one 6-8 pax private room.
Opening Hours Monday to Saturday: Lunch 12 to 3pm, Dinner 6 to 11pm. Closed Sunday