Breakfasting with the Brewers: A Visit to the Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery
- Raw egg
- Miso soup
The small town of Obuse in Nagano Prefecture, set against the scenic backdrop of the famed “five peaks of northern Shinano,” is home to one of Japan’s oldest and most distinguished sake makers: Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, established in 1755. From November through March (the brewing season), the brewery provides room and board to a skilled crew of artisans known as kurabito, as they apply themselves with single-minded focus to the daily challenges of sake making.
Sake brewing is a complicated and demanding process. The brewing team is a hierarchy, with the tōji, or brewmaster, at the top, assisted by the kashira. Beneath them, ranked in order of prestige, are artisans specializing in the various elements of sake making: The kōjiya is in charge of the kōji mold culture, the motoya is responsible for the yeast starter, the sendō supervises the pressing, the seimaiya handles the rice polishing, and so forth. All these processes must be seamlessly coordinated as the kurabito labor to produce the brewery’s four premium brands, each with its own unique recipe: Hekiiken (junmai daiginjō-shu), Kōzan (junmai daiginjō-shu), Square One (junmai-shu), and Hakkin (wood-barrel-brewed yamahai junmai-shu).
In this context, staff meals play a crucial role, not only in sustaining the kurabito but also in structuring their busy day. In the Masuichi brewers’ lounge, kurabito gather around the kotatsu (a combination table and space heater) to take their nourishment, check their schedules, trade information, and bond as a team.
Ichimura Tsugio, the sixteenth hereditary owner of the Masuichi brewery, remembers staff meals going back six decades and more. “Every year on the day before New Year’s, it was the custom for our family to sit down and eat with all the kurabito,” Ichimura recalls. “That’s the way it was up through my junior high school years.” In those days, the owner’s wife was responsible for all the staff meals.
Much has changed since then, both for Masuichi and for the sake industry as a whole. In the 1960s, as large makers reaped the benefits of new mass-production methods and modern machinery, local brewers came under increasing pressure, and many of the smaller ones failed. These pressures intensified as Japanese sake consumption entered into an extended decline around the mid-1970s. Soon, even venerable old establishments like Masuichi were facing an existential crisis. By the 1990s, the choice was clear: either take mass-production to the limit and compete with the big manufacturers, or tap into the growing market for luxury beverages by focusing like a laser on high-end craft sake. Masuichi chose the latter path.
“Each sake that we sell under its own label has to be unique in flavor,” explains Ichimura. “And we use only premium sake rice, even for the kakemai used to make the main mash.” (Kakemai refers to the plain steamed rice that is mixed with rice kōji and yeast starter to make the main mash, or moromi. Some sake brewers use the higher-priced premium sake rice, shuzō-kōtekimai, when preparing their rice kōji but then mix it with a large quantity of ordinary eating rice to make the mash.—Ed.) “This approach to production is hardly what you’d call cost-efficient. But the extra value it imparts to our sake what this brewery is all about.”
Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery is a major driver of tourism in the town of Obuse. Along with a sake store and tasting bar, the brewery site features an upscale inn and several dining options, among other attractions. Visitors can shop for chestnut sweets at Obusedō, an establishment that has operated alongside the brewery since the Meiji era (1868–1912), watch the confections being made, and dine at the Obusedō Restaurant, which makes the brewery workers' staff meals. They can also stroll at their leisure along Kuri no Komichi, a charming pathway paved with chestnut blocks, which takes them through a bamboo garden attached to the stately Ichimura residence.
The Obusedō Restaurant began taking meals to the kurabito a few years ago, after the woman who had prepared the staff meals for many years decided it was time to retire. The private rooms where the workers are lodged during sake-making season were designed by American architect John Morford. Such are the extraordinary job benefits enjoyed by kurabito at the Masuichi brewery.
When it comes to breakfast, however, the workers are on their own; they have a long day ahead of them and need to get started before sunrise. The kurabito themselves prepare the breakfast ingredients in advance the previous night. Up before the rest of the world, they fortify themselves against the dark and cold with a simple but nourishing meal of white rice, miso soup, a raw egg, and pickles. Then it’s back to the tough but gratifying job of brewing some of the best sake in the land.
Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery
Address: 807 Obuse, 381-0294, Nagano Prefecture
(Originally published in Japanese. Photos by Inomata Hiroshi. Series title written by Kanazawa Shōko.)