Hananomai Junmai Ginjo, Shizuoka Prefecture

By W. Blake Gray

Winemakers generally have more interesting stories to tell than sake master brewers (“toji”). Naturally, I’m here today to tell you about an exception.

You get spoiled interviewing winemakers, some of whom discovered an innate ability after half a lifetime spent doing something else entirely, and many of whom have time left over for hobbies. So Sean Thackrey can talk about being an art dealer, or Robert Foley can talk about his guitar heroics.

For the most part, sake toji choose that profession at an early age. They generally have boring personal lives (and they have difficulty finding wives) because the job of being a toji is so demanding. They’re dedicated craftsmen, but they can’t talk about a whole lot other than sake.

Hananomai toji Kazuhito Tsuchida grew up with a family of itinerant bee farmers. He was born one summer in Hokkaido, where his family took their hives during the short warm season every year. But he went to school mostly in Shizuoka prefecture, a seaside resort area where the bees spent the winter months.

Tsuchida didn’t believe he was destined for much more than taking over the hives, so he wasn’t interested in college. Instead, he liked to surf, when the bees allowed.

In 1979, at the time of Tsuchida’s fateful beach encounter (that’s what they call foreshadowing), Shizuoka hanomai_bottle.jpgprefecture was well known as a vacation spot for Tokyo residents because of its location, bordered on the north by Mount Fuji and the south by the Pacific Ocean. It was well known for green tea. But its sake was considered pedestrian.

One weekday in 1979, he was surfing off Enshuhama beach when he met a worker from the Hananomai brewery. Amazed, Tsuchida asked how the guy could get away from work while the sun was still out (and the waves were breaking). The brewery employee told him he was allowed to leave when his tasks were finished. Impressed, Tsuchida applied for a part-time job at Hananomai.

The brewery wasn’t one of Japan’s most famous: it started making sake in 1864, but only started using its own brand name in 1949. It had only 20 workers. Tsuchida was put on the bottling line, and also had to deliver some sake.

In 1981, at age 22, he was offered fulltime work and accepted. The toji took an interest in him and asked if he wanted to learn to make sake. At first he said no — the job required waking up early in the morning, with no days off.

But he started hanging around the sake-making part of the facility and drinking sake after work with the production team, and he was seduced. Within three years, he started apprenticing to become a toji.

When he became toji in 1992 at age 33, he was the youngest fulltime toji in Japan. And Shizuoka prefecture’s sake reputation was about to change. The local government had pumped money into agricultural research, which was beginning to pay off. Wakatake, one of the best-known sake brands in the U.S., is also from Shizuoka and began attracting attention in the early ’90s.

Hananomai, which began exporting to the U.S. in 1999, opened a new daiginjo-only facility in 2003. Tsuchida doesn’t have much time to surf now. But at least he got the chance when he was young, and if you want to ask a toji about the best waves near Japan, he’d be your guy. He claims he doesn’t miss the bees either.

Tasting notes:
Do you like corn? The aromas are of fresh corn creamed with milk, along with some vanilla and popcorn. Did I say corn again? On the palate, though, I tasted golden apples initially, then that creamed corn, along with caramelized polenta and Bahri dates.

Food pairing:
I didn’t try it myself, but I have to wonder how a sake that tastes this much like corn pairs with corn. Failing that, because of the slight sweetness I might enjoy this with something slightly spicy, perhaps ma-po tofu.

Music pairing:
Try it with traditional jazz, or perhaps a rollicking blues number. What the hell am I talking about? Click here.

Overall score: I’ll give it an 8.5.

How much?: $17.99 for 720 ml.

This sake is available for purchase on the internet.

About W. Blake Gray: W. Blake Gray’s favorite surf-rock song is Yuzo Kayama’s “Yozora no hoshi,” which pairs best with a salty honjozo sake. E-mail him at wblakegray at gmail dot com.