Kobe and Sake
Sake’s origins are in Japan. In Japanese it is also called nihonsyu (literally “Japanese alcohol”) and in other languages sometimes translated as rice wine. It is made of fermented rice, but it is not really fair to call it rice wine. Wine is made by fermenting the sugar in grapes, but sake is brewed much like beer…slowly. Now, when making sake, simultaneously sugar evolves from the starch and alcohol evolves from sugar. When brewing beer these steps are clearly divided, unlike in sake brewing. To get a deeper insight into the chemistry of sake brewing, you really need to come and visit one of the sake breweries in Kobe. Why Kobe? Because it is known for producing the most delicious sake in Japanese.
In Nada, Kobe you can find the oldest Japanese sake traditions that have been perfected over centuries and is still known for quality sake nowadays. The secret of the sake brewed in Nada is said to be the special water from the Rokko Mountains. Thanks to this water and the mild winds from Rokko, Nada can grow delicious rice. Combining this rice and water, the most excellent sake is brewed.
One place I recommend to those visiting Kobe is the sake brewery Kobe Shu Shin Kan (神戸酒心館) and its accompanying restaurant, Sakabayashi (さかばやし). My all-time favourite combination is the sake sampler Waon (和音) with an order of soba noodles. The sampler comes with four different kinds of sake presented in a special order, from the sweetest, most drinkable ones (Japanese: amakuchi 甘口) to more dry and stronger ones (Japanese: karakuchi 辛口). You are supposed to drink in this order so as to taste the differences between them. The sake contained in the sampler is a good amount of alcohol, because the glass each variety comes in seems to be a little bigger than a usual shot glass.
For the meal, I almost always go for the soba (buckwheat noodles, 蕎麦) and the tempura (vegetables, mushrooms and fish fried in breadcrumbs coating, 天ぷら) set. This all together costs roughly 3500 yen (about 29 USD) per person. The atmosphere in the restaurant is very calm and has a natural feel because it is furnished in natural wood. On the tables you can see Japanese style flower arrangements and the background music is very pleasing. Do not let the menu frighten you; there are some pictures for reference. At the restaurant, you can also buy sake straight from the brewery.
What do you need to be ready for when drinking sake? For people to know what kind of beast they are tackling: wine has 9% to 16% alcohol, beer 3% to 9%, and sake is roughly 18% to 20% , but before bottling it is defused with water becoming about 15% alcohol on average. Maybe this is the reason it is called rice wine, because the alcohol percentage is similar.
If you have had sake anywhere else but Japan, chances are it hasn’t been the best representative of the sake family. That is why for those who have had a “nothing special” experience with sake in the past, I encourage you to go to a place where tradition is held well. One of those is Nada’s Shu Shin Kan brewery.
Last but not least, I want to introduce you to a tradition that is gaining more and more popularity, especially here in Kobe and Kansai. The idea behind it is to protect the sake tradition in Japan.
Make nihonsyu your first drink of the night!
When people go drinking in Japan, the first round of drinks is usually beer, here called nama biiru (生ビール). But Kobe wants to make it sake. In official events, Nada sake is always presented to guests. Kobe is making an effort to support the local sake industry.
That’s all for this time, let me know what you think of Kobe Shu Shin Kan if you have a chance to visit, or maybe you already have?