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A sake factory with a human touch [Nagano]

Among warehouses on the banks of the Saigawa river, which flows through Nagano, there is a place where Yoshinoya brews flavorful sake.

The company has no master brewer because many steps of the brewing process have been mechanized. However, brewing deep flavors can never be fully automated. “All the judgments are made by humans,” said Hiroo Harada, 53, the company’s director in charge of manufacturing.

Harada’s father was an executive of Yoshinoya’s predecessor company, and Harada himself studied brewing at university. After graduating, however, he started working for a software company in Tokyo as a systems engineer. Even when he made a career change to work at a Yoshinoya-affiliated company, he remained an engineer. Harada took charge of production when the then factory chief got injured about 20 years ago. Despite feeling somewhat lost at first, he eventually became a brewer with a unique background.

Yoshinoya began mechanizing the sake brewing process in 1983. Some insisted the product should continue to be fully handmade, but the brewer put its priority on maintaining stable quality. In fact, using machines helped Yoshinoya improve its sake in an unexpected way.

About 10 years ago, when Harada was sticking to a rule that required mash for sake to be processed in a room kept around 6 C, an air-conditioning machine suddenly failed. Harada continued the work in the warm room even though it was feared that this would increase the risk of producing unpleasant flavors. However, when he tasted the sake brewed in this manner, he found it “mysteriously delicious.”

Harada incorporated the environment caused by this “mishap” into his process. He aims to produce sake that combines a pleasant mellow scent with the rich taste of rice. You can clearly see that he has achieved this goal if you taste Yoshinoya’s main brands, such as Nishinomon and Unzan.

“Even though the process is mechanized, it does not mean we can keep making the identical sake every year,” Harada said.

Yoshinoya’s headquarters, built 150 years ago, is located near Zenkoji temple in Nagano.

(From the Nov. 21, 2014, Nagano Edition. Ages and other information were current when the story appeared.)

The Japan News
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