Nada: Brewing with Nature's Bounty
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Nada in Hyogo prefecture is the undisputed powerhouse of the sake industry. No other region produces more sake annually, with the total volume accounting for roughly a quarter of all sake produced in Japan. Indeed, for many Japanese consumers, the mere mention of sake immediately brings to mind the Nada district and the giant breweries that operate within it. Juggernauts such as Ozeki, Hakutsuru, Kenbishi and Nihonsakari, to name just a few, are all nationally recognised brands producing a staggering volume of sake each year. As a result, the towering concrete brewery buildings within Nada, more akin to factories than the traditional image of a small wooden sakagura, have in recent years come to be closely associated with mass produced lower grade sake, known as futsushu.
However, there is much more to the region than just the industrial heartland of sake, and a deeper investigation into its history reveals the very blueprint for much of what we have now normalised in the production of more small-scale premium craft sake. From being the home of the first nationally distributed yeast strain (kyokai #1, 教会１号) isolated at Sakura-Masamune, to the establishment of the first widely recognised standard of quality (ki-ippon, 生一本), the long history of Nada is a rich tapestry of discovery that has helped shape the greater sake industry in general. However, the geographical features of the surroundings area have in particular contributed to this success, and much of the region's characteristics can be traced back to this most ideal of locations for sake brewing.
The Five Villages of Nada
Although considered to be just one region, Nada is actually a group of five smaller sub-regions spanning a stretch of 12 kilometres from Kobe City in the west to Nishinomiya in the east. Collectively, this group is referred to as the Nada Gogo 灘五郷, or Five Villages, and comprises of Imazu-go, Nishinomiya-go, Uozaki-go, Mikage-go and Nishi-go. The Japanese character for go 郷 actually indicates an administrative group of villages, each of which is home to several notable breweries which each have their own individual story and history. However, as mentioned previously, certain geographical features within the local and surrounding area binds them all together to a degree that is perhaps unparalleled in any other sake brewing region in Japan. So important are these, that they have gone on to mould the very framework of what defines the style, and indeed quality, of the sake they produce.
The Pillars of Nada Sake
Sake brewing first began to flourish in Nada during the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1868) when a series of crucial discoveries and developments propelled the region to one of the most ideally suited for the production of high quality sake. These can be considered the founding pillars by which the region grew its reputation, and later afforded the breweries success on a national scale. The following is a list of these key features which will each be reviewed in more detail in the proceeding paragraphs:
Rokko Oroshi 六甲颪
Nada no Kan-Tsukuri 灘の寒造り
Transportation Infrastructure 輸送手段
The common denominator from this list is that they are all connected in some way to the geographical features within Nada and the surrounding area. The region is indeed blessed with the perfect environment for brewing and distributing sake, and much of the above has evolved from these few vital components that make Nada such a special region.
Miyamizu (Hard Water)
The initial catalyst for putting Nada firmly on the sake brewing map was the discovery in 1840 of an underground water supply ideal for the production of sake. The story of how it was discovered is now one of the most famous in the industry, and ultimately due to the persistence of one Tazaemon Yamamura, the owner of what later became the aforementioned Sakura-Masamune. At the time, Yamamura owned two breweries in different locations just a few miles apart from one another. Crucially, the Ume no Ki (Plum Tree) brewery as it was known at the time located in Nishinomiya City consistently produced superior sake to its counterpart in Uozaki. Yamamura tried everything he could to replicate the taste from his other brewery, from using the same rice, switching the brewing equipment, to even alternating the brewing staff between the two sites. It was only when as a last resort he decided to cart the water across from Nishinomiya to the other brewery that he finally realised that this was the crucial difference.
Ironically, the discovery of Miyamizu came at a time when Nishinomiya wasn't actually included under the original Nada Gogo designation. It was only in 1886 that the lower region (Shimo Nada, 下灘 ) was removed, and Nishinomiya took its place. Regardless, shortly after the discovery, other breweries inevitably became aware of the water's superior properties and began transporting it by oxen-drawn cart or boat for use at their own sites. This gave rise to water dealers (mizuya) who established businesses selling the miracle water to the surrounding sake breweries. Initially, this was sold as Nishinomiya Mizu but was later abbreviated to just Miya-mizu, the latter part meaning water in Japanese.
The secret to Miyamizu is that it is blessed with the perfect composition for making sake, namely that it is both high in minerals and low in less desirable components like iron and manganese. Comparatively speaking for Japanese standards, it is also classified as a hard water (kousui, 硬水), which tends to result in a quick and vigorous fermentation. The crisp and dry style that results is often referred to as "masculine sake" (otoko-zake, 男酒 ), and it has come to be the signature characteristic of the region. Word of this delicious otoko-zake brewed from Miyamizu soon reached the capital Edo, where it subsequently grew in popularity and established a reputation as a product of superior quality.
The Cool Breeze of Mt Rokko
Another of the key geographical characteristics of Nada is the towering Rokko mountain range that lies to its north. In winter, atmospheric pressure funnels the seasonal cold winds shaped by the Seto Inland Sea onto the mountain range which acts as a barrier diverting them down and into Nada. The cold wind that results is known as rokko-oroshi, and this has been one of the most significant factors in influencing the production methods of Nada's numerous breweries. Indeed, two of the items on the above list, kasane-gura and nada kan-tsukuri, are directly evolved from the benefits that these cool winds provide.
For example, in today's industry the accepted norm for breweries without air-conditioning is to only brew sake in the colder winter months. However, in the past, brewing was carried out almost throughout the entire year. The only exception was the warmest summer months during which the stifling heat resulted in a brief off-season. At this time, sake was graded depending on when it was brewed, with the most prized sake being that which was produced during the peak of winter. The names given to these classification were as follows: shin-shu 新酒, or sake brewed from the Autumn equinox, ai-shu間酒 that led into the beginning of winter, kanmae-zake 寒前酒 for early winter, followed by kan-zake寒酒 and finally haruzake 春酒 brewed in the spring. The most prized of these, that also fetched the highest price in Edo, was of course kan-zake brewed during the peak of winter. The rokko-oroshi was a vital component in aiding the Nada brewers in this style of production and helped elevate the reputation of their sake above their competitors.
Form Following Function
The rokko-oroshi would prove to be such a useful component in kan-zake production that brewery buildings were later constructed in a way that best utilised these cool winds. The architectural style was known as kasane-gura, which is commonly translated as "stacked brewery". According to this system, breweries of wooden construction would be built with a main building situated to the north. This would serve both as the main fermentation room and summer storehouse. Another building would be built adjacently to its south, known as the mae-gura 前蔵. This second building would often act as the living quarters for resident workers during the brewing season, or used as a general area to wash and dry out equipment like wooden tanks and other tools. In winter, the cool breeze from the mountain range would directly hit the main building providing the ideal conditions for making sake. In summer, the mae-gura would play its role by acting as a buffer between the sunlight and the storehouse, keeping the precious sake from the previous brewing season nice and cool.
Location, Location, Location
With the kan-zake brewing technique and the famous Miyamizu giving Nada's sake the edge in the most important markets of Edo, its location next to one of Japan's major shipping lanes would also play a vital role in establishing the region as a brewing powerhouse. As it is located in direct proximity to the Seto Inland Sea, the transportation of goods was both fast and relatively easy in comparison to other inland regions. During the Edo Period, the main method of transportation was by sea, and sake stored in wooden cedar barrels (sugi-taru, 杉樽) could be easily loaded onto ships (kaifune, 廻船) bound for the capital. One added bonus to this was that during the roughly two week journey at sea, the rocking motion from the waves meant the sake would take on more flavour and aroma from the wooded barrels. In this way, breweries were able to better establish themselves in the lucrative markets of Edo.
In more recent history, Nada's location has certainly stood the test of time, evolving in sync with Japan's own modernisation. As it entered the Meiji Period, a time of rapid modernisation and industrialisation, the brewers of Nada again found themselves in the perfect location for distributing their produce. This began in 1889 with the construction of the Tokaido-sen 東海道線, a central railway line connecting the now renamed capital Tokyo, with western Japan. Therefore, a combination of ships and trains were employed to reduce the time it took to transport sake to the largest markets of Tokyo and Osaka. Finally, in the present day, when shipping of this scale has largely given way to trucking, the highly efficient network of highways, for example the Meishin and the Hanshin, have ensured that Nada's location has never become obsolete, and remains perfectly suited for distributing its produce across Japan, and even overseas.
Modern Day Nada
In the present day, Nada's sake has lost much of the seemingly invincible prestige that it once enjoyed during its heyday. Beginning in the early post-war period, a series of well publicised scandals involving the purity and origin of its flagship ki-ippon branding, once a byword for quality, definitely took a toll on its nationwide image as the pinnacle of quality sake. The details of these incidents certainly warrants their own discussion. However, they paved the way for sweeping change within the sake industry. The most significant of these was the shift in the consumer habits of the Japanese, who went from favouring big brand household names making sake on a large scale, such as those in Nada, towards placing more value in smaller scale handcrafted "local" sake. This shift is sometimes referred to as the "ji-zake boom", and regions such as Niigata, with their pure-rice light and dry style (junmai tanrei-karakuchi), altered the nation's perception of what constituted high quality sake.
More hardship was to befall the brewers of Nada, when in 1995 the Great Hanshin Earthquake caused widespread damage to the region. Most of the old kasane-gura era buildings unfortunately succumbed to the earthquake, only to be later replaced with more modern buildings during the rebuild. The design of the old wooden kura buildings inevitably made way for the more efficient, and importantly safer, tall concrete building that now mark the landscape throughout Nada. As the importance of rokko-oroshi has also greatly diminished with the introduction of air-conditioning, there was no longer any need for the old kasane-gura architecture, or even kan-tsukuri for that matter. Therefore, the tragedy of the Hanshin Earthquake also serves as an important marker in Nada's history to reflect on the changes it has underwent since its heyday in the Meiji Period.
However, as previously mentioned, Nada still remains the most prolific region for sake production in Japan. The challenges that it faced in rebuilding after the Hanshin Earthquake and its post war troubles have given rise to a rebranding of sorts. For example, nada ki-ippon, has been redefined, legally, to designate sake that is only junmai and produced within a single brewery within Nada. The Nada Gogo Brewers Association even took this a step further in 2018 by gaining approval for their own Geographical Indication, the Nada Gogo GI, that indicates sake bearing this mark was produced within Nada, using only local rice and water. These are all positive indications of how Nada has reinvented itself amidst the backdrop of a much more demanding consumer market.
However, the importance of Nada today is much more than just a region that has adapted to a changing industry. Although the brewing techniques that evolved from its geographical features have mostly made way for more modern techniques, it stands today as one of the last remaining bastions for certain crucial elements of sake's long history. For example, taru-zake 樽酒, the traditional practice of aging sake in wood is still carried out by some of Nada's breweries. In particular, the trademark product of Kiku-Masamune, another giant of the region, is sake that has been aged in Yoshino cedar wood barrels 吉野杉. In order to protect this traditional industry they have began making the wooden barrels in-house and training their own apprentices. Visitors can also tour this on-site facility and witness the delicate craftsmanship that goes into making each and every one of them.
With the preferences of today's consumers increasingly shifting once again towards more characterful styles, the unique flavour and aroma of sake aged in this way provides them with a greater wealth of variety from what is already a multifaceted beverage. Indeed, the continuation of traditional crafts such as these not only benefits the sake industry, but permeates into the wellbeing of other industries as well. It is examples such as these of history seamlessly blending with modernity that will ensure Nada remains as relevant today as it did back in the Edo and Meiji Period. Furthermore, the numerous contributions that Nada has made towards the development and growth of the industry will continue to reverberate through the wonderful sake we enjoy today.