Tamagawa: The Jewel River of Kyoto
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Located in the remote costal region of Kyotango in nothern Kyoto prefecture, Kinoshita Shuzo has been producing the Tamagawa brand (Jewel River) for over 175 years. After a very tough period which sadly saw the passing of their long-serving master brewer (toji), the last decade or so has seen a revitalizing of all aspects of the company. The most significant of these changes came in 2007 when Philip Harper took the reigns as their new toji. Given a license to introduce a fresh innovative lineup of products, Harper soon helped breathe new life into the company, and customer favourites such as the wonderful Ice Breaker, the Spontaneous Fermentation series and the ideosyncratic Time Machine greatly widened their appeal and opened up new demographics.
Their company president (kuramoto) also commissioned the famous Japanese artist Sakane Katsusuke to create a new more modern logo to compliment the wonderful labels that now adorn each bottle of Tamagawa. All of these changes have seen the company grow from one that used to only service customers within a 5 or 6 mile radius of the brewery, to one whose products are enjoyed throughout Japan and in several markets overseas.
Famous master brewers and eye-catching labels and such are all useful elements to have in today's global Sake Industry, however, the liquid inside the bottle ultimately has to live up to the hype. Thankfully, Tamagawa does just that and boasts as interesting a lineup as one could hope for from someone as open minded towards sake as Harper. For example, aged sake features heavily within the Tamagawa portfolio, and the company president Kinoshita Yoshito has recently been investing in new facilities that, rather than focus on increasing production, will enable a greater capacity for ageing. Probably the most well known of these aged varieties is the aptly named Time Machine,Vintage which undergoes three years of bottle aging. Those who are fortunate enough to try it will no doubt notice its resemblance to very sweet full-bodied dessert wines.
However, the sake that stands out most in my opinion is the aformentioned Spontaneous Fermentation (自然仕込 ) series which hark back to more tradition methods of brewing by using no cultured yeasts. Instead, these ultra-rare brews are made by the yamahai method (see Beyond the Basics) and rely on the natural yeasts present in the nooks and crannies of the kura to carry out the complex process of fermentation. The most extreme version of this is the Junmai Yamahai White Label that is produced every year around February. As Harper pointed out during my visit, the house yeast is certainly a lively one, and every year it results in a final alcohol content of over 20% abv. I was lucky enough to try this year's version recently, which came in at a whopping 22%. Definitely not for the faint hearted!
To try and summarise what makes Tamagawa so appealing, and therefore one of my favourite breweries, I would say that through its intricate product line-up, it manages to appeal to sake enthusiasts who value the back-story of how they were made just as much as the enjoyment that comes from drinking them. To consider how much of the process has been entrusted in the hands of mother nature not only speaks volumes for how confident Harper is in his abilities, but also of the importance of having all of the elements working together in harmony.
To me at least, these types of sake are always that little bit more interesting and complex. Indeed, I have never felt so excited and spoiled for choice than I was when I visited the brewery store after my tour of the kura. Thankfully, the company president has stated that although demand for Tamagawa has increased rapidly over the last decade, they remain committed to producing sake with "soul". I for one look forward to enjoying these soulful beverages for many more years to come.