As a long-time enthusiastic craft beer drinker, one of my must-visit locations in Tokyo was Hitachino Brewing Lab, in the Akihabara district. Whilst I certainly spent a fair amount of time getting well acquainted with all manner of styles from the Hitachino Nest Beer range in the hip bar, I walked away completely oblivious to the fact that Kiuchi started life (and continues) as a sake brewery.
It was actually not until I was back in the UK and looking to order some of my new favourite Nest Beers to enjoy at home that I stumbled across Kiuchi’s nihonshu range.
Established in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture in 1823 the brewery didn’t actually begin making ale until 1996; combining traditional sake and shochu production techniques with beer brewing technology.
And whilst there’s much to be said about the distinct modern-meets-tradition taste of its beers, today I’m turning the spotlight on Awashizuki; a sparkling junmaishu kindly gifted to me by a friend, who knew I was eager to try Kiuchi sake and stumbled across it in a craft beer shop.
The 300ml blue-tinted bottle, featuring the familiar owl mascot of many of the brewery’s beer labels, and from the low ABV of 12% and promise of a ‘sweet sparkling… refreshing flavour’ (English blurb) it certainly seems like Awashizuku is meant to pique the curiosity of non-sake drinkers. That I swear it wasn’t on sale in the Hitachino Brewing Lab seems increasingly bizarre!
Already well and truly initiated into the fascinating world of sake, I was dead curious to sample Awashizuku and see how it held up to both Kiuchi’s craft beers and as a sparkling junmai in its own right. Bottled chilled and wine glass filled, here are my thoughts!
Appearance: Golden / green-tinged body, with scattered still bubbles. Not the most lively of sparkling sakes, but a very striking appearance for sure.
Nose: Surprisingly ‘fruit-forward’ for a junmai; the tang of lemons and the sweetness of ripe bananas shines through. There is also a deep, earthiness, but little in the way of rice or lactic aroma curiously.
Palate: Pleasant tingling carbonation on the tongue. The initial taste offers up both the tartness and sweet notes teased by the nose, yet there is still room for a strong, umami backbone, which drives the flavour profile here. The finish is unexpectedly long, and whilst perhaps a little sickly for more than a small glass, there is definitely depth and complexity rare in a junmai of such a low alcohol percentage.
Verdict: If emboldening beer drinkers to give sake a look was Kiuchi Brewery’s aim with Awashizuku, they have certainly succeeded. Whilst there would be no mistaking this for a Cloudwater IPA (or even Hitachino Nest’s own White Ale) by any stretch of the imagination, it juggles sweetness, acidity and an almost malty umami profile in a skilful way that any ale-accustomed palate will likely pick up something to enjoy.
Yes, there are undeniably better junmai (and indeed sparkling) classification nihonshu readily available on the UK market, but Awashizuku is a stylish and tuned-in product, from initial presentation to taste profile, that retains just enough depth and intrigue to satisfy even the most seasoned of sake fans.
As for me, as equal parts beer and sake nerd, I definitely can’t complain! Next time I make it over to Tokyo and the Hitachino Brewing Lab, after a few thirds of their wonderful and varied beers, I’m certainly going to make a special effort to analyse every page of the drinks menu: just in case there’s a subtle ‘Our sakes’ section hidden away in there!
Brewery: Kiuchi Brewery
Classification: Sparkling junmai
Rice polishing ratio: 65%
Bio: Jordan Smithcroft is a Manchester-based healthcare worker and certified Sake Sommelier Association (SSA) sommelier with an interest in Japanese culture, including Studio Ghibli, Haruki Murakami and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Having travelled to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in 2019, he hopes to return to see more of Japan in the near future.