The Huchu Homare Brewery is located in the town of Ishioka, in Ibaraki prefecture, just an hour from Tokyo by train. Hundreds of years ago, Ishioka was the capital, or huchu, of Ibaraki. The Huchu’s cherished spring water was called Huchu Rokui. Medium soft and iron-free, it is perfect for brewing saké. When the first generation Yamauchi founded the brewery in 1854, he named it Huchu Homare or “Pride of Huchu” to celebrate the history of Ishioka and its water. Today, the brewery is a national cultural landmark, producing just twelve thousand cases of saké per year.
The Re-Birth of Watari Bune
The owner of the Huchu Homare Brewery, Takaaki Yamauchi learned about Watari Bune from an old farmer who had grown this rice. From the Meiji (1868-1912) to early Showa (1926-1988) periods, Watari Bune was highly valued. However, because the “ear” of the rice plant grew tall and it required late harvest, in late October (most sake rice is harvested in mid-September), Watari Bune could easily be damaged by typhoons before it was ready. The length of the season also made it more susceptible to hungry insects. As a result, Watari Bune fell out of use.
Inspiration, Vision and Perseverance
After learning about Watari Bune, Yamauchi-san, the 7th generation director of the Huchu Homare Brewery started his hunt for the rice seeds. He ultimately found this rice under preservation at the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Research Institute. He secured fourteen grams of seedlings and, with a team of local farmers, grew his first crop. He went on from there.
Being the toji, or brewmaster, Yamauchi’s education extended from agriculture into brewing. He learned how the rice behaved, what its unique characteristics were and how to achieve different flavors with different types of saké. He shared his learnings with his farmers and they continued to improve their crop.
A Single, Prized Ingredient
Watari Bune, the rice used to make this saké, is one of the only pure strains of saké rice being used today. It is also the father strain to the most celebrated saké rice, Yamada Nishiki, with Yamadaho as its mother. Most people think Omachi rice was a parent strain to Yamada Nishiki, but it was actually Watari Bune, which had gone out of use for fifty some-odd years, until this brewery revived it.
Although bordering Tokyo prefecture, Ibaraki is an agricultural region, producing rice, buckwheat, musk melon, grapes and pears. Some of the finest buckwheat comes from Ibaraki and the most expensive soba noodles are from Ibaraki. Located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, Ibaraki is also famous for monk fish, or ankou, with the liver, anki-mo, being a delicacy. Ankou-nabe, or monk fish stew, is a traditional local dish. Influenced by these foods, Watari Bune perfectly complements monk fish and monk fish liver, soba and tofu, another local delicacy. Great Western food pairings include foie gras, pate, risotto, lamb and pork.
The Growth of Watari Bune
Out of the first fourteen grams of seedlings, Yamauchi and his farmers harvested 15 kilograms of rice. In 1990 and 1991, they harvested 1080 and 1650 kilograms respectively. Total saké production grew from 1080 liters in 1990 to1620 liters in 1991. By 1996, Yamauchi-san took home a gold medal at the Japanese National Saké Competition, for Watari Bune Junmai Daiginjo. In 1998, the Daiginjo won a gold as well. Today, Yamauchi and his brewers produce 18,000 liters per year. They are still the only brewers using Watari Bune and, in Japan, the saké is rare and highly acclaimed, mainly enjoyed at saké bars by aficionados.