Calling all sake enthusiasts! Come with us to Kyoto, Japan's former capital city and the center of sake brewing for over one thousand years. Sake, also known as nihonshu, is a Japanese rice wine that has been brewed for centuries. Kyoto's breweries have a rich history and continue to produce some of the best sake in the world. In this article, we will take a closer look at sake breweries in Kyoto, their history, and the unique brewing techniques used to create this beloved beverage.
The History of Sake in Kyoto
Kyoto's favorable climate and high-quality water from the surrounding mountains make it an ideal location for brewing sake. The history of sake in Kyoto can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185) when sake was brewed in temples and noble households for religious and ceremonial purposes. During this time, Kyoto became Japan's imperial capital and the center of culture and art.
Sake played an important role in the cultural life of the city, and it was often consumed at festivals, poetry gatherings, and other social events. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Kyoto's sake industry flourished, thanks in part to the patronage of the Tokugawa shoguns. Sake production became more organized and efficient, and the city became known for its high-quality sake. Many of the sake breweries in Kyoto today were founded during this time.
How is Sake Made?
Did you know that sake, although often thought of as rice wine, is closer to a beer due to the fermentation methods used? There are five key elements to sake brewing: water, rice, skill, yeast, and weather. For water, ten times the amount of rice used is required. The quality is also important which is why Kyoto’s Fushimi district, named for its underground water, produces high-grade sake.
There are over 300 types of rice in Japan and only a few of these are considered worthy of being used to make sake today. The skill of the chief brewer, also called toji, is of utmost importance. Sake brewing techniques involve a combination of traditional and modern methods, many of which have been passed down through generations of sake brewers in Japan. Of the three main sake brewing guilds in Japan, the tanba and tajima style of brewing from nearby Hyogo prefecture has influenced sake production in Kyoto.
Finally, both weather and land affect the growth and cultivation of rice so these elements are also carefully considered in the sake-making process. If you'd like to learn more about how sake is made, check out our Beginners Guide to Sake.
Learn all about sake production in this Kyoto sake tasting tour. Bonus! You get to create your own traditional sake cup using fragrant pieces of wood.
10 Best Kyoto Sake Breweries
Today, Kyoto is home to over 30 sake breweries, each with its own unique history and brewing techniques. Here are the 10 must-visit sake breweries in Kyoto
- Gekkeikan Sake Brewery
- Kizakura Sake Brewery
- Kitagawa Honke Brewery
- Takara Shuzo Sake Brewery
- Masuda Tokubee Shoten Brewery
- Mukai Sake Brewery
- Oishi Sake Brewery
- Takeno Sake Brewing Co
- Kinoshita Brewery
- Shirasugi Brewery
1. Gekkeikan Sake Brewery
Founded in 1637, Gekkeikan is one of the oldest and most well-known sake breweries in Kyoto. It is also the pioneer of ‘nama’ (unfiltered and unpasteurized) sake as well as sugar-free sake. Don't just take our word for it, join this Fushimi sake tour and check out the Gekkeikan brewery and museum yourself.
Visit the museum and try sake on our Kyoto Sake Brewery Tour!
2. Kizakura Sake Brewery
Although one of the oldest breweries in Kyoto, Kizakura is known for its innovative approach to sake brewing, using techniques such as the "nama" or unpasteurized method to create fresh and fruity sake. The brewery also offers sake tastings and workshops.
3. Kitagawa Honke Brewery
Kitagawa Honke is a family-owned brewery that has been producing sake since the 1600s. The brewery uses modern technology with traditional brewing methods to create complex and flavorful sake. They are the recipients of 18 gold awards at the annual National New Sake Appraisal competition in Japan.
4. Takara Sake Brewery
Takara is located in the historic district of Fushimi and has been producing sake since 1842. This brewery is especially known for its sparkling sake brand, Mio, popular for gift-giving and special occasions.
5. Masuda Tokubee Shoten Brewery
Masuda Tokubee Shoten is a boutique sake brewery that produces small batches of high-quality sake. Said to be the birthplace of nigorizake (cloudy) and koshu (aged) sake, they have been pioneering new techniques in sake production over the years.
6. Mukai Sake Brewery
Mukai Sake Brewery, located in the Fushimi district of Kyoto in the town of Ine, is one of the oldest and most respected sake breweries in Japan. Established in 1754, it has been family-owned and operated for eight generations. The eldest, Kuniko Mukai, is renowned for both being the first female head brewer and her commitment to their unique red rice sake.
7. Oishi Sake Brewery
Oishi Sake Brewery is a hidden gem located in a residential area of Kyoto. It takes great pride in using traditional brewing methods that have been passed down through generations of sake brewers, resulting in a distinctive and delicious flavor. Try their Demon Slayer sake which has 19% alcohol by volume, instead of the standard 14-15%.
8. Takeno Sake Brewing Co
Takeno Sake Brewing Co. is another sake brewery that is well worth a visit when exploring Kyoto's sake culture. Takeno creates exclusive, limited edition sake and has gained international renown having collaborated with The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.
9. Kinoshita Brewery
Kinoshita Brewery is a small, family-run sake brewery located in the Fushimi district of Kyoto. Founded in 1842, it has been producing premium quality sake using traditional brewing methods for nearly two centuries. Their Tamagawa sake is well-known for its ability to produce subtle flavor changes in different temperatures. Their chief brewer is Japan’s first-ever international toji, Phillip Harper, who has created sweet sake and sake that can be enjoyed on the rocks.
10. Shirasugi Brewery
Shirasugi Brewery, an 11th-generation family business, calls itself the only brewery that makes sake using edible rice instead of rice specifically for sake. On top of that distinction, they also create a unique Black Label blend using black koji which creates a heavier, full-bodied taste.
What makes Kyoto’s sake unique?
One of the unique characteristics of Kyoto's sake breweries is their use of the kimoto method. This traditional method involves using naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to create the starter mash, which is then used to ferment the rice. This method is time-consuming and requires a great deal of skill, but it results in a complex and flavorful sake.
Another unique aspect of Kyoto's sake breweries is their use of local ingredients. The water used in brewing sake is particularly important, and Kyoto's breweries use water from the Fushimi area, which is known for its purity and high mineral content. Additionally, some breweries use locally grown rice varieties, such as Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku, which are prized for their high starch content and suitability for sake brewing. It’s all about the rice, rice, baby.
When to visit Kyoto
One of the best times to visit Kyoto's sake breweries is during the annual Fushimi Sake Festival, which takes place in March. This festival celebrates the city's sake culture and offers visitors the opportunity to taste a wide variety of sake from different breweries. The festival also features traditional Japanese performances and food stalls serving local specialties.
Throughout the year, visitors to Kyoto can explore the city's sake culture by visiting breweries, attending sake tastings, and trying local specialties like sake kasu (the lees left over from sake production) and sake-infused sweets. Sake continues to be an important part of Kyoto's culture and identity, and it is celebrated as both a traditional craft and a modern beverage. Visiting sake breweries, especially like this Kyoto Sake Brewery Tour, can be a fascinating and educational experience.
Kyoto's sake breweries are an integral part of the city's cultural and culinary heritage. Their long history and dedication to traditional brewing methods have made them a source of pride for the city and a destination for sake lovers around the world. Many breweries offer guided tours and tastings, allowing visitors to learn about the brewing process and sample different types of sake. Some breweries also offer workshops where visitors can try their hand at brewing sake themselves. Sip, sip hooray!