Masumi is made the Miyasaka family in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture. Originally, the Miyasaka family served as retainers to the Suwa lords who ruled the area in ancient times. However, following years of strife between the Suwa clan and warlords Takeda Shingen and Oda Nobunaga during the Warring States Period (1467-1603), the family gave up its swords and turned to sake making in 1662. The brewery began using the brand name “Masumi” at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Masumi, which means transparency or truth, is the name of an 8th century bronze mirror kept at the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine.
Up into the first quarter of the 20th Century, Masumi remained a small brewery always teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The Miyasaka presiding at the time worked himself into an early grave, leaving his son Masaru Miyasaka in charge of a business that was nearly penniless. Facing ruin, he declared “the only way we can survive is to make the best sake in Japan,” and brashly appointed an unusually talented brewery worker still in his twenties as the new master brewer. Miyasaka and his master brewer, Chisato Kubota, dedicated themselves to making ever better quality sake, and issued standing orders to everyone in the brewery: “if you hear about great sake in the east, then bring some back to taste; if you hear about great sake in the west, then take the night train over there and find out how they make it.”
By the 1940’s, the brewery’s unrelenting commitment to quality began to pay off when Masumi won a series of gold medals at the national sake competition. Suddenly, this tiny, unknown brewery from the mountains became the focus of national attention. Then, in 1946, Masumi gained added fame when the national brewing institute identified a superior yeast strain at the brewery, which they designated “Association Yeast Number Seven.” Yeast number seven is now used by a majority of sake brewers in Japan and across the globe. Over the decades the size and fortunes of the brewery have changed with the times, but one thing that doesn’t change is Masumi’s absolute dedication to quality.
Masumi’s hometown is Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo about two hours by train. Nearly dead-center in Japan’s main island of Honshu, the Suwa area is a highland lake basin surrounded by the peaks of the Japan Alps and the Yatsugatake “Eight Peaks” Range. With Lake Suwa shimmering at its center, the region’s dramatic four seasons and alpine landscape have earned it the nickname “The Switzerland of the Orient.” Nagano was host to the 1998 Winter Olympics, and the area’s natural attractions continue to draw increasing numbers of visitors from around the world.
This environment is also an ideal location for making premium sake. Excellent water from the mountains, an abundance of high-quality sake rice, clean air, and many months of cold weather—all of these are essential to Masumi’s quality and character. Other sake makers have been drawn to the area for the same reasons, and Masumi is one of five breweries within a two kilometer stretch of the old Koshu Kaido Road linking these highlands to Tokyo.
Masumi is a medium-sized maker with an annual production of 9000 “koku,” or 1.6 million liters. We make all of our sake ourselves in our two breweries, the original brewery in Suwa, and a newer facility 20kms away in a mountain village called Fujimi.
Our way of making sake is still quite simple and relies on the skill and hard work of our staff much more than on machines. In fact, when we completed our Fujimi brewery, it did have the latest equipment and a tad more automation, but we found this just complicated things for the brewery staff, so we’ve since returned to our original simple ways. This is not to say that we don’t use any machines. We use them in processes where we want to avoid bacterial contamination, such as milling, washing, soaking, and steaming. Conversely, we use fewer machines and more hand-crafting when working with the koji mold that converts starch to sugar, and with the yeast during fermentation.
The expression “splitting hairs” is often used in a negative sense, but when it comes to making sake you have to “split hairs” if you want the highest quality. That is, you can’t leave even the smallest mistake uncorrected because each small step of the process builds on the step before it, so what started out as a small mistake can affect the result in a big way.
Three generations ago Masaru Miyasaka took up the challenge to “make the best sake in Japan.” It’s a challenge that continues to drive everything we do at Masumi.
Masaru Miyasaka often used to say “don’t make sake that grabs the attention momentarily with unusual flavors or strong aromas; make sake that is so well-balanced and easy to drink that you hardly notice it until the bottle’s empty and you find yourself calling for more.” Sake like that is sake that one never tires of, and that always has a place at the dinner table. Making sake like that is what keeps Masumi aiming for ever higher quality.