A Room with an Exclusive Brew: Aman Tokyo
In the mini bar at the recently opened Aman Tokyo hotel is an exquisitely designed bottle of sake. Inside guests will discover the Aman Tokyo blend, created especially for the rarefied hotel group by the ancient brewers Masumi.
For Aman has chosen the award-winning brewers as the house sake for its first foray into Japan. There’s also a range of Masumi’s premium and super premium sakes at Aman Tokyo’s Restaurant and Bar; the newly opened Café, where locals queue for at least an hour for a taste of the Aman experience, serves a much in demand sparkling sake and any day now they’ll take delivery of a seasonal sake.
For Aman hotel guests, a trip to Masumi’s brewery in Suwa, in the mountainous Nagano prefecture known as the Japanese Alps, can also be arranged as an Aman Journey.
The Masumi brewery sits on the main street running through Suwa among four other sake houses. It’s no coincidence that sake breweries cluster in areas that have pure water supplies. Suwa is renowned for its hot springs – some families have them in their homes and there’s even a public one on the train station platform.
Like all kuras, Masumi has a ball of cypress tree leaves hanging above the entrance. The sugidama is hung at the beginning of the sake brewing season in the autumn and blessed by a Shinto priest (there are strong, longstanding links between sake making and religion.) The leafy globe starts off green and turns brown through the year – just as the sake matures.
The Miyasaka family who own Masumi have run a brewery on this site since 1662 as the weathered flagstones attest. A higgledy-piggledy clutch of wooden buildings has been built and rebuilt over the centuries. At its centre is a neat, serene courtyard including a shrine to the harvest gods.
A stone monument stands in homage to Yeast Number Seven – the seventh starter yeast proclaimed by the Japanese government in the early 20th century to be of superior quality. Created in Masumi’s laboratory, it is the most widely used yeast in Japan and the basis for the Aman Tokyo Blend sake.
As a boutique scale brewery (the tasting room and shop feel like a chic art gallery) Masumi cannot entertain coach loads of visitors so it feels an honour to be shown around its premises.
Following the rice harvest in September, Masumi mills the rice in-house nearby in Fujimi. They’re one of the few brewers to have their own rice polishing plant so have more control of the quality.
From October to April the brewery is a hive of rice washing, soaking and steaming. In the case of the premium sakes, this is done by hand. Over the door way to one of the warren of rooms hangs a sign reading: The Sake’s Mother’s Room. This is where the yeast starter is kept and is a key part of the fermenting process.
Current president Naotaka Miyasaka is the 25th generation of the family to run the company and remembers his grandfather in charge. He had his own views from the start: “Sales were booming in the period before I joined the company but none of the sake I tried from that era tasted very good,” he says. “So when I took on the business I thought there was much that needed to be done to improve the quality of our products.”
One move was to introduce fresh sake, making Mr Miyasaka one of the pioneers of unpasturised sake in Japan. The idea came to him when on work placement at the Isetan department store where he noticed the seasonality in the clothing sections. He recalls when they produced the first seasonal sake, and the filtering room was filled with the fresh and vibrant fruit aromas, he’d never seen the look on his brewers’ faces before.
More recently Miyasaka has noticed a move away from the traditional image of old men drinking sake to younger customers and more women. This is partly due to the lighter tastes being introduced. The trend for sake now, Miyasaka says, is for Junmai – a pure sake that hasn’t had distilled alcohol added at the filtering stage. The Aman Tokyo Blend is a mix of Junmai Daiginjo and Ginjo, super premium and premium grades respectively. The result is a very light and fine sake.
Mr Miyasaka personally specified what he wanted from the Aman Blend to his brewery master. “I’ve been feeling more and more that most sake is too high in alcohol and there is a need for a somewhat lighter sake that is better for pairing with food,” he says.
Guests may put this back to the test back at the Aman where a special sake pairing dinner can be arranged either in suite or in The Restaurant.
“I felt that a special blend of this lighter, gentler sake would be perfect for Aman Tokyo because they are an important gateway between Japan and the rest of the world. It’s the perfect introduction to sake.”