Fukui. Not a lot of trivia comes to mind at the mention of Fukui.
Fukushima, yes, plenty there albeit most of it sadly related to the recent tragic natural and man-made disasters.
Fukuoka doesn’t have so much either, although it does have a reputation for some of Japan’s finest ramen, prepared in the Hakata-style using a Tonkotsu pork bone broth. It also has an amusing International Air Transport Association (IATA) airport code, which I’ll leave to your imagination…(hint, it starts with ‘F’ and ends in ‘K’).
With one of the smallest Prefectural populations (well under a million people), Fukui is less than half the size of Fukushima and a sixth the size of Fukuoka but what it may lack in bustle, it makes up for in sake quality, and is a leader in terms of both table and sake rice production. It also has some spectacular country parks and for the palaeontologists out there, its own Fukuiraptor, unearthed in the Prefecture’s very own Kitadani Dinosaur Quarry.
On the nihonshu front, it over indexes on the average number or breweries per Prefecture. Best estimates suggest there are now (just) 1,200 across Japan so Fukui’s share of 36 is well above the average of 26. Nevertheless, Fukui’s reputation is a relatively well-kept secret outside of Japan and it doesn’t tend to feature in the Who’s Who of Japan’s brewing powerhouse Prefectures alongside the likes of Niigata, Hyogo, Kyoto and Nara.
But perhaps it should.
The sparseness of the population is perhaps symptomatic of the fact that a lot of land is taken up with rice growing, and not just any rice. Gohyakmangoku thrives in Fukui and flips the tables upside down coming in behind only Hyogo and Niigata (gohyakumangoku HQ) for sake rice cultivation. This stat is made all the more staggering by the fact that Fukui is less than half the size of either of these other Prefectures in terms of land mass.
We’re perhaps in the most rice-centric place in Japan if you look at it like that.
Whereas Niigata’s gohyakumangoku sakes tend to yield a light and clean sake, symbolic of the Prefectural style, Fukui doesn’t have a genre you can nail down, and is perhaps all the richer for that.
As a Prefecture, Fukui is quite segmented into a bunch of smaller communities and districts however Fukui City itself, the capital and largest city of the Prefecture, dominates in terms of brewery numbers with over a quarter of the total.
Perhaps it benefits, like Ishikawa Prefecture that borders Fukui to the north, from the same prevailing maritime conditions, yet the variety of sake styles on offer would belie that suggestion.
Sake Central’s own Fukui selection largely reflects this segmentation with a good handful of “City” breweries available to taste and purchase, not least Fukui City legend Hakugakusen from Yasumoto Shuzo, now in its 168th year of sake production, making hands on only stuff from deep subterranean well waters.
Sake making is a skill in its own right but what Hakugakusen does well is produce a wide variety of products from a no surprises 65% junmai down to a killer 40% daiginjo, and weaves in some real interest with wine yeasts (putting out hints of malolactic acid commonly associated with wine) and aging processes along the way. Modern experimentation from a traditional outfit.
Closest to Kyoto and the refined feminine sakes typical of that Prefecture, lies the diminutive Mihama Town whose lucky inhabitants must be weaned on the great Hayaseura sake coming out of Miyake Hikozaemon Shuzo. The team there specialises in low polished ginjo grade sakes, some down to as little as 30%, but at a price that won’t cause alarm.
In this series of Fukui posts, we’ll be honing in on a selection of the best districts for sake within the Prefecture to give you an on the ground view of what to buy and why.
There’s plenty more to Fukui then as you can see. We can’t offer you dinosaurs and national park vistas but we can give you front row seats to some truly outstanding sakes. Come try!
A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.