Senjo: Why not brew a sake that is unique in the world?

Courtesy of Senjo
Bottles of Craft Sake brewed with Kyokai yeast cultures No. 1 through No. 6 distributed by the Brewing Society of Japan

Rice, yeast, mold and water. To the list of elements that go into each glass of Japanese sake, perhaps one should also include passion and timing — two qualities Senjo, a brewery in Takato, Nagano Prefecture, knows better than most.

After 155 years of making sake it might seem like there would be little more to explore with the craft. But lately, Senjo has proved to be one of the rare brewers committed to revolutionizing its alchemical art, producing distinctive sakes that speak to the region’s rich subterranean water reserves and high-quality, locally harvested rice.

This month, Senjo launched a new initiative that invites customers to realize their brewmaster dreams and design their very own custom small-batch sake. Dubbed the “Craft Sake” project, the system gives customers unprecedented control over each step of the production process, from yeast, rice and water selection up through fermentation and the finishing touches.

The initiative is indicative of how Senjo has been seeking to shake up the struggling sake world, under the stewardship of its London-educated, sixth-generation president, Takashi Kurogochi.

I sat down with Kurogochi to learn more about his vision for the future of Senjo, and of course, sample some of the sake that his brewery does best.

Changing tastes

The brewery when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom (Courtesy of Senjo)

Senjo stands out among the rice paddies in the quiet Ina Valley. The landscape hasn’t changed all that much from the brewery’s early days — as glimpsed in the grainy, black and white photos that adorn the walls of a reception room at the company — but 44-year-old Kurogochi contends that the Japanese sake industry is in the midst of a paradigm shift.

“Breweries used to churn out cheap sake by the barrelful. But the days of mass consumption are long over. Now, the time has come to seek out and truly savor thoughtful sake, made with care for the discerning palate,” Kurogochi explained.

“As such, I reasoned that the new generation of clientele would enjoy going beyond simply purchasing our products and instead have an experience. Trying to calibrate a brew yourself really reveals how each choice affects the taste, hopefully for better rather than worse, with many surprises and insights along the way.”