Kota Sameshima/Chief Brewer, Hombo Shuzo Yakushima Brewery
Due to heavy rainfall, Yakushima enjoys an island-wide abundance of clear water. That, combined with the traditional hands-on production of sweet potato-based “shochu” makes for a product worth tasting.
Hombo Shuzo was founded on the Kagoshima mainland in 1872. The Yakushima brewery, located in the Harumaki section of Anbo, was built in 1960. This is to say that they have been making shochu here for about 60 years, maintaining the original flavor and continuing to make their shochu in a labor-intensive, hands-on way. This requires the commitment of skilled craftsmen from beginning to end.
Originally from Minamikyushu City (on the Satsuma peninsula), Kota Sameshima has been working for Hombo Shuzo for 13 years. He was transferred to Yakushima two years ago and brought his family with him. Kota is the chief brewer here and is responsible for four labels: Yaku no Shima, Yakushima Daishizenrin, Mizu no Mori, and Mukau.
Kota: “I wanted to find work as a craftsman ever since high school. I thought such work would be cool.”
The production of sweet potato shochu begins with malted rice which is then mixed with yeast and water and fermented for five days. To this, sweet potatoes are then added and allowed to ferment for an additional 9 days. This unprocessed shochu is very sharp on the tongue and must age for at least six months to a year before it will mellow into a tasty drink.
The production process maintains many traditions and makes use of old equipment and practices. The temperature of the room in which the rice is malted is the natural temperature at that time and is not controlled or altered with a heater or air conditioner. The qualities imbued in the malted rice are therefore distinct to this humid island. Similarly the vats used in the initial fermentation process – when malted rice, yeast and water are mixed – date back to 1887.
Great care is shown not only to tradition, but to the selection of materials as well. The island’s uniquely soft water is indispensable to the production of mild and sweet shochu. The sweet potatoes are grown on the brewer’s own land and the variety “shirotaka” is used. While the production of sweet potatoes is rare and costly on this island, given its steep slopes and a general lack of flat land, the use of locally grown sweet potatoes gives this shochu a fruity taste reminiscent of whisky or wine.
Kota told me, “Making use of Yakushima’s water, its sweet potatoes and with exposure to this island’s air, this is shochu that can only be made here, and its flavor is unique to this place.” Apparently, when he was working under the head brewer it was difficult for Kota to distinguish subtle changes in the taste and smell of the shochu. But now he is able to make out such changes. Making use of shochu brewing traditions that were largely shaped by the natural environment, this young brewer has taken the reins firmly in hand.
Production spans from September to January and during that time the brewers keenly watch over this very delicate process. “During production, I never catch a cold because I’m totally on edge the whole time. My wife says I get moody in September.”
Written by Sanpo-tei, Rei Ogata
Hombo Shuzo Yakushima Brewery
- 2384 Anbo, Yakushima Township
- Kumage District, Kagoshima Prefecture
- Open: 9:00-16:30, 7 days a week (with temporary closure at some times)
- Admission is free. Tours of the plant can be arranged.