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Sake enthusiasts explore Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery on Feb. 9 during an open house and tasting event. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request.

Sake enthusiasts explore Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery on Feb. 9 during an open house and tasting event. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Sake enthusiasts explore Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery on Feb. 9 during an open house and tasting event. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request.

Sake enthusiasts explore Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery on Feb. 9 during an open house and tasting event. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Sake enthusiasts can drink sake surrounded by brewery equipment during a brewery tour and tasting like this one at Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery on Feb. 9. Sake breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request.

Sake enthusiasts can drink sake surrounded by brewery equipment during a brewery tour and tasting like this one at Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery on Feb. 9. Sake breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

One of the first steps in making sake is steaming the rice, seen here at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo on Feb. 9. Umegae goes through 500 kilos of rice per day during the sake-making season, which is November through March. Sake breweries across Japan offer brewery tours and tastings upon request.

One of the first steps in making sake is steaming the rice, seen here at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo on Feb. 9. Umegae goes through 500 kilos of rice per day during the sake-making season, which is November through March. Sake breweries across Japan offer brewery tours and tastings upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

After the rice is steamed, the resulting rice and liquid is put in a barrel for one month to ferment before it is separated, as seen here at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo during a tour on Feb. 9. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request.

After the rice is steamed, the resulting rice and liquid is put in a barrel for one month to ferment before it is separated, as seen here at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo during a tour on Feb. 9. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

A tour guide shows off shochu tanks at Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery during a tour on Feb. 9. Umegae brews wheat shochu and fruit-flavored alcohols during May and June and potato shochu during October and November. Shochu is a harder liquor than nihonshu, which is often referred to as "sake" by Americans. "Sake" merely means alcohol in Japanese. Shochu is very popular in Kyushu.

A tour guide shows off shochu tanks at Sasebo's Umegae sake brewery during a tour on Feb. 9. Umegae brews wheat shochu and fruit-flavored alcohols during May and June and potato shochu during October and November. Shochu is a harder liquor than nihonshu, which is often referred to as "sake" by Americans. "Sake" merely means alcohol in Japanese. Shochu is very popular in Kyushu. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The leftover mashed rice does not go to waste after it is separated from the liquid sake. It is a popular additive to Japanese soups and other dishes and is sold at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo along with bottles of sake and other products.

The leftover mashed rice does not go to waste after it is separated from the liquid sake. It is a popular additive to Japanese soups and other dishes and is sold at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo along with bottles of sake and other products. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Tanks full of sake at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo contain approximately 4,300 1.8 liter bottles each. They are just waiting to be cracked open, bottled and sold. Tours and tastings can be arranged upon request.

Tanks full of sake at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo contain approximately 4,300 1.8 liter bottles each. They are just waiting to be cracked open, bottled and sold. Tours and tastings can be arranged upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The arrival of spring in Japan means sake brewery openings and tastings like the one held at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo on Feb. 9.

The arrival of spring in Japan means sake brewery openings and tastings like the one held at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo on Feb. 9. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo was built in 1860 and features sprawling grounds, gardens, traditional Japanese musical instruments and more sake than one can possibly drink.

The Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo was built in 1860 and features sprawling grounds, gardens, traditional Japanese musical instruments and more sake than one can possibly drink. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The brewers at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo take their craft very seriously. Before they get to work every day, they stop to pray to the gods of sake at this shrine.

The brewers at the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo take their craft very seriously. Before they get to work every day, they stop to pray to the gods of sake at this shrine. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An employee of the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo provides a sample before buying at a tasting at the brewery on Feb. 9. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request.

An employee of the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo provides a sample before buying at a tasting at the brewery on Feb. 9. Breweries across Japan offer tours and tastings upon request. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Customers stand in line for freshly bottled sake at the Umegae brewery in Sasebo, Japan.

Customers stand in line for freshly bottled sake at the Umegae brewery in Sasebo, Japan. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Spring is just around the corner in Japan, and that means only one thing: sake brewery openings, tastings and tours.

Most breweries in Japan offer tours upon request, and on Feb. 9, the Umegae sake brewery in Sasebo opened its doors like Willy Wonka, providing throngs of enthusiasts a golden ticket to sample everything the brewery makes free of charge.

For those who enjoy traditional Japanese culture, craftsmanship and a good soirée, a sake brewery opening and tour is tough to beat.

The origins of sake are unknown, but the craft is well over 1,000 years old. The varied types and blends are as distinct and beautiful as the country’s colorful dress and language.

For Americans, the first thing to learn about sake is that you probably have been calling it the wrong thing for years. Sake means alcohol.

The smooth wine-like beverage that most Americans refer to as sake is actually called nihonshu in Japan.

Nihonshu is brewed through a fermenting process similar to beer, despite having the consistency of and sharing characteristics with wine.

There are many other types of sake, such as umeshu, which contains plums; fruit sake, which can be made from citrus fruits, strawberries or peaches; shochu, a Kyushu favorite and a hard-liquor-like cousin of nihonshu; and awamori, similar to shochu and favored in Okinawa.

Shochu is distilled using wheat, called mugi shochu; rice, kome shochu; or potatoes, imo shochu.

The Umegae sake company started in 1787, but didn’t move to its current location until 1860. Ten years ago, the brewery, which features streams, gardens and a shrine to brewing sake, was named a cultural property for Japan.

Its opening every year draws thousands, including U.S. Navy officers from Sasebo and local politicians.

Umegae brews many kinds of nihonshu, shochu and fruit sakes. Nihonshu is brewed from November through March. Mugi shochu and fruit sakes are brewed in May and June, and imo shochu is brewed in October and November. Their fresh nihonshu and strawberry sake are the cat’s pajamas.

The process of making nihonshu begins by soaking and steaming rice. Umegae goes through 500 kilos of rice per day during the brewing season.

After the steaming process, it is put in a barrel, ingredients are added and it’s allowed to ferment for one month, according to tour guides at Umegae. After the fermenting process, the mash is put in cloth bags and pressed to strain the liquid from the rice. The rice is left in for certain milky-colored brands.

The mash left over is then sold for soups and other foods and the liquid is again placed in large barrels that hold 4,300 1.8 liter bottles of nihonshu. Then, when the timing is right, it is bottled and delivered to customers.

To tour Umegae, go to the base tours office and ask them to make arrangements. The tours and samples are free, but groups must have at least five people and a ride or designated driver. The tours last about 30 minutes and are in Japanese, so bringing a Japanese friend to translate is a must.

At Umegae’s opening, workers pumped a blue barrel full of nihonshu to a filling station where they filled and passed out bottles. Long lines formed and the fresh nihonshu sold out quickly.

Seeing the process firsthand while walking among the barrels and sipping different blends is an unforgettable experience — enough to make you click your heels together like Grandpa Joe.

Umegae Sake BreweryLocation: 317 Jomacho, Sasebo

Directions: From Sasebo, head toward Huis Ten Bosch. Follow 205. Take a left onto 142. Cross the river and take a left followed by an immediate left. Umegae will be on the left.

Phone: 0956-59-2311

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but call first for reservations.

Prices: Sake is like wine or whiskey and prices start at 1,000 yen (about $10).

Website: With map: http://umegae-shuzo.com

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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