On arrival at CHOYA, Inaba San and I were greeted by Vice President and Production Director, Mr. Shunji Kondo, (his older brother Mr. Shigehiro Kondo being the Company President.).
I was treated to an overview of the CHOYA company history that continued over a wonderful lunch at a local soba restaurant. After 56 years of crafting umeshu, CHOYA is now sold to over 60 counties, employs 144 people and also has a production facility in China that caters to the local Chinese market. CHOYA produces a vast range of umeshu variations but focuses on four main product lines for the Japanese market.
Umeshu bottled with fruits ? CHOYA Classic, CHOYA Shiso (Japanese basil) and CHOYA Honey. (all with extra strong variants) Sarari ? a lighter style with lower alcohol. Umeshu RTD ? premixed umeshu cocktails in a can, mainly mixed with soda. Yowanai ? alcohol free premixed cocktail.
Umeshu was traditionally crafted at home. A simple infusion of ume fruit, sugar and alcohol (originally this was aged sake then shochu.) CHOYA’s philosophy is to maintain the heritage of this traditional method but replicate it on a scale of 25,000 to 1. Most home umeshu was prepared in jars of 4-litre capacity; with the same methods CHOYA uses 100,000 litre tanks instead.
After my time at CHOYA Head Office I was to witness this adherence to traditional methods at my next stop ? the Iga Ueno facility, one of four plants CHOYA operates in Japan. This vast complex of 68,498m2 can produce approximately 36,000 bottles of umeshu per day!
To walk us through the process we were put into the care of Mr. Kentaro Suga (Manager of Quality Control Department), a friendly, super keen gentleman who was beaming with pride after presenting his first overview in English! He proudly guided us through the process as we walked around the vast complex. True to their word, production was just like at home, only on a grand scale.
During harvesting in June, ripe ume fruit is inspected and then loaded onto transport. The fruit is delivered usually within 24 hours of it coming off the tree. It is washed and then placed in the maturation tanks with sugar and alcohol, these days its sugar cane spirit ? did someone say rum! Some of their super premium lines include maturation in fine brandy.
As in the home environment, maturation lasts a minimum of one year but for special releases and premium variants the aging can continue up to fifteen years.
Our tour finished surveying the vast bottling facility. Long bottling line snakes coiled around workers that tended to them as they filled the many different sizes and styles of bottles and cartons CHOYA is sold in.
Finally for our thirsty work of navigating the Iga Ueno plant was rewarded in a tasting. I was treated to a comparison set of three ume varieties ? Shirokaga (apple notes), Nanko (richer and slightly sweeter with hints of maraschino cherry) and Oushuku (slightly dryer with a touch of peach and almond).
We also sampled CHOYA Nigori ? a super rich style that was reminiscent of fruit puree that had a super rich marmalade nose. CHOYA Shinroku ? first run umeshu from the bottom of the tank, it had a richer body with a higher concentration of stone fruit and almond on the palate and finally CHOYA Excellent, a premium ume liqueur using the best nanko ume and a French brandy base. This Monde Selection Grand Gold award winner was the perfect finish to a long day immersed in ume lore.