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Italian fan of Japanese sake leaves job at luxury brand stores to work at brewery

Sake brewer Giovanni Municchi is seen at the Miyake Hikoemon brewery in Mihama, Fukui Prefecture, in June 2016. (Mainichi)

MIHAMA, Fukui -- It has been six years since Italian Giovanni Municchi dove into the traditional world of Japanese sake brewing, leaving behind his work at luxury-brand stores in his native Italy.

    Municchi works at the Miyake Hikoemon brewery in this fishing town situated between Wakasa Bay and the Mikata lakes in the northwestern part of the Japanese mainland. Founded in 1718, the brewery is a renowned sake maker of the Wakasa region, and is known for its "Hayaseura" brand that won first place in a sake tasting competition.

    According to Municchi, the changes in the smell of the malted rice and the popping sounds of the mash as the brewed sake matures make the brewing process interesting.

    After graduating from school in Italy, Municchi worked at luxury-brand stores such as those for Bulgari and Rolex, and even became a store manager. He read a book about Japanese culture by an Italian author and was interested in Japanese culture, but he says he never could have imagined he would be making sake one day.

    In 1991, he met his wife-to-be Hiroko Nohara, now 54, who was studying singing in Italy. In 2002 they married, and in fall of 2009 they moved to Mihama, which was Nohara's hometown. In fall the next year, Municchi began working at the brewery, which was short of people. He was captivated by the different culture from what he was used to, saying the smell of malted rice is not to be found in Italy. Not knowing Japanese, he kept a notebook in his pocket, in which he wrote down terminology and things he had noticed and wanted to remember.

    The brewery is a small-scale one of five people producing around 50,000 bottles a year, so Municchi is involved with almost every part of the brewing process. He is careful to wash the equipment, saying this is very important since bacteria can influence the taste and smell if they get mixed in. He often has to work early, but he is undeterred, saying he is used to getting up early because he likes collecting mushrooms and going fishing.

    Perhaps because of a lack of preconceptions about sake, and in a manner unique to Italians he refers to the taste and smell of sake by comparing it to fruits and nuts, saying the malted rice is sweet like chestnuts.

    Norihiko Miyake, 44, the 12th generation owner of the brewery, says of Municchi, "He has plenty of sake-brewing knowledge," adding, "He pays attention to the basics that Japanese have almost forgotten. He has understood the essence of things and gives us a fresh attitude."

    Most years, Municchi works at the brewery from September through June, and in summer he returns to Florence and helps at his little brother's popular gelato store. Last September he held a lecture in front of around 20 local bartenders and others, where he talked about the different varieties of brewer's rice and how to polish them, and how to make cocktails using sake. Municchi says that sake is riding a wave of popularity in Florence at the moment, and he is going to hold a lecture again this summer.

    Municchi says that he wants people to know that sake goes well with Italian cuisine. He recommends Parmesan cheese with a sharp-tasting alcohol, uncured ham with sparkling sake and beef steak with sake made without added alcohol or sugar.

    Municchi even spends his days off researching sake brewing, such as by visiting other breweries in and out of the prefecture. He says he will continue to make sake until he grows tired of it, which doesn't look likely to happen any time soon.

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