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Sake... spotlighting Kitakata!

September 8, 2016

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Introducing Kitakata sake...

Kitakata is a small town, surrounded by mountains and rice fields in the Aizu region of Fukushima prefecture. Renowned for its traditional storehouses, kura, and ramen, it also boasts eleven sake breweries. Strolling around town, these are easily identifiable from large balls of cedar hanging outside, known as sugidama or sakabayashi, which mark the production of a new sake. When the green needles turn brown, it's said that the sake has aged enough to be ready for drinking.

The natural geography of Kitakata, and indeed the entire Aizu region, lends itself to the production of high quality sake. The cold climate allows a slower fermentation process and rice has plenty of growing space. Crucially, though, there's an abundance of water from nearby Mount Iide. This is soft water, which also slows the fermentation process, yielding a sweeter taste.

Fukushima prefecture has become one of the most acclaimed sake-producing regions in Japan. Its breweries have won the greatest number of gold awards at the prestigious Annual Japan Sake Awards for four consecutive years. They claimed an astounding 18 awards for the brewing year 2015, thirteen of which are from Aizu, with three of those in Kitakata!

A changing industry: sake's resurgence

The achievements of Fukushima sake need to be appreciated within the context of the entire industry. National sake consumption reached a peak in 1973. However, breweries largely sacrificed quality for quantity to meet this demand, and customers began to complain about the poor taste. At the same time, imports of foreign beverages were also becoming cheaper, and their exotic image made them an increasingly popular choice. As a result, sake consumption declined to just a third of the 1973 level.

The good news, however, is that you can raise your sake glass once more – over the past couple of decades, the industry has seen a resurgence. Young brewers have begun to take over family businesses and even to take on the role of the master sake brewer themselves, gaining more control over the production process and ultimately the taste.

According to Hiroyuki Karahashi (43) president of Aizu Homare brewery in Kitakata, the youth are more prepared to take risks in trying new brewing processes and techniques. Moreover, they understand the tastes of the younger generation of consumers.

But why are they taking on these challenges? Perhaps timing, suggests Karahashi, pondering the question. “When my father was president of the company, consumption of sake was going down and down. The older generation didn't know how to deal with that situation and they kind of gave up. So the younger generation has had to take over.”

Karahashi's brewery claimed the Champion Sake at the International Wine Challenge 2015 in London, an achievement that spotlighted Fukushima sake internationally. But business has been tough: Fukushima breweries, in particular, have had no choice but to radically shake up their production methods after the nuclear accident. Not only are they facing the challenges of a declining domestic market, but they also lost the Chinese and Korean markets due to safety concerns, although their sake was unaffected.

The younger generation certainly does not lack ambition or creativity to tackle these issues, introducing many fruit and sparkling varieties to the market to attract younger and female customers. Karahashi, himself, is not afraid to dream big. Like wine tourism in the Napa valley, he aims to turn the Aizu area into a sake tourism area where people come to learn about and, of course, buy sake.

And with goals like that, it might not be too long before many more visitors are raising glasses, and shouting “kanpai” in Kitakata.

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