《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》

The producers of distinctive alcoholic beverages help to support the stagnating Hokkaido economy during the Coronavirus pandemic and perhaps possess the presence to refresh the region. In this ‘New styles of delicious alcohol from the north’ series, we explore the strengths and unique techniques of Hokkaido-produced alcohol, and its links with food.

Special feature

≪New styles of delicious alcohol from the north≫ A drop of aspiration to refresh the region ~ signature breweries, distilleries and wineries popping up throughout Hokkaido

Wine and the like that cannot be made elsewhere; initiatives in pursuit of thorough quality are beginning in regions throughout Hokkaido.

■ Wine made from the grapes of each field

Early this month, at the Memuro Winery in the town of Memuro in the Tokachi subprefecture, tasting of the first red wine made from ‘Yamasachi’ grapes produced in the town took place. Chief winemaker Hirose Shuji (70) compared two glasses. “This wine has a blueish hue, while this other one is yellowish and has clarity,” he said with an approving expression.

Memuro Winery was established in 2019 by CEO Bito Koichi (57) and a group of farmers in the town. Hirose gained over a quarter century of experience producing Tokachi Wine in the same subprefecture.

Hirose focused on the fact that land on which farmers grew grapes was dotted around the town. “Even with the same variety of grapes, if the soil and daylight hours are different, the flavors are completely different,” leading him to make wines with grapes from each field. The labels of eight varieties of red wines that go on sale in July contain the names of five grape farmers.

The purchasing price of the grapes is 500 yen per kilo, which according to Bito is “20% more expensive than usual”. The method is both time- and cost-consuming but it is hoped to establish this method as a way of highlighting the individuality of the fields, like in France, the home of wine. “If we put the names on the labels and guarantee the purchasing price, the farmers put in more effort. We can make flavors that cannot be found anywhere else in the world,” emphasizes Bito.

■AI that supports the chief brewer

University of Tokyo professor, Matsubara Hitoshi (62) is known as a leading authority in AI (artificial intelligence) research. On May 19, Professor Matsubara visited the Hakodate Sake Brewery in the town of Nanae in the Oshima subprefecture, to observe the sake brewing process. “Hopefully, we can help with the stable production of alcohol like this,” he says.

The Hakodate Sake Brewery collects data regarding temperatures, humidity and substances that function during fermentation, and analyzes what kinds of environments are best for making delicious sake. Professor Matsubara, who until last year carried out his research at Future University Hakodate, offered to cooperate. There are no other examples in Hokkaido of AI development being used to help support a chief brewer or pass-on sake-making techniques.

Hakodate Sake Brewery is sake brewery in southern Hokkaido that, with the start of production in February, is making a comeback after a 35-year blank. Many sake breweries in Hokkaido prepare their products in winter but are also starting year-round production. The breweries’ interiors are divided into separate areas, such as sake-rice cooking areas and rooms for mixing the rice with the malt, and by installing ventilation it is possible to maintain temperatures inside the brewery to around 10 degrees even in summer.

“There’s new sake throughout the year, so we can offer in-season products all the time,” says chief brewer Higashiya Hiroki (52).

 ■Introduction of capital from Honshu

Of the alcohol-producing companies that have begun operating in Hokkaido in recent years (see map below), many (wineries in particular) have been funded by capital from Honshu. Domaine Raison (Nakafurano, Kamikawa subprefecture) was established by a wine producing company based in the city of Koshu in Yamanashi prefecture, which practices sustainable farming by using the manure of goats it raises, as fertilizer for the grapes. Japanese sake producer Michizakura Shuzo transferred its business from the city of Nakatsugawa in Gifu prefecture after being lured to the town of Higashikawa in the Kamikawa subprefecture.

Microbreweries, like Bifuka Shirakaba Brewery (Bifuka, Kamikawa subprefecture), which uses local white-birch sap, are also increasing. Stable production and regional collaboration will be the key to success for newcomers like these.

As a forerunner in Hokkaido, Iwatake Kimiaki (56), head of the Nikka Whisky Hokkaido Distillery, which has been in operation in the town of Yoichi in the Shiribeshi subprefecture since 1934, sends words of encouragement to his new counterparts, saying “even now, we want to be thought of having an ‘essential role’ in the region or in Hokkaido, and make constant efforts to improve taste and quality.”

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The main bases for the producers of alcohol that have begun operating in Hokkaido since 2015

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