《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.

July 16

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《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》 Part 1 : Aiming for worldwide recognition ⑤ Exports offer hope for hard-hit sake sales

Kunimare Sake Brewery CEO Hayashi Shinji (right) samples the taste of Japanese sake experimentally brewed using Yamadanishiki produced in Hokkaido, along with the person responsible for its production. April 13, Mashike, Rumoi subprefecture

On April 13, the Kunimare Sake Brewery in the town of Mashike in the Rumoi subprefecture was immersed in the sweet aroma of newly brewed sake. It was a ‘junmai ginjo’ sake experimentally brewed with ‘Yamadanishiki’ sake-rice produced in Hokkaido. On sampling the sake, a smile broke out on the face of company CEO Hayashi Shinji (71), who said “The only way of competing with the Coronavirus is venturing out into the world. This Sake was developed at the best time.”

■ ‘Yamadanishiki’ produced in Hokkaido

Yamadanishiki is a low-protein, large-grain rice that reduces undesirable flavors, and is Japan’s highest-quality sake-rice, ideal for brewing. It is mainly produced in Hyogo prefecture. Due to it being susceptible to cold, Niigata was considered to be the northern limit for its cultivation. Kato Yuzuru (56), a rice farmer in the city of Ashibetsu who was considering converting his crops to rice for processing due to a decrease in demand for standard foodstuff rice, “wanted to attempt to produce the highest-quality sake-rice possible”. Trial cultivation began in 2016 and, in 2020, 1.4 tons of rice were harvested, leading to this experimental brew.

 As Kunimare Sake Brewery hopes to increase exports to the United States, it also plans to acquire kosher certification recognized by devout Jews. This is part of the plan to provide momentum by increasing the brand strength of Hokkaido Yamadanishiki.

If this year’s harvest is successful, Kato and his colleagues, and the Hokkaido Bank Agribusiness Promotion Office (Sapporo), which organizes the project team, plan to request five other sake breweries in Hokkaido to brew sake using the rice. “It would be great if, along with other Hokkaido sake-rice varieties such as ‘Ginpu’ and ‘Suisei,’ it acquires the presence to help stimulate the sake industry,” says advisor Kimura Hideo.

■30% reduction in shipments

Since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold last spring, sake companies in Hokkaido have continued to face adversity. According to the Hokkaido Sake and Shochu Makers Association, shipments between April of last year and March this year decreased by 27.3% on the previous year to 3,247,000 liters. “In addition to the slump in demand for eating out, due to the Coronavirus, the demand for souvenirs from tourists from throughout Hokkaido and beyond also disappeared, which caused tremendous pain,” said a despondent union executive.

In a bid to expand their sales channels, many companies are looking overseas. The volume of exports in the past five years (including sales at duty-free shops in Hokkaido) has been in the range of 100 to 200 thousand liters. This accounts for just 5% or so of the total shipment of alcohol and, therefore, depending on the Coronavirus being brought under control, there can be said to be sufficient room for growth.

Kobayashi Sake Brewery (Kuriyama, Sorachi subprefecture) too, sought to expand exports to Europe after one of its products became the first Hokkaido-produced sake to be ranked in the top-5 at a competition in France last summer. In early April, Otokoyama (Asahikawa), with its long-established sales channels in the United States, also began selling a ‘nigorizake’ (unrefined sake) that is popular among non-Japanese drinkers.

■Reducing distribution costs

Such movements in the industry are being supported by Nitori Public (Sapporo) in the advertising sector. The company transports daily necessities from Shanghai, China in a scheduled container-ship voyage twice a month, and aims to load the returning ships – which until now have been almost empty – with sake in order to export it regularly at low cost.

The first export consignment last December comprised 1,000 bottles. The sake will be sold at major supermarkets in China from this July, and online business meetings will be held with Japanese restaurant owners. The idea is to utilize Nitori’s various routes to develop stable trade. “It is not easy to establish sales channels but hopefully it will help sake breweries in Hokkaido,” says the company’s CEO, Arai Isao (65), who is also looking into ways to extend the support to Hokkaido’s wine and craft beer, too.

The aim now is to recover the sales that deceased due to the Coronavirus pandemic. As domestic demand dwindles due to the declining population and more and more young people move away from sake, it will inevitably become necessary for manufacturers to look overseas. Tanaka Kazuyoshi (63), CEO of Tanaka Sake Brewing Co., Ltd. (Otaru) and chair of the Hokkaido Sake and Shochu Makers Association says “We need to recover by improving and refining the taste of sake and considering labeling that catches the eyes of foreigners, creating a future for sake breweries in Hokkaido.”

(End of Part 1)

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Kunimare Sake Brewery

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