Tohoku Brewery Saves Sake Mash from Noto, Bottles Batches for Quake-hit Firms

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kentaro Sugihara, managing director of Niizawa Brewery Co., looks at a bottle of sake made from the mash of a quake-hit brewery, on Feb. 9 in Kawasaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

SENDAI — A sake brewery in Osaki, Miyagi Prefecture, has come to the rescue of two quake-hit breweries in Ishikawa Prefecture, hauling away their fermenting mash and brewing their sake for them.

Niizawa Brewery Co. was itself hit hard by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Following the major quake, it received plenty of support from other brewers. As it had experienced difficulties similar to those now felt in Ishikawa Prefecture, the brewery wanted to pay back the goodwill it had received.

“‘Can we help the sake breweries in Noto in any way? We want to do everything we can to help.’ That’s all we could think,” said Kentaro Sugihara, 47, managing director of Niizawa Brewery.

Though they had no idea what the situation was like in Ishikawa Prefecture, a group of Niizawa employees decided to head for the peninsula, resolved to go as far as they could. They packed their car with food and supplies and left their town on the evening of Jan. 12. After driving for over 10 hours, they reached the Noto Peninsula.

They visited Kazuma Sake Brewery Co., which is based in the town of Noto and has a relationship with Niizawa, and also stopped at Hakuto Sake Brewery Co. in Wajima.

At the Kazuma brewery, they learned that the brewery’s buildings had been damaged by land subsidence, and due to the power outage, the company was unable to properly manage its fermenting mash or to press the sake from the mash.

The mash is the mixture of yeast, koji rice malt and steamed rice that is fermented on the way to making finished sake. During fermentation, strict temperature control is maintained for about one month with an accuracy down to 0.1 degrees.

In the final brewing step, the sake is pressed from the mash, leaving behind the sake lees. Mash that is not kept at the proper temperature will decline in quality, and in the worst-case scenario, it will have to be disposed of, inflicting a fatal blow on the brewery.

Courtesy of Kazuma Sake Brewery Co.
Employees of Kazuma Sake Brewery Co. unload bottles of sake delivered from Niizawa Brewery.

Sugihara was determined to do whatever he could to save the mash so painstakingly prepared by the Noto breweries. He took their mash and brought it back to Osaki, to produce sake with his company’s equipment.

“When we are in trouble, we help each other out,” Sugihara said. “We decided to take charge of the mash, aware of our responsibility, as if we were watching over their children.”

Thirteen years ago, on March 11, three of Niizawa Brewery’s buildings, which dated from the company’s founding in 1873, were destroyed. The brewery was forced to build a new brewery in Kawasaki in the prefecture, about 70 kilometers away from Osaki.

While they were at a total loss for how to move forward, the brewery received aid from both in and outside the prefecture, including supplies and food. Once electricity and water were restored later in March, many breweries came out to help Niizawa rebuild.

“Thanks to the support we received back then, we are what we are today,” Sugihara said. He added that his company has continued to feel a sense of gratitude since then as it has made its sake.

On Jan. 15 and 17, Sugihara and other staff visited the two breweries again, this time carrying 3,000 liters of water in tanks in their cars. They gave the water to the breweries, which were still suffering from water cutoffs, and after filling the empty tanks with mash, they returned to Kawasaki.

Set on “rescuing the mash as quickly as possible,” they worked to press the mash through the night. When they finished filling about 1,150 bottles with fresh sake and putting on caps bearing the logos of the two breweries, Sugihara said he felt pure relief.

Kaichiro Kazuma, 37, the fifth-generation brewer and CEO of Kazuma Sake Brewery, received a delivery of 350 of the bottles on Feb. 5. “We were rescued when we had almost given up. I am filled with gratitude for the kindness they have shown us,” he said.

The bottles for Hakuto Sake Brewery will be delivered as soon as the brewery is ready to resume operations. “We want to give our support to the wonderful sake of Noto,” said Sugihara.