Sake brewers at Niizawa Brewery hand sort steaming rice to be used during the koji making process
Niizawa Brewery, A Pioneer of Japan’s Modern Sake Scene
11th March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck a section of Japan’s eastern coastal region. Niizawa Brewery, in Miyagi prefecture, saw firsthand that destruction with the complete collapse of the brewery and loss of lives amongst their colleagues and within their community. However, the brewery prevailed: with the progressive ideas of the current president, Mr. Iwao Niizawa, underpinning the rebuild, the operation is spearheading a new era in modern sake production. We spoke to the dynamic and diverse team on what it means to be carving a new path in the industry.

Measuring a magnitude of 9.0, the earthquake triggered tsunamis and landslides across a huge area of northeastern Japan, and a meltdown of three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. So powerful, it moved Honshu, Japan's largest island, 2.4m east and shifted the Earth on its axis by an estimated 10 to 25cm. ‘At the time of the earthquake the future was completely unseeable. It took all of my energy to just keep on living. Some of my employees’ family members perished in an instant. Our problems were much greater than just reestablishing the brewery. People’s souls were more important to me’, Mr. Niizawa says, recalling the early days and weeks following the earthquake. ‘There were dead bodies surfacing everyday. I always wore black clothing, and when I learned that another acquaintance of mine had died, the only way being from funeral announcements posted at the side of the road, I would go to offer incense to pay my respects.’

A stark reminder of how vulnerable humankind is to the power of nature, the catastrophe did not manage to stifle Mr. Niizawa’s resolve. ‘People from sake breweries around Japan came everyday to help, and my thinking slowly shifted towards the future.’ Change was afoot: ‘Within nine months we had made a new brewery and were able to start production again. We bounced back with the utmost speed.’

Mr. Niizawa standing in front of his Miyagi prefecture brewery. Image courtesy of Niizawa Brewery

Mr. Niizawa, after graduating with a degree in brewing science, as the fifth generation owner, took over the family’s brewery, only to find its finances on the verge of collapse. ‘We didn’t have the money to hire a toji (head brewer) from one of the guilds so the only option was for me to take up the position.’ And so, in the year 2000 at the age of 25, he became Miyagi prefecture’s youngest toji. ‘During my training period, I just aimed to change what I thought was wrong or inefficient. I don’t think what I did was innovative, in fact, I think my way of thinking is rather old-school.’

In reality, Mr. Niizawa re-examined the state of the brewery and its place within the industry. In a time when there were only words in the Japanese lexicon for a pre-meal or post-meal drink, Niizawa Brewery, through their Hakurakusei series, pioneered the idea that there should also be a food-pairing sake, a sake that intensifies the flavours in the dishes it’s paired with.

‘Hakurakusei is not overly sweet or aromatic. Its subtle aromas mean it won’t clash with those of food, and its clean dry finish will help reset your palate, leaving you craving that next bite’, says California-born fuku-toji (assistant head brewer) Sam Callon, rhapsodising about their signature brew. ‘For me it’s the Goldilocks sake.’

Image courtesy of Niizawa Brewery

Having an American on the team is only one way that the brewery is bucking the traditional restraints of the sake industry. Though Sam has had no trouble acclimating to the Japanese way of living: ‘I moved to Japan on my first birthday and have lived here ever since, over 26 years to this point. I’m a native speaker of Japanese, and my coworkers actually joke that rather than an American speaking Japanese, I’m a Japanese person who speaks English.’ But they still call him Sam.

Mr. Niizawa, a strong believer in making changes from the bottom-up, not from some grand, performatic strategies as president, has attracted a young, creative team to follow him. ‘I think Sam shares my way of thinking’, he says. ‘We built a brewery with a welcoming work environment and people joined naturally. It wasn’t a conscious goal or objective. Now, our workplace reforms flow directly from the brewery floor and from changes to our environment, which were made possible by the people around me. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in now, constantly being allowed to study and learn.’

Today you’ll find a team of 40 working at Niizawa, ten of whom are in the brewing department. Around 60 percent are female, a rarity in the sake industry. Equally rare, some of these women hold prominent positions, including the unusual appointment of Nanami Watanabe to the role of toji. When she took the reins in 2018, she became Japan’s youngest toji at just 22-years-old. ‘Generally in Japan the farther you go up the job ladder the rarer women become. That isn’t the case with us here at Niizawa’, Mr. Niizawa says. ‘I picked Ms. Watanabe and Sam to be our toji and fuku-toji simply because they are talented.’

Ms. Nanami Watanabe. Image courtesy of Niizawa Brewery

‘Although, I do of course feel grateful for all of the attention that my job title has given me, I think the attention has less to do with me and more to do with the fact that there are no other breweries giving a chance to people my age’, Ms. Watanabe says, pondering her position in the industry. ‘Things would be different if there were people with whom a comparison could take place.’

With a background that includes studying sake at Tokyo University of Agriculture, and now a distinguished record of producing award-winning sakes (amongst these a gold at one of Japan’s most prestigious judgings, the Sake Competition, in 2018), Ms. Watanabe’s talent is a promising example of where the industry is heading. ‘Maybe it’s because I am blessed with a supportive environment, but I have never found my job difficult for the specific reason of being female’, she says.

Traditionally, the sake world has been an area monopolised by male workers. Suffering a steady decline since its peak in 1973, in part due to a lack of a labour force willing to commit to the demanding job, the industry is slowly but surely modernising, and as a result, the door is now open to female workers. Particularly at Niizawa Brewery, a place that appears to be one step ahead of the curve when it comes to shedding the somewhat antiquated ideas of the past.

An old photograph of the original Niizawa Brewery. Image courtesy of Niizawa Brewery

Japan’s ingrained gender inequality makes it notoriously difficult to balance a full-time job with being a mother in many industries, not just sake. Ms. Watanabe explains: ‘The entrance into the industry is incredibly narrow, and I think it might be difficult for women to imagine what life would be like within it. Age, I think, is another complicating factor. Even if a woman were to work at a sake brewery, the age at which one would generally be entrusted with the title of toji is also the age at which women often get married and have children.’

Japan remains a country where a lot of women choose family over their career path, taking a step back from the working world once they are married. ‘However, it is becoming more common for women to continue working after marriage, and improvements in the working environment – through the shortening of workdays and the increased automation of the most physically demanding tasks – will, I think, lead to more women working as toji in the future’, Ms. Watanabe continues.

A harmonious connection between brewer and ingredient is felt at Niizawa. Although the process is physically and mentally challenging, a rhythmical beauty can be seen in the journey of sake production. ‘A typical day during brewing season starts at five in the morning’, Sam says, whilst describing the incredibly complex process from grain to glass. It seems the majority of traditional techniques that have been used for hundreds of years, are still done by hand, though certain aspects have been updated with advanced technologies, including four state-of-the-art diamond rice polishing-machines, in which the rollers that are used to polish the rice are made from diamonds instead of traditional stone.

First the rice must be polished. ‘A lot of our process is fairly by the book’, Sam elaborates. ‘Where we really differ from other breweries is in what we do before we wash the rice and what we do after we press the sake. At Niizawa we polish all of our own rice. This is incredibly rare, as rice polishing machines can cost as much as 60 million yen. We have six machines: four diamond polishing machines and two machines for flat-polishing, called henpei seimai. These are special in that they allow for retention of the shape of the grain during the process. Flat-polishing rice allows you to remove more of the unwanted fats and proteins while retaining a higher percentage of the starches. In the finished sake this means greater clarity.’ The team at Niizawa take their time when polishing, scrutinising the quality of the rice and adjusting the polishing process accordingly, reducing the potential for any ‘cracking’ of the grains.

Next comes the washing: ‘It was decided before I entered the brewery three and a half years ago that we would finish all of the washing in the early hours of the morning, before the rice finishes steaming around 9–9:30am’, Sam says. ‘For me, this means waking up at 3:45am, having a slice of toast with a glass of milk and maybe a banana or half an apple before driving the 30km to the brewery.’ After washing, the rice from that day is left to sit and rice washed the previous day is transferred to the kama, a large vessel used for steaming. ‘This process is called kome-hari and typically takes about 35 minutes. On a normal day we steam about 900–1000kg of rice.’

Whilst the rice is steaming, preparatory work happens in the production of koji, a substance made by combining a cultivated mould with rice that is used in the fermentation process of sake. Any fine-tuning of the fermentation process, from temperature checks to sampling to preparing tanks for brewing, also takes place during this time.

‘It’s all hands on deck when the rice finishes steaming. Ms. Watanabe inoculates the rice destined to be koji with the koji spores, and then we all run it to the muro (koji rooms) as fast as possible’, Sam says. Speed is important in the winter, particularly in Miyagi where the first snow at the brewery can be seen as early as November, and where temperatures outside can reach a rather frigid sub-12C, with the interior faring only slightly better at around 0C. ‘For best results, we can’t let the rice fall below 30C.’

Winter is usually peak sake-production time in Japan, since the textbook way of brewing sake involves fermentation at temperatures no higher than 13–14C. Without refrigeration, copious quantities of ice, or the natural advantage of the colder winter months, this is simply not possible to achieve during certain times of the year. ‘Since our tank rooms are temperature controlled we’re able to brew sake almost year-round’, Sam says. This means that the Niizawa team can concentrate on brewing smaller batches under a watchful eye to bring out the characteristically clean flavours that embody the spirit of the brewery.

The afternoons are for bottling, maintenance of the machines and dealing with by-products. ‘The last work there is to be done is the kirikaeshi of the koji, where we, by hand, break apart the rectangular mounds of koji which were made in the morning’, Sam says. ‘Kirikaeshi helps prevent the production of uneven koji. If this process isn’t undertaken, some of the grains will not turn the opaque white indicative of propagation. This rice is useless in the final mash. It will not help saccharify the starches and neither will it dissolve, all it does is hurt the quality of our sake and our yield.’

Ms. Watanabe chimes in: ‘Sake is different from wine and beer in how it ferments. There are multiple parallel fermentations happening, where the conversion of starches into sugars happens in tandem with the conversion of sugars into alcohol. I find it interesting that you can get completely different sake based on changes in the balance between the various microorganisms.’

The final part of the Niizawa process doesn’t stop until it reaches the hands of the community, Sam assures me: ‘After we press our sake we do not blend it. We bottle all of our sake within five days of pressing and then store it at -5C until we have decided it’s ready to ship to our customers. Because of this, our sake is incredibly fresh tasting. You can guarantee that no matter where you are in Japan, your Niizawa sake will be in peak condition.’

Image courtesy of Niizawa Brewery
Editor’s Note:

Special Thanks to Natsuki Kikuya who introduced us to Niizawa Brewery and their team, and also to Sam Callon, Assistant Head Toji, who translated the thoughts of Iwao Niizawa and Nanami Watanabe so beautifully.

Rachel E T Davies