Japan’s Saké Industry Fights Back

It’s been almost a year since a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northern coast. What are saké insiders and eager volunteers doing to help get the community back on its feet?

On March 11, 2011, a deadly, six-minute, magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked the northern coast of Japan, spawning an even more devastating tsunami. Saké breweries throughout the Tohoku, or northern prefectures, particularly Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, suffered devastating losses of life, as well as damage to property, inventory and production facilities.
A year later, despite incredible tragedy and loss, Tohoku breweries are rising again.

Against all odds, Suisen rebuilds

Of all of the Tohoku breweries damaged by the disaster, none was obliterated with such cruel force as Suisen Brewery in Rikuzentakata, Iwate. Video of the brewery engulfed in a giant surge of water and rubble before disappearing into the sea replayed for months on Japanese television and is immortalized on YouTube.

Seven of Suisen’s 57 employees lost their lives that day—a day planned as a celebration to mark the release of their new 2010 vintage. Suisen’s owner, Yasuhiko Konno, and his wife escaped the tsunami with only minutes to spare, and like half of the households in Rikuzentakata, lost their home as well.

Returning to his devastated property days after the disaster, Konno saw something that gave him determination to start anew. Jutting out toward the sky from a mountain of debris, Konno spotted a long steel beam from which a wooden saké barrel, still adorned with Suisen’s insignia, dangled in the wind.

“Despite the fact that everything was lost to the tsunami, this saké barrel just happened to get caught on this beam, and seemed to be calling out, ‘Suisen is right here!’” Konno explains. “It was as if this invisible force was pushing Suisen back to life.”

Living out of a community shelter and with his property beyond repair, Konno temporarily closed his company. But even while filling much of his time with volunteer work, he began planning for reconstruction. By June, with donations and assistance from saké brewers both near and far, Suisen established temporary production facilities in a space provided by a fellow Iwate saké brewer.

“We received so many letters and calls of encouragement,” Konno says. “Amongst them was someone who expressed their concern even though they had only drunk Suisen saké once. For them to have reached out to us despite such a small connection, it made me feel that we weren’t alone in fighting.”

Just six months after the disaster, Suisen began brewing once again.

On October 17, Suisen held a celebration for the launch of its first postdisaster brew. Following blessings and prayers by priests summoned from Suisen’s native shrine in Rikuzentakata, Konno and his employees loaded trucks with silver cans of Yukikko, or Snow Child, a softly sweet nigori, or cloudy saké.

“Moving forward,” Konno says, “I’d like people to support Yukikko, not because we were that company that was devastated by the disaster, but because we make truly delicious saké.”

Global saké community unites to lend a hand

Timothy Sullivan, a saké educator and blogger based in New York City, was on a train outside of Tokyo when the earthquake struck—the first quake the Syracuse native had ever experienced. Trapped for the next 16 hours in the halted train car, he became increasingly distressed as news of the tsunami trickled in via Twitter and fellow passengers’ iPhones.

Over the next few days, he began to hear news of devastated breweries along the northern coast. Cutting his trip short to return to the United States, Sullivan dove into organizing disaster relief fundraisers in New York City with colleagues from the local saké and restaurant community, raising over $60,000 for the Japanese Red Cross Society. Two months after the disaster, he came across a Twitter message by Alex Parsons, a student at the London School of Economics, seeking volunteers for a two-week trip to assist saké breweries in disaster-struck Miyagi and Iwate.
Parsons, co-founder of the Japan Affairs Forum, a UK-based group that promotes Japanese culture, business and current affairs, had recently lived and worked in Osaka and was deeply affected by the disaster.

“Most people had neither the expertise nor experience to go out and help with immediate disaster relief,” says Parsons. “I wanted to create a project which allowed laymen to get involved in regenerating the area through local industry. Saké was ideal since it is synonymous with Japan [and] a great symbol for hope…and the industry within Tohoku…was in need of a lot of help.”

Sullivan signed up as one of only two Americans in a group of 18 volunteers, composed mostly of British students, as well as UK- and Japan-based international students from as far away as Singapore, China and Italy. A handful of Japanese students joined as translators. The group visited four of the region’s most devastated breweries—Suisen in Iwate, Niizawa Brewery (home of the renowned Hakurakusei brand), Urakasumi, and Miyakanbai in Miyagi. The volunteers toured the afflicted areas and provided much-needed manpower.

From steaming rice and stirring mash to loading boxes and cleaning tanks, they tackled every aspect of saké production. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi, one of the coast’s hardest-hit communities where over 4,000 people perished or remain missing, the volunteers spent a day shoveling tsunami-strewn mud from public street gutters. At Suisen, they also took part in a brainstorming session to help breweries establish marketing strategies for their recovery.

While their trip was grueling both physically and emotionally, Sullivan was deeply moved by the hospitality of his hosts. “[I]n the midst of all their concerns and worry…in their struggle to recover, [that they were able to] welcome us so completely was just so heartwarming and wonderful,” he says.

Tohoku Saké To Try

If you’re wondering what you can do to support the recovery of the Tohoku region, Timothy Sullivan has a suggestion: “An easy and wonderful thing you can do is to buy saké…[particularly] from Miyagi, Iwate or Fukushima prefectures,” he says. Many, like the following, are readily available in the United States.

Hakurakusei Legend of the Stars Junmai Daiginjo (Miyagi). Delicate on the palate with a soft, subtle acidity, this saké boasts crisp, clean, sweet pear and Muscat grape flavors. Finishes dry, but with a sweet rice note. Banzai Beverage Corporation.
abv: 17%   Price: $55

Urakasumi Junmai (Miyagi). Round and rich on the palate with the earthy, sweet scent of freshly steamed rice, it’s brisk on the finish with just a bracing touch of astringency. Nishimoto Trading Company.
abv: 16%   Price: $37

Nanbu Bijin Southern Beauty Tokubetsu Junmai (Iwate). Dry, yet elegantly feminine with lifted floral and fruit notes, it builds in richness, texture and depth on the palate towards a delicately saline finish. Mutual Trading Co., Ltd.
abv: 16%   Price: $27

Daishichi Minowamon Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo (Fukushima). While ebullient on the nose with cherry and cherry blossom notes, there’s a stunning minerality that adds verve to a soft, creamy palate. JFC International Inc.
abv: 15%   Price: $86

To read about a Tohoku brewer's viral YouTube campaign, click here.

Published on December 22, 2011