Japan's Artisanal Sake Industry Revives After Quake

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Toru Hanai / Reuters

Kaichiro Saito, a sake maker since 1902, climbs a ladder to check damages to sake containers at his brewery in Kesennuma, Japan, on April 8, 2011

As cruel as disasters can be, they can also bring needed change — and even miracles. When the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit sake brewery Hitakami in the city of Ishinomaki, owner Takahiro Hirai thought it was the end. Since the brewery's founding in 1861, the family-run boutique sake business had survived numerous natural calamities. But this one was worse. When the violent shaking of the earthquake subsided and Hirai was able to wade through the knee-high tsunami water, he headed for the kura, the sturdy but old wooden structure where Hitakami's artisanal sake has been brewed for five generations.

There, he discovered gaping cracks in the roof and structure. The 12 fermenting tanks had tipped over with the sake contents spread across the floor. "It was like a white carpet," he says. "I could hear the sound of 'shuwaaaa' echoing in the building. It seemed as if the sake was fighting for its life and shouting out, 'Help me!'" Electricity was restored 10 days later, but it was 14 days before Hirai and his employees could start the pressing. Normally, sake in this state goes bad after one week, but the cold weather had slowed the process. "I thought the fermentation had gone too far and we'd have to discard everything. I had almost lost hope," he says. "But it turned out to be full of life, with an excellent strong, thick flavor, although very different from our usual style." He adds, "It inspired us and gave us the courage we needed, so we decided to call it "The Light of Hope.' It was a miracle."

For the past 11 weeks, 'courage and recovery' has been the mantra for Tohoku's sake producers and everyone else whose livelihood was thrown into jeopardy after the quake and nuclear crisis that followed. Over half of the the region's 145 sake breweries experienced damage from the earthquake and tsunami; some were completely destroyed. Compensation, however, from public and private sources will likely be limited. Japanese earthquake insurance is usually too expensive for small, family-owned businesses to buy, and insurance for tsunamis is usually not a stand-alone policy, coupled with earthquakes and floods. Many of the businesses are having to tough it out on their own.

The radiation that continues to spew from the nearby Fukushima nuclear power plant hasn't helped, raising international concerns that all food and agriculture exports from the area could be contaminated. Around the world, bans were set and radiation testing required on a wide range of Japanese food items. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration halted imports of dairy products and produce from the Fukushima region. Canada, among other countries, required documents proving that products such as milk, fruit and vegetables from the affected areas were safe. About 60 countries and territories are still restricting imports. And while food only comprises 1% of Japan's export revenue, the negative ripple effects have been far reaching, from the country's agricultural sector to Japanese restaurants abroad.

Some of the panic over Japan's food safety may be easing, thanks in part to a recent dose of 'fruit-and-veg diplomacy.' Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak joined Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in sampling fruit and other farm produce grown near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in a show of support for Japan's recovery efforts. The event was a much-needed PR coup for Kan and the Tohoku region. Wen told reporters the produce was "very delicious," and at the ensuing annual two-day summit of the three countries in Tokyo, he announced China would scale back its ban on food imports from 12 to 10 Japanese prefectures located near the nuclear plant. He added that China will also stop requiring Japanese exporters to submit radiation test certificates — except in the case of dairy products, vegetables and seafood.

The concessions meant little to farmers, who have been showing their anger over the plant's damage to their livelihoods with demands for compensation. Thirty-two agricultural groups in Fukushima Prefecture made an official claim last Friday against the nuclear plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, for $5.5 million in damages over radioactive contamination to their products. Representatives say that four farmer's cooperatives lost $1.8 million by the end of April because contaminated vegetables such as spinach could not be shipped abroad. A cooperative of dairy farmers estimates that their members lost some $3.7 million as imports of Japanese raw milk were banned. The groups say this is only the first step in their compensation and recovery effort.

For the sake brewers, contamination from the crippled nuclear power plant has not been a problem as much as dealing with the paperwork it has created. Most sake rice used in Tohoku is grown in areas far from the nuclear power plant's evacuation zone, explains Tokyo-based sake expert and consultant John Gauntner. "Unlike wine [grapes] you don't have to use locally grown rice," he says. "Most of the best sake rice comes from western Japan in areas like Hyogo prefecture."

But brewers have had to deal with the additional task of processing new import forms required by foreign governments for radiation testing. Urakasumi brewery, located in Shiogama, has been struggling not only with major damage at one of their two kurafactories, but also a backlog of inspections and certificate issuances to meet import requirements. Foreign governments have been requiring the inspections and certificates be done by public organizations, but local public municipalities do not have enough of the actual analysis apparatus. "There are a lot of governments like China, Canada and the EU that are being strict about testing and listing ingredients," Gauntner says.

For this venerated brewery, established in 1724 (think pre-American Revolution), the U.S. is their top foreign destination, garnering nearly 50% of their exports. "The U.S. has not restricted exports, but just increased monitoring for radiation exposure," says Koichi Saura, the brewery's 13th generation president. Saura says Urakasumi exports to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. As domestic sales for sake have been dwindling since the 1970s, many breweries have been seeking markets abroad. Successful markets now include Portland, Oregon, a key destination for sake exports and connoisseurs. In 2010, sake exports reached a record high of 13,770 kiloliters at about 8.5 billion yen (US$103.7 million).

Since March, Japanese consumers have come through with a massive show of support for the struggling Tohoku breweries. Sales have spiked — so much, in fact, that other sake regions were feeling the pinch. With limited output, Tohoku-made sake is now hard to find. The support has given Hirai and other sake producers high hopes for the industry's recovery and expansion. "I'm hoping that sake becomes a more popular drink in the international markets, even rivaling wines such as Montrachet and Chateau Margaux," Hirai says. "Perhaps one day people will say at dinner, "Which one should I drink tonight, Montrachet or Hitakami?"