A Sake Brewery to Save the Vanishing Rural: Ine to Agave

Saki Kimura

February 18, 2023

Last October, American food professionals visited fermented food producers to deepen their knowledge of Japanese fermentation culture during the “Hakko Tourism in Japan” tour campaign. As part of the tour, organizers held a tasting session where guests gave candid advice from the perspective of the American market to food product manufacturers looking to enter the United States market.

The small island country of Japan is home to 47 prefectures, each of which boasts its own unique culture. Crafts and ferments like miso, soy sauce, and sake all owe their heritage to these cultures.

However, over decades, depopulation has impacted rural areas as population ages and birthrate declines, with many small towns facing veritable extinction.

In the face of these hardships, one culinary hero has turned to fermentation to revitalize a community.

Reviving a vanishing town as a tourist destination

In the fall of 2021, an abandoned train station building on the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture, located in the northwest of the Japan archipelago, was transformed into a sake brewery. The founder of “ Ine to Agave” Brewery, Shuhei Okazumi, who was born in Fukuoka Prefecture, a thousand miles south of Oga City, is the key figure behind the project. After graduating from Kobe University with a degree in business administration, Okazumi gained renown as an ace brewer at Aramasa Brewery, one of the best-known sake breweries in Asia.

Shuhei Okazumi

Shuhei Okazumi

As a troubled adolescent, he says he was saved by people in Akita many times over. Hoping to give back to the region, Okazumi set his sights on the Oga Peninsula, an area jutting out into the Sea of Japan.

“Oga is a scenic area that attracts 2.5 million visitors a year, but most people just drive around and leave. [The area is] surrounded by the sea and mountains, and blessed with delicious seafood and fruits, yet there is a complete lack of restaurants and lodging facilities,” Okazumi says.

The sea of Oga
Oga is located just an hour away from the center of Akita by train, giving it a lot of potential as a tourist destination. Okazumi decided to use his knowledge and skills in sake brewing in the hopes of turning the area into a major visitor attraction.

A new category brings innovation to sake

Ine to Agave makes a sake that is slightly different from that commonly distributed in the United States due to Japan’s conservative laws.

Currently in Japan, no new licenses are allowed to be issued to produce sake – only transfer of licenses through mergers and acquisitions is permitted. Sake production licenses are a privilege granted only to historic sake breweries. Even talented brewers like Okazumi are not allowed to make sake unless they are employed by an existing brewery.

Four bottles of Doburoku series and five bottles of Craft series of sake produced by Ine to Agave
As a means of overcoming this hurdle, the “Craft Sake” category has been gaining popularity in recent years, especially among young brewers. It is based on the typical sake production method, but with the addition of secondary ingredients during the fermentation stage. The result is not legally considered a sake, but is classified as “other brews.”

Okazumi is a leader in this field, having also founded the Japan Craft Sake Brewers Association in 2022 to bring together like-minded individuals. The “Shojo-en” events held in Oga and Tokyo in the same year attracted many young people and made the public aware of the existence of a new style of sake with a taste that cannot be created by conventional brewers.

As with ordinary sake, the basic ingredients are rice, koji, yeast and water. As a secondary ingredient, Ine to Agave adds agave syrup, the tequila ingredient that is also part of the brewery’s name .

All the raw material rice is naturally grown without pesticides or fertilizers.

“[Using] no fertilizer reduces the protein content of the rice, but it makes it easier to make sake, being less prone to cracking and unwanted flavors. Rice cultivation is labor-intensive work, but it is not paid back enough to the farmers. Using naturally grown rice adds value to our brand and allows us to buy rice at a higher price” Okazumi says.

Rice field

In addition, while the rice used for sake is often milled down to one-half its original volume to remove impurities, Ine to Agave has standardized a 90% remaining rice ratio (only 10% milled), similar to edible rice, in order to reduce food loss.

*Ine to Agave produces sake without secondary ingredients only for export products utilizing the “Sake for Export Production License,” which began to be issued in 2021 in Japan

“Fermenting” a thriving community

Ine to Agave has succeeded in extending the stay of visitors by offering a café and restaurant next to the brewery.
Restaurant "Tsuchi to Kaze"

Restaurant “ Tsuchi to Kaze (Earth and Wind)”

Further, Okazumi has been working to renovate vacant houses around the Oga Peninsula into factories, shops and restaurants to create local jobs. One of them is the Sanaburi Factory, scheduled to open this April. The project to build this processing plant to make seasonings and food products from sake kasu (sake lees), byproducts of the sake brewing process, has attracted a great deal of support, generating as much as $90,000 in crowdfunding, or 1,200% of its original goal.

“Since my years at university, my goal has been to become an entrepreneur that creates jobs. Hiring is not limited to the brewery. Renovating buildings to create places in town would give young people a reason to stay in Oga and attract more people from other areas. We are planning to open a ramen shop, a guesthouse, and a distillery by the end of this year. In the future, we’d like to open an auberge inn utilizing an old house, where you can enjoy our sake along with food,” Okazumi tells.

The first product to commemorate the opening of Sanaburi Factory is Koji Mayo, a mayonnaise-like condiment made from sake kasu, which will be put on sale in the U.S. through Hakko Lab, a strategic co-brand launched with several food manufacturers.

Tune in for Part 2, where we will explore this fascinating condiment.

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Saki Kimura is an accomplished journalist specializing in sake. With a journalism certificate from UCLA, she's reported on sake consumption worldwide. Currently the director of SAKETIMES International, she writes, translates, and promotes sake, focusing on overseas distribution and international breweries. Her expertise has made her a respected figure in the industry.