A Sake Brewery to Save the Vanishing Rural: Ine to Agave
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.
“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.
A new category brings innovation to sake
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.
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.
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.
“Fermenting” a thriving community
Restaurant “ Tsuchi to Kaze (Earth and Wind)”
“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.