The Day the Craft Sake Constellation Rose into the Skies of Oga

Naoko Asai

October 27, 2022

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.

On the third weekend of August this year, an event that had locals staring in amazement and saying “I can’t believe there’s such a long queue at the ticket gate of this station…” took place in the plaza in front of Oga Station, the gateway to Oga City, Akita Prefecture, in Japan’s Tohoku region.

What you could find there were eight restaurants well-known to sake fans, and sake fans from inside and outside the prefecture, as well as seven sake breweries. The breweries were established between 2019 – 2022 in Japan and abroad: Oga’s “Ina to Agave” in Akita, Japan, WAKAZE in Paris, France, “Konohanano Brewery” in Asakusa, Tokyo, “haccoba -Craft Sake Brewery” in Minamisoma, Fukushima, “LIBROM -Craft Sake Brewery” in Fukuoka, Fukuoka, “LAGOON BREWERY” in Niigata, Niigata, “Happy Taro Brewery” in Nagahama, Shiga.

However, among the boisterous atmosphere, the clear sake being poured into the crowd’s glasses (of which, there were also those drinking milky unrefined sake), was not “Refined Sake” in the eyes of Japan’s Liquor Tax Act. Deviating from the pure definition of “Refined Sake” is the new genre of alcohol named “Craft Sake.” “Craft Sake” is quickly becoming the center of attention in a market where the current regulations within Japan’s Sake industry are onerous. Entering the sake market as a new competitor is virtually impossible.
Anyone who is even slightly fond of Japanese sake would most likely stop their scrolling at this point. “Japanese sake lovers are gathering for this, even though it’s a sake that’s not actually ‘Japanese Sake?’”, ”So it’s a new type of alcohol called ‘Craft Sake?’ Isn’t ‘Japanese Sake’ also a ‘craft’ alcohol in the first place?”, “What even is the difference of ‘Japanese Sake’ and ‘Craft Sake?’” It’s only natural to have a number of simple questions like these. First, let’s briefly take a moment to explain the definition of “Refined Sake (SAKE)” and “Craft Sake.”

“Refined Sake,” including those produced abroad, is primarily made by fermenting and straining rice, malted rice, and water. Within “Refined Sake” is “Nihonshu / Japanese Sake,” which only refers to that which utilizes domestically grown Japanese rice as its base ingredient and is brewed within Japan as well. Refined sake is defined by its base ingredients and production method as outlined by the Liquor Tax Law. Nihonshu / Japanese sake is defined as protected by a Geographic Indication (GI).

So, what happens when you add in other ingredients besides the rice, malted rice, and water? What happens when the product is bottled after skipping the filtering step that’s clearly defined in the standard production method? It falls outside the range of the Liquor Tax Law’s “refined sake,” and becomes classified in the category “Other Brews” (that includes unrefined sake); this is exceedingly close to that of “refined sake.” In reality, sake lovers are fine with “Craft Sake” as an extension of traditional Japanese sake, and Japanese sake novice’s are choosing it as an entryway to the world of sake.

The brewery founder, Shuhei Okazumi, established the Craft Sake Brewery “Ine to Agave” in Oga in 2021. Okazumi took the conventional framework of “Other Brews” and inserted the colorful and eye-catching “Craft Sake” logo into it, making it into its own genre and a concept he shared with the world. He’s the sponsor of this year’s June event, where he gathered seven like-minded craft sake breweries from around the nation to form the “Craft Sake Brewery Association.”

Before “Ine to Agave” was established, there was a brewery in the corner of a certain warehouse with an abandoned “Other Brew” production permit, which he brought back to life. In conjunction with the “Craft Sake Brewery Association,” he opened “WAKAZE,” an approximately 15㎡ microbrewery in Sangenjaya, Tokyo in the summer of 2018.

Okazumi and the association became the forerunners of “Craft Sake” after two Copernican Revolutions.

First off, they faced the reality that they wouldn’t be able to produce “Refined Sake” in the novel manner they envisioned. Instead of obsessing over being able to brew “Refined Sake,” they decided to obtain the production permit for “Other Brews,” where being a new market competitor was certainly realistic. This was the first turning point.

Moreover, they now held the desire to incorporate the creative inspiration they received from the craft beer and gin brewing movement abroad, in combination with the traditional Japanese sake brewing techniques, as a base. In this way, they would release over 30 types of “Botanical SAKE” made with plant-based ingredients at a rapid pace within one year.

The second turning point was when they decided that, if they weren’t granted a new permit for brewing refined sake within Japan, they would just have to leave Japan and go on to make SAKE abroad. This led them to building a brewery in Paris, France in 2019.They went on to brew and sell refined sake overseas (with WAKAZE also being sold in Japan). There certainly are examples of major sake brewers or breweries with a long history successfully being established in the past, but it was unheard of for a start-up to successfully pull off something like this. Many voices of astonishment began to rise from those involved in traditional breweries, and suddenly they became the rising star of hope for the next generation of brewers.

In order to carve out the path known as “Craft Sake,” “WAKAZE” put in the work to clear out the wilderness, pull up the weeds, till the Earth, and even pave the road to make it easier for those coming after to walk this path. (Operations at Sankenchaya are temporarily suspended in 2022. The primary brewer is now only in Paris)

Running ahead on this path is “Ine to Agave,” which was made a reality in just under a year from the establishment of the brewery and Craft Sake Association to the holding of this time’s event. Company representative Okazumi is actually not a native of Akita Prefecture, nor was he born into a family with many generations of brewers. He holds no ties of obligation to his birthplace or those from past generations. So then why did he go so far to promote “Craft Sake” from within Akita?

On reflection, Okazumi thought, “I didn’t have many connections or relations in Akita, but in 2014 when I worked in the ‘new administration’ for the Akita Brewery, the people here took such great care of me. I had the thought that, one day, I wanted to pay them back for their kindness through Japanese sake.” Some natural rice growers in Akita Prefecture have even considered becoming his apprentices. (Okazumi has been purchasing rice as his base ingredient from the farmers here at a price that is much higher than the standard market value.) If he was going to open his own brewery, it definitely had to be in Akita. Although it took some time to decide, the location he found to start his brewery was in Oga.

Oga, in western end of Akita Prefecture, is positioned on a peninsula bordering the Sea of Japan, and is even seen as a “far off” place by the residents of Akita Prefecture (physically and spiritually). The city’s population sits at approximately 25,000. The average number of passengers per day at Oga Station was 229 as of last year, and with no key industries present within Oga, the city is facing one of the highest rates of depopulation / population aging in Akita. For that reason, the aim of his brewery is “brewing the spiritual features of Oga.”

Skies of Oga and green field

Okazumi explained, “There are two meanings included in this. First off, after gaining an understanding of the land and people of Oga, I can brew sake as if the spiritual features of Oga are directly packed into the bottles. The second is to go beyond just sake brewing, and create an exciting business from which we can give rise to new employment opportunities. I plan to open a food processing operation near the brewery in November of this year with the concept of “transforming possible food waste into treasure.” The first product will be a mayonnaise-like condiment made by up-cycling “sake lees,” which are always at a high risk of waste, instead of using egg yolks. There are several other new projects in the works as well, and I believe that ‘brewing the spiritual features of Oga’ will help enrich this region for the future.”

Hakko Mayo in a jar
As has been repeatedly stated, entering the sake industry as a new competitor is arduous, thus the focus on “Craft Sake.” However, due to law reforms in April 2020, new refined sake brewing permits could now be obtained, with the condition that production would be focused on overseas exports. If sake could be produced for the purpose for exportation, then the allure of Oga and Japanese Sake could be shared with the entire world. And from that point, the future we hope to see is one where “Japanese sake fans from all over the world gather in Oga.”

“That’s why it won’t work for us to just have one brewery. In the same way that wine lovers from all around the world gather in Burgundy, we need many more brewers to achieve our goal.” “Ine to Agave” is currently the only sake brewery in Oga, and the first one in a long time. However, Okazumi, without any hesitation, even referred to Burgundy, the globally renowned wine-brewing region, as his own goal of acclaim. Towards this end, he is trying to increase the number of “Craft Sake” breweries, raise the notoriety of “Craft Sake,” and create a future where Japanese sake and “Craft Sake” can coexist.

This event, which brought together 4,000 people from all over Japan, was only the first step toward Okazumi’s goal. The sake-tasting event, which was named “Sho-jo-en,” introduced the opening to this grand venture. It was held over two days, with a lineup of restaurant booths and craft sake breweries, where visitors were able to enjoy the wide variety of craft sake. At the same time, a special dinner event called the “Hoshi-mukae” was held for three days from 8/19 to 8/21. This was limited to 30 people selected through a lottery. Entries came in from all over the country, and all days were sold out thanks to “Ine to Agave” fans. The venue was an outdoor restaurant featuring a spectacular 360 degree view of Mt. Kanpu. It featured 12 dishes served by six chefs and five elite pairing specialists from Akita and Tokyo.

Conducting the culinary orchestra of one of a kind chefs was Goki Inoue of “TETOTETO.” He is the food creative director of the restaurant and store connected to the “Ine to Agave” brewery.

All ingredients used in the dinner course were from Akita Prefecture (with Akita’s food self-sufficiency rate being one of the highest in Japan). The dishes were served on ceramic dishware made by local potters and Kawatsura lacquerware, one of the local traditional crafts. These were crafted specifically for this event, with the “food” and “sake” serving as hubs for the local crops and handicrafts featured.

What surrounded them as they enjoyed the pairings was none other than the natural bounty’s of Oga. The sunset that sinks over the horizon of the Sea of Japan, and the Milky Way, which cannot be seen from Tokyo. This banquet, so to speak, is but a capsule collection that condenses the “spiritual features of Oga” that Okazumi has brewed through his “craft sake” over the past year.

It took just short of a year since the brewery “Ine to Agave” was established to prove that even a single brewery in a diminishing community can move people and goods on such a dynamic scale that it becomes an engine for local rejuvenation.

Once the event concluded, Okazumi said, “I have gained confidence knowing that, even in rural areas where local transit and lodging are inconvenient or minimal, with ‘passion’ it’s possible to attract others here. I want to refrain from using an over-the-top term like ‘regional development’ just yet, but I am excited about the world I see beyond the heat of the moment. There is no time to burn out as the days after the end of this event are abnormally intense. We can still do so much more, and we can go even further ahead!”

Without showing any signs of fatigue, Okazumi is making every effort to stay busy working on the next stages of development: a food processing facility opening within this year, a ramen restaurant, and the establishment of an auberge within a few years’ time.

In addition to the seven craft breweries introduced at the beginning of this article, other “Craft Sake” breweries are bound to be established through Japan hereafter. When that time comes, the “Ine to Agave” approach to brewing even the essence of the region itself, as demonstrated in from this event, will surely be referenced as the ideal role model for craft sake breweries. By bringing together craft sake breweries scattered across the country for the first time, this event has expanded the public awareness of “Craft Sake.”

The summer of 2022 in Oga will surely be etched into the history of Japanese sake as a memorable narrative, where each craft sake became a star, connecting together, to rise up as a single constellation.

Ine to Agave
Craft Sake Brewery Association

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Naoko Asai is a Tokyo-based editor and writer specializing in food and sake. As the former Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Ryouri Oukoku magazine, she brings a wealth of culinary expertise, impeccable attention to detail, and a passion for Japanese cuisine through her captivating storytelling.