The sake world is looking greener as an increasing number of producers invest more time and resources in developing organic lines. In 2004, Niigata-based giant Kikusui attracted attention for opening the Sake Culture Institute, an immaculate facility dedicated to organic sake research, and small producers around the country are also doing their bit for the environment and local community.
For Takashi Aoshima, master brewer and president of Aoshima Shuzo, the idea is nothing new. The company produced its first organic sake in 1997, shortly after Aoshima came home and took over the family business. After four years in New York, he gave up his position as a currency exchange specialist at securities firm Nomura — against the advice of his father — to become a sake-maker.
Aoshima knew from the start that he wanted to make organic sake.
“To respect terroir, it’s natural to grow your own rice. That’s the real way of making sake,” he says. Aoshima does not use chemicals and relies strictly on the auspices of nature. He works the fields alongside long-time friend, rice farmer Akihiro Matsushita, and their organic sake bears the label “Matsushita-mai” (“Matsushita rice”). Each bottle is marked with a tracking number for quality control and lists the certification number from the government-appointed Japan Agricultural Standard.
The regulations governing organic sake are complicated, almost mind- boggling. Before the rice can be used to make sake, the field must be certified as organic. This process involves three years of analysis, followed by yearly random inspections. Inside the brewery, additional rules are applied, governing everything from how the tanks are cleaned to what instruments are used. Detailed records must be maintained at all times.
Extra care comes with extra cost. To ensure against possible contamination from neighboring fields, Aoshima leaves a three-meter perimeter around his organic paddies. The crop density is less than half that of regular rice. Although the organic sake sells for roughly double the price of his non-organic sake, the production costs are 25 percent higher and yields are 50 percent lower.
“We’re not turning large profits on the concept sake,” Aoshima says, “but making sake according to my ideal gives me tremendous mental satisfaction. It’s tied to my sense of identity.”
At the moment, Aoshima brews two organic sakes, Kikuyoi Matsushita-mai Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo, which account for only a small fraction of his total output. The market is limited, but the 3,300 bottles released every year sell out quickly.
“My next challenge,” he says, “is to figure out a way to grow more rice while keeping this level of quality. In 20 years, I want organic to be the norm, not the exception.”
Standing by the rows of light-green shoots in his organic paddies, Aoshima checks his watch and points to the brown ducks flapping in the mud.
“They usually come at this time to eat bugs,” he nods. He knows the schedule well: frogs in the morning, ducks in the afternoon, and bats in the evening. It’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem and a healthy field.
In the sleepy Fukushima Prefecture village of Tamura-cho, where the bus service stops after 6 p.m., 18th-generation owner Yasuhiko Niida and the folks at Niida Honke are devoted to restoring the health of the area’s rice fields. Niida Honke is one of a growing number of breweries that label their sake as shizen (natural), munouyaku (pesticide-free), or tei– nouyaku (low-pesticide); although these categories are not official government- approved designations, they indicate zero or minimal pesticides. Of the rice used for Niida’s Shizenshu, Odayaka, and Tamura sake, 95 percent is grown without pesticides or chemically enhanced fertilizers on company-owned fields. They hope to be 100 percent organic by 2011.
“In the past, rice and sake were viewed as gifts from God,” says Niida. “We were inspired to honor that tradition, to care for the fields and make sake the way it should be made.”
Two years ago, the brewery began hosting events to rally the community around the cause. At these fureai taiken, visitors help plant the rice, weed the fields and harvest the rice. In the winter, they can also participate in a sake-making event and receive a bottle of the finished product in the mail.
This year, Tamagawa Brewery in Kyoto released its first sake made with rice purchased from organic farmers in nearby Hyogo Prefecture. The rice was grown with the intention of helping provide a habitat for the Oriental White Stork, a large, carnivorous bird that relies on the fauna in the rice paddies.
“The rice was not only grown without the use of agricultural chemicals, but the farmers also have their paddies submerged much longer than usual to promote the growth of wildlife,” explains master brewer Philip Harper.
Two sakes are sold under the Kouno Tori (White Stork) label — bone-dry Kimoto, fermented with naturally occurring yeast, and a Junmai Ginjo. Tamagawa donates a portion of the proceeds (¥100 per 1.8-liter bottle and ¥50 per 720 ml bottle) to a fund established to protect and expand the storks’ habitat.
So far, the project has been a success. Harper says that despite slightly higher prices, the sake has been well received, and the area saw several successful stork hatchlings this year.
The work is costly and there are few economic advantages for small producers of organic sake. For these brewers, though, their contribution to the greater good is its own reward.
“There’s no economic benefit for us, but my hope is that the next generation will reap the benefits,” says Niida.
Aoshima agrees. “Finance is a zero-sum game, where somebody always has to lose. But this is a win-win situation.”