Once upon a time, all sake was made with locally grown rice. Then came the rise of a particularly reliable strain called Yamada Nishiki, and the scene changed dramatically. Yamada Nishiki, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of Japan’s sake rice, is resilient and easily shipped between prefectures. But as sake makers struggle to compete in a contracting domestic market, a growing number of producers are seeking to distinguish themselves through the use and development of local rice varieties. Each year sees an addition to the roughly 80 kinds of rice used in sake making, as the industry concentrates on creating new hybrids and, in some cases, reviving long-vanished strains.
Takaaki Yamauchi, the sixth generation president and master brewer at Fuchu Homare Shuzo in Ishioka City, Ibaraki Prefecture, found the key to the future by looking to the past. More than 20 years ago, when Yamauchi took the reins at his family’s 150-year-old brewery, he realized that all the rice used to make the area’s sake came from somewhere else.
“I felt it was so strange,” he says. “I wanted to use rice from around here because we make jizake — and ‘jizake’ means ‘local sake.’ “
Ishioka, with its lush scenery of green fields and rolling hills, is known for agriculture. A small town of 50,000 people, it lies between Mount Tsukuba in the west and Lake Kasumigaura in the east and grows an abundance of fruit, vegetables and grains. It’s Japan’s second-largest producer of buckwheat, and its prized persimmons are presented as a gift every year to the Emperor.
“We have very rich soil here. There are many rice farmers who grow rice for eating, but no one was cultivating rice for sake,” Yamauchi explains.
He began talking to farmers and became intrigued by stories of a storied sake-rice variety called Wataribune that had once been grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. Wataribune was used in 1939 to develop the now-dominant Yamada Nishiki strain. It had been widely used in sake making for centuries but fell into near-extinction around 50 years ago. Though it was rumored to yield brews of great depth and complexity, it was notoriously difficult to grow. The plant’s tall stalks made it vulnerable to typhoons, while its long growing season exacerbated the risks. Yamauchi proposed an initiative to revive the strain, but few farmers were willing to gamble on such an uncertain enterprise.
With little enthusiasm from farmers and no monetary assistance from the government, the prospects of success were slim, but Yamauchi remained determined. He enlisted the help of Fujishige Hotta, a former professor of agriculture at the Institute for Agricultural Development in Ibaraki, to track down the elusive rice strain. They searched for the seeds throughout Japan, Australia and North America to no avail. Their luck turned in 1989, when they discovered a store of Wataribune seeds that had been preserved for research purposes at the gene bank of the National Agricultural Institute in Tsukuba.
They received a scant 14 grams from the Institute, and it took two years for them to raise enough seeds to begin cultivation in earnest. Now, Yamauchi works closely with five farmers to grow the rice on fields that cover a total of four hectares.
The resulting sake takes its name from the rice: Wataribune. Annual output is modest, at only 20,000 liters, but consumer response has been consistently favorable. The product line started with one small tank of daiginjo (a premium sake made from highly polished rice) and has gradually expanded to include three other kinds of sake — a junmai daiginjo and two varieties of junmai ginjos.
“Wataribune changed my life,” says Yamauchi. “It made our brewery different from other breweries and gave me great motivation. When our Wataribune Daiginjo won a gold medal 12 years ago, I felt real accomplishment.”
T he success of breweries like Fuchu Homare has led others to bring back local rice varieties. On their Web site, brewery Imada Shuzo in Hiroshima records the progress of the Hattansou maboroshi mai — literally translated as “phantom rice” — strain they have been helping to revive since 2006.
Beyond the rediscovery of old rice strains, brewers are racing to develop new regionally specific hybrids. According to sake expert John Gaunter, the practice has become exceedingly widespread in the last few years.
“I’ve been in the industry for over 15 years now, and just today I saw two rice varieties I’ve never heard of,” he remarks.
While Gauntner doubts that all experiments will yield great results — perhaps only 1 in a 100 will turn out to be a superior rice — he believes the trend will continue.
“We’ve seen so much homogenization of sake styles in the last 70 years, now everyone wants to return to ‘regionality.’ They want to be able to say, ‘This is our sake, it’s local, and this is what makes it special.’ “
Industry professionals aren’t the only ones interested in the idea of regional character. On a much smaller scale, consumer efforts are being made to preserve existing rice varieties — as well as the fields on which they are grown. In Mie Prefecture, the 21 families in a community organization called the Kawahara Shirataki Tanada Hozonkai devote their spare time to working on neglected rice terraces in Inabe City. Most of the group’s members had never been involved in agriculture before.
“While thinking of my life plan after retirement, I saw the ad (for Kawahara Shirataki Tanada Hozonkai),” says member Toshio Okajima. “I became a member after agreeing with the objectives of reclaiming and regenerating abandoned rice paddies.”
Although the group grows mostly table rice, they began cultivating a small quantity of sake rice three years ago.
“It started with members’ requests to make sake and to research sake production,” Okajima explains. “Then we found a brewery that agreed to make a small amount. So we started making 600 kg of Ukon Nishiki rice, a variety good for sake brewing.”
After the harvest each year, the group joins the brewing staff at Ito Shuzo in Yokkaichi City to make a tiny batch of sake. For the brewery, it’s more about the concept than the commercial implications. This is jizake in the truest sense of the word — a collaborative effort between a small brewery and residents from the surrounding area, using local rice. The sake’s brand name, Shirataki-Suzuka, reflects local pride. Shirataki is the name of a waterfall nearby, and Suzuka refers to the mountains in the middle of Mie Prefecture.
These rice varieties may not change the lives of other brewers in the same drastic way Wataribune changed Yamauchi’s. One thing is for certain, though: They are changing the landscape of the sake world and bringing back local flavor.