Sake fights fallout of Japan’s triple disaster

Japan's brewers, many devastated by the tsunami, work to allay radiation fears

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

After surviving the double disaster of the magnitude 9 earthquake and towering tsunami that damaged more than 100 sake breweries in northeastern Japan on March 11, sake producers in Tohoku thought that the situation could hardly get worse. But when the media reported that the stricken reactors at Fukushima’s No. 1 nuclear power plant had begun to leak radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, they realized that some of the biggest difficulties were yet to come.

Takaaki Yamauchi, president and master brewer at Fuchu Homare Shuzo in Ibaraki Prefecture, was still cleaning up the shards of sake bottles that had been smashed by the earthquake when he heard that radiation levels had risen in the area.

“At first, I wasn’t scared, but after hearing information from the media, I started to worry,” he confesses.

He immediately asked for help from Ibaraki University, which sent a professional to screen his sake for radiation. Thankfully, radiation levels in the sake were normal, but Yamauchi was also worried about the rice fields near his brewery in Ishioka City, where he grows the ancient Wataribune rice strain for his signature brew of the same name.

“We asked the same professor to check the land and found no problems,” he says with a sigh of relief. Six weeks after the incident, Yamauchi says that operations are now back to normal and going well.

“Imagine a nuclear blowup in the middle of Bordeaux,” says Beau Timkin, owner of sake specialty shop True Sake in San Francisco. Addressing an international audience at a sake seminar in London on April 19, he paused for a moment to let the gravity of the economic impact sink in, then added: “That’s what (Japan) is dealing with, so it’s an important time to drink Japanese sake and eat Japanese food.”

In regions surrounding the plant, levels of radiation exceeding permissible limits were detected in some food products, spurring the Japanese government to impose consumption and shipping bans on leafy vegetables and other agricultural products from Fukushima, Ibaraki and Tochigi prefectures. On March 25, the United States began implementing restrictions on food imports from several prefectures in northeastern Japan; other countries – including China, Singapore, Canada and Australia, as well as many countries in Europe – quickly followed suit.

“All the brewers are really nervous,” says sake expert John Gauntner. “I don’t think there’s any question that the sake is safe, but Asian and European countries are turning containers away.”

Fear of radiation contamination has sparked a frenzy of media speculation over the safety of Japanese agricultural products and has shaken consumer confidence abroad, at least temporarily.

“People called me two weeks after the (Fukushima) accident (and asked), ‘Can we drink your sake? Is it radioactive?’ ” laments Swedish sake importer Ake Nordgren.

Nordgren points out that all of the sake being sold this year was produced in 2010 and therefore runs no risk: “It’s very important to base your decisions on facts, rather than emotions,” he says.

“A lot of customers, especially in the restaurant industry, were concerned at first, but there’s been no drop in sales,” he continues. “Unfortunately, I think the new EU stipulations are freaking people out.”

In response to protests over the acceptable maximum levels of radiation in food products from 12 prefectures surrounding the power plant (including Fukushima, Ibaraki and Niigata), the European Union announced its intention to tighten import regulations on April 8. According to an EU press release, the current standards are “consistent with levels which have been applied by the Japanese government.” Although sake bottled before the onset of the nuclear crisis is exempt from the new controls, sake shipped after March 29 is now subject to rigorous inspections before leaving Japan and once again before entering the EU.

On April 24, Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, reported that the Japanese government would begin issuing certificates based on criteria determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency to vouch for the safety of containers and ships departing from Tokyo and Yokohama. The Ministry of Transport is in the process of compiling guidelines on how to measure radiation levels; however, confusion remains regarding the proper procedures.

“It’s very uncertain and nobody at this time knows exactly what to do or how to do it,” says Simon Hofstra, director of import company Sake Europe in the Netherlands.

The international restrictions have alarmed sake makers all over Japan. Domestic sales have dwindled steadily since the 1970s, and many sake producers have been aggressively courting markets abroad. While super-premium ginjō brands – sakes with a milling rate of 60 percent or lower – saw a modest increase of 0.3 percent worldwide in 2010, sake sales dropped 7.9 percent overall, according to figures from the National Tax Administration. Conversely, sake exports reached an all-time high in the same year, climbing to 13,770 kiloliters (amounting to ¥8.5 billion) from the previous record of 12,151 kl in 2008. But the high yen has driven up prices overseas, making it harder for sake to compete with other alcoholic beverages.

“From the brewers’ perspective, these regulations seem rather strict,” admits Kenji Ichishima, president of Ichishima Sake Brewery in Niigata Prefecture. “Tons of food products are lined up for inspection, and it takes a lot of time to get the results. That will increase costs for us, and almost all brewers have been suffering because of slow business in Japan this spring.”

For some breweries in the Tohoku region, however, sluggish spring sales were the least of their problems. Japanese TV viewers were stunned as they watched Suisen Shuzo in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, being swept away by the tsunami. Owner Yasuhiko Konno and his wife escaped to higher ground with only minutes to spare. The land where the brewery once stood is still littered with debris, but Konno and his team hope to rebuild.

While the most extensive damage was found in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, the earthquake and tsunami impacted almost every brewery in Ibaraki, as well as a number of facilities in Yamagata, Chiba and Saitama.

Among consumers in Japan, radiation fears are less widespread. Dips in sales have been attributed more to last month’s somber mood of self-restraint than worries over radioactive iodine and cesium. Tokyo resident Tetsuo Kaji says that the nuclear incident hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm for sake. “At this point, I’m not worried about drinking (sake), even from Fukushima, because there’s no specific data suggesting that there’s any danger,” he explains.

But will sake continue to be safe? Gauntner explains that ground wells, where water used to make sake is sourced, are deep enough to avoid contamination and that most sake rice is grown in areas far from the 30-km evacuation zone. However, potential problems may arise for smaller boutique breweries in the affected areas that use locally grown rice. Gauntner speculates that third-party inspectors could be brought in to perform tests on the soil. Sake educators, he says, will have a vital role to play in addressing consumer concerns.

“I hope that people who love and understand sake won’t be fooled by media hype. If the sake remains unaffected, it will show its resiliency and how much it’s grown in stature,” he observes.

Despite the challenges, most industry professionals remain sanguine. “The sake industry is not dead,” Timkin concludes. “But in the near-term, it’s going to be a little more strenuous.”