Displaced brewer rebuilds sake biz

by Mai Iida

Kyodo

Daisuke Suzuki, a sake brewer, is hoping his product will help the people of his Fukushima Prefecture hometown, now uninhabitable due to the nuclear crisis, stay connected.

The March 11, 2011, megaquake and tsunami that led to the three meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant caused the sea to wipe out his roughly 180-year-old seaside brewery and adjacent home, located in the town of Namie, about 6 km north of the crippled atomic complex.

“I thought I could never make sake again,” Suzuki, 39, who relocated to Yamagata Prefecture, recalled thinking that fateful day.

The following day, a hydrogen explosion ripped through the reactor 1 building at the Tepco complex. Suzuki was shocked to see men wearing white protective suits blocking roads as they set up a no-go zone in the town. He and his family then fled to Yamagata.

Suzuki’s sake, named Iwaki Kotobuki, was deep-rooted in Namie’s fishing industry.

“Did you get the sake?” It was local fishermen’s way of asking about each other’s fishing for the day as a local fisheries cooperative gifted a bottle of Iwaki Kotobuki to those with a big catch.

Neighbors urged him to make sake again while he was staying at evacuation centers, but Suzuki lost his main market in Namie and equipment for brewing sake, as well as written records about sake-making passed down by his ancestors. Also, some of the farmers who grew rice used for his sake also perished on 3/11.

Then one day in April 2011, Suzuki was informed that the brewery’s yeast he had sent to a local lab for analysis was still alive.

Yeast is a key ingredient that determines sake’s character, such as its scent. “I was so happy, as if our entire brewery remained,” Suzuki said.

The following month, he began brewing a small batch of sake using equipment of a fellow Fukushima sake maker in Minamiaizu. In July, he shipped 2,000 bottles of sake mainly to areas where many of the people from his hometown had evacuated to, and saw them awaiting the arrival at a store.

“When I saw that, my eyes welled up,” he recalled.

He later bought a brewery in Nagai, an inland Yamagata city, from a retiring sake maker and began brewing in November 2011, while at the same time taking on major new debt.

Before the disaster, Suzuki used local water and rice mainly from Namie in the sake-making process. Now, however, the sake he brews is made from primarily Yamagata rice and local water, which has a different quality than the water he used in Namie.

Suzuki said the change of water was especially “scary.”

When his new brewery, called Nagai Kura, uses rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture, Suzuki says that each time he puts the grain through the polishing process, he conducts tests for radioactive contamination at his own expense.

“It’s a matter of course that people become conscious about food safety after such an accident, and I understand I have to play a role in reducing their concerns as much as possible,” he said.

From this month, for about six months, All Nippon Airways Co. will start serving Suzuki’s sake on some of its international flights.

Parts of the Tohoku region, where Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures are located, sustained major damage after the 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit. It is known as one of Japan’s most famous sake-brewing areas.

According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers’ Association, 93 of 114 breweries in the three prefectures suffered damage from the disaster.

Consumers have been buying sake from the region as a way of supporting their recovery, leading to a year-on-year rise of 13 percent in sake shipments from the prefectures in the year from April 2011. However, the volume of shipments has been slowing recently, an official of the association said.

Namie, which had a population of more than 21,000 before the quake, remains in the no-entry zones set up around the Fukushima No. 1 complex and the people who lived there have dispersed far and wide.

In early 2012, when Suzuki made a brief, and first, return journey to his hometown, he could not recognize where he was standing as the tsunami had washed everything away and there were no landmarks to guide him. “The only thing that stayed the same were the Abukuma mountains,” he said.

Namie’s town office is currently negotiating with the central government for reclassification of the local evacuation zones on April 1 in order to open areas where people can freely enter without wearing protective clothing and start certain businesses, although they will still be prohibited from staying overnight.

“Things related to Namie are fading away,” Suzuki said.

With the aim of keeping alive memories of the town, Suzuki now ships some bottles of sake with a photo of a Namie festival. The brewery also gifted sake to a coming-of-age ceremony for former Namie residents in January to make their first get-together in a while more pleasant.

“I want to make a situation where the next generation, our children, can choose whether to return when it is allowed,” he said.

“I think the bond of land cannot be cut so easily,” Suzuki added. “I’d be very happy if our sake enables people to confirm that bond and its warmness.”