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Since 2015, the weeklong sake-making workshop at Obata Shuzo, one of Sado Island’s sake breweries, has attracted aficionados from across the world, drawn by the unique opportunity to delve into the hard work of brewing.

Sadly, this year fifth-generation brewery owner Rumiko Obata had to cancel the popular workshop. Sake-making is a close-quarters affair, not ideal for social distancing and, of course, she also has to take into account the safety of her Niigata Prefecture island community. “I am holding online tours of the brewing process at the moment, however there is so much one misses out on by not being there in person,” she says.

2020 is proving to be a tough year for breweries. While private consumption of Japan’s alcoholic beverages may be unaffected, the drop in international visitors and those dining out has resulted in a massive decline in sales to restaurants and drinking establishments that has deeply affected sake breweries across the country.

The most dramatic impact appears to be on small jizake (local sake) producers and breweries.

According to a panel discussion held by sake experts and published in Saketimes, the pandemic has forced breweries to start relying on online sales, an area in which many smaller producers were lagging. With bars and restaurants closing, these small breweries are having to find ways to connect to customers directly, rather than through restaurateurs, some for the first time.

Quality control: Fifth-generation brewery owner Rumiko Obata checks the rice used to make sake at her family’s brewery on Sado Island. | COURTESY OF OBATA SHUZO
Quality control: Fifth-generation brewery owner Rumiko Obata checks the rice used to make sake at her family’s brewery on Sado Island. | COURTESY OF OBATA SHUZO

Obata, whose website is available in seven languages, agrees that reaching out to customers through the internet is essential. “While we already were selling our sake online, we had to strengthen our presence on social media and create more video content,” she says.

Obata Shuzo is not the only business turning to the web. Fukumitsuya, a brewery in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, that dates back to 1625, has released lyrical YouTube videos — as well as a rap song! — in English and Japanese about sake-making to bring attention to the work behind the scenes.

Still, many sakagura (breweries) have had to turn to crowdfunding on sites such as Campfire and Makuake, or even sites managed by individual prefectures, to keep going; others hopped on the on-nomi (online drinking party) trend to present their brews to a larger audience.

Some have pivoted production entirely. Three producers — Kokuryu Sake Brewing Co., Yoshida Shuzoten Co. and Tanabe Shuzo Co. — in Fukui Prefecture came together to create disinfectant alcohol for use in their town’s public buildings and schools instead of their usual products, a move also seen in awamori (a traditional Okinawan spirit) producers in Okinawa. Muromachi Shuzo, in Okayama Prefecture, even started selling its stockpiles of rice directly to consumers, instead of turning it into sake.

Obata has opted to use her brewery’s sake to send messages of hope, creating a special series called “Under the Same Sky.” The drink’s message of connection, along with its artistic, glow-in-the-dark labels, is proving to be a hit, as was its crowdfunding project for Ryu no Megumi, a sake made from Koshihikari rice grown in Sado’s terraced fields.

Obata’s ongoing support for local farmers is important, as the knock-on effect of the decrease in sake production and sales is bad news for rice farmers, particularly those that specialize in varieties usually used exclusively for brewing purposes.

“I think that one of the effects of the pandemic has been a move away from mass-produced goods, and a new recognition of original craftsmanship,” Obata says, explaining that the public’s preservation of this part of Japanese culture could have far-reaching effects. “So, please consider buying sake from smaller breweries. By enjoying lovingly made sake, people will support rice farmers as well, which also leads to protecting the landscapes of Japan.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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