NIIGATA – The declining birthrate and shifting consumer tastes have taken a toll on Niigata Prefecture, one of the nation’s premier sake-producing regions.
The local government terminated Japan’s only high school-level sake-brewing program at the end of last month.
Yoshikawa Prefectural High School first offered the program in 1957 in response to local residents’ requests to train young people in the techniques of sake making, and has established a reputation for turning out some of the country’s finest brewers.
Ryoichi Tanaka, a 57-year-old graduate of the school and chief brewer at Koguro Brewery Co. in Toyosaka, Niigata Prefecture, said: “I went to the school because my father was a chief sake brewer. I am saddened (because the school is dropping) the program.”
The school is in the town of Yoshikawa in the center of the rice-growing region in the prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, where a number of farmers from neighboring areas came in the winter to work for the sake brewing industry.
The town has supplied master brewers to other regions for generations.
Students learned the basics of agriculture and food chemistry among other subjects in their initial year, and received hands-on training in sake brewing, including techniques for steaming and straining rice.
They were also required to spend nights at school in the winter during their second year.
About 1,400 students had graduated as of the end of March 2003 and are working at breweries nationwide.
But the number of students studying sake brewing at vocational schools and universities rose in the meantime, leading to a decline in the number of students at the high school.
When the school last invited students to enroll in fiscal 2001, only 18 people applied for the 40 openings available.
Sake breweries also suffered financial difficulties as consumers increasingly chose liquor products other than sake, and job openings for young brewers plunged.
Shipments of sake out of Niigata Prefecture, including the well-known Koshinokanbai and Hakkaisan brands, amounted to about 61,600 kiloliters last year and ranked third among the nation’s 47 prefectures behind Hyogo and Kyoto.
But the volume represented the seventh consecutive year of decline due to decreases in the purchases of sake as gifts and growing consumer demand for “happoshu,” a low-malt and less expensive alternative to beer.
Now the Niigata sake industry is trying to face the crisis head-on.
It held a two-day, all-you-can-drink event in the city of Niigata in late February during which 94 of Niigata’s 97 brewers showcased their products to remind the public of the delicious results of generations of experience.
The event was an overwhelming success, drawing about 50,000 visitors, including those from outside the prefecture who expressed hopes for similar fairs in the future.
For a once-up fee of 500 yen for a cup, visitors were able to sample any amount of the liquor on offer at individual brewery booths, where chief brewers were on hand to answer questions.
Midorikawa Shuzo Co., a brewery in Koide, had set aside 30 720-ml bottles of sake for the event, but ran out in two hours and had to hurriedly replenish its stock with bottles originally meant for sale.
Yoshimichi Tanaka, secretary of the brewery cooperative that sponsored the event, said, “It was epoch-making that chief brewers were present to talk directly to consumers and take part in the sale of sake.”