MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – An award-winning sake brewery in the Tohoku region is eyeing a new approach to sake production that uses artificial intelligence to assist skilled workers.
Nanbu Bijin Co. in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, is developing an AI tool to find the best time to drain water in the steeping process for rice before it gets steamed. The company aims to see AI put in practical use in several years.
“We would like to develop AI to partner with our workers to help resolve the manpower shortage (at breweries in Japan),” said Nanbu Bijin President Kosuke Kuji, 46.
The company, whose origins date back to the early 1900s, won the top sake title in the junmai category for its Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai at the International Wine Challenge 2017. Junmai sake is made of only rice, kōji (mold) and water.
The brewery also received a kosher certification for sake and sugar-free plum sake in 2013, among other achievements.
To figure out how long to steep the rice, Nanbu Bijin’s head brewer and others use stopwatches while accounting for the variety of rice and the water temperature after pouring both into a 5-ton tank.
The person in charge of the brewing is the tōji and oversees the other workers.
“If water absorption rates change, even by 1 percent, the taste of sake will change. It is the most crucial process, relying on artisans’ experience and intuition,” Kuji said.
The idea for using AI to improve the process was proposed by Ima Inc. in Tokyo, which has been supporting traditional Japanese industries through the use of information technology.
Images of the water absorption process will be captured every few seconds and the data can be accumulated for analysis.
“I would like to raise the standard of Japan’s brewing industry through cutting-edge technology,” said Ami Miura, the 32-year-old president of Ima.
Kuji’s family has run Nanbu Bijin for five generations since its founding in 1902. Master brewer Junji Matsumori and Kuji inherited their brewing techniques from the late Hajime Yamaguchi, who, according to the company, was known as one of the top sake brewers in Japan. Both Kuji and Matsumori are certified as skilled brewers by the Iwate Prefectural Government.
Along with the growing washoku (Japanese cuisine) boom, Nanbu Bijin has experienced a similar expansion in its exports, which now reach 28 countries including Russia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as cities like New York and London.
According to the Nanbu tōji guild in Hanamaki in the prefecture, 241 master brewers were registered as of 2007, a number that dropped to 182 in 2017 after many skilled brewers retired.
“It takes a long time to foster skillful workers. If we complete this AI tool, we can engage in making even better sake because the tool will be applicable at any brewery,” Kuji said.