Sake Old & New: Kaetsu Sake Brewery


Dr Shunichi Sato and Yoshiko Sato enjoy nothing more than explaining their expertise in sake brewing to willing listeners, they will show you all around the extensive compound where they carry out the entire brewing process, from steaming the rice to bottling the final product.
Yoshiko Sato was born into the sake business. She is now the Director of the International Business Department at the Kaetsu Sake Brewery in Aga, Niigata Prefecture but as the daughter of a brewer in Ibaraki Prefecture, her main involvement with the brewing process was watching while playing among the equipment as a child. The large, wooden tubs in which sake was traditionally brewed were washed and put out in the yard to dry in the sun at the end of the season. The huge tubs were a wonderful setting for childhood games of hide and seek. Later she moved away from the world of sake for a while, joining a pearl export company, before marrying Dr Shunichi Sato, eldest son of the Kaetsu Sake Brewery, who was also working in Tokyo testing the quality of sake for the government. Dr. Sato inherited the business and the couple moved back to Aga, a small town on the banks of the Agano River in the mountains of Niigata, determined to use their combined expertise and experience to carry on the family tradition while adapting their product to suit a changing and sometimes difficult market.

Sake has long played a central role in Japanese traditions and communities, whether offered to shrines in large barrels at New Years, drunk from a wide lacquer dish at weddings, or shared with colleagues at the end of a long working day. However, its consumption is declining, alongside other Japanese traditional staples, rice and miso. According to Yoshiko, one reason for the contraction in the sake market is the growing use of cars, particularly in the countryside, and Japan’s strict laws prohibiting drinking and driving. Another is the decline of the multigenerational family. In the past, children often grew up seeing their parents and grandparents enjoying a glass of sake together after the shared evening meal. With the rise of the nuclear family, children tend to eat with their mother well before their father gets home from working; he, in turn, is more likely to have a quick beer after dinner than a leisurely glass of sake. Even at festivals, there is a move towards drinking beer or shochu rather than the traditional sake.

The Sato couple, however, are not about to abandon their family traditions. They are adopting a double-pronged strategy: developing new types of sake to suit the palates of younger customers, and promoting their products overseas. Their oldest sake, Kirin, which shares its name with the local mountain and suspension bridge, refers to the Eastern equivalent of the unicorn, an auspicious mythical beast. Kirin is a typical Niigata sake, smooth and dry. More recently, they have launched Kanbara, a sweeter, more full-bodied brand, suited to those younger drinkers who have been accustomed to sweet sake but would like to try something a little drier. They are also experimenting with vintage sake, a break from the tradition of drinking rice wine as soon as it has been brewed, a process that takes around 40 days at most. It is a painstaking process: Dr Shunichi Sato shows me how he filters the lees out of the sake by hand. However, as he points out, if his experiments with mature sake are a success, other brewers will not be able to copy him for a fair while. His next goal is to develop a sparkling sake.

Yoshiko Sato’s responsibility is the overseas market, which she considers to have more growth potential than the domestic market. Interest in sake among foreign customers has been growing along with the rising popularity of Japanese food. Using her experience working with foreigners in the pearl trade, Yoshiko has visited many countries to promote their business, introducing their products both to business customers who own restaurants and shops and directly to consumers. When I spoke with her, she had recently returned from New York, where she had taken part in a tasting event pairing different varieties of sake with dishes prepared by chefs using local USA ingredients showing  that sake goes well  with more than just traditional Japanese food.  Yoshiko notes some characteristics among the major overseas markets. North American customers do not have many prejudices about food or drink, making them less interested in brands and more positive towards new experiences. Asian customers in major markets such as Singapore, Taiwan, or Hong Kong are far more concerned about the popularity of each sake within Japan, focusing on prestigious brands. In much of Europe, a strong wine culture means that people are used to drinking locally produced wine, making it harder for imports to break in; however, vintage sake, with a sweet and sour taste similar to madeira or marsala, is proving popular there.

For visitors to Japan who want to try some unusual sake, Dr Sato recommends avoiding expensive restaurants and going to small restaurants or standing bars, where you can talk with the owner and try sake together with otsumami snacks at reasonable prices. In Tokyo, Shusaron, a bar in the Wings Takanawa shopping centre next to Shinagawa Station, specialises in mature sake. For true sake aficionados, the annual Nihonshu Fair held at Ikebukuro in June offers an opportunity to try all kinds of sake, though the entrance fee is a bit pricy. The Sake no Shin fair held on the second weekend of March in Niigata City is also well worth visiting, and more reasonable.
Then of course, there is the 
Kaetsu Brewery itself, where you will certainly find a warm welcome. Dr Shunichi Sato and Yoshiko Sato enjoy nothing more than explaining their expertise in sake brewing to willing listeners, and they will show you all around the extensive compound where they carry out the entire brewing process, from steaming the rice to bottling the final product. Yoshiko Sato also loves talking with foreign visitors, and sent me away with a bag of fresh strawberries from her garden. When I visited, they were rather worried that I was camping alone, and insisted on driving me the whole way to my campsite, helping me to put up my tent, and taking me to dinner in the nearby restaurant! I can’t promise you strawberries, but I know that they would be happy to show you around. The brewery is open 8am  - 4pm on weekdays, but I recommend calling or mailing in advance.
The town of Aga also has many other experiences to offer visitors. Those who love the outdoors can enjoy country roads, stunning mountain vistas, old-fashioned farmhouses with thatched roofs, small shrines and temples among rice paddies or ancient groves, campsites, hot springs, waterfalls, marshes full of wildflowers, and gardens of snow camellias. There are plenty of activities suitable for families, including cruising along the Agano River, racing round and round the enormous Shogun’s Cedar, dressing up as the Fox Bride, or picking whatever is in season - mushrooms, mountain vegetables, strawberries, or chestnuts. Craft enthusiasts can try making Japanese paper lanterns or fox masks. It is a beautiful place to meander, explore, and get a glimpse of Japanese rural life.
For more places to visit in Aga, check out Emma's  “Mountains, rivers, sake, and crafts in rural Niigata” trip.

Emma Parker