News stories about the difficulties sake breweries have faced due to changes in the market (and the pandemic) have been rife. But, there are some shimmering beacons of hope among the doom and gloom.
A prime example is the Kikkawa Jozo brewery, located in the forested foothills of Mt Tanzawa Oyama in Kanagawa Prefecture, one of Japan's most sacred mountains.
Since 1912, six generations of the Kikkawa family combined the clear groundwater of Mt Oyama and carefully selected rice to create their sake, Kikuyu. But over the years tastes and demographics changed, and in 2020 they faced the very real danger of having to close the brewery, due to facing both bankruptcy and another common issue traditional businesses face, the lack of a koukeisha, or successor. It seemed like the sake brewery’s proud tradition was at an end.
Fortunately, the Shimada Group stepped in to preserve this legacy. While best known as a real-estate and hospitality powerhouse, Shimada’s roots are actually closely linked to the world of sake, as the company began from a single rice shop.
With the view that new challenges require new solutions and ideas, the CEO the group selected to take over this centenary business comes from a (seemingly) completely different world. Norimichi Goto was formerly an architect, involved in high-profile projects such as the development of Toranomon Hills.
“People are often taken aback, asking ‘but aren’t architecture and sake-making totally different?'” he laughs. “But I have found there are actually quite a few similarities: both require close teamwork to create the final product, as well as bringing together the best of tradition and innovation.”
The brand new kuramoto once aimed for the sky through his skyscraper designs, but now is diving deep into the multi-layered world of sake-making traditions, which he says he finds rewarding despite the learning curve.
And challenges certainly abound, as he stepped in at a major crisis point. “The brewery was on the brink of closing,” he recalls. “They hadn’t even ordered rice for the next season, which in the sake world is a clear sign of how desperate the situation was.” However, he did not have to face the hurdles alone, thanks to the strong tradition of teamwork at the brewery and heartfelt support from the Isehara community.
“Although they had every reason to do so, toji (master brewer) Masanori Mizuno and his team refused to abandon ship. I was so deeply touched that they stayed, and it is thanks to their hard work and the support from the community and Oyama Afuri Shrine that we got things running again so quickly.”
With new leadership and support in place, Goto and his team are looking to give the brewery new life and reach a new demographic of sake enthusiasts. “We want to push the boundaries of sake, creating new varieties and bringing our products to new markets, to share the culture of sake with as many people as possible,” says Goto.
While still producing the locally-beloved Kikuyu sake, the brewery also released a new brand in 2021, with an eye toward the international market. Their AFURI line gains its name from the nearby mountain, nicknamed “Afuriyama” or “Mt Rainfall” due to frequent precipitation.
Their new sake is created by combining traditional processes with innovation, experimenting to find Kikkawa’s new flavor. From using yeast extracted from flowers and an ancient rice variety to brew ‘OHANA, a floral sake with a delicate pink sheen, to making the brewing process more sustainable through reducing waste by only polishing away 10% of the rice, the master brewer and his team have been hard at work.
“Brewing this way takes double the time and effort, but using almost the entirety of the rice allows us to create a totally unique flavor, something not found anywhere else,” says Goto. They are also creating low-alcohol sake using a reddish yeast, their pink-tinged, fresh ROSY-KASUMI, which has been highly rated by U.S-based enthusiasts.
The new team’s patience and faith have paid off. Although AFURI is a newcomer to the scene, the brews have already received gold medals at multiple world-class sake competitions. Their refined junmai daiginjo NARI even won the coveted Platinum Award at the prestigious Kura Master competition in 2022.
Follow Kikkawa’s journey to the international stage on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/kikkawa_sake_international/ and Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100085924037751.
For sake fans who want to try some of their innovative brews, check out: www.kikkawa-jozo.com/en/
(They currently do not offer brewery tours, but have a shop on site).