History and Culture of Sake in Akita

Akita’s saké brewing industry has a long history. Twenty-seven breweries (more than two-thirds of the existing breweries) have been operating for more than 100 years. Akita’s excellent rice production provides ample rice to brew saké, and its long snowy winters offer an abundance of pure water. With such good rice and water, it is no surprise that a significant number of saké breweries have been established in Akita.

During the Edo era (1603–1868), Akita saw the development of its mining industry, which, in turn, boosted that of the brewing industry. Northern Akita included copper mines at Kosaka and Osarizawa, while southern Akita had the Innai Silver Mine, the largest silver mine in Japan at that time. The mines in Akita fed more than 7,000 miners directly and, together with the local residents, 15,000 people were directly or indirectly affected. The mining towns prospered even more than the castle town of Kubota (modern-day Akita City), the capital of the Akita Domain (which roughly corresponds to modern-day Akita Prefecture). Since the mining towns in the mountains offered little entertainment, it was quite natural that saké became one of the basic necessities of everyday life. Subsequently, the demand for saké invigorated the brewing industry in Yuzawa, Yashima, and other areas surrounding these mines, which, in turn, helped establish new breweries in addition to the existing ones.

According to the Akita Domain’s report to the Tokugawa government at Edo in 1618, there were 746 brewers in the domain. The brewing industry was an important sector in the local economy. When the government ordered a nation-wide restriction on saké production in the early 18th century, the Akita Domain asked for an exemption since “such restrictions would cause harm on residents in the cold province.” The protective measures taken by the Akita Domain formed the basis of the saké brewing industry’s development.

In the early 20th century, Akita’s saké gained a national reputation through competitive fairs. The first national biennial competitive saké fair was held in 1907. At the fourth fair in 1913, Ryôzeki won an honor prize for the first time as a saké of Akita. It was also named one of the eight best sakés out of 2,801 sakés submitted for tasting by 2,054 breweries throughout Japan. Virtually overnight, Ryôzeki became a nationally known saké brand. At the 14th fair in 1934, seven saké brands out of the 10 best were from Akita, including Taiheizan, which won the grand prize. Through these national competitive fairs, the entire country began to recognize the high-quality products from the breweries of Akita.

When we talk of the modern history of Akita’s saké, we cannot omit Masatsune Hanaoka (1883–1953), who arrived at Akita in 1918 as an official engineer of the Sendai Tax Supervision Bureau. He significantly contributed to the improvement of brewing techniques and the education of brewers in Akita. Hanaoka also established the Akita style of low-temperature, long-period fermentation. He was an enthusiastic educator who organized training sessions for master brewers and the sons of brewery owners from 1923 on. These sessions also enabled personal exchanges and information sharing among brewers, thus consolidating the brewing culture in Akita. Hanaoka was later appointed an official engineer of the Akita Prefecture, after which he continued to contribute to Akita’s brewing industry.

In recent years, with the development of yeast AK-1, “Akitaryu-Hana Kobo” (flower-yeast Akita style), which provided a high level of flagrance and richness, 25 Akita breweries received 26 gold prizes at the 79th Annual Saké Awards in 1991. This was the best record among the 47 prefectures in that year. In the same year, Akita-Shun-Ginjô, brewed with AK-1, entered the market and revolutionized Akita’s saké.

Akita’s saké, which has ranked high in national competitions throughout modern times, received 13 gold prizes at the 103rd Annual Saké Awards in 2015 (ranking fourth best among the 47 prefectures). The International Wine Challenge (IWC) awarded the Champion Saké Trophy to Yamabuki of Kinmon Akita Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. in 2009 and to daiginjô Fukukomachi of Kimura Brewery Co., Ltd. in 2012. Akita’s breweries have clearly proved and will continue to prove that their high-quality products are the best in the international market.

Hitoshi Takahashi, Director of the Institute of Brewing

Akita Research Institute of Food and Brewing