One of the primary forces currently driving the positive state of affairs in the sake world is the emergence of young brewers. The transition from an era in which those who actually brewed sake were farmers who had no work in the winter months and therefore worked for sake breweries only during that time period to one in which the sons and daughters of the brewery owners have taken over with support from young staff is pretty much complete. This has led to an infusion of fresh ideas and new sensibilities, as well as a brewing team that is much closer to the customers than was the case in the past. This has given sake a fresh appeal.
Also, the development of new yeast strains and rice varieties is another factor behind the success of those regions with popular sake. By coming out with new varieties of raw materials like rice and yeast, a region can differentiate itself from other regions. This in turn is motivating to the brewers in that area. Not only does this create a new expression of the uniqueness of the region, but it also leads to much more diversity in the nature of the sake itself. It provides greater selection and therefore higher potential enjoyment to sake lovers.
This movement really got going in the late 1980s, which was also just about the time that Yamagata started garnering attention as a significant sake region. It would not be an exaggeration to say that from that point of time on, Yamagata as a whole established itself at the very forefront of sake trends. This has become a commonly accepted fact in the industry, and that opinion is shared by many retailers and restaurants as well.
Why did Yamagata head off in this direction and gather so much attention in the process? This is surely a function of the system in place for brewing sake there.
Sake from the other five prefectures in the Tohoku region, not to mention the rest of the country, was historically brewed by toji and kurabito (brewery workers) that came from fairly far away. Yamagata was the only prefecture where the sakagura were operated in a unique manner in which the sake was brewed by those that lived locally. A system naturally developed in which the brewery owners (“kuramoto”) and the people actually doing the brewing were always in close proximity, and this environment fostered great cooperation.
Even though we hear lots of talk about how the average age of toji is very high, and that there are very few people to take over, there have been few of these problems in Yamagata. Even the comparatively larger producers in the prefecture such as Dewazakura and Hatsumago began to employ young brewing staff from early on. The brewery making Juyondai, a sake that first appeared on the market in the 1990s, has become famous not only for its quality but also for the fact that the son of the owner took over as the toji and created the light and smooth sake for which the brand is famous. This really was a symbol of a generational change. After that, lots of “kuramoto toji” began to appear in Yamagata and elsewhere around the country.
In most prefectures, there are regional industrial research organizations run by the prefectural government that play a central role in developing new sake rice and yeast varieties. This holds true in Yamagata as well, where the Yamagata Kogyo Gijutsu Center (Yamagata Industrial Research Center) has a huge presence. They have developed such well known sake rice varieties as Dewa Sansan, Dewa no Sato, and the very recently developed Yuki Megami, as well as a handful of yeast strains collectively referred to as “Yamagata Kobo.” There is even a locally developed strain of Yamagata-only koji mold. Indeed, Yamagata has put forth great efforts in the development of local raw materials for sake production.
One individual that had an especially large, positive effect on all of the kura in Yamagata was Dr. Toshihiko Koseki, who recently retired from his position within the prefecture but who retains a role as a special advisor. Armed with both technical knowledge and passion, his energetic guidance helped establish Yamagata’s seemingly unassailable position as a ginjo-brewing region. With its slogan “Making Yamagata Number One,” the prefecture made a conscious shift to producing premium grades of sake. Through well-planned strategic efforts, Yamagata soon gained advantages over other prefectures in terms of statistical performance and its own prefectural branding. Koseki’s contributions were not solely limited to establishing technical brewing prowess. He helped raise the awareness of brewers in the prefecture along with the public image of the region’s sake. His complete sales strategy involved events, promotions and export.
The results of all this are readily apparent. Yamagata’s technical skills regularly allow it to place among the top five prefectures for the number of gold medals won at the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyôkai, or “National New Sake Tasting Competition” (officially known in English as the Japan Sake Awards). It also wins awards with great consistency in private contests as well.
Yamagata borders the erstwhile leaders in the Tohoku sake industry, Akita and Miyagi, and furthermore shares a border with Niigata, the largest producing region in the eastern half of Japan. This fostered an awareness of the progress and activities of those regions, and helped engender the plans to increase the quality of its own sake in an attempt to excel beyond those other prefectures. The perception subsequently arose that these surrounding prefectures were chasing after Yamagata’s success. In reality, they have simply made great progress in certain areas by setting Yamagata sake as one standard to pursue. Thanks in part to this stimulus, all of the sakagura of the Tohoku region enjoy a sterling reputation. Again, we can contribute much of this swell to Dr. Koseki and Yamagata sake.
What are the general characteristics of Yamagata sake? It is light and delicate, as is the sake of the whole Tohoku region. It also exhibits even character, having been brewed with rice mainly from the same region, and furthermore enjoys a refined quality. Yamagata’s is a well-developed style of sake that is likely a combination of the effects of balanced flavors and aromas that arise from the use of Yamagata Kobo, as well as the prefecture’s determined efforts to produce sake that would garner attention in bigger markets all over the country.
In contrast to this notion of shared character, there are many kura in the region that actively distinguish themselves. For example, Taruhei began to use Yamada Nishiki rice comparatively early on in the rise of the strain’s popularity. It also differentiates its sake from other breweries with rich umami flavor and by aging it for a short time in wooden barrels. Then there is the story of Koikawa, located in the area where Kame-no-o originates. This strain was a pioneer of revived varieties, and the brewery effectively captures the raw, unassuming flavor.
In the western part Yamagata, bordering the Sea of Japan, we come to the Shonai region, a wide plain that is home to the cities of Sakata and Tsuruoka. It is also a key growing area for rice and other grains. There, many brewers including Jokigen and Hakuro Suishu use mostly locally grown rice varieties to create a series of products that showcase the difference between the various strains.
The individuality of the sake of this region owes much to the refinement of flavor. While the sake of Yamagata is not without its contradictions, by fusing them together the brewers have created what I believe we can call a “working theory of modern nihonshu.” That, if true, is further testament to the prefecture’s pursuit of future possibilities.