And then the nuclear disaster struck in March 2011.
But the triple meltdown that forced entire towns to flee and scared consumers off Fukushima products ended up fueling the rise of sake brewers in the prefecture.
Using its traditional system of public-private cooperation, Fukushima Prefecture not only took over the sake-brewing crown from Niigata Prefecture, the northeastern prefecture has also widened its lead.
Any sympathy that sake brewers had for their Fukushima rivals after the nuclear disaster has now been replaced by competitive words in the field.
Inokichi Shinjo, 65, chairman of the Fukushima Prefecture Sake Brewers Cooperative, could not hide his delight on May 18 while seeing the results of the Annual Japan Sake Awards.
“This achievement will help establish Fukushima’s reputation as the best sake-producing area in the country,” Shinjo said.
In the contest, in which the quality of young sake is judged, 18 products from Fukushima Prefecture were among the 227 brands that won the gold prize for having exceptionally good quality.
It was the fourth straight year for Fukushima to be the top prefecture in terms of number of gold prize-winning products in the competition.
The Annual Japan Sake Awards started in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and sake from Hiroshima and Hyogo prefectures, as well as other traditional sake-producing areas, dominated the competition until the 1980s.
In the 1990s, more consumers turned to “tanrei karakuchi” (clean and dry) sake. Niigata Prefecture, known for its tanrei karakuchi products, placed first for four consecutive years starting in 1998.
Most of the sake entered in the contest are specially brewed for the occasion. But Fukushima Prefecture has overwhelmed Niigata Prefecture in the Sake Competition, where commercially available sake are evaluated.
Last year, 20 breweries in Fukushima Prefecture entered the Sake Competition.
The prefecture topped the list, with 18 brands from Fukushima, including Aizu Chujo, Nagurayama, Sharaku, Aizu Homare and Hiroki, among the 103 products selected as winners. None of the products from the 13 breweries from Niigata Prefecture were chosen.
Fukushima-brewed sake rose in popularity after drinkers switched to “hojun amakuchi” (mellow and sweet) sake, noted for a natural flavor of rice, from tanrei karakuchi.
The turning point came in 1994, when the Juyondai sake brewed in Yamagata Prefecture, north of Fukushima Prefecture, was marketed and introduced in a magazine. The sake immediately won high praise, and prompted many brewers to produce hojun amakuchi sake, particularly in other parts of the Tohoku region.
The “Fukushima-style” system, in which citizens and public officials work together, was established to improve the quality of sake through the effective use of advanced brewing technologies.
The characteristics of rice for sake change each year, depending on the climate.
Under the system, the Aizu-Wakamatsu technical assistance office of the prefecture-run Fukushima Technology Center analyzes the year’s rice in advance and advises each brewer on the best way to produce sake.
“The mechanism enabled breweries to produce high quality sake unlike in the past,” said Kenji Suzuki, 54, head of the office’s brewing and food division.
Kenji Hiroki, 49, president of the Hiroki Shuzo Honten brewing company in Aizu-Bange, which makes Hiroki, one of the most famous sake brands in Fukushima Prefecture, said the system has also helped to prevent a trend that has hampered other traditional businesses: a lack of successors.
“Young people in their 20s and 30s have returned to local breweries to take over their parents’ businesses,” Hiroki said.
He also noted that many sake products brewed in Fukushima used to be traded at very low prices.
“The trend encouraged brewers to share their techniques to improve their circumstances together,” Hiroki said. “Even the (2011) nuclear crisis worked as a springboard for us.”
After the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, companies in the prefecture had difficulty selling products because of persistent fears of radiation contamination.
The prefecture’s sake brewers cooperative has been emphasizing the safety of Fukushima-made sake, saying “both rice for sake and water are carefully examined according to strict standards.”
Such thorough checks also helped to ensure the rice and water were top quality.
Noted Fukushima breweries started joint advertising campaigns to sell their products in Tokyo. The publicity not only helped to increase sales but also spread the word about high quality of Fukushima Prefecture’s sake.
Rivals in other parts of Japan have been inspired by the efforts of Fukushima sake makers.
“Brewers from Fukushima Prefecture always point out each other’s problems when they meet, and it provides me with a good stimulus,” said Tadayoshi Onishi, 41, president of the Kiyasho Shuzo brewery in Mie Prefecture, which produces the popular Jikon brand.
Although sake production has generally declined around Japan, Fukushima brewers’ production is 10 percent higher than the level before the nuclear accident.
Shuichi Mizuma, 66, representative director of the Niigata Sake Brewers Association, expressed confidence that his prefecture would reclaim the title of “the kingdom of sake.”
“The tide often changes,” he said.
Koichi Hasegawa, 60, president of Hasegawasaketen Inc., a major sake retailer in Tokyo, said Fukushima Prefecture’s top position is not secure.
“People will soon be fed up with hojun amakuchi sake,” he said. “Shochu recently made waves as well. And Japanese consumers are frighteningly swayed by the latest trends.”
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