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Today I’m looking at the second part of a special report from the Ehime Shinbun newspaper online edition focusing on a new incentive for inbound tourists to buy sake at the site of production, and how Ehime Prefecture is trying to encourage visitors through brewery tourism.

The focus on this time is on the three breweries who have qualified under new rules to sell sake tax-free to tourists at the brewery gate, as it were. 

The Ishizuchi brewery lies at the base of Mount Ishizuchi, the highest point in western Japan, and uses water flowing down from the sacred peak with carefully selected rice. They use the latest equipment and data analysis facilities, but also the traditional elements of deep experience and hand-production to produce sake made to drink with meals. After pressing, the sake is bottled to keep out oxygen and kept in storage at low temperatures. Sake from the brewery has mellow aroma and flavour, with plenty of rice-derived umami. The owner hopes that visitors will come to brewery and see the surrounding scenery, leading to a deeper appreciation of their sake. The brewery celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020, and is considering labels and bottles that can be used internationally.

Yagi Shuzobu live by their credo that locally-produced sake (地酒, jizake) should taste local. They draw high-quality water from the brewery well, and combine it with local rice varieties including Shizuku-hime or Matsuyama Mitsui plus the genius of their master brewer to produce sake that could only be made in Ehime. Owner Mr Yagi comments that in the wine world people are suspicious when the raw materials don’t come from the same area as the vineyard, so in the same spirit he wants too keep all his raw materials and production in his own local area. The brewery is based in the extremely popular Shimanami Kaido cycling route through the Seto Inland Sea, well known to overseas cyclists. The brewery expects their numbers to increase, and wants to be prepared – they were the first brewery in Shikoku to qualify for the new tax-free on-site purchase scheme and hope to offer visits if they get requests at the right time in the brewing schedule. The owner comments that they’re just getting started, and hope to offer food and have an area for sales where they can welcome visitors.

The Umebijin brewery was founded in 1916, and one of its five buildings was recognised as a registered tangible cultural property in 2014. The building boasts a Western exterior and Japanese interior thanks to a joint venture with an architectural firm in 1933, and a 23-metre chimney from 1928. The brewery’s rich history also includes the original brewery, an early Showa Era air conditioning system, storage tanks, press, and other items classed as industrial heritage. It’s a well-known tourist attraction, with about 1,000 visitors in 2016. Company president Ueda Hideki hopes to overseas visitors will be impressed by the wisdom of the original builders, who put in 40 cm thick walls to ensure the brewery was cool in summer and warm in winter, and by their current hospitality. He also wants people to see the history of sake and how it is made to bring their enjoyment of it to life.

Ochi of the Ishizuchi brewery wants to focus on an all-Ehime lineup of food and drink, including seafood from the Seto Inland Sea and meat from the green pastures on the prefecture’s land, proud that it’s a treasure trove of delicious ingredients. He also emphasises that sake is versatile and goes well with dishes other than Japanese ones. He set up the “Ehime Sake with Food” event in 2017, highlighting local wagyu beef, chicken and fish (sevenband grouper or mahata). Seventeen local breweries sent 48 sake to compete, and they were also evaluated with the food to find the best matches and make better suggestions to consumers. A resident foreigner was included in the judging panel to provide an international point of view. Ochi also commented that it’s vital to find sake evangelists who can communicate abroad, and train people up to provide information to foreign visitors.

Ehime has 42 sake breweries and shōchū distilleries, most of them very small and with no resources for anything but production – providing support for overseas tourists would be a huge burden. There are problems on many front, including dealing with multiple languages, spaces providing food and drink, training and retaining staff to deal with tourists, and access to the breweries. But meeting people on your trip, seeing the production process and history, experiencing the scenery and atmosphere, all these things combine to create a travel story that stays with visitors. And these stories have been spreading online more and more in recent years, to the point that there’s an advantage for breweries to put out information.

These breweries have already made a start, and now hope to join the dots to pull together local culture, ingredients and cuisine to increase brewery tourism for both overseas and domestic visitors.