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Many thanks to Tony Mitchell (of the new Dojima brewery in Cambridge in the UK) for mentioning this article on Gunosy – the oldest brewery in the Tokyo metropolitan area is closing its doors.

The Koyama brewery, founded before the world wars and the only kura remaining inside Tokyo’s central 23 wards, will cease production and effectively go out of business on 28 February 2018.

The brewery was set up in 1878 to take advantage of a nearby natural spring, and continued to produce sake for the next 140 years. Their flagship brew Marushin Masamune is still very popular. They had recently been featured in magazines and professional publications, reported strong sales, and seemed to be on the road to recovery so the sudden news of closure was a surprise.

The Tokyo Sake Brewers Association has 10 member breweries, but only Koyama is inside the central Tokyo area. The others are further out in towns such as Ome or Fussa to the west. The big sake breweries modernised in the Taisho and Heiwa Eras, turning to mass production, and as urbanisation and industrialisation swept through the metropolis many small to medium size breweries abandoned the city leaving only Koyama to carry on.

At their peak in September 1990, the brewery’s sales were JPY 350,000,000 – nothing compared to the big players, but enough to give them a stable position as “Tokyo’s local sake”. However, demand for sake started to decrease alongside the rise in popularity of wine, shōchū and other drinks. September 2011 brought in JPY 174,000,000, half the peak figure. The brewery relocated to new premises in 2002, built a nine-story apartment complex in the resulting empty space, and carried on brewing while renting out the properties. 

2011 seemed to be the worst of it, with Koyama’s revenues increasing every year from then until 2016. They had increased media exposure in magazines and on TV as “the last brewery in the 23 central wards”. Their online shop went from delivering inside Tokyo to serving the whole country. Money was coming in from the rented apartments and their accounts stayed in the black. They should have been looking forward to the uplift from the Olympic and Paralympic games as a Tokyo sake brewery.

It was in the midst of these positive signs that they suddenly announced closure, shocking those they supplied and others in the industry. Gunosy asked for more information for their article but were not given any details – the brewery said only that they were still considering their options and couldn’t say more. However, someone close to the company said they heard Koyama were having problems recruiting staff. 

Leaving aside the big names who have embraced automation, traditional sake brewing is very hard work, particularly when it comes to handling large volumes of water in winter. Gunosy heard that Koyama were desperate to secure younger staff, which may have been one factor in their decision to close. Labour shortages are becoming common in many industries, including food & drink and construction. This is even more of a consideration for a traditional industry based on long years of tradition, like sake brewing. As the existing staff age, the search for younger replacements becomes ever more critical.

There are rumours that a distant relative of the owners, who operates the large Koyama Honke brewery in Saitama, will take over their products. The Saitama brewery is known for their Sekaitaka and Kuranosuke sake, and could take over the Marushin Masamune brand, but it would still mean the end of production in central Tokyo and the curtain falling on 140 years of history. 

There are 35,000 long-standing companies in Japan with over 100 years in business. Sake breweries make up the largest number of those by industry, with about 900 companies. Koyama was one of them. 28,142 companies suspended business or closed in 2017. There were also 8,405 bankruptcies, blamed on an extended period of stagnation. Companies shut down or go bankrupt for a number of reasons, including uncertainty about the future. Shortage of labour is seen as an issue all over the country, and felt more keenly by traditional industries which spend a lot of time and effort nurturing their next generations through apprenticeship. They’re faced with a fight for survival even as they have to choose between traditional manual processes and mechanisation.