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The Noma site features a long but ultimately interesting conversation between Yūichi Hashiba, 6th head of the Izumibashi sake brewery, and Nobuhisa Iwamoto, president of the Sankt Gallen beer brewery, virtual neighbours in the town of Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. [As someone who lives not far from the Swiss city of St Gallen, I and my search results were mightily confused at first by the name of the beer brewery.]

Iwamoto initially struggled with setting up his beer brewery, and Hashiba mentions that most of his beers are distinctive ones. Iwamoto replies that original is what people ask for, and in most cases if he’s asked to make something he will. Right now, the vast majority of requests are for unusual beers.

Hashiba comments that beer has changed a lot in recent years, and far faster than the sake industry changes, although he has been asked a few times in recent years for something new. But you won’t do it? asks Iwamoto. Hashiba admits he was asked about it just the other day, so they’re considering it.

Iwamoto speculates that even a “new” sake is still going to be made purely from rice. But there would be no problem if it was just a matter of sticking on a label, although Hashiba counters that if that’s all there is to it it’s not worth it.

Iwamoto agrees, and points out that when he started making original beers he had nowhere to sell from and just wanted to start shipping it out. But these days there are lots of small breweries, in contrast to when he started out and getting a license was much more difficult. [Licensing laws were changed in Japan in 1994, dropping the volume requirement from 2 million litres/year to 60,000 litres/year in an effort to stimulate the craft beer movement. If you’re interested there’s an article in the Japan Times on the rise, fall and recovery of the craft beer movement in Japan.]

Hashiba notes that a beer brewery has opened in front of Ebina station in Kanagawa, and that he was surprised to see that two sake retailers have started stocking beer as well. Iwamoto laughs and says he hopes it’s because more people are drinking it. The craft beer (or ji-bīru, 地ビール) market went through one “boom” period around 1995, but some beers produced around that time had quality issues and were expensive but not very good, so its popularity died out. Iwamoto is also worried that the same thing might happen again.

Hashiba points out that Sankt Gallen is a veteran of the craft beer scene in Japan, which Iwamoto laughs off by saying it’s just old. Although, he laments, he was almost unknown in his own home town for a long time. It’s only in the last six or seven years that locals know the brewery. There are other breweries in the area, named after rail stations like Atsugi or Sagami, whereas his brewery sounds like something imported. That’s one reason why Iwamoto initially started selling in Tokyo, but as time went on he found that he wanted locals to know about what he was doing.

He set up his stand at various events in Atsugi, and got a few shops to carry his beer. He thought of setting up his own shop somewhere but found it difficult locally, until a new bar/restaurant opened and decided to serve eight of his beers on tap. Iwamoto also comments that he’s wanted to go to the restaurant operated by the Izumibashi sake label for a while.

Hashiba muses that the approach they take at their restaurant is similar to what he sees abroad – if there’s a local winery there will always be a restaurant where they serve dishes made from local ingredients that go perfectly with the wine. He wonders if recent food culture is too superficial.

Iwamoto thinks the whole of Japan has that problem but that it’s getting better recently, even in cities. And that’s why, Hashiba explains, he wants a restaurant that serves food made with local ingredients to people who have come all the way to Atsugi.

Hashiba also wants people to see the kura and the rice fields. Sake isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Kanagawa, so he wanted people travelling out from the greater Tokyo metropolis to have a place where they could appreciate the surrounding area by enjoying its food.

Iwamoto asks Hashiba if they only brew during the winter, and if so what their employees do in the summer. Hashiba confirms that they brew during the winter like most sake breweries, but in the summer they concentrate on agricultural activities. Iwamoto wonders if this summer lull is why some sake breweries have started making beer. Hashiba admits that they were seriously considering making beer before they decided to go into farming, but as he’s not satisfied with sales of their sake there was no good reason to make beer as well.

Iwamoto muses that beer takes just two weeks to produce, but that it’s a lot harder to predict how sake will turn out. Hashiba agrees that it’s hard to change its direction. If he did decide to make a new sake, he would end up with 2,000-3,000 litres of it on his hands. Iwamoto remarks that his beer doesn’t have a long shelf life – even refrigerated it only keeps about three months and that’s his bottleneck. So he can’t afford to produce too much. Some drinks improve over six months or so after production, Hashiba points out. But can sake be laid down for a few years and does that improve it? Iwamoto asks.

Generally no, Hashiba replies, although it is possible. Today, even if you did lay sake down no-one sees any value in it. You’d have to create that kind of sake culture, Iwamoto adds and Hashiba agrees. You’d have to take it to where wine is today, although wine has a much longer history on that front.

This is what makes it so difficult, Hashiba reflects. Before WWII, most people couldn’t afford to drink sake. But after income shot up in the post-war period of rapid growth, those same people were enjoying sake with dinner every night. And in response, the sake industry started adding alcohol and more and more brewers took the same approach as the largest manufacturers, producing large quantities of cheap sake.

Wasn’t it mixed? asks Iwamoto. Yes, it was, replies Hashiba. [Not entirely sure what they’re referring to here, but it may be the practice of adding large quantities of distilled alcohol to bulk up production, which did happen after WWII.] Thinking about it now, a ridiculously large amount was produced, and drunk. It was like going to a hot spring for a party, where you should come back rejuvenated and refreshed, and instead coming back worse for wear because of the amount of sake you consumed.

Iwamoto speculates that it’s just Japanese culture. Hashiba repeats that the amount drunk was really ridiculous, that it was an era when things went to far, and that’s why people hate sake. Perhaps, muses Iwamoto, but Japan isn’t going to change. A lot of people starting to drink in their 20s and 30s today don’t know about that part of sake culture, Hashiba points out. Now, their first taste of sake and the one they drink regularly is likely to be ginjō.

Iwamoto professes to be confused by ginjō. Doesn’t it involve milling away all the good parts of the rice grain? Or is he wrong? Putting it bluntly, what are people who make ginjō trying to make? Wine?

Hashiba explains that milling makes the sake lighter and the taste cleaner, increasing clarity. Less milling gives more complexity. So, Iwamoto continues, more milling is because you want more people to drink it. It’s a chance to show groups who aren’t familiar with sake, such as women, how good it can be. Indeed, says Hashiba, and it’s also why it’s important to have a wide variety of sake.

However, Hashiba feels like the sake industry is saying that the more you mill, the better. For him, milling away so much of something that has been grown feels strange. His brewery grows its own rice, so to them it’s over the top.

But it sells, doesn’t it? asks Iwamoto. It does, Hashiba admits. The kura who are selling the most are producing ginjō and pricing it a little below average. So it tastes good for the price, Iwamoto summarises. It’s really very cheap, counters Hashiba. It’s not so much that it tastes good, it’s light and easy to drink. Sake has become too technical and is no longer part of agriculture. He feels like it’s gone too far in the direction of a processed product.

Hashiba wonders where it’s all going. A lot of sake is now being produced overseas, and although raw materials are currently being brought out from Japan, how long before they switch to using locally-grown rice? It’s something Japanese breweries live in fear of. There’s no way they can win against people with lots of foreign capital. Companies like that could buy up lots of land and dig irrigation channels, effectively creating rice fields, and produce their own rice for their own sake.

They’ll do it if there’s a market, notes Iwamoto. Hashiba muses that if that day comes, Japanese sake breweries will fall like flies. It’ll be their doomsday. There has to be a reason why they’re where they are, and nowhere else.

It’s tough, agrees Iwamoto. Beer faces the same problems. Beer was originally something heavy, but German lagers were light and refreshing, never difficult to drink. So, ales slowly disappeared. Then there was a movement to bring back real ales in the USA in the 1980s. And isn’t the USA the source of all that’s best and worst in the world? American-style brewing, with its intensity and distinctive hoppy aromas, started to take over.

And the same applies to sake being made overseas, adds Hashiba. It’s not that the big Japanese brewers are going overseas to produce, foreigners are coming to Japan to learn how to brew and then going home and being deadly serious about making junmai based on proper Japanese textbooks. It seems that people in the wine business can also make money from sake, so they get involved.

A fair number of sake breweries are starting to realise that they need to be in control of their production process from the rice-growing stage, so there’s been a huge jump in the number of breweries who own their own rice fields.

And in the summer they can make beer, laughs Iwamoto. Hashiba admits that he drinks a lot of beer. You don’t often see people downing sake from lunchtime onwards, Iwamoto notes. True, says Hashiba, you need the right setting to think about drinking sake. Beer is much more informal. Sake may have changed a lot, but some people are still particular about how they drink it. So you need to suggest to people how they should drink it, prompts Iwamoto. He had to do that for beer, so it should be possible for sake too.

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